Retina Display vs. 4K vs. True Tone

What is the best screen resolution for your tablet?

Retina displays. 4K. True Tone. There are a number of screen resolutions available in the tablet market these days. But which ones are worth the cost and which are just marketing buzzwords? Is spending the money on a 4K tablet really worth it? And how does it stack up to the Retina display and True Tone? We'll explain.

Retina Display 4K  True Tone
Pixel density high enough that individual pixels are no longer discerned by the human eye when the device is held at a normal viewing distance. Best on tablets that measure 12 inches diagonally or more. Capable of producing DCI-P3 Wide Color Gamut, which is a standard used by the music industry.

There's an important difference between a tablet and a television. A television is used primarily to watch video. To get the most out of the videos we're watching, our television's resolution should match the resolution of the video. So, even though televisions come in many different sizes, the industry needs a standard screen resolution to match the video produced with the resolution of the television. It doesn't do any good to have a higher resolution for a bigger television when the picture on the screen is going to be shown at a lower standardized resolution.

Female artist sketching kimono on digital tablet
Hero Images / Getty Images 

So, 4K is an important standard for the television industry. But, we use our tablets for much more than just streaming videos from Netflix and Amazon Prime. So, in terms of a tablet, the "4K" designation has less meaning. So, does that make Retina or True Tone (or both) a better option?

Retina Display Pros and Cons

  • Comes with a lot of different screen resolutions.

  • Beautiful visuals.

  • Doesn't provide any extra viewing benefits beyond a certain point.

  • Higher screen resolutions require more graphics power, which depletes the battery faster.

A retina display is a screen with a pixel density high enough that individual pixels can no longer be discerned by the human eye when the device is held at a normal viewing distance, according to Apple. The "normal viewing distance" is an important part of this equation, because the closer you hold the device, the smaller the individual pixels need to be before they become indistinguishable from one another. Apple considers the normal viewing distance of a smartphone 10-12 inches and the normal viewing distance for a tablet is around 15 inches.

The Retina display distinction is important because any higher screen resolution doesn't provide any extra viewing benefits. Once the human eye can no longer distinguish individual pixels, the display is as clear as it can be. In fact, higher screen resolutions require more graphics power, which depletes the battery faster. So exceeding a Retina display can actually detract from the device.

The confusing part about a Retina display is that it comes with a lot of different screen resolutions. A 4K display is generally a 3,840x2,160 resolution regardless of its size, but a Retina display's resolution usually changes based on its size.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a 9.7-inch display measured diagonally with a 2,048x1,536 resolution. This gives it a PPI of 264, which Apple considers enough to be a Retina Display for a tablet. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has a resolution of 2,732x2,048, which also gives it a PPI of 264.  

A PPI of around 250 or above is key to hitting that Retina display range in tablets. Interesting enough, the iPad Mini 4 has a PPI of 326 because it has the same screen resolution as an iPad Air 2 with a smaller 7.9-inch screen. No doubt, Apple thought keeping the resolution the same from a compatibility standpoint was more important than the extra drain on the battery, but the display itself would look about the same with a smaller resolution. 

4K Pros and Cons

  • Sharper videos.

  • 3840 x 2160 or 2160p resolution.

  • More pixels per inch (PPI) than HD.

  • Only benefits streaming video.

  • Best on tablets that measure 12 inches diagonally or more.

  • Currently, there's a limited selection of movies and TV in 4K.

  • Streaming 4K video requires more bandwidth.

In terms of buying a tablet, the "4K" designation should only be a concern if you primarily use the device to watch television and stream video. The real number to look for is the display's pixels-per-inch (PPI). PPI is based on screen size and screen resolution. Most tablets now display it in their specifications. 

You can see a list of broadcast TV networks and cable providers with apps for the iPad.

A 4K resolution on a tablet should generally be considered only on tablets that measure 12 inches diagonally or more. Smaller tablets with a 4K resolution are jumping on the bandwagon for a display that eats up more battery power but doesn't provide any clearer resolution than an iPad.

When Samsung released the "4K" Galaxy Tab S3 tablet, it sported a decidedly un-4K resolution of 2048x1536. This is the same resolution as the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Samsung marketed this Galaxy Tab S3 as a 4K tablet because it can accept 4K video even though it cannot actually output it onto its display. This basically takes marketing buzz words into the bait-and-switch area. It also means you should be skeptical of any tablet referring to itself as 4K.

While 3D TVs have proved to be a bit of a fad, 4K television sets are likely here to stay, but it may take longer than some think for it to become the true standard. It takes more space to store a 4K video and, more importantly, it takes more bandwidth to stream 4K. 

It currently takes around 5-6 Megabytes-per-second (Mbps) to stream 1080p high definition video. If you take into account the need to buffer and deal with the varying speeds of WiFi, 8 Mbps would be more ideal. Currently, it takes around 12-15 Mbps to stream 4K video, with the ideal connection being around 20 Mbps. 

For many people, that would eat up most of the bandwidth they get from their internet provider. Even those with 50 Mbps connections would feel a major crunch if two people on their network tried to watch a 4K movie at the same time.

While we might be able to work around the issue, a company like Netflix or Hulu Plus would see a huge increase in the cost to stream video. And ISPs like Verizon FIOS and Time Warner Cable already struggle to deal with the amount of bandwidth Netflix alone takes up during prime time. The internet itself might become unusable if there were widespread adoption of streaming 4K video.

So, we're not quite there yet. But from a pricing standpoint, 4K televisions are getting closer and closer to that consumer level. In a few years, most of us may think the extra $100 spent to upgrade to a 4K screen is worth it. It might actually take a little longer for internet providers to be ready for it, but they'll get there.

True Tone Pros and Cons

  • Capable of producing DCI-P3 Wide Color Gamut.

  • Detects ambient light and alters it to mimic real-world light.

  • Can be turned on and off.

  • Uses a tiny amount of battery.

Apple's iPad Pro line has what it's calling a "True Tone" display. The True Tone display is capable of producing DCI-P3 Wide Color Gamut, which is a standard used by the music industry. The move towards "Ultra-High Definition" (UHD) in the TV industry is a move towards a wider color gamut as opposed to just increasing screen resolution.

Another feature of Apple's True Tone display is the ability to detect ambient light and alter the shade of white shown on the screen to mimic the effect of light in the "real world." This is similar to how a sheet of paper might look more white under shade and more yellow directly under the sun.

Which Should You Choose?

If you're an avid film and television buff who primarily uses a tablet for streaming video, you might want to invest in 4K. It provides zero benefits to other forms of media like ebooks, though, and there are virtually no 4K video games on mobile platforms. If you use your tablet more as a multi-purpose device, you might want a Retina Display instead. As for True Tone, it's a welcome addition, but hardly necessary.