Long-form blog posts and editorials. Topics cover both personal and the world at large. 

Apple's retina display is driving the industry


Nearly a month ago at its annual World Wide Developer Conference, Apple introduce its next generation Macbook Pro. The biggest selling feature (in my opinion) of the new notebook was the absolutely gorgeous retina display. With a mind blowing resolution of 2880x1800 pixels, the 15 inch display was a wondrous assault to the human eye like never before seen in any consumer notebook device. The new Macbook Pro was the third Apple product to receive the retina display treatment following the iPhone and the iPad.

The first time I saw one for myself at an Apple store, I was immediately sold (sadly my wallet didn’t agree). This new Macbook Pro is the perfect computer for the creative type (web designer, photographer, videographer, etc) that needs something powerful and mobile for their various projects. Never mind the fact that this is the next evolution of Apple’s famed unibody notebook design, the spectacular screen alone is worth every bit the heavy price of entry ($2,199). What Apple has done with the display of this product is will change the entire mobile computing landscape for the better - and I’ll explain why. 


While the majority of consumers may not know it, but laptop displays of today are generally just terrible: incredibly dim, low contrast, atrocious viewing angles (the all too familiar LCD color shift), low resolution, and inaccurate colors. How consumers have put up with it for so long really boggles my mind. As an amateur photographer I have always wanted to edit photographs on the go with notebooks but I can’t because there isn’t a laptop on the market with a proper screen (unless I pay through the nose for a professional one) fit for photography work. The screens of the current crop of laptops (using cheap TN LCD technology) are all lackluster and passible only for Internet surfing.

There are multitude of blame to go around for the sad state of mobile computer displays. Price is of course the biggest. The average laptop price have really bottomed out in recent years as consumers generally expect to spend only around $400 - $500 for a brand new one. At those prices, manufacturers simply cannot afford (so they claim) to put quality panels in them. But what about the higher end models? Surely computer makers ought to put the best they can into their flagship products. Sadly that is not the case. Sure the screens on the more expensive models are better (though usually only in resolution), most still use cheap TN screens thus at the core its still average at best. Even Apple is guilty for this, though they have been using markedly better TN LCD in their line of notebooks than the rest of the industry. 


With the introduction of the iPhone 4, Apple started a display revolution within its own product line. The first of what they would call “retina” display was put into the phone: a 3.5 inch, 956x480 resolution LCD panel utilizing IPS technology. IPS LCD technology has been in use for a long time in really high end displays (usually for professional creative work - I use one myself for photography) and is a massive improvement over its cheaper TN counterpart. IPS offers better colors (and accurate), higher contrast, brighter screen, and 178 degrees of viewing angle.

By making this move, Apple made a big statement: consumers deserve the best technology out there, and we are the ones to deliver. Even naysayers have to agree, no single consumer technology company can dictate to the customer what they want as much as Apple. The iPhone 4’s display showed customers the beauty and importance of a quality display in a smartphone, and that created a driving force for the rest of the players in the industry. No other mobile phone manufacturer henceforth would be caught dead introducing a smart phone with a subpar screen (Samsung’s AMOLED technology being another prime example of quality displays in phones).

Apple of course did not stop with the iPhone. When they introduce its segment defining tablet device the iPad, they equip it with a high quality IPS LCD screen right off the bat. Apple could have easily saved plenty of money by offering a cheaper and inferior screen (since the iPad was the first of it kind, consumers naturally had very little expectation), but fortunately they were adamant in their principle of offering the best for the consumers and zero compromise in user experience. The screen has become the main interface in consumer electronic devices (apologies to the Blackberry crowd), and putting a low quality display in one just completely torpedos the user experience. 

Consumers benefitted hugely from Apple’s bold move - even if you did not purchase an iPad. By putting an IPS screen on their own tablet, Apple forced the hand of other manufacturers (most of them caught flat footed and was busy rushing out tablets of their own to compete with the iPad) to also put similar quality displays into their tablets. Just as it were with the iPhone, Apple has taught the consumer public to expect nothing less than quality displays on their devices.


In addition to pushing the industry into offering displays with better colors, contrast, and viewing angles with IPS technology, in parallel Apple is also leading the way in screen resolution. Even the most non tech savvy of consumers understand this simple paradigm: higher the resolution of a screen, the better it looks to the eye. Text becomes smoother, and pictures pop with sharpness and clarity. Apple understands this innately and has, since the introduction of the iPhone 4, put forth the “retina” class of displays in their devices. A retina display is so called because the pixel density of the display is so minute that the human eye is unable to discern them at normal usage distances (varies based on the type of device).

In order to achieve such lofty standards, the resolution on the screen of devices have to be increased dramatically to levels never before seen. As previously mentioned, the iPhone 4’s 956x480 resolution was twice as many pixels as most phones out on the market at the time. Same with the third generation iPad's 2048x1536 retina screen, and of course the new Macbook Pro’s 2880x1800 resolution display. 


With the introduction of the next generation Macbook Pro and its IPS retina display, Apple is once again leading the industry in a display technology revolution. No doubt the 15 inch version is only the beginning. It is clear that Apple will continue the permeation of retina display onto other notebook in their line and on the iMac desktops. Other manufacturers will have to answer the call. Long have they argued that it is price prohibitive to put IPS technology in their consumer computing products - but Apple has shown it can be done. When the purchasing power of the entire industry pushing LCD suppliers (like Apple has done to its own), price is no long an excuse.

Screen resolution will also follow suit. For the past couple of years it seems the HD standard have put a cap on the increase in resolution because consumers are satisfied with anything that is labeled “High Definition” - it has been taught to them that it is the highest standard currently possible. Of course, gamers and creative professional alike knows the importance of resolution and have long used screens that are “beyond” HD in resolution. However, the new Macbook Pro’s resolution shatters even the highest end of monitors (2560x1600 pixel 30 inch). Once consumer has seen what a retina class display of high resolution looks like, they will understand the value in it and push the entire industry forward from the downstream.