Why a Retina display on a MacBook could be a bad idea

One of the most persistent rumours about possible upcoming new Apple MacBook laptops (aside from a 15-inch MacBook Air or the end of the 17-inch MacBook Pro) is that they will include upgraded high-resolution Retina displays, like those on the iPhone 4/4S and the third-generation iPad.

A simulated 2560x1600 non-HiDPI screenshot of your favourite website on a 15-inch MacBook Pro (although a Retina MacBook would probably not look like that).
(Credit: Dan Ackerman)

But would this fairly significant change be worth it? If Apple breaks from the laptop norm (for example, by upgrading the 15-inch MacBook Pro's 1440x900-pixel display to a purported 2560x1600 pixels), I'd have concerns about battery life, system size and weight from a potentially larger battery, and even price, as higher-resolution panels cost US$100 more, by some estimates. And consumers could be confused if Apple breaks a long-standing tradition of how laptop screen sizes and screen resolutions relate.

The current high-end resolution for laptops is 1920x1080 pixels, which we sometimes refer to as full HD or 1080p — that's the same as Blu-ray HD video. On a 17-inch desktop-replacement laptop, it's great, and it mostly works on a 15-inch laptop, as well. The handful of 13-inch laptops with 1080p screens we've seen are hard to read. For even higher resolutions, Apple would have to have a workaround for this. The most likely way that a Retina MacBook would work would be using HiDPI. My colleagues Josh Lowensohn and Brooke Crothers have explained:

If Apple bumps up the resolutions on these displays, and keeps them the same size, it has to treat pixels differently using a special mode called HiDPI. The feature understands that there are more pixels, but that the scale of the display is the same. Apple added the feature to its OS X 10.7 software last year, but it isn't readily available to users. Some third-party software, including the recently updated Air Display app for iOS, have unlocked it so that users can try it out on their third-generation iPad.

Most MacBooks are already outside of the laptop-resolution mainstream, with 16:10 screens on everything except the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is the company's only 16:9 laptop. As these are some of the only 16:10 laptops left, some kind of change wouldn't be surprising.

Even if Apple trades up to a much higher resolution than any other laptop, but still manages to keep things readable, that would mean resolution and screen size alone would no longer give you a fixed idea of what content (websites, games, photos, etc) would look like on a laptop screen. This could make comparison shopping confusing, and it would be another example of different computer manufacturers using different standards.

For example, today I could easily tell someone shopping for a laptop that a good thing to look for in a premium 13-inch laptop is a screen resolution of 1600x900. In the future, would I have to suggest 1600x900 if a laptop is from one list of PC makers with one type of DPI technology, and a second set of recommended resolutions for brands that use different DPI settings? Good luck fitting all of that on the shelf tag at a brick-and-mortar retailer.

On top of that, as we saw with the third-gen iPad, the implications for battery life (and therefore battery size) are real, which is especially important in the slim MacBook Air models. A Retina display would likely need more power, which would lead to either a bigger battery (and thicker chassis) or a shorter battery life — or both. The MacBook Air is near perfect as is. Mess with the size, weight or battery life at your own peril.

Of course, crisper text and sharper images is not a bad thing, and if it gives consumers a notably better overall experience, that could mitigate my concerns. But, I have to admit, in many years of reviewing laptops, no shopper has ever told me they wanted a screen resolution higher than 1920x1080.

Do you think new MacBook laptops need a 2560x1600-pixel display? Would it be worth less battery, more weight or a higher price? Post your opinion in the comments section below.


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eDDie posted a comment   

Can you imagine trying to play a high end game at full resolution? HAHAHA what games would even support it, and what graphics cards would support it and bootcamp with windows would just end because your start button would be a dot in the corner.
Unless the new Macbook Pro has an 8 core processor, with a whole new graphics card GOOD LUCK I SAY.
But then again, if a phone can do it . . .
Phones are reaching resolution of laptops ith 1280 by 720 screen resolutions and their battery last an entire day (well some hope anyway)


Im Batman posted a comment   

battery life is an obvious concern, but Apple always ensure they maintain these soft metrics.

Interesting that you draw the conclusion of shrinking 1080p displays that the 13 inch are hard to read... what was your take on the new iPads display and readability, this is a small display at a high res?

I think the displays resolution doesn't really need to go beyond 1080... mainly due to content and that internet content is intended for this limit.

The benefits of battery life, weight and price are far better than just finer pixels. The device would require a powerful graphics card to power it, and i would prefer to have a game being played at a higher frame rate with all the trimings.


CraigC4 posted a comment   

Why do you think things would get smaller? When programming you do not specify fonts in pixels you define it as point size (more pixels and the font is crisper - not smaller). Personally I like my text very crisp -- it especially makes it easier to read other languages (Thai or Chinese). I can't wait until this upgrade is made available. Have you looked at the text on iPhone 4 vs iPhone 3GS - I had a hard time reading Thai on my iPhone 3GS because of the lack of crispness in the text.


MattF5 posted a comment   

I mostly agree with this. Not only would we have to worry about higher pricing due to the increased backlighting and battery necessary, but the specs of the device will have to be much higher to handle (with similar efficiency) the drastically higher number of pixels. And to what gain? Yes, on the iPhone and iPad the Retina display is wonderful, but those are used much closer to the eyes than laptops and desktops are. Do we really need these ridiculously high densities at this stage in technological development?

I for one would be completely content with a 1920x1200 or 1920x1080 15-inch.

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