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June 13th 2012 12:01 pm

Retina Display for the MacBook Air: ETA and Practicality

The MacBook Pro 15" w/ Retina display was just released. The display is fantastic, but it isn't yet on Apple's more accessible notebook. The MacBook Air is an easier choice for many by being a combination of (relatively more) affordable price, great form factor, long battery life, and sufficient computing power for everyday needs. Apple will likely keep all those characteristics in the brand so the Retina display for more consumers may take a little more time.

Web and Apps

At the moment, much of the Web doesn’t look crisp on the 3rd-gen iPad's 2048x1536 screen. The distance of the user's eye and the Pro's screen can help alleviate the problem, but the 2880x1800 resolution will definitely introduce new challenges to the desktop Web. Serving Retina quality Web assets mean design and development work, greater server demand, and more weightlifting for ISPs. We may be entering 4G age, but expect resistance to change.

Apps would also be challenging. Retina display is new to the desktop app ecosystem and upgrading a desktop app for a single laptop model may not sound too lucrative to many developers at the moment. We don’t know yet how big this issue will be, but it will influence practicality, which can ultimately affect the demand for Retina PCs.

15" Screen and Pro (not wedge) Form Factor

The 15" Pro is the first PC to get a Retina display for good reasons. First is the GPU demand. Until now, Apple can’t (or won’t) fit a dedicated GPU in the 13” Pro. The 3rd-gen iPad had to jump from dual-core to quad-core graphics to accommodate the display without any advertised performance improvement. In fact, there have been reports about games performing poorly on the new iPad compared to its predecessor despite the spec bump[1].

Another hardware consideration is its ability to graciously accommodate a large battery. For the Retina display, the 3rd-gen iPad's battery is almost twice as big as its predecessor's, while simply maintaining battery life. As for the OS X counterpart, the 15” machine’s shell without the optical drive comes with a 95-watt-hour battery compared to the non-Retina variant with 77.5-watt-hour version with the same advertised battery life.

15" is also a good screen size for creative professionals who are supposed to create Retina-ready assets for the Web and apps. While not as great for consuming the Web without Retina-ready assets, creating graphics on a great screen is good enough for this market.

As for the 17", its absence can be a combination of the lack of demand for such laptop size and very high-resolution requirement to be Retina level.

Retina MacBook Air for The Average Consumer

Having said the challenges, it appears that we'd have to wait patiently for the Retina MacBook Air. The Web and app challenges can definitely be issues, but may also be somewhat negligible especially if the OS proves to give graceful fallback for non-Retina software. After all, consumers will still buy the hardware when it’s available and that will force the Web and apps to adapt. The bigger issue here might be the technical and economical constraints of manufacturing such laptops in the first place.

Apple’s difficulty with putting dedicated GPUs with Intel Core processors in smaller shells may not go away soon based on the new 13” Pro. As for battery, the 15” Retina Pro, with 7 hours advertised battery life, weighs almost twice as much as the Air 11". I don't have the numbers, but won't be surprised if the 95-watt-hour battery alone weighs close to the Air 11" with a 35-watt-hour one. However, the qualified Retina resolution for a smaller screen can be different, which would mean different battery consumption. Though we’ll also have to keep in mind that a small Air can be held closer to the user’s eye so it might demand a different PPI to qualify as Retina. Either way, the batteries on 11” or 13” Airs haven’t changed much in the past years while a significant upgrade is required to power up a Retina display to maintain the same battery life.


[1] www.theverge.com­/2012­/5­/26­/3019105­/retina­-display­-...

[2] guide­-images.ifixit.net­/igi­/gkaYTmhLeKkMN2nU.mediu...

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Some speculation: I think Apple will release a Macbook Pro 13" Retina in the near future, but I do not think Retina will come to the Macbook Air form factor because of the current need for discrete GPU & bigger battery. The MBP 13" Retina will have a form factor similar to the 15" retina, but in the 13" size. It will be smaller & lighter than the current 13" MBP but larger & heavier than the current MBA 13". I'd expect it to be released as soon as the end of the year, or as late as next year.

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You really don't think the Airs will get retina displays at all? I think it's only a matter of time before Intel's integrated graphics performance catches up with the needs of a 13" or 11" retina Air.

My guess: Late next year.
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