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.