Can You Live Without a Retina Display?

April 27th, 2011

In recent years, there have been rumors that Apple has been experimenting with resolution independence in Mac OS X. This would mean that images and text would scale to whatever screen size and/or resolution your Mac is using without degrading image quality. Of course doing such a thing in the print medium is old news. Adobe’s PostScript offered device independence, meaning that your documents would look their best regardless of the capabilities of the output device. It wouldn’t matter if it was a cheap inkjet printer, or a super-expensive output device with the maximum resolution the state of the art allows.

In passing, Mac OS X uses PDF technology to display the clearest text and pictures possible.

With the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, the pixels that make up the image are so tiny that, at a normal viewing distance, they seem to vanish. The screen displays text that seems to pop out at you, akin to a printed page. But providing similar capabilities in a larger screen presents one serious obstacle, and that’s the cost of the raw materials. The difference may be modest at 3.5 inches, but might become excessive at 9.7 inches, the iPad’s display size, and way beyond affordability for larger screens. If Apple wants to keep the same retail prices, they have to make killer deals from the LCD makers, or sacrifice profits.

The speculation about the arrival of a Retina Display on a Mac has been fueled by the alleged appearance of icons at twice the usual resolution in the preview versions of Mac OS X Lion that developers have been working on in recent weeks. If the icons are really present, clearly Apple has a purpose in mind behind their development. Or maybe it’s just part of the test process, and the standard icons will be back by the time Lion is released.

But imagine if you were able to buy a Mac with twice the resolution of the current models? Certainly you’d want to keep the physical size of the images and text the same as they are now, for otherwise you’d have to use a magnifying glass to read anything. Or at least those of us who aren’t as young as we used to be.

Certainly, when you consider the possibilities of a Retina Display on a 17-inch MacBook Pro, or 27-inch iMac, you’ll see where that level of quality actually make not make a whole lot of sense for most people, particularly if such enhancements come at a price. Unless you do lots of close-up, detail work, it may be largely a non-issue. At a normal viewing distance of one or two feet, the improvement may not be that visible, except for extremely small text.

Now I’m not being a downer on advanced technology, and I rather suspect that, once I have a 27-inch iMac with Retina Display, I’ll never go back. At the same time, the value of that feature in the real word is mostly hype. It’ll give Apple bragging rights for a while, and I agree there are some forms of work where it will demonstrate an advantage. Certainly the ability to see content on the screen that perfectly matches the crispness of the printed page, assuming lots of people care that  much about print anymore, presents a huge advantage. Even then, page sizes generally tend to be smaller than the real thing, because of the drive to pack more pixels on the screen. The letter-sized page stopped being letter sized long ago without scaling your documents to 150% or thereabouts.

Now adding more pixels has been part and parcel of the consumer electronics industry too. Consider high definition TVs. The best you get, 1080p, is actually more than any TV station displays (though cable and satellite systems do offer it on Pay-Per-View). You get that resolution as a matter of course on a Blu-ray DVD. Truth to tell, though, even with a 50-inch flat panel set, you probably won’t see much of a difference at a normal viewing distance of eight to ten feet. But close up, it’s fabulous.

I rather suspect a Retina Display — or something close to that level — will arrive on the iPad and regular Macs one of these days. As I said, it all depends on the availability of high-resolution flat panels at a price that makes sense. That’ll happen once technology and production yields improve, and certainly if Apple tosses a few billion dollars at the problem by signing orders with some of the display builders, you’ll see it happen even faster.

As with the iPhone’s Retina Display, Apple will probably get them first. It’ll be a while before the rest of the PC industry falls in line. Or maybe they won’t care. I mean, it’s not as if you’re seeing Android-based smartphones, or models using other mobile operating systems, boasting of similarly sharp screens.

Indeed, most of Apple’s own ads for the iPhone don’t play up the display advantages. You continue to discover how the iPhone enriches your digital lifestyle, rather than the specs of the raw ingredients. But it’s still neat to have shaper pictures.

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One Response to “Can You Live Without a Retina Display?”

  1. Kaleberg says:

    I have an iPod Touch with a retina display and I mainly notice the difference when looking at scanned documents. The quality was so good I digitized an old paperback I had and was able to read it just fine, one page at a time in Good Reader. I had expected to have to enlarge and rotate the text, but with the retina display I might have to hold the display a tad closer than for looking at the weather summary, but all the text was perfectly readable.

    I don’t think a lot of people are planning to do this, but more and more people are grabbing PDF papers, reports, magazines and books. The retina display makes them a lot easier to read without fussing around with magnification and scrolling.

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