More on the Unicorn

Yesterday, OS X Daily linked to my article, Chasing the 6.4 megapixel unicorn, where I speculated on the rationale for Apple including high resolution (3200 × 2000) wallpaper in the Mac OS X Lion Developer Preview. I saw a little ‘blip’ in new visitors to the site, which is always welcome, so thanks to the OS X Daily folks for that.

They also linked to their February 2011 story about iPad Retina Display rumors. I hadn’t seen it before, and one passage caught my attention:

…according to an analyst cited by AppleInsider, the high resolution retina display will come to iPad 3 in the form of a whopping 2048 × 1536 resolution display. If this happens, you’d expect similar displays to come to the Mac platform so that developers can accurately produce and test apps for the ultrahigh resolution.

Those 2048 × 1536 dimensions made me re-open my original spreadsheet and start poking around again. “How high a resolution,” I wondered, “would be needed to produce a Retina Display (I dubbed it the Unicorn) for the larger monitor sizes favored by developers?” I was curious if the resulting figures would also accommodate displaying the full 2048 × 1536 pixels those customers would need.

Again with the calculations

Of course, if you’ve been following along so far, you know that the answer depends on how close you let yourself get to the “Unicorn.” And so, using the 18, 20 and 24-inch values from my first post, I ran my calculations in reverse. Here’s what I got:

Retina Display resolution for a 27” Unicorn Cinema Display:

  • At 18” viewing distance: 4494 × 2528
  • At 20” viewing distance: 4045 × 2275
  • At 24” viewing distance: 3371 × 1896

Sitting just a foot-and-a-half from your 27” Unicorn would necessitate a minimum of nearly 4500 pixels horizontally and over 2500 vertically in order for Apple to claim it as a Retina Display. Impressive specs, greater than anything in the consumer market today by a wide margin. The figures are even larger for a 30” display, of course:

Retina Display resolution for a 30” Unicorn Cinema Display:

  • At 18” viewing distance: 4859 × 3037
  • At 20” viewing distance: 4373 × 2733
  • At 24” viewing distance: 3644 × 2278

I think sitting just 18” from a 30” Unicorn Cinema Display is likely to give you a sunburn or a poke in the eye with the horn, but I must admit I find that almost-5000 pixel figure pretty compelling.

The unicorn for developers

At first glance, it would appear that every combination is well beyond the 2048 × 1536 dimensions of this mythical Retina Display iPad. But of course, while Cinema Displays have a 16:9 aspect ratio1 and are oriented “landscape” with the longest side on the horizontal, the iPad screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio and can be used in both orientations.

A Unicorn Cinema Display would need to be at least 2048 pixels vertically to render the iPad screen without scaling or cropping. Allowing for the Menu Bar, a window frame and the Dock, the actual need is closer to 2200 pixels vertically.2 Only one of the instances I’ve shown above wouldn’t work with those requirements.

Another way to look at this would be to start with the minimum 2200 pixels needed and assume Apple sticks with a 16:9 ratio for its monitors. In that case, 3911 × 2200 would be the minimum resolution Apple could ship a Unicorn and claim to be providing iOS developers what they need.

Could they also claim it was a Retina Display at 3911 × 2200? If it were a 27” monitor and they assumed you were viewing it from about 20” or farther, then yes, they could. Of course, there’s a combination of other sizes and distances that would “work” at that resolution, too.

Conclusions or, “Enough already”

At this point, we’ve probably squeezed all the value out of this exercise that we possibly can. There are just too many variables — monitor size, viewing distance, aspect ratios, etc. — to really draw any conclusions.

As one of the commenters on the previous post noted, “It’s fun to speculate, isn’t it?” And it’s true, up to a point. Putting aside the calculations, though, the simple fact of the matter is that devices such as the iPhone 4 have proven the value of high-density displays to millions of people. And, of course, technology advances, and it’s only a matter of time before high-DPI LCDs become affordable at large sizes and appear on the market. I, for one, cannot wait.


For those that might be interested in taking this Unicorn silliness further, I’ve decided to post my calculations and let you have at it. There is also a PDF for those who just want to see the figures.

Apple iWork ’09: Numbers ’09 (.numbers) | Numbers 08 (.zip)

Microsoft Office: Excel 2008-2011 (.xlsx) | Excel 97-2004 (.xls)

Portable Document Format: PDF

  1. I’m making a few assumptions here, most notably that these displays would continue to use the aspect ratios they have now. In the case of the 27” Cinema Display, that’s 16:9. The 30”, when it was available, was 16:10. I’m also assuming Apple sticks either of these two sizes, which might be entirely wrong. 

  2. 2200 pixels accommodates 2048 for the iPad screen inside the emulator, 30 pixels for the emulator window title bar and border (at least), 22 pixels for the Menu Bar and 50-80 pixels for the Dock. It’s tight at this size, but that’s what a minimum is, after all. 

Posted 10 April 2011 under Technology

Comments (3)

  1. Apple can call anything they want a “Retina Display” since they made up the term for marketing purposes (just as they can call something “magical”). In practical terms it only means Very High Resolution Display, or perhaps roughly double todays standard resolutions. I really think trying to parse it down to the pixel level is pointless. Likely, the vast majority of people don’t have the vision acuity necessary to meet the “technical” definition (a certain resolution viewed at a certain distance) anyway.

  2. One thing i just realize is how well 4K resolution fits into this. 4K is the next thing for Movie and TV Studio after 1080P. And 27″ and 30″, it is within the Retina Display Calculation.

    This should properly come with the new Final Cut Studio Pro.

    • That’s an excellent point, Ed. The one problem I’ve had with this whole exploration is exactly what the *point* of it all is. We’d all no doubt love higher resolution displays, but it’s difficult to believe they would be available at the same price as today’s technology. And unless there is a clear requirement for it, I can see many customers passing on it for now. 4K video may just be it, opening up a reason for a “Cinema Display Pro” or something.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *