iPad: Love the screen, hate the bills

RGBStock.com user johnnyberg
RGBStock.com user johnnyberg

(MoneyWatch) Some users of Apple's (AAPL) latest iPad have been shocked to discover that they were blowing through their wireless data limits within a few days. The cause: A combination of high-speed connections, which can encourage consumers to download more video and apps, and the device's ultra-high resolution screen, which can be a memory hog.

The problem isn't a new one. CBS MoneyWatch mentioned in 2010 how the iPhone 4 display would lead to unintended data bloat, leading to higher mobile phone bills. The iPad only compounds the problem, and the same issue will likely crop up soon with Android devices.

At bottom, the nasty surprise for some iPad users stems from the burgeoning number of applications that use video and other images, largely in a bid to appeal to consumers. Those features, along with increasing a tablet's screen resolution, consume a lot of data.

Fat apps

Moonbot Studios, which won an Oscar this year for its short film "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," has noticed how the change in resolution can affect the company's apps. "A lot of [one of our apps] being videos and a good portion being raw images that we play back, it could bump [data size] up 150 to 200 percent," says lead technical director Bohdon Sayre.

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The iPhone 4 and 4S, which also had the so-called retinal display (named for an optical property that could make images look nearly as smooth as a photograph), didn't run into the same problem. But those screens are much smaller than an iPad's. What really increases the size of visual files is the combination of high resolution and screen dimensions. To take advantage of the new iPad's resolution, a company must create larger, more detailed images. That expands the amount of data needed to deliver and store the images or video.

Will consumers stand for it?

Increased data doesn't matter that much when people use Wi-Fi connections to the Internet. But wireless connections typically impose greater limits on the data that people can send and receive with a smartphone or tablet. Download enough data-heavy apps on a wireless account or watch enough high-res videos, and soon you're either paying for a more expensive data plan or paying penalties for the additional data.

To date, this problem has mostly affected iPad users. But maybe not for long. Samsung, which makes the displays for the iPad, is also the biggest single manufacturer of Android smartphones and tablets. You can bet that Samsung and other Android vendors will have to incorporate ultra-resolution screens to keep up with Apple. Although that could boost income for telecom carriers that carry all this digital data, it also could spur consumers to push back on what they're willing to pay.

Image: RGBStock.com user johnnyberg

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.