The Point to Retina Display

When someone says “I don’t see the point to Retina Display” on the internet I laugh, because they are obviously right: They are blind, which is why they can’t see.

I guess maybe I’m just nerd enough to be close enough to the PC hardware industry, but the display was one of those patented bottleneck in today’s PC computing. And let me explain why.

The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. 

For the longest time, the biggest bottleneck for casual PC use was the storage–this is what the SSD revolution has freed us from. There were plenty of proponents against the SSD switch, and they have solid and factual basis to say so. But I’m not sure if they are motivated by the right reasons. A lot of people balk at the cost of it; the PC industry generally lives on the skin on its back; this is why we can score cheap laptops over the holidays at bargain prices. This is why there’s that perceived “Mac Tax” and it’s a very real thing. And until just very recently, SSDs cost a lot of money, and for fairly little space. What it trades is insanely fast read and really, really fast writes.

A decade ago I was already lamenting about both the storage and display problems, and you can see the result of that in the $2400 ultraportable I bought back in 2004 (Fujitsu P7010D, 2004). It had a very sharp and brilliant screen, and sure it was not even WXGA big, it kicked the butt of most laptop screens. I blew bigger bucks on a HDD upgrade so I get the fastest thing on the market, even if all I had was 60gb. This is in the nascent days of SATA so this laptop was still all PATA. As an concept that laptop still kicked ass; if it had a i3 and a SATA drive today it would still kick ass, but by processing standards my Galaxy Nexus is faster than that now. But it had a screen that kicked the butt off of most netbooks that came in the later parts of 2000s.

PC desktops tended not to have this problem. For decades we have big and powerful monitors. I still remember my first “good” monitor, it rocked 1600 x 1200 and weighted like a ton at only just 21 inches diagonally. Come to think of it, that’s some pretty high resolution even by last year’s standard. If that thing was in retail, it would have asked for over a thousand bucks.

A few of my friends are proud owners of those 30″ Dell Ultrasharp 2560 x 1600 displays. History-wise, this was well into the LCD era where IPS screens have matured enough for all-purpose use. Sure, it still cost roughly a thousand bucks in 2012, but it’s hard to beat on color accuracy and quality. But my friends don’t rock quad SLI mega-boosted desktop configs; just humble i7s and what not; stuff that can be put together at around the same price as the monitors. To me, and I agree with them, that as far as the human experience on personal computing goes, the display is a huge bottleneck, warranting paying this sort of price (assuming you can afford it).

The SSD story is similar to the evolution of high definition displays; for too long consumers and PC manufaturers treated storage as a size thing, and not a speed thing. Anyone with a real background in computer engineering knows otherwise. If you have powerful i7 CPUs and a ton of RAM, even if you got some massive next-gen graphics solution in SLI/Crossfire, it means nothing if you are outputting on the cheapest TN display you can find on Black Friday or running your apps on a 5000RPM platter mule. In fact, it’s kind of a waste.

[Updated: I forgot one more big obvious clue.] Back in the early 2000s the best drives you could’ve gotten were these 5yo SCSI drives (because used SCSI drives were at least priced similarly). When old PC technology (arguably SCSI drives were) were better than today’s technology, you know you’re looking at something that has fallen into a hole; an opportunity for revolution. SSDs were just that. It wasn’t because platter disks were hitting that limit (although they are now, for various reasons) but because the impetus in market was for size, not speed. Granted we did get better drives and faster, quiet, and power-efficient units, it lacks the huge jump that the rest of the silicon technology was going at. Now, think back to my 1600 x 1200 CRT monitor–how old is that thing? How come we are only coming up to that level of tech 10+ years later? I don’t know.

That is the beauty in the way Apple has designed its hardware. And by beauty I mean cunning business savvy focused on the user experience, being able to charge the big bucks on a nice experience, but offering the least expensive component possible while delivering that experience. Maybe that’s okay, but it stings my nerd-based sense of value. This is why I laugh at first-gen MBAs despite they are close to my ideal form/format, because a C2D is painfully outdated by 2009 standards, and why the MacPro will continue to lament in its state of yesteryear even after the recent refresh.

But it’s a good thing. The MBA is close to my ideal laptop, so if they stick to the line they will eventually get better. The main problem the MBA had was that it had a crap screen. The second problem was it rocked Intel’s embedded video solution, which is much better in 2012 but was woefully inadequate even just in 2011. I wanted real GPU muscle if I’m going to lay down over a grand of greenbacks, and so should you. I know how much my component is worth. And the user experience of playing Starcraft 2 on Intel HD3000 is not going to cut it. The mandatory Nvidia 650M on the Retina MBPs testify that it is the next bottleneck, after you get your phat display going. Screw this Intel nonsense (at least for now).

To cut to the chase: the Retina Display moniker is just a marketing scheme. The point is that quality display on laptops is a sorely needed thing. If you took a survey of laptops out there in Q1 2012, they’re just list of spec sheets, and DPI or image quality is not on them. (IPS is, funnily enough.) Consumers are not educated in terms of what it means on a scale of marketing quality (Intel spent $$$$ back during its Netburst days to teach people that high clock is good, just for example). The low margins mean it’ll make a hard sell to put good displays on monitors because consumers are not educated enough to realize those things are worth the extra money. These ultrabooks all rocked either terrible screens or mediocre at best. Nobody had discrete graphics (and I don’t count those Sony Z’s).

But I do count Sony. They’re the only real player in quality display on the consumer laptop market, at least until Apple hit it out of the park with its Retina MBP. Everyone else is pretty much behind. Maybe Lenovo has a corporate solution. And worse of all, other than the Z series, nobody has a quality screen below the 13.1″ line.

But that makes it easy to predict the future, here–11″ or 13″ “Retina Display” are definitely something on the horizon, and hopefully it will something Apple holds no monopoly over. Sony Z’s need to get real discrete graphics, not in the form of a dock. The 15″ MBP has only real one flaw: it’s 15″. Give me 13″ or less and it will be 99.9% perfect. Give me also built-in gigabit port then it’ll hit 100%.