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What the MacBook Retina display means for you

How the higher resolution affects your work and the quality of the display

When Apple announced the MacBook Pro with Retina display, a big focus, quite rightly, was its high-resolution screen. The 15.4in display has a staggering resolution of 2,880×1,800 pixels, making it the highest-resolution screen on a laptop ever. This resolution is even higher than the highest-resolution desktop displays, which have a resolution of 2,560×1,440. While it’s easy to picture higher resolutions, the question is, what does the Retina display actually mean for you?

To start, it’s worth defining what Apple means by Retina. In simple terms, it means that you can’t distinguish between individual pixels at normal viewing distances. As such, the pixel density – measured in pixels per inch (PPI) – is the important factor in distinguishing a Retina display from a regular one. As the viewing distance changes on the device and screen size, the required pixel density for Retina changes.

So, the Apple iPhone 4s, which has a 3.5in, 640×960 screen, has a pixel density of 326ppi. This high density is required, because you hold the phone so close to your face when using it. With the new iPad, which has a 10.1in, 2,048×1,536 screen, the pixel density is 264ppi, as it’s designed to be used from further away. The new MacBook Pro with Retina display has a lower pixel density of 220ppi, as it’s designed to be used from further away again. As a comparison a standard 15.4in display with a resolution of 1,920×1,080 has a pixel density of just 147ppi.

What Retina means in practice is that text and photos look much sharper, because you can’t see individual pixels, you can’t see any jaggy lines, as you may do on lower pixel-density displays. For the best results applications have to be designed to at this kind of resolution. This means ensuring that high-resolution graphics and icons are available, as simply blowing up existing graphics and text loses quality and detail.

It’s hard to demonstrate the differences here, as you’re most likely not viewing this website on a Retina display, but you can see from our example shots below the differences between text and icons viewed on a Retina display and those simply increased in size from a MacBook Air with a 1,366×768 display.

Macbook Retina icon comparison
On the MacBook Pro with Retina display, the App Store icon is much sharper and clearer; blowing the MacBook Air icon up to the same size shows the lower resolution.

Macbook Retina text comparison
On the MacBook Pro with Retina display, text is a lot sharper and clearer than on the MacBook Air.

Having a higher resolution also introduces other benefits, as we’ll show with some mock-ups of what you can expect to see on the screen. For starters, the 16:10 aspect ratio gives you a bit more space at the top and bottom of the image as compared to a Full HD screen, which has a 16:9 aspect ratio. You can see this in the digital camera shots of New York below.

Macbook Retina full shot

Full HD full shot
The MacBook Pro with Retina display has slightly more display area (top), thanks to its 16:10 aspect ratio, than the Full HD image (bottom).

What’s important, though, is the detail available in the image. Taking an 800×640 crop of the main image, we can see that the Retina display has a sharper, more detailed image.

Macbook Retina 800x640 crop

Full HD 800x640 crop
The MacBook Pro with Retina display (top) has a more detailed crop than on the Full HD display (bottom)

Zooming in further to examine more detail, shows the quality of the Retina display, the Free Wi-Fi sign is clearly readable when displayed at a 1:1 pixel ratio; with a Full HD display, the Free Wi-Fi sign becomes murky and the text gets a lot harder to read.

Macbook Retina close-up detail

Full HD close up detail
Zooming into the sign, the MacBook Pro with Retina display (top) still has readable text, but the Full HD display (bottom) starts to look blurry.

In terms of what fits on the screen, too, there’s a big difference, too for Retina apps. Standard desktop apps use quad-pixel technology, so the effective resolution is 1,440×900 with staggering detail, with the result that you don’t get any more desktop space. For Retina apps, written to take advantage of the display, you get more on screen: the Retina screen has 2.5-times the resolution of a Full HD display. Working on photos, for example, you can fit a lot more of the photo on the screen, when working on a 1:1 pixel ratio. The extra resolution can also be really handy when editing Full HD videos, as there’s plenty of room around the side of the movie for toolbars, making it easier to control what’s going on.

Macbook Retina vs Full HD
Higher resolution means that the MacBook Pro with Retina display can fit a lot more on screen than with a Full HD display.

In short, the Retina display gives greater clarity and sharpness, while giving more screen space for you to work in, making applications arguably easier to use. For a lot of video or photo work, it’s a big step up over regular laptop displays.

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