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MacBook Pro Retina

Why the MacBook Pro Retina display is overkill

Posted on 12 Oct 2012 at 11:08

Paul Ockenden explains why you simply don't need all the pixels in the MacBook Pro's Retina display

One of my presents to myself this year was a MacBook Pro with Retina display.

What’s really special about this machine is the exceptionally high 2,880 x 1,800 pixel resolution of its IPS screen, which truly is a marvel. For me, it’s all about packing more onto the screen rather than simply showing the same amount of detail but with sharper text. Yes, text is sharp – sharper than any other laptop – yet after using the MacBook Pro for a few hours and then slipping back to my Sony to write this (1,366 x 768 pixels on an 11in display), I can’t say the older machine looks particularly blurry.

We’re getting into the realm of Top Trumps marketing here

I don’t suddenly find myself unable to look at lower-resolution screens, nor do they start to feel like second-class displays. Maybe that’s a result of my eyesight; like most of the UK population, I don’t have perfect vision, so to some extent higher-resolution screens are wasted on me.

Someone with 20/20 vision – known as 6/6 vision in metric – is able to read the third line from the bottom of an opticians’ sight chart at a distance of 6m. The letters on this line subtend five minutes of arc at your eye, with each stroke making up their body subtending only one minute, or 0.0167 degrees. Applying basic maths, you can show that the minimum spacing between two visibly distinct pixels is given by d tan (0.0167), where d is the distance to the screen.

Assuming the screen is 60cm away from your eye, you’re looking at a resolving power of 0.175mm. This means even your 20/20 eye will be able to distinguish no more than 5.7 pixels per millimetre, or 145 pixels per inch. The Retina display on the MacBook Pro has 220 pixels per inch, so at normal viewing distances its screen goes way beyond what anyone with reasonably good eyesight can resolve. In fact, I’d stick my neck out and say that it actually goes beyond what’s really needed; we’re getting into the realm of Top Trumps marketing here.

This approach isn’t limited to display technology, either. In all areas, companies are pushing features that go way beyond what’s actually needed and persuading customers bigger numbers are better.

Megapixel counts in compact and smartphone cameras, for example, are pointlessly high – not to mention the number of blades in a Gillette razor. There’s no denying that the Retina display is stunning, and if you put your face really close to it you can see the incredible detail it provides, but at typical viewing distances with normal eyesight, it’s overkill.

Don’t think that I’m putting down the new MacBook Pro, though: far from it. Even if you ignore its screen, it’s still a stunning machine. The top-specified model may cost almost three grand, but there’s little else on the market that can touch it. Last time I looked at Lenovo laptops, for example, the biggest SSD available was 160GB, yet my MacBook has 768GB. Like all high-end Macs, it looks beautiful too – not only aesthetically, but also from an engineering point of view. Some people sneer at Apple’s taste for "shiny" design (I often do myself), but when you have a unibody Mac in your hands, you realise that it’s on a different level to the plastic-fantastic machines in your local PC emporium. There are no wobbly hinges, loose flaps or distorting speakers, and when you close it the lid and base align perfectly (as indeed they should for three grand).

I don’t want to get into the incredibly boring Windows versus Mac argument here, except to say that if you load up Windows via Boot Camp and then use Parallels to boot this as a virtual machine in Coherence mode, you can still run all your normal Windows software from within OS X. The applications appear within a normal OS X window, alongside your Mac software.

That really is the best of both worlds, especially if you have any essential legacy applications. However, nowadays most Windows software is either directly available for the Mac, or has perfectly functional (and sometimes even better) OS X equivalents. And after the launch of Apple’s Mac App Store last year, OS X applications are now available quickly, easily and often at very keen prices.

It also isn’t uncommon for companies to offer bundles of Mac software at a discount. These can include big names; I picked up a copy of Parallels 7, for example – which costs £65 from the Apple website – in a bundle that cost only $49 (around £32) and also included several other useful apps.

I do find it a shame that, although it’s simple to run Windows software from within OS X, Apple doesn’t make it easy to do the reverse. In fact, it’s a real pain – and probably a breach of the licensing terms – to run OS X from within Windows. However, it is possible; just Google "Hackintosh" if you’re interested.

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User comments

Parallels

Before any smart Alec points it out, the column mentions Parallels 7, but of course between writing and publication we're now up to version 8. Got a free upgrade though, which was nice.

By PaulOckenden on 12 Oct 2012

Last time I looked at Lenovo laptops they had proper keyboards!

Or maybe it's just me who can't stand these isolation keyboards. Damn Sony for starting it all!

By TheHonestTruth on 12 Oct 2012

£3,000 it ought to be good then!

I'm pleased that at least some of PC Pro's staff seem to be able to do a bit of objective analysis of Apple's kit.

I was roundly slagged by all and sundry for 'dismissing' Retina as largely a marketing gimmick, but opinion is shifting. On more sober reflection, it's pretty clear that while Retina is very impressive, it doesn't generally bring anything that important to the party.

Increased pixel-density is sure to become the 'norm' for PC displays, for the simple reason that 4k TVs are just around the corner, and so the technologies will become commonplace.

