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Will Retina-ready iPad apps explode in size? Not necessarily

The display on Apple's new tablet is pushing new size records, but is it doing the same to the sizes on apps made just for it?

Apple's Retina Display.
Apple's Retina Display.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

In case you hadn't heard, the sky is falling.

iPad apps as we've known them are about to get super-sized and are now on a collision course with whatever space you thought you had on your iPad--old or new. Early evidence pointing in that direction comes from Apple's own applications, which were all updated last week to coincide with its new tablet, and became considerably larger as a result.

As my colleague Jason Parker detailed earlier this week, Pages--the word processor app in Apple's iOS iWork suite--jumped from 95MB to 269MB, while Numbers--Apple's spreadsheet app--increased from 109MB to 283MB. Yesterday, an extended hands-on with the new tablet from Vietnam-based blog Tinhte came with additional numbers, mainly that iMovie has ballooned from 70MB to 404MB.

Here's the thing though: while it's easy to apply a multiplier onto the size of these apps and guesstimate it for any app that's out there right now, developers CNET spoke to said it's not that clear cut. Like a snowflake, each piece of software is different, and it all comes down to the content that gets packed in. Things like videos, music, and high-quality image and texture assets that are included in applications could be getting upgraded, but not all those things are equal in terms of the impact they have in size.

Apple's new iMovie app includes a feature that lets you make movie trailers, and includes some sample data that takes up more space.
Apple's new iMovie app includes a feature that lets you make movie trailers, and includes some sample data that takes up more space. Apple

In the case of the updated iMovie app, it's a big mix of all these components. While things like buttons, knobs, and interface elements have gotten the "Retina" treatment, a big chunk of that size increase can be attributed to media Apple has added within the app. That includes the new trailers feature, which lets people make Hollywood-style movie trailers using footage they've shot.

As part of the new feature (which was picked apart for size by a Reddit commenter), Apple included 17 audio tracks, most about 2 MB in size and running about a minute. That's basically half a music album's worth of data that wasn't there before. Apple also included preview movies a few seconds long--but even these short videos can take between 300KB to 600KB each. There are 20 of them per trailer type, and there are nine types of trailers. All told it's a little more than 100MB of content, which is bigger than the entire app was in its last incarnation.

With Pages, Apple didn't tack on any new whiz-bang feature that's brought on audio or video files. The simple truth of the matter is that it's just a big app, with more than 1,000 image assets that needed Retina-ready counterparts, all of which come in at a bigger size and are an addition to the old ones. Examples like this are where some of the fear about bulging file sizes is warranted, since users on older devices aren't getting the advantage of these higher-resolution components, but will have to download them nonetheless.

Something else to consider is that many potentially bloat-inducing culprits, including standard app buttons and background textures, are pre-installed on the device, so apps often don't need their own. However, some developers create their own icons and buttons, which can add to an app's overall size. That includes the popular, and already updated Tweetbot app for Twitter, which has its own set of icons and visual features it brings along for the ride.

How big can apps get?
One consideration is that Apple has a firm limit on how big apps can be, which is 2GB per Apple's iTunes Connect--the system developers submit their software through. For something like the entry-level, 16GB iPad that works out to about seven applications given the space you're left with right out of the box.

Infinity Blade II falls on the large size at 791MB.
Infinity Blade II falls on the large size at 791MB. Epic Games

Do any apps even come close to this per app barrier already? Yes, but they're games. EA's FIFA '11 and '12 editions both are more than a 1GB; the larger '11 version is 1.26GB. There's also Epic's Infinity Blade 2, which is 791 MB, and two of Gameloft's Modern Combat titles break the gigabyte barrier.

How big will these particular games get once they've been given a polish for Apple's new device? That remains unclear. Once again it depends largely on how much of that bulk are game assets the need double-sized versions, and if developers come up with any workarounds to make their apps take up less space.

One place to look in the meantime are the applications that have already been updated for the new tablet. Here's a chart of the ones that are not new apps, and how they were affected in the jump:

The one thing you'll notice is that none of these titles went down in size. That shouldn't be too surprising. You'll also notice that apps that are specifically for reading content like Amazon's Kindle reader and the New York Times, as well as writing apps like Evernote and the Day One journal software barely changed. The biggest impact was on graphically rich titles, which were the biggest in size. But even there it comes down to its make-up as seen with the Star Walk app, which went from 122MB to 153MB.

Sizing up
Looking at the iPad apps currently on top of the App Store, they would not come close to becoming 500MB, or even 1GB monsters--even if you were to quintuple their size.

Out of the top 25 iPad apps, 20 are not made by Apple and run the gamut from 1MB, all the way up to 565MB. However most are about 20 to 50MB range, which is big enough to be downloaded over 3G and 4G connections under Apple's restrictions. That includes Angry Birds and its sibling Angry Birds: Seasons, which come in at 14 MB and 15.5MB respectively.

Rovio's Angry Birds may be a big app, but not in size. Seen here, the "Rio" edition weighs in at just a hair more than 19MB.
Rovio's Angry Birds may be a big app, but not in size. Seen here, the "Rio" edition weighs in at just a hair more than 19MB. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

So what do some of the biggest, popular apps have in common? Lots and lots of media. The 565MB behemoth, which has not yet been updated for Apple's upcoming iPad Retina Display, is Where's Waldo, a game that has you zooming in and out of high-resolution image files and will reward you with a video clip when you're finished. Similarly, Fancy Pants, a 268MB app comes with about 40MB worth of music and myriad level files that weigh in at megabytes a piece.

In other apps, the size of this media can be more obvious, like in Grand Theft Auto III--a very full-featured 462.3 MB game that's been ported from home consoles--which has its own radio stations, opening movie, and voice introductions for each mission. Short of the opening clip, these are all things that wouldn't need updating for the screen.

The universal dilemma
Once again, how much of an impact all this will have on iOS device owners depends on the app and how developers choose to go about updating. Though more than anything, any app that undergoes a big size increase is going to be more noticeable if it's universal--apps that have been designed to work on all iOS devices and thus carry things like specialized art for the differing device sizes.

As early reviews have already pointed out, some of the biggest impact will be on iPhone and first and second-generation iPad owners who cannot take advantage of the extra resolution but are paying for it the amount of space they're giving up for apps that include those extra files anyway. That's quite literally going to be a bigger deal for users who opt for, or already own entry-level, 16GB devices--be it a phone or tablet.

Many developers already choose to split the versions of their games separately. But for those who don't it's been a big convenience to end users, and often times a bargain for paid apps since you don't have to buy them twice. That's something developers may now begin to rethink if they want to keep sizes down and that Apple is no doubt keeping a close eye on ahead of it's next model.