When Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference this month, everyone was eager for a new iPhone. They didn’t get it; not a release, not an announcement of a later release, nothing. The closest thing was an update to the iPhone’s operating system.
The second-closest thing was the inclusion of the Retina display on the latest MacBook Pro. Although billed by Apple, like everything else they do, as “revolutionary,” the concept behind Retina displays is pretty simple: pack more pixels into a smaller area so you get sharp, crisp images and text on your screen.
Because it’s a marketing term and not a scientific one, there’s no hard and fast rule as to what makes a display good enough to be called a Retina. A rough definition might be that no one with normal vision can distinguish individual pixels at a typical viewing distance. For the iPhone, that’s 326 pixels per inch. For the new MacBook Pro laptops, pixel density can be lower because you’re usually viewing the 15-inch screen from farther away than you hold your phone; it ends up at 220 pixels per inch.
At 15 inches, measured diagonally, the MacBook Pro’s screen resolution is an impressive 2880 x 1800. For reference, the most popular screen resolution in use today is 1366 x 768, and full HD is 1920 x 1080. In fact, the horizontal resolution of the new MacBook Pro is 1.5 times full HD, and the vertical dimension is 1.667 (or one and two-thirds) times full HD.
This improvement is indeed a big leap. Displays haven’t jumped in clarity like processors have jumped in speed over the last 20 or so years. I still own — for some reason — a laptop from 1994, and comparing its 25MHz processor to my current laptop’s 2.4GHz CPU gives a sharp contrast. That’s a hundredfold increase, without even getting into multithreading and other improvements baked into modern processors. My 15-inch display, though, sports a resolution of 1280 x 800. That old laptop? 800 x 600 on its 9.5-inch screen. The pixel density is hardly different at all.
Not to say that current displays aren’t better. They can be brighter and use less energy. And at 800 x 600, that 1994 laptop could only show 16 separate colors; modern monitors routinely display “millions.” That’s more a function of the graphics controller chip, though, which has improved by the same leaps and bounds as the CPU.
There’s just been so little change in laptop displays over the years. One reason is that there simply hasn’t been the demand. Laptop displays are pretty good, and making them significantly better is expensive. Besides, with a big jump in resolution, you can fit more content on your screen, but it’s all tiny. What’s the point of sharp text if you have to squint up close to read it? Larger fonts and scaling make up for this effect by making everything you look at bigger, but what’s the point of that? Text needs to be designed for that resolution, not just blown up to size, for it to appear nice. Apple’s software does that, but other vendors need to catch up to truly support Retina displays.
For now, you’ll really see the difference in digital photos. It’s still only a 5-megapixel display, so you won’t truly see the Platonic nature of your 14-megapixel snapshots, but they’ll be closer than on another laptop, or even on your HDTV.
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