iPad Retina App Sizes

It’s been more than two months now since the release of the new iPad. Plenty of time for enough developers to have updated their apps in order for us to get a clear picture of how the new Retina display resolution is going to affect app size. Around the launch of the new iPad there has been a lot of speculation on what effect the new Retina display is going to have in regard of app size. A lot of opinions and a lot of numbers were put forward, such as a potential file size increase of up to five times the pre-Retina sizes. Obviously, this would not be a desirable thing, particularly since the storage space for the new iPad has not increased along with the resolution of the display. This increase in file size is  even more of a problem for owners of previous generation iPads, who have to, given the current distribution model of the App Store, download apps updated to include Retina assets and not get any benefit from them except for a potentially much larger file size (which of course is no benefit at all).

A lot of people have written that this is especially concerning for people with 16 GB iPads, but I however don’t entirely agree with that point of view because besides a potential difference in budget, there’s probably a bigger difference in device usage style between an owner of a 16 GB iPad and a 64 GB iPad[1]. Where as most 16 GB iPad owners are probably light users, the majority of 64 GB iPads out there probably already have a large proportion of their storage full. Because the owner of a 64 GB iPad is probably using his device as a sort of digital book shelf, where every app is the equivalent of a book on his physical book shelf, which naturally he can access on a moment’s notice anytime he desires. And this will be potentially rendered impossible by devices with the same storage space that have to hold much larger apps, given that 64 GB is the maximum storage space an iPad can have right now.

Imagine if an app like The Elements, which at 1,71 GB is currently the largest iPad app in my library and which has the potential for a significant increase in file size if it goes Retina, given that it’s an app filled with a lot of great media content, stored locally on the device[2], would see a doubling or tripling of its current app size. It would mean that a single app, at more than 5 GB would take up almost 10% of a 64 GB iPad’s capacity. And given the usage pattern of the type of user I described earlier he/she would probably want to have hundreds of apps installed on the device. My personal app library in iTunes on my MBP, which I clean from time to time, removing subpar apps and apps I seldom use, currently sits at 963 apps. Out of these, 376 are installed on my iPad and I’m pretty sure this number would be higher if I’d have more storage space.

Apple probably foresaw this increase in app file size and the need for more space on its mobile devices, and that’s why it included easy access to previously purchased apps with the introduction of the Purchased tab in the App Store when it launched iCloud last year[3]. Unfortunately, Apps in the Cloud is not really a solution to the space problem, as waiting for an app larger than 1 GB to re-download and install to your device is more akin to going to the local library to borrow a book then getting a book of your bookshelf. And this will almost always be the case, because if you’re going to want to free up space on your iPad you’re going to start by deleting larger apps that are not all that essential instead of sorting through hundreds of smaller apps, so those are going to be the apps you’ll consider re-downloading later on[4]. Ultimately it’s a question of access. Am I really going to wait 20-30 minutes to download and install a game I only want to play for 15? Of course not, I’m going to play something else. Am I going to wait 20 minutes to install an anatomy app with great media resources and 3D models just to check a fact? Of course not, I’m going to check that fact online. However, I’m pretty sure I would have launched the app if it already were installed on my device.

Besides some games and other apps, the clearest example of this kind of issue for me was GarageBand. I’m not a musician, not even an amateur one, so I never used GarageBand very often, but every once it a while, about two or three times a month, I would start the app just for fun and play around with it for an hour or so. However, a few months back I wanted to free up some space on my iPad so I could try out a couple of new apps (pretty large new apps)[5]. In this particular case, because I needed about 3GB of space, and GarageBand was one of the largest apps on my device and it was rarely used I went ahead and deleted it. If this wouldn’t have happened I’d probably be still opening up GarageBand every now and again for some musical foolishness, but  since I deleted it I never got to re-installing it and that great song that would have been serendipitously born on my iPad will now never be.

Jokes aside, this is how the interactions with most games and apps rich in media content works; you don’t open them up on a regular basis, except maybe if it’s something related to your particular line of work, but otherwise you either sit down with them for a longer session (maybe even go through the whole app in one sitting), or you launch them once in a while whenever you’re browsing your iPad for an app to enrich your next half an hour that otherwise will be spent staring at walls. However, if the app is not already on the device, readily available, you’re not going to launch it, you’re not going to use it, and you’re not going to take advantage of something you paid for and spent time selecting out of a multitude of other apps that all promised the same thing. But even if, let’s say you would be willing to spend at least a part, if not all, of that half an hour staring at the walls while you wait for the app you want to re-download, that might not even be an option, because a) that half an hour might come while you’re waiting at the dentist or when you’re out in the park laying in the grass, and you might not have access to a decent internet connection and b) even if you would have access to the best possible broadband you still won’t have enough free space on your iPad, because that’s why you deleted the app in the first place.