As to the Macbook itself, the 'top' model should be pretty damned good at £3k a pop. What would be the point, in the present market, of Lenovo or Samsung trying to compete at this price point? Just as nobody bought the VW Phaeton for the price of a Roller, so none will buy a 'Luxury' Samsung at Apple prices.....

By wittgenfrog on 13 Oct 2012

pixels

Not having seen the retina display myself I can only offer a theoretical point about Paul's analysis.
The pixel resolution of most of the retina display is 1400x900, maybe increasing when rendering graphics. That means it should be the same as many other laptop screen resolutions. If it looks better then it is because there are 4 pixels to play with where there is normally only one. This seems like a different approach to displaying desktops, which might improve quality.

By pictonic on 13 Oct 2012

pixels

Not having seen the retina display myself I can only offer a theoretical point about Paul's analysis.
The pixel resolution of most of the retina display is 1400x900, maybe increasing when rendering graphics. That means it should be the same as many other laptop screen resolutions. If it looks better then it is because there are 4 pixels to play with where there is normally only one. This seems like a different approach to displaying desktops, which might improve quality.

By pictonic on 13 Oct 2012

@pictonic

The pixel density of the retina display isn't 1400x900. It's 2800x1800. The lower resolution is achieved by scaling, and luckily/conveniently 1400x900 is an exact divisor, so there's not so much blurring.

The difference is where you have Retina aware applications (or indeed websites), as these always use the full 2800 x 1800 resolution.

By PaulOckenden on 13 Oct 2012

same snake oil with audio

i doubt anyone can really hear the difference between a 44.1 KHz / 16 bit wav file and a 96 KHz / 24 bit one unless you have a million quids worth of hifi and belong to the bat family :-)

By sihaz2 on 15 Oct 2012

Higher res is good.

I disagree - even on my 1920x1200 display, I sometimes have text that is physically 'big' enough to be read, but there aren't enough pixels to write the letter properly, making it hard to identify. A high res screen makes smallprint possible. I don't think we'll need to keep increasing it much further, but a 2880 display sounds good to me.

By ChrisH on 16 Oct 2012

@ChrisH

I totally agree that higher resolution is good, but there is a limit, and that limit is your eyesight.

There's no point in packing the pixels so close that you have to make nose-prints on the screen before you can see their detail!

By PaulOckenden on 16 Oct 2012

@Paul

Totally agree there's a limit, and we're probably there or there abouts now, so I hope monitors don't go the way of digital cameras and their megapixels-for-advertising at the expense of everything else. But in my years as a developer with cluttered IDEs and a million windows, I've never wished for less pixels, and often wished for more.

Give me a monitor with the quality and pixel density of my Galaxy S2 and I'll be a happy boy. :)

By ChrisH on 16 Oct 2012

Very useful for photographers

The retina display gets you a lot closer to a decent paper print than any other commercial display.

Thus the Macbook is an excellent tool for photographers who can now use a laptop when shooting to more easily 'proof' their work/

By qpw3141 on 17 Oct 2012

@qpw3134

Quite right, I'm pretty sure there are some circumstances where 'Retina' makes for a significant improvement over a 'normal' display.

However Apple aren't targeting various niches, they're strongly suggesting that BECAUSE Retina might be a boon for (say) pro photographers, its a must for the rest of us too.

Standard 'halo' marketing schtick: MY photos aren't just snaps (like all those poor people) mine are 'art' like a professional's that's why I have a Retina display....

By wittgenfrog on 17 Oct 2012

Love it

I was a long time Apple sceptic, but now I have one of nearly everything I'm sorry to say. My favourite of the lot, until recently ipad 3, now... Retina Macbook. My eyesight isn't 20:20 but its the best laptop I've every had (admittedly the most expensive too). I've got it running Windows 8 and Office 2013 in Parallels 8 and its still faster than a year old Ultrabook. That Ultrabook was touted as one of the best but it has an awful screen, even worse keyboard, the 128Gb SSD is slow and too small. Office 2013 (apart from Access for some reason) looks great in Parallels. So OK it is probably overkill and if so I Love It

By adwoodrow on 22 Oct 2012

"when you have a unibody Mac in your hands, you realise that it’s on a different level to the plastic-fantastic machines in your local PC emporium. There are no wobbly hinges, loose flaps or distorting speakers, and when you close it the lid and base align perfectly (as indeed they should for three grand)."

All of this applies to the top Thinkpads and Vaios too.

By gavmeister on 8 Nov 2012

@gavmeister

As the owner of top end Vaios and Thinkpads too (check my previous columns) I beg to disagree. The unibody MBPs are in a different league.

Not that I think they are perfect (as you'll see from the column above), but the case engineering is hard to fault.

By PaulOckenden on 8 Nov 2012

your analysis is a little silly

Whether the retina display is overkill or not is certainly something that people may differ on. But it is also something that your mathy argumentation does not speak to at all. You attempt to demonstrate with math that the retina display goes "beyond what the normal eye can resolve." Yet anyone can see the same sharper text that you admittedly do. The proof is in the pudding, and your mathy reasoning can't possibly be correct.

By prwoiej on 15 Nov 2013

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

Read more More by Paul Ockenden

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