Is the iPhone 4 ‘Retina Display’ Actually True?


One of the most anticipated new features of the iPhone 4 is Apple’s so called Retina Display. During the 2010 WWDC Keynote, Steve Jobs went on to tell the audience that the new Retina Display output provides more DPI than the human retina can handle. Was he correct in making those claims?

Raymond Soneira Calls the Retina Display Pure Marketing at Work

Here’s what Soneira explained to Wired:

Soneira, who possesses a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton and has been studying displays for 20 years, said it was inaccurate to measure the resolution of the eye in terms of pixels, because the eye actually has an angular resolution of 50 cycles per degree. Therefore, if we were to compare the resolution limit of the eye with pixels on a screen, we must convert angular resolution to linear resolution. After conversions are made, a more accurate “retina display” would have a pixel resolution of 477 pixels per inch at 12 inches, Soneira calculated.

Phil Plait Calculates That Steve Jobs Told the Truth

In his blog Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait (who has worked on calibrating the Hubble telescope before) breaks down and debunks Soneira’s claims that Jobs was lying. In essence, Soneira’s claim only applies to people with perfect 20/20 vision:

[Note: in the articles about all this, they used units of pixels per inch, whereas I’ve used the size of the pixels themselves. You can flip all these numbers to convert. The iPhone4 has a resolution of 326 ppi (pixels per inch). Soleira says the eye can resolve 1 / 0.0021 = 477 ppi. However, normal vision can see at 1 / 0.0035 = 286 ppi. So the density of pixels in the iPhone 4 is safely higher than can be resolved by the normal eye, but lower than what can be resolved by someone with perfect vision.]

So in my opinion, what Jobs said was fine. Soneira, while technically correct, was being picky. So I mildly disagree with him about that.

Still, the headline used by was clearly incorrect; Jobs wasn’t falsely advertising the iPhone’s capabilities at all. I’ll note that I like Wired magazine quite a bit, and what we have here is most likely just an overzealous editor. But a lot of people read the headlines and it taints their view; someone reading that article may be more likely to think Jobs, once again, has overblown a product to excite people. He didn’t.

Did Wired and PC Mag jumped the gun with Soneira’s claims that the Retina Display is false advertising? Well, maybe, because it only applies to people with perfect 20/20 vision. Raise your hand if you have 20/20 vision–because I sure don’t! We’ll have to wait till the iPhone 4 is launched to find out some real life claims about the new Retina Display.


  • nosnoop

    Right from the start, I thought the term “Retina Display” is just hype, a catchy marketable term – and really does not mean much. OF COURSE, you have to talk about 20/20 vision when you are talking about resolving power of human eye. What would be the point if you refer to someone who has cataract or someone who forgot his glasses!

    Job did not do his homework, but in the end it does not matter. It is a high resolution screen, whether you call it Retina Display or Latina Display. 🙂

  • Mallet

    Using the term “perfect” in describing 20/20 vision makes Phil Plait a bit of a dufus. 20/20 is considered “normal” or, more accurately, the lowest acceptable side of normal. Numbers, such as 20/12 – 20/16 is better vision than 20/20 and is more common among younger people. So, citing 20/20 as “perfect” causes Phil to lose his credibility.

  • Mallet

    Oh wait … it was “Gary” who said 20/20 – as I don't see that specific reference in the quotes text.
    tsk, tsk, tsk Gary

  • cilias

    “…Jobs, once again, has overblown a product to excite people.”
    That's just it. Apple has a track record of it. It's amazing how frequently Apple releases a “magical revolutionary product at an unbelievable price”

  • djepsilon

    Umm… who really cares? If the screen makes the guys from Engadget wet their pants then it must be pretty amazing. Marketing is marketing, and Apple is one of the best at it. Why bother getting picky and point fingers? The iPhone sells itself anyway!

  • Noahattic

    i believe the “unbelieveable price” refers to super expensive…….

  • DJkaled

    ya to be honest i personally doesn't if it has 326 ppi. It is cool to know that it has 326 ppi but all i really care is great under the sun, wide viewing angle, on par or better compare to AMOLED screen and able to produce really vivid pictures. I've used screens that produce VGA resolution on phones long before this phone come along (Nexus One, Sharp SH008, HTC HD2…) far they've impress me quite a bit. So i really want to see how apple is able to push the bar a little bit further!!!

  • Noahattic

    i dont really care how good the screen looks. we have been using 180 dpi screen for years. if the screen looks really amazing and comfortable, that's good, considering an asset. what i care more about is the speed, stability, the ability of customization, battery life, the quality of connection while making a phonecall.

  • dash8311

    Great response Phil.

  • Obviously the saying “20/20” implies perfect vision, even if it's not the absolute technical sound definition. How often do you hear people say “I have perfect 20/16 vision”?


  • Did you read the sentence after that? Phil says “he didn't.”

  • iPhones are priced the same as any equivalent smartphone (ie Android, Nokia, etc). You get what you pay for, to each their own.

  • Because it's easier to say than 20/16 vision? 🙂

    In the end, I suspect there will still be people that will be able to see the pixels. The majority of people… well, we'll see when the iPhone 4 is released.

  • Joker Eh

    Take the thing out of your rear. Geez. Who has ever heard fo 20/16 vision? Stop using google to try and make yourself look smart.

  • Cameron

    facts are facts. good article filled with facts. Both experts give good explanations. But what I know is that if I go to the optometrist, and my vision isn't 20/20, then it gets corrected to that, or better. So less than 20/20 is considered deficient, even if the average is less than 20/20. For that reason, and because with my glasses on I assume I've got that 477 dpi ability, Apple's claims are a bit rich.

  • Mallet

    Because many years ago, I used to have 20/17 vision which I was told by the doc was pretty good, but more-or-less typical for someone my age. So, before I posted what I thought I remembered, I Googled to be certain.

    How can you say, “Obviously the saying “20/20″ implies perfect vision”. To me, he is “obviously” relating to the “norm” – which is how things are typically measured. Exactly how long have you been an expert on technology, again??

    And I never said 20/16 was perfect either. I think you should check your reading skills.

    Wake up? Seriously??? Do some research before you continue to misquote people.

  • Mallet

    Dude …. don't be an idiot.

  • Zeke2d

    Wait, I don't speak scientific, can someone tell me if it is if you have 20/20 vision, the screen is well, very clear to you?

  • Stahain

    has there been any reference in regards to the screen being oleophobic
    like on the 3gs ?

  • Yes there will be an oleophobic coating.

  • William B.

    For those interested by the nicely written take of a Canadian vision scientist on this controversy:

  • William B.

    For those interested by the nicely written take of a Canadian vision scientist on this controversy:

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