So, like I said before, besides all the other factors concerning apps: quality of the app and its content, price, multitude of choices and so on, maybe the biggest one for this generation of devices is availability of the app on the device due to limited storage space and increasing app sizes[6]. And this is a problem for developers as well, because regardless of how good it might be, your app won’t get used nearly as much as it could have been if the user is going to delete it because it’s one of the larger apps and he’s running low on space. And in the future app size is probably also going to become an even more important factor when deciding whether or not to purchase an app, as it’s going to be a lot less likely for somebody to buy a large app that they’ll probably have to delete after a week when they’ll run out of space again. Not to mention that larger apps are probably more complex apps or apps with a lot of media content, both of which tend to be on the expensive side of the app price spectrum.

App size is probably already an important enough factor to most users and developers, for a variety of reasons, but its importance will probably go up given the current state of the app size/storage space ratio. Getting back to my experience with GarageBand (which seems like the best example out of numerous other apps of various types in the same position; mostly photography apps, games, interactive and/or reference books) I could have of course reinstalled it any time if I had wanted to, but because I would have had to delete other apps to make room for it and then wait for it to download and install, meaning that I probably would have had to really want it, I never did. But if it would have been on my device I probably would have ended up using it at least half a dozen times since then. And this, from the perspective of somebody who already spent almost the same amount of money (and a lot more time) on apps as on the iPad itself, is starting to turn into an issue.

The main point I want to make here is that the decrease in easy access to a certain kind of app, like I described earlier, leads not only to a decrease in value of the apps themselves but also to a decrease in value of the device. And considering that whether it’s an innovative and insightful interactive book, a cool new indie game or an eye-opening media app that combines photography, video and text in an original way, large apps with a lot of on-device content are probably the most exciting type of apps currently on the App Store, so I can only hope that the storage issue will be taken care of sooner rather than later.

Getting to the main reason for this post’s existence: an honest, in-depth analysis of how app size is affected by the Retina resolution display of the new iPad. And what better way to make an analysis than with spreadsheets and charts? However, a little insight on how the analysis was conducted before we get started. All the apps I have included in my assessment, 50 in total, are from my personal app library, i.e. all are apps I own and use. To facilitate the comparison between app sizes before and after the inclusion of retina assets I haven’t updated my apps for approximately 2 months, giving me enough apps to analyze in order to draw a meaningful conclusion (without having to dig through Time Machine backups)[7]. I intentionally left out all the apps made by Apple as they’ve been by far the apps most people talked about around the launch of the new iPad; and as others also noted, it’s rather unclear if the increase in app size in the case of the Apple apps is strictly due to the inclusion of Retina assets or if it’s also due, in a significant amount, to new features that have been added. I also intentionally left out the Fotopedia apps, as because there were nine of them at the time I was gathering my data, they would have skewed the final results too much.

Retina App Size Comparison Spreadsheet

As you can see from the results, the app size increase isn’t as high as had been predicted, at 42,47%. However, although this number may seem low at first, you’ve got to keep in mind that most of these apps didn’t add any significant new features, they simply increased the resolution of their UIs and in a few cases, of apps with locally stored assets, the resolution of their assets. So if, let’s say you’re the owner of a 32 GB iPad 2 which is already filled up, most of it with apps, let’s say 20 GB worth of apps, you’re going to have to delete a quarter of your apps (in terms of storage space and not necessarily number of apps) if half the apps you have installed get updated with Retina resolution assets. And the fun part is you won’t see anything different. Considering Apple still sells the iPad 2, it did well to lower it’s price, not only because it’s already last year’s model, but also because you can actually do less with the device now then you could do last year (at least when it comes to the number of apps you can have on the device at once).

Even though I included apps from almost all categories in the App Store, these are still 50 random apps and depending on what you’re using your iPad for, you could see a much bigger increase in size or almost no increase at all. That’s why I thought it would be helpful to put together a chart illustrating the average increase in app size by app category, so you can have a look at the chart and evaluate the effect Retina resolution apps are going to have on the storage space on your own device, based on the type of apps you use. Of course everything will depend on exactly the apps you use, because apps in a particular category can vary greatly in size. In my own library, for example, the Games category has apps ranging from 102 KB to 1,2 GB. But I’m thinking the chart will work for a rough estimate.

