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?


Add Yours
  • Apple have been encouraging Mac OS developers to use scale factor agnostic code and resources like vector graphics for a while now. In Lion it is possible to do and many apps would take little modification to update, similar to how it was with the iPhone.

    As for a hardware point of view, the graphics cards shipping in the Macs at the moment can’t output that resolution. This could possibly be rectified with a driver update, but I highly doubt it, I suspect that it is a hardware level change that is required.

    However, as Thunderbolt is based on PCI-E, the same technology used to link graphics cards to the rest of the components of the computer, it would be possible for Apple to ship monitors that included inside them a graphics card capable of running the display at full resolution. This would cost a lot to do at the moment, but it would take processing load off the main computer and mean current generation computers would be compatible.

    • Every single mac that have been shipped for the last 6 years can output that resolution.

      iMac can display more than 3 times that resolution, an Macbook Air can display 1.5 times that resolution, a MBP can display 2 times that resolution…..

      I have no idea why you are stating that the graphics in the Macs cant output that resolution, a MBA can easily drive a thunderbolt display that have a resolution of 2560×1440 + its internal display at the same time, that would be enough to output a retina MBA…..

      The only configuration that cant be done is a MBA connected to a fictional retina resolutioned Apple Thunderbolt display.

    • My 2008-model MacBook is only 1200×800 (13″). Twice that is 2400×1600, which doesn’t seem too far out of the realm of possibility. The 17″ model of the current MBPs has a native resolution of 1920 by 1200 already.

      It would require a significant GPU upgrade, though. And I suspect that the largest price barrier is the LCD itself. A pixel density like that can’t come cheap. Apple hasn’t even rolled out retina graphics to the iPad line yet.

  • Wouldn’t it make more sense if the UI bits were made of vector art rather than pixels? Obviously, this is a change for developers, and it would take some time to get everything up to speed, but it solves the problem without a second thought. Frankly, I find it a bit archaic that in 2012 we still need several dozen .png files to describe the interface. Shouldn’t it just be data describing the rectangles, etc.?

    • Apple has been encouraging the use of vector graphics since at least Snow Leopard. They’ve already been laying the groundwork.

  • Developing for multiple sizes is a PITA. In regard to vector files: Microsoft has tried this and did you see it succeed?

    • No, because Microsoft had 10,000+ PCs they still had to support.

  • The author of this article doesnt seem to know how a retina display works…..

    “toss them onto a retina screen, it’s like taking a small image and stretching it out”

    No its not, for that to be true the physical dimensions have to change, but since the physical dimensions of the screen on both 3Gs and iPhone 4 is the same, the image will look the same on both.

    The reason your image in the article looks jagged and shitty is because YOU blow it up to double the size which ofcourse makes it shitty, look at both graphics on a 3Gs and an iPhone 4 and they will look the same.

    Just because iPhone 4 can use higher resolution and make the apps look prettier doesnt mean that existing graphics will look more crappier……

    For old graphics a retina display uses 4 pixels instead of 1 pixel on the 3Gs, but 4 pixels on the retina display have the same physical dimensions as 1 pixel on the 3Gs so they will look identical on both phones……..

    • It’s really just a simile (hence the “like”) comment. The idea is similar, you’re stretching an image with fewer pixels over an area with more pixels. The physical dimensions may be the same but there’s simply not enough data in the old image to be represented in a visually pleasing way on the higher ppi screen.

    • And no, they absolutely don’t look the same. Otherwise app developers wouldn’t have had to update their apps… You can even tell from the icons on your home screen which have a lower resolution. They’re the same physical size on the screen, but the older icons look horrible.

      • The developers updated their apps to look *better* on retina than it did on 3GS, not because it suddenly started looking *worse* than 3GS.

        The reason the old icons look horrible is contrast — if I take my 3GS and put it next to my partner’s 4, my entire screen looks just as horrible as an old low-res icon.

      • They look horrible COMPARED to the retina icons. They do not look any worse than they do when they were on a non-retina screen.

        In fact the low-res icons on a retina screen probably looks BETTER than a low-res icon on a 3GS screen because the screen color and contrast is better on the retina display, but only marginally. Low-res icons for all intents and purposes look THE SAME on a 3gs and a 4/4s.

      • I still don’t buy it. If I look at the second app shown above on my first-gen iPod Touch the text doesn’t seem distorted. Then I hop over to my iPhone 4 and it looks pretty nasty.

  • Retina is the future and in long term a good alternative to the long developer dream of screen resolution independence. It’s easy and double resolution gives us the safety that everything looks good.

  • If they quadruple the resolution (in my dreams) so that there’s 4 pixels for every pixel now, things will work :D

    • Actually, what is being referred to as “double resolution” here really is replacing every pixel with four pixels. One pixel gets converted to a 2×2 square of pixels.

  • I just don’t see the need. The high resolution is great on a tiny screen: since the screen is so small, you tend to get real close to make things “bigger,” and when you do that, you need more pixels to keep the display clear.

    How often does that happen on a desktop or laptop display? When you consider the ability to zoom in on anything any time with the built-in zoom of Mac OS, you can pretty much say that it is never necessary to get too close to the display in order to see something clearly.

    I’m usually about 18-24 inches from my 133 ppi MacBook Pro display. All the extra resolution of a retina display would mostly be wasted on me, as there is no way I would detect the benefits from so far away.

    High resolution is nice, and on a small display it’s necessary, but a larger display just doesn’t need as high of a resolution to keep things looking crisp.

    I think a retina display Mac would be neat, but not something I would waste money on. As long as it’s as cheap as the current displays, fine. Just don’t raise the price for something overwhelmingly useless.

  • You would be able to see a difference. But with older applications, i don’t think it would be a big deal, as it would just look as they do now. As I understood it, the pixels are just quarter-size, allowing the resolution to double in width and height. So if the design doesn’t exist for retina, it may display it as it did before. But it just might look pixely compared to the retina apps.

    I dunno, I think it’s a great move in the right direction. As with all things, change is not usually adopted over-night across all markets. Everything has a transition.