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I Want My Retina-Display MacBook Pro
Having brought seamless high resolution to phones and tablets, will Apple do the same for laptops?
Note: The following is pure speculation, based on gossip, innuendo, and vapor with no inside knowledge whatsoever. That’s what makes it fun.
When it comes to laptop manufacturers, everybody is rushing into production with machines based on Intel’s spiffy new third-generation Core “Ivy Bridge” processors. The last to do so? Reportedly, it’s Apple, which is expected to unveil a new, thinner MacBook Pro at its WWDC conference on June 11. Except people aren’t buzzing about the processor.
Earlier this week, PCMag reported on a 9to5Mac story that tipped a new, 15-inch MacBook Pro with features ranging from USB 3.0 ports to—thanks to spying for text strings in OS X beta code—Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics. Most of all, there’s supposedly a screen that sources call “jaw-dropping” and “definitely the most important Mac innovation in years.”
We can quibble about the last—I’d nominate the App Store myself—but agree on the allure of what Apple allegedly has up its sleeve: a Retina display akin to that of the iPhone 4/4S and new iPad, in which the pixels are too small or close together to be individually seen by the human eye, yielding continuous tones and smooth text and images rather than an array of dots (think of a 300 dots per inch laser printout compared to a 100 dpi fax).
When it came time to Retina-ize the iPad, Apple took its 1,024-by-768 resolution and doubled it on both the horizontal and vertical axes, yielding four times the number of pixels or quad 1,024-by-768 resolution—2,048-by-1,536. Rumor today has Apple quadrupling the 1,440-by-900 resolution of the current 15-inch MacBook Pro, for 2,880-by-1,800 pixels.
This would be the antithesis of the most unpopular numbers in portable computing, which are 1,366-by-768—the lowest-common-denominator resolution for everything from the 11.6-inch MacBook Air to, on the Windows side, 13.3-inch ultrabooks and 15.6-inch desktop replacements. I can’t count the times I’ve read (or written) about a new laptop, only to see comments and forum posts from “Ugh!” and “Bleah!” to “I stopped reading at 1,366-by-768″ and “When will vendors give us higher resolution?”
Some ultrabooks step up to 1,600-by-900, and a few 15.6- and many 17.3-inch laptops offer full 1080p (1,920-by-1,080) resolution. But even these don’t qualify as Retina displays, which pack in the pixels at densities such as 264 ppi for the new iPad compared to the 100 to 150 ppi of most portables.
The Sharper Image
Speaking as a bifocal wearer, the trouble with higher resolution is that it makes unchanged text and icons appear smaller—the reason Windows 7′s Control Panel offers to display screen elements at 100, 125, or 150 percent size, to avoid squinting. (Apple, according to 9to5Mac, will avoid such numeric complexity by offering a menu of screen settings such as big, small, and optimal.) As Digital Trends explained, Apple had to redesign iOS interface elements with four times the number of pixels when it went the Retina route.
Speaking as a technologist, the trouble with higher resolution is that it demands more graphics processing power and memory—instead of the 512MB or 1GB of GDDR5 that today’s MacBook Pros carry, get ready for as much as 4GB or even 8GB onboard. This affects everything from heat—the new iPad runs several degrees hotter than the iPad 2—to battery life, although ExtremeTech noted that the heat problem might be solved by Sharp’s exotic new indium gallium zinc oxide LCD technology. (Imagine Apple’s advertising: “The amazing Retina display. Now with IGZO.”)
Despite these challenges, however, I think Retina displays on laptops are inevitable, and I think Apple is the obvious candidate to be first. If I was betting on the concept, I’d predict the company will drop the 16:10 aspect ratio of its current 1,440-by-900 screen and join other laptop makers in adopting the 16:9 of HDTVs and 1080p. In fact, quad 1080p would be 3,840-by-2,160, which is coincidentally the max resolution of the aforementioned GeForce GT 650M.
Such a screen would be beyond gorgeous, would make the sharpest e-reader look like fuzzy newsprint. It’d probably be too much for playable frame rates with the latest games, but it’d be spectacular for image editing and desktop and Web publishing. And it’d put Apple back on a pedestal, especially while Windows laptop vendors pursue not viewing quality but the dubious appeal of touch screens for Windows 8.
That just leaves something else that’ll be jaw-dropping.
By Eric Grevstad, PCMag