A Chart of Retina app size increase by category

When rumors of the Retina display started flying around, before the announcement of the new iPad, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about seeing them materialize in this year’s generation of devices. Not because of the display technology itself, but because of the rest of the technology needed to support such a high-resolution display, GPU, CPU, battery life and storage space. It didn’t seem likely that all these elements could come together so soon, particularly considering that as it stands now, the 9.7” display of the iPad has a higher resolution (2048×1536) than the display of the current 21.5” iMac (1920×1080) or the 17” MacBook Pro (1920×1200) on which I’m typing this[8].

I can’t say that I was disappointed when the Retina display of the new iPad was unveiled, quite the opposite actually, I was glad to see this exciting new technology brought to mass market sooner than I had thought possible. It’s impressive to see it already getting used to great effect; and I have no doubt that in time the current storage issues will be sorted out, but until then, however, I guess what’s likely to happen is that most developers of apps that store a lot of media content locally will choose not to update their apps with Retina resolution assets[9]. A trend that I have already noticed by looking at the tens of such apps in my library. For the time being this decision is understandable. For example, if we were to update our own app, Where’s Paradise? Episode 1: Nusa Lembongan, with Retina resolution photos (meaning a long edge of 2048) and include the film at 1080p, we would get an approximately 5 times increase in size , from the current 155 MB to approximately 866 MB[10]. And that’s if we were to release two versions of the app, one for Retina resolution iPads and one for standard resolution iPads, because if we were to release one version of the app for both types of iPads, then the app would be 1,02 GB in size. I really don’t think that right now, releasing a media app such as ours, with a file size over 1 GB, for a little over a hundred photos and a 20 min short documentary would make a lot of sense or would have a lot of appeal for costumers. But then again who knows, maybe a lot of people would be attracted by it particularly because of the Retina assets.

[1]Unfortunately, I haven’t found any recent studies on iPad usage, but you can have a look at some not so recent ones here, here, here, here and here.

[2]I can’t say that I don’t enjoy a lot of apps that store media content online, because I do (particularly the Fotopedia apps, Life for iPad and The Guardian Eyewitness), but they feel more like exhibition tickets than books. Exhibitions that are open for an indefinite amount of time, and that can be visited anytime with the condition that I’m online. And that’s the main problem, a lot of times when I’m out and about with my iPad I won’t have a decent internet connection if any at all, so the content won’t be available to me and the apps rendered useless. Also, there are two other faults with apps that store media online: that they almost always feel and act a lot more slowly than their on-device counterparts and secondly there’s the issue of time. Here, we can go back to the book analogy, because I can take of the shelf a book that my grandfather bought 60 years ago and passed on to me and the content is all there, exactly as it was when he bought it, even if the publisher of the book is probably out of business and the author dead for a long time – it stood the test of time, at least when it comes to this human timeframe. But like I said, online content is more like an exhibition, the content is there now, but given a year, two , ten or twenty it most likely won’t be; either because it was taken down, the company moved on to different projects and shut down the servers because not enough people were accessing them any more anyway, the company went bankrupt or it was bought by somebody else with no interest in the project, a great natural disaster swept away the servers… and the list could go on, but I guess you got my point.

[3]This was actually touted as a feature of iCloud, and called Apps in the Cloud, but in truth it was just easier access to a feature that had been there since the launch of the App Store – you could always re-download previously purchased apps for free to your device, you just couldn’t see all the previous purchases in one place. This is undeniably a great feature, except the re-downloading part wasn’t all that new.

[4]I’m speaking from personal experience here, because I’ve bought the 32 GB model I’ve been faced with the space dilemma long before Retina apps came along.

[5]Because of the way the installation process works on iOS you actually need about twice the amount of free space, compared to the size of the app; so for instance if you want to install a 1 GB game to your device, you’re going to need about 2 GB of free space to do it.

[6]I’m optimistic that the storage problem will eventually be solved, although now with Retina apps, the technological advancements might take a little longer to catch up with the needs of the users.

[7]I had to do a little changelog reading on developer websites and a bit of online digging around to find the info I was looking for in the case of a few apps that had multiple updates since the inclusion of retina assets.

[8]In reality the resolution of the new iPad is closer to the resolution of the 27” iMac or the Thunderbolt Display, both of which have native screen resolutions of 2560×1440.

[9]The UI’s could probably be updated, in most cases, without a significant increase in app size.

[10]This approximation is based on the difference in size between the current version of the film, encoded at 640 x 360 in H.264, AAC, using HandBrake (which I found after comprehensive testing to be the best encoder currently available when it comes to producing the best image quality/file size ratio, including when compared to commercial offerings from both Apple and Adobe) and the 1920 x 1080 version, also compressed with HandBrake, plus the photos and UI assets exported at 2048×1536. Of course, the film could be included at 720p resolution, saving an approximately 300 MB of data and reducing the app size to around 550 MB, but that however wouldn’t be an app with full Retina assets.


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