A Retina Mac: Hurdles Between the Dream and Reality

Ever since the release of the iPhone 4 and its beautiful 326ppi screen, we’ve been dreaming about Apple expanding its use of this impressive technology.

Are Ive and the Apple engineering team on the same page as consumers? Will we begin to see retina displays in other devices and perhaps even a Mac? More importantly, what hurdles will this transition present?

Where To Next?

The natural next step for the retina display is obvious: the iPad. To give credence to this notion, just about every rumor site on the web is making the prediction that we will indeed see a high resolution display on the iPad 3.

In fact, as recently as January 13th, sources such as Bloomberg are predicting that a “high definition,” LTE iPad 3 is set for a March release. This is enough to make you question just how much you love that iPad 2 you got for Christmas, but such is the risk of purchasing an Apple product.

To the Mac

Going from the iPhone alone, it’s hard to imagine Apple being capable of bringing a retina-like display to a Mac. The technical hurdles of producing this type of screen are significant and could easily lead to higher costs.

After all, the improvement is an impressive one. Older iPhones had a pixel density of 163ppi with a 320×480 resolution. The iPhone 4 doubled that with a 640×960 resolution and a stunning 326ppi. To bring some perspective, a Thunderbolt display is 2560×1440 with a 109ppi.


Possible specs for future high resolution Mac displays

However, once you’ve got an iPad with a high resolution display, suddenly the jump to say, the MacBook Air, doesn’t seem as significant. The iPad is currently 1024×768 with 132ppi and most people are predicting that the iPad 3 will follow the iPhone and double these numbers, resulting in a resolution of 2048×1536 and a pixel density of 264ppi.

To make the same jump (doubling), the 11-inch MacBook Air would go from 1366×768 at 135ppi to 2732×1536 at 270ppi, not so different from the proposed iPad 3 specs.

Will This Make Your Mac Look Worse?

For the sake of furthering the discussion, let’s put aside the technical and cost hurdles and assume that in the next three years Apple will begin transitioning much of its product line to high resolution displays.

What other implications does this bring about? We’ve been so caught up discussing whether or not this is possible that I haven’t seen anyone talking about the types of changes that this will require from a software perspective.

Software and web developers are used to the idea that, in general, displays are fairly low in resolution. Your screen is covered in raster images that are fine for the 135ppi or less resolution that your Mac has, but what happens when that is suddenly doubled?

We know exactly what happens because we saw it on the iPhone. Every app made for the older models suddenly looked like crap. They don’t look like crap on an iPhone 3GS because they were made for that screen, but when you toss them onto a retina screen, it’s like taking a small image and stretching it out. Here’s a screenshot from an iPhone 4 depicting the difference between an app optimized for retina graphics (top) and an older app that didn’t make the update:


iPhone Screenshots: Retina vs. Non-retina

To compensate for this problem, every developer had to completely rebuild their graphics at a larger resolution. To be sure, software and web developers are already used to this idea on a base level. Mac apps are all optimized to work on anything from an 11-inch MacBook to a 30″ cinema display and technologies like SVG enable perfect scalability.

Even still, I can’t help but wonder just how older apps are going to look on a new generation of high resolution displays. Beyond OS X, the web could present an interesting hurdle as well. We enjoy high speed page loads largely due to the fact that websites serve up low resolution images. How will these images look on a fancy new retina Mac?

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about all this, leave a comment below and jump into the conversation. Here are some questions to ponder as you respond: Will the iPad 3 have a high resolution display? If so, how long before we see a high resolution MacBook Air? If Apple does make high resolution Macs, do you think we’ll see the same types of issues that we saw when the iPhone made the jump or do these problems not apply to the Mac for some reason?