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Will Retina MacBook Pro displays be reasonable or radical resolution-wise?

Sections: Features, Laptops, MacBook Pro, Opinions and Editorials

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If you’re a regular reader, you may remember I was underwhelmed by the new iPad with a Retina display as its marquee feature when the device debuted back in March. I haven’t subsequently changed my opinion, so it should be no surprise that I’m finding myself less than enchanted by the rumored prospect of Apple’s next-generation MacBook Pros also being Retina-ized. However, I’m keeping an open mind, and will not likely find Retina-ization of the MacBook Pro nearly as objectionable as I have with the iPad as long as it doesn’t turn out to become a similar resource-sucking doubling of screen resolution and quadrupling of pixel count, which it arguably doesn’t need to.

How so? First, let me clarify, I’ve got nothing against ultra-high resolution displays per se. What I object to is their appetite for computing power and system resources that could otherwise support better performance of tasks done on the computer. For example, the New iPad—despite having a nearly 70 percent larger battery than the iPad 2 (11,666 mAH vs. 6,944 mAH) that takes commensurately longer to charge and twice the number of graphics processor cores—is no faster and in some contexts actually slower and has shorter battery runtime than the iPad 2, as well as being heavier, thicker and hotter-running. All of this is in support of what essentially amounts to eye-candy, or at best engineering overkill. Beyond the aesthetics of screen content rendering and the ability to display more stuff on-screen simultaneously, ultra high resolution display panels offer few practical or functional benefits. In the case of the new iPhone, there is also the unfortunate matter of apps optimized to support Retina display resolution being much bigger, clogging bandwidth and always-at-a-premium SSD storage capacity.

However, with the MacBooks, it need not be that radical a difference because, at least by some formulas for calculating what qualifies as “Retina” quality resolution, it won’t take a radical increase in resolution and pixel density to put them over the threshold.

Understand that “Retina” in this context is an Apple marketing term rather than a clearly defined technical standard, although it isn’t bereft of some objective meaning. TUAW’s Richard Haywood has sweated the pertinent math and come up with some provisional definitions, noting that one can take some typical viewing distances for different Apple devices, combine it with the screen size and resolution, and calculate how closely the screen comes to his definition of a Retina display. A Google spreadsheet posted here explains how he arrived at his calculated metrics and shows that Apple’s definition of Retina display aligns quite closely with his mathematic derivation, and that many current Mac displays are a lot closer to Retina display levels than might have been your impression. Consequently, Gaywood observes that that in order to achieve (or even handily exceed) his  mathematical threshold for Retina display quality Apple would not need to anywhere nearly double resolutions on most of its displays, pointing out that Apple’s current 15-inch MacBook Pro with the optional high-resolution display is already 90 percent there, and that the 17-inch Pro already surpasses (101%) the minimum threshold for “Retina” resolution. Even the 13-inch MacBook Pro is in shouting distance (82%) of Retina quality, and the standard-res 15-inch MacBook Pro not radically short of it at 77 percent.

Cult of Mac’s John Brownlee has pointed out that in order to qualify Apple laptop displays as Retina-grade across the board, the following screen resolutions would do the trick:

  • 11.6″ MacBook Air – 1680 x 1050 – 109%
  • 13.3″ MacBook Air – 1920 x 1200 – 110%
  • 15.4″ MacBook Pro – 1920 x 1200 – 102%

For more context, the iPhone 4S display is only 105% of the calculated minimum Retina spec. So if we’re talking a maximum 20 to 25 percent increase in pixel count for MacBook Pro displays, that should be eminently doable without introducing serious battery charge life and processor power demand issues. I could semi-enthusiastically embrace that.

On the other hand, I’ll definitely be offside with the change should it turn out that MacBook Retina displays will have double the screen resolution (say 2,880 x 1800 pixels vs. the current 15-inch MacBook Pro’s 1,440 x 900-pixel display) with 4x the pixel count of the preceding models’ standard panels, as is the case with the new iPad, then demand on battery and computing resources would be substantial and impose a penalty on the new machines’ performance progress.

Radically high resolution displays in MacBooks would amount to regression, rather than progress. Of course, not everyone will agree, I suspect.

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