Why the MacBook Pro Retina display is overkill

12 Oct 2012
MacBook Pro Retina

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.