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Designing for iPhone 4 Retina Display – Techniques and Workflow

The iPhone 4 features a vastly superior display resolution (614400 pixels) over previous iPhone models, containing quadruple the 153600-pixel display of the iPhone 3GS. The screen is the same physical size, so those extra dots are used for additional detail — twice the detail horizontally, and twice vertically. For developers only using Apple’s user interface elements, most of the work is already done for you.

” If it’s a goal, not a specific technique, then what techniques exist? How has Apple solved the problem in iOS?

Fluid Layouts

While apps that take advantage of Apple’s native user interface elements require a lot less work when designing for the Retina display, we’re here to talk about highly custom, graphic-driven apps that need a fair amount of work to take full advantage of the Retina display. While not strictly a resolution-independent technique, using a fluid layout can help an app grow to take advantage of a larger window or screen by adding padding or by changing the layout dynamically. A lot of Mac, Windows, and Linux apps use this method, as do some websites.

This is partially how Apple handled the difference in resolution from iPhone to iPad — a lot of UI elements are the same pixel size, but padded to make use of the extra screen real estate.

Just-in-time Resolution Independence

Another approach to handling widely different resolutions and pixel densities is to draw everything using code or vector-based images (like PDFs) at runtime. Without trying to stereotype anyone, it’s usually the approach engineering types like. It’s clean, simple, and elegant. It lets you design or code once, and display at any resolution, even at fractional scales.

Unfortunately, using vector-based images tends to be more resource[1]hungry and lacks pixel-level control. The increase in resources may not be an issue for a desktop OS, but it is a considerable problem for a mobile OS. The lack of pixel-level control is a very real problem for smaller elements. Change an icon’s size by one pixel, and you will lose clarity.

Ahead-of-time Resolution Independence

The best quality results — and the method Apple chose for the iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4 transition — comes from pre-rendered images, built for specific devices, at specific resolutions: bespoke designs for each required size, if you will. It’s more work, but pre-rendering images ensures everything always looks as good as possible.

Building Designs That Scale

Building apps for the iPhone 4 Retina display involves creating two sets of images — one at 163 ppi and another at 326 ppi. The 326 ppi images include @2x at the end of their filename, to denote that they’re double the resolution. When it comes to building UI elements that scale easily in Adobe Photoshop, bitmaps are your enemy because they pixelate or become blurry when scaled.

Last word

Fortunately, Apple chose to exactly double the resolution for the iPhone 4, and for using ahead-of-time resolution independence. As complex as the process is now, things would have been far worse if they had chosen a fractional scale for the display.

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