The New iPad Display and the End of Paper

on March 8, 2012
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In 1985, Apple invented computer printing as we know it. Until the introduction of the LaserWriter, the first personal laser printer, computer output emulated either typewriters or mainframe line printers. The $7,000 LaserWriter didn’t sell well and was soon overtaken by cheaper models from Hewlett-Packard, but not before enabling what came to be known as desktop publishing.

iPad screen imageWith the introduction of the new iPad, Apple has again redefined the mechanics of publishing, this time in a way that could finally bring on the demise of paper. Since tablets arrived a couple years ago, they have seemed the natural replacement for the printed page, whether it represented a computer document, a book or a magazine. A tablet could be held like a book or magazine and its software often presented text as pages rather than streams of scrolling text. Their long battery life let  you use them without thinking much about the need to recharge.

The one thing wrong with this otherwise perfect reading machine was the display. Compared with a well-printed book or magazine, or even quality laser printing, text was a bit fuzzy and hard to read in small font sizes. Photos looked OK, but not great. Although the iPad’s 9.7” diagonal display was bigger than most books and had a bit more than half the area of an 8 1/2×11 sheet of paper, the amount of useful content it could hold was reduced by the need to use relatively large fonts for readability.

The new iPad, whose display has to be seen to be appreciated, marks a dramatic change. For the first time, type looks as good on a screen as it does on paper. Photos pop in a way they never have before on a tablet, matching high quality printing on good paper.

Combined with the enormous increase in typographical control offered by HTML 5, the new iPad offers art directors and designers a challenge and an opportunity. Typography in tablet apps often looks like an afterthought and most ebooks look awful. The iPad screams at them to do better. Among other things, they still have a lot of work to do in choosing fonts optimized for backlit LCD displays; not matter how high the resolution, inherent differences between the reflective lighting of paper and transmissive lighting of the display has a big effect on optimal font design for each.

Though the iPad’s screen is somewhat smaller than the trim size of most magazines, the new display should enable complex magazine-style page layouts that look far better than what we have seen on tablets to date. Advertisers should love it since the appearance of their ads can match Condé Nast-style printing.

For a while now, I have found myself “printing” documents—typically Word and PDF files to my old iPad for reading. But the experience has not been entirely satisfactory. Getting documents onto the iPad and managing them once there remains a messy, inconsistent process that the new iPad doesn’t fix. A page designed to fit on 8 1/2×11 page has to be either shrunk to illegibility or scrolled to be read on an iPad. As a result, I find myself resorting to paper more often than I like.

I suspect the new iPad will begin to change this. Pages with 12-point type will probably remain legible even when shrunk to fit the display, which is roughly 6×8. Over time, I think the 6×8 page could become the new normal (or the new as the tablet with a high-resolution display with a diagonal of about 10” becomes the default way of reading. (Other tablet makers will eventually catch up with Apple’s display resolution, though it will probably take at least a year but because of limited availability 2048×1536 pixel displays and, perhaps more important, the lack of processors that can drive them.)

The super high-resolution introduced on the iPhone 4 looked spectacular, but had limited impact because the 3.5” display, and even the 5” high-res screens turning up on some Android phones, are too small for serious reading. Bringing similar resolution to a screen the size of the iPad will change things in much more fundamental ways. The days of printing on paper may finally be numbered.