Leaked iOS 5 dev kit images suggest retina-enabled iPad is coming

by Phil Hornshaw

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is over, no new iPhone has appeared, and everybody’s kind of out of things to talk about for the time being. Cue new Apple (AAPL) product rumors.

Ars Technica has a story based on a tipster who is claiming to have found evidence suggesting the next iPad will have a retina-resolution display. The tipster apparently has access to the latest software development kit for Apple’s coming iOS 5, and in digging around in the platform, discovered that the embedded Twitter capabilities in the operating system contain some massive, high-res images.

Even more really big, really high-resolution images were discovered in Apple’s Newsstand feature, which aggregates subscription content bought in the iTunes App Store into one place on iOS. These images carry a higher resolution than the currently available iPads can handle – those screens are 1024x768 pixels, while the high-res images referenced in iOS 5 are double that, 2048x1536. The iPad would need a screen physically capable of reaching higher resolutions to be able to display those images properly: hence a high-res retina screen coming in a new iPad.

“Retina” is the term used to describe the iPhone 4’s high-res display, which packs a whopping 336 pixels per inch. At 1024x768 (covering a much larger surface area), the iPad and the iPad 2 look pretty bad in comparison to some of the incredibly sharp images the iPhone is capable of producing. A retina display was a rumored feature of the iPad 2 back when it seemed like people were making up features for the iPad 2 and creating rumors about them, but it didn’t materialize when Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the device in March. While much of the iPad 2 is an improvement over its predecessor, the screens of the two devices are the same.

An upgrade in display seems likely for the iPad 3 regardless of evidence, just because Apple will need new features to show off and a prettier display is always an easy sell because it’s simple to demonstrate. And that demonstration might be sooner than we think, if additional rumors that Apple’s bringing a new iPad to market this fall are to be believed.

According to a Reuters story, Taiwanese newspaper The Economic Daily is reporting that another generation of iPad, this one called the iPad 3 in the story, will be available in Q4 2011, which is just a few months from now. The report also states that the device will support images “5 to 6 times” the resolution of the iPad 2, which put resolutions even higher than what was shown by the tipster scouring the iOS 5 SDK. It seems to make more sense that Apple would go with double the resolution from what it currently uses because developers will be better able to scale apps up or down without a massive headache and the requirement of reworking all their apps’ art assets.

Ars Technica is skeptical of a late-2011 iPad 3, and I have to agree with them. Apple has pulled some slightly weird maneuvers in the last year – I didn’t think it would release those highly restrictive subscription rules and it did (though it is now backing away from them), and I didn’t think it would push out the Verizon (VZ) iPhone in the middle of the iPhone 4’s product cycle and it did (although it has pushed back the release of the next iPhone, probably partially in order to give the Verizon iPhone some breathing space). But the iPad 2 is barely three months old, and it wouldn’t be much more than a half a year from its release when the iPad 3 would reportedly be dropping. Plus Jobs said that whole thing about “the year of the iPad 2.” So maybe if Apple brands this as the iPad 2S or something – which isn’t all that crazy – but it seems doubtful to expect a major update to the tablet in 2011. But as I mentioned above, I could definitely be wrong.

Still, food for thought. I wouldn’t go waving anyone off their iPad 2 purchases just yet, but be aware that the Internet likes to get rolling on things like this, and there might be more information that’ll keep you from pulling out your wallet in an Apple Store headed our way in the coming days.