Air Display, the handy app that lets your iOS device pull double duty as a wireless external monitor, has been updated to take full advantage of Apple's Retina display. That means users can now utilize every pixel of real estate available on the new iPad's 2048 x 1536 panel, a resolution that's likely to shame most any monitor you put it next to. Perhaps even more exciting for users on Mac OS X Lion is the ability to enable HiDPI mode, which renders graphics at double their previous size. It doesn't sound like much, but the end result is superb: just like going from the iPad 2 to the new iPad, the vastly improved pixel density results in richly detailed images. How do these new features fare in actual use? Keep reading for our hands-on impressions.
To get starting using Air Display, you'll need to download the $9.99 app for your iOS device and then install the companion software from Avatron's website on either your Windows PC or Mac. To get the two communicating properly, both will need to be connected to the same wireless network. We had trouble getting Air Display to automatically detect our iPad, but manually entering the device's IP address — conveniently visible right within the app — worked flawlessly each time. Once paired, you'll configure Air Display's settings from the control panel (Windows) or system preferences (Mac) just as you would for any external monitor. Note that OS X Lion requires users to log out when enabling or turning off HiDPI mode.
App performance was decently responsive, but we wouldn't call it perfect by any means. There's some noticeable choppiness and intermittent lag when dragging windows around, but once you've got everything in place it's generally a smooth affair. YouTube videos played perfectly fine at their default browser size, but things slowed noticeably when we attempted to watch fullscreen HD clips. 3D-intensive software like Google Earth can also grind things to a halt. That said, Air Display proved more than capable of handling the everyday tasks we use it for around the office. But what about all that new screen real estate?
As it turns out, utilizing the new iPad's expanded Retina resolution (2048 x 1536) may sound appealing in theory, but isn't all that useful in practice. Text is extremely tiny to the point that it quickly induces eyestrain. Sure, it's nice to have two sessions of The Verge on the screen simultaneously, but what good is it when we need to squint to do any reading? If you're not dealing with text-heavy content, it certainly presents some interesting multitasking scenarios.
Where we do see the jump in real estate proving useful is for photographers. iPhoto is able to display more content on a 9.7-inch iPad at a higher resolution than what's possible using our 15-inch MacBook Pro. It's a striking thing to behold, really.
It's a striking thing to behold, really
HiDPI mode is another matter entirely, and one which brings about a noticeable visual upgrade while keeping everything on screen at a normal size. Still in its Mac OS X infancy, HiDPI is rumored to be the vehicle with which Apple will deliver Retina-type experiences to its Mac hardware line. System icons and some of Apple's own applications have already been optimized with larger image assets featuring increased pixel density and thus receive a tremendous bump in clarity. As evidence of this, take a peek at the comparison shot of Twitter below. With HiDPI enabled (top), system assets like the window controls are incredibly sharp, while custom graphics — and even the type used by the app — come out blurry.
Developers now have a reason to start including HiDPI assets in their apps
Spotify makes for an even better example of the bump in resolution: OS X renders the menubar text on the right with extremely crisp pixel density. Unfortunately, custom graphics again don't scale nearly as well. To be fair, until now developers haven't had much of a reason to implement HiDPI in their apps. The iPad is the first consumer-level display that can showcase the technology.
HiDPI mode is a nice bonus for Lion users, but doesn't make or break the experience of using Air Display. At $9.99, this app is a fantastic utility for the iPad, and version 1.6 fully harnesses all that the latest model has to offer. That said, there are still issues to be ironed out, and we'd like to see Avatron address some of the choppiness and lag we saw in future updates. Apple may not have intended for the new iPad to serve as a wireless external monitor, but Air Display winds up being one of the best examples yet of just how magnificent that Retina screen can be. Hit the iTunes App Store now for the download.