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  • The Eternal Search for a Retina Display

    July 4th, 2012

    There’s renewed speculation this week that Apple is getting ready to release a new iMac in the near future. Some suggest this month, in time for the release of Mountain Lion, while others expect it to happen this fall, or perhaps in August.

    Regardless of when the next iMac appears, the larger question is whether Apple might consider using a Retina display on at least one of the configurations. Maybe, but I’m going to just say no. Here’s why:

    As you probably know, the Macbook Pro with Retina display costs a lot to build. Not just the high cost of solid state drives, but the magnificent flat panel with a native resolution of 2880×1800 pixels. According to published reports, particularly some gaming-related tests where they max out the display settings, the hardware is pushing pixels at the limits of current technology. That’s for 2880×1800 pixels.

    Today’s 27-inch iMac has a native resolution of 2460×1440 pixels, which isn’t too shabby, and only slightly less that the fancy MacBook Pro with Retina display, though distributed on a much larger screen. Regardless, putting a Retina display on an iMac would mean a resolution of 4920×2880. Are flat panels of that pixel density even available in quantity? What about the graphics hardware sufficient to deliver smooth performance for your apps, videos, and particularly games?

    But even if the graphics chips are available — and I don’t know that they are — what about the cost of the display itself? Apple is said to be paying more than $100 higher for those higher resolution displays in 15.4-inch trim. The costs of flat panels don’t scale up precisely, but even if it cost $250 to $300 extra to build one into an iMac, and I expect that’s low-balling the price, would it deliver enough value to drive sales? Obviously, Apple would have to charge more for such a model — and again there is the question about the capability of graphics hardware.

    My theory, such as it is, goes this way: If Apple can affordably deliver a 27-inch iMac with Retina display, it will be strictly an optional configuration. In a sense, it would be a technological experiment to see if it can become as popular as the high-resolution display on a MacBook Pro. It would also give Apple another foot in the door towards convincing display suppliers to build out their production lines.

    In the end, I do believe Apple wants to convert all remaining MacBooks and the iMac to a Retina display. But technology has to play catch up, and it may take a year or two for the costs of parts to come down sufficiently to make it feasible. And let’s not forget production yields. But that’s all about supply chain minutiae that you’ll only read rumors about. It’s not as if Apple is going to be terribly forthcoming on such matters, except, perhaps, to explain the possible late delivery of a new product.

    My other expectations for a 2012 iMac are relatively modest. Apple will use Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips, probably sticking with quad-core across the entire model lineup. There will be enhanced graphics, perhaps from NVIDIA, since Apple is using their parts for MacBook Pros. I would also expect that the new iMac will have an optical drive, since there’s no compelling reason to remove it from a desktop computer where size considerations aren’t quite as severe.

    At the same time, it’s possible the iMac’s form factor will be thinned somewhat, with a smarter cooling system that perhaps takes a few cues from the one in the MacBook Pro with Retina display. That means it’ll run cooler under heavy load.

    Drive configurations may be similar to the current lineup, with the  SSD offered as an optional configuration, along with a traditional hard drive as a second storage device. But it would be nice if Apple made it easier for end users to take apart the thing and install any drives they want. Being restricted to special orders, or sending it off to a third-party assembler, doesn’t really make sense. Here Apple could do the right thing and make the iMac a more credible replacement for a Mac Pro at the low end. That, and Thunderbolt, will continue to reduce the need for a full-sized workstation except for specialty houses that do such things as mathematics or movie special effects work.

    I suppose Apple could also take the easy way out, and simply update the current form factor with new drives, processors and graphics chips. As with the standard MacBook Pro, a 2012 iMac of this sort would be a worthy upgrade. But you’d think Apple would have done that by now. That the next iMac is still in the rumor stage may mean there are mere serious changes afoot.

    Regardless, as the owner of a late 2009 iMac that is beginning to get a bit long in the tooth, I will be very curious to see what changes Apple delivers to the next model. Looking at the product’s 14-year development path, I also remember the very first 1998 Bondi Blue iMac, which was strictly an entry-level computer. How times have changed. And, by the way, amid reports that supplies of existing iMacs are drying up at various dealers, it may well be that the refresh is coming sooner rather than later.



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