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Summary:

Technology in high-end machines eventually trickles down to the low-end. These sort of hand me down improvements are normal, but what do these two principles tell us about what’s coming next? Does iPhone’s Retina Display give us a hint for the future of Apple’s product line?

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Apple has been known for incorporating one piece of technology across its entire product line. Most consumer tech companies will try something radically different with each product but Apple replicates what works across every product. This makes for a good user experience and it gives us the comfort that how it works on one device is something we expect to work the same on another, such as holding down the power button turns off your Mac, iPhone and even wireless keyboard.

Historically, what you see in today’s high-end machines will eventually make its way to the low end models like Apple’s Airport Express getting 802.11n a year after the Extreme, or the MacBook getting glass multitouch trackpads 1-2 years after the MacBook Pro. These sort of hand me down improvements are normal, but what do these two principles tell us about what’s coming next? Does iPhone’s Retina Display give us a hint for the future of Apple’s product line?

[inline-ad]Currently, most of Apple’s displays, whether they are in a desktop, notebook or a standalone monitor like Apple’s 24″ and 30″ Cinema Displays have a standard PPI (pixels per inch) ratio that is equal with most other displays from computer companies. The average is between 113-130 for most of Apple’s displays. The iPhone 4’s retina display is a mind-boggling 326 PPI which produces clarity that no other display on any device from any manufacturer can match, at least in most of the consumer tech you’ll find at the local Best Buy. Apple has raised the bar so high that every iPhone 4 owner I meet says to me that going back to the MacBook Pro or iMac display or even an iPod nano is a total joke and they’ve been spoiled by the new screen.

I vote that Apple will make Retina Display the buzz word of 2011 as every product receives this as the key feature and trust me when I say that users (myself included) will shell out the cash to get the same clarity and crystal clear display quality that we’ve become so accustomed to on our iPhones. I could be wrong, but Apple has already laid the ground work for Retina Display in every Mac. A look at Apple’s Dev Center docs reveals a technology known as Resolution Independence. Here’s the intro:

In the past, developers could assume that the resolution of screen displays was 72 dpi and that one unit in the application’s drawing space corresponded to one pixel. Specifying a 100 x 200 window in the application would result in a 100 x 200 pixel window onscreen. However, with the introduction of LCD displays with higher pixel densities (often well over 100 dpi), maintaining a one-to-one correspondence between drawing units and screen pixels can result in images that are too small for most users.

The solution is to make the drawing sizes specified by the application independent of the display’s pixel resolution and allow arbitrary scaling between the two. Depending on the type of application, the user interface, and the drawing technologies used, you may need to update your code to provide the best user experience on a resolution-independent system.

Of course, Apple added this to make things easier on developers as displays produced by Apple do fluctuate such as ordering a 15″ or 17″ Macbook Pro with the high-resolution display should yield a clearer experience for users and this is thanks to resolution independence. However, this minor technology can be leveraged and must be leveraged if Apple were to ever bump that spec from a measly 113 PPI to upwards of 326 PPI like we see on the iPhone 4.

I’ve been very vocal about Apple’s inability to keep up with resolutions that competitors like Dell provide on its notebooks. A 15″ notebook from Dell has had resolutions that triumph over Apple’s for the longest time. Of course, those insanely high specs generally lead to text that’s simply too small to read, but it’s an option that Dell offers which Apple does not and the only way to completely shut down one of the only advantages a Dell has over a Mac is to up the PPI to Retina Display levels.

Of course, there’s much more involved. Only a handful of Macintosh computers have the IPS (In-Plane Switching technology) that you see in the iPad, iPhone 4 and Apple’s flat-panel iMac. That’s something we’ll start seeing in Macs very soon and possibly before Retina Display makes its way to our computers. Apple has spent the last three years slowly moving each display to LED backlighting which reduces energy use but also offers a more accurate and complete back lighting and instant-on without the need for a warm up.

It’s an easy prediction to say that Apple will improve its displays, but it’s obvious that Retina Display is just the beginning and it’s a sign of things to come. When our eyes grow so used to the iPhone 4’s gorgeous display that we find ourselves preferring it over our Macs, Apple will release new computers that offer the same technology and we’ll be lining up to get them. Trust me.

  1. We’re getting tortured here in Australia of taunts about how goo the display is, iPhone 4 not arrived yet so its painful waiting…

    I think its inevitable that the Retina display will make it to other devices. Imagine the next iPad, Retina display, front and read facing camera with FaceTime… it will be the iPad everyone wants and wants to upgrade to.

    I do think people are getting spoiled though, with comments such as “going back to the MacBook Pro or iMac display or even an iPod nano is a total joke and they’ve been spoiled by the new screen.” to use the word total joke is a bit unfair, considering how mind blowingly good the Apple displays are over any PC display. Total joke, I think not but I can appreciate the difference is noticable.

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  2. We’re getting tortured here in Australia of taunts about how good the display is, iPhone 4 not arrived yet so its painful waiting…

    I think its inevitable that the Retina display will make it to other devices. Imagine the next iPad, Retina display, front and rear facing camera with FaceTime… it will be the iPad everyone wants and wants to upgrade to.

    I do think people are getting spoiled though, with comments such as “going back to the MacBook Pro or iMac display or even an iPod nano is a total joke and they’ve been spoiled by the new screen.” to use the word total joke is a bit unfair, considering how mind blowingly good the Apple displays are over any PC display. Total joke, I think not but I can appreciate the difference is noticable.

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  3. It’s not as likely as you might think. The cost of producing a tiny version of this display might not be prohibitive but producing massive versions of it will probably quickly escape the normal price for a monitor.

    Oh, and there aren’t exactly many factories that have the capacity to produce this kind of screen and of the ones that do.. they’re busy filling the new iPhone’s needs.

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    1. Adam Jackson Tuesday, July 6, 2010

      Well, if Apple stopped with their 50% profit margins on every product built, it would easily make it to their Cinema Display. Apple charges $899 for a monitor that’s marginally better than Dell’s 24″ monitor but it costs twice as much. $899 for a 24″ monitor is crazy in my opinion but touting the best display on the market would be great for Apple and they could do it without raising the price.

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      1. Why is this a bad thing? If Apple can market and sell a display for $899 that others are selling for 1/2 so be it. People are willing to pay for a specific look and brand and there is a premium associated with that.

        All the best to Apple or any other company that is able to capture that premium.

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  4. Been there, tried that. It doesn’t work.

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  5. Besides the fact that these displays would be prohibitively expensive, the other issue would be the move forward in mobile GPUs that you would need to run the 15″ version of it at about 4400×2500 which is about 2x the number of pixels you can currently light up with Macbook Pro 15″ high-res display + 30″ external monitor.

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  6. It does seem that with the iPhone 4 Apple has taken a big step towards resolution independence. I can imagine that the next iPad will have much higher resolution, maybe not as high as the iPhone. The screen is smaller than other Apple displays so this may help. Also, the competition is sure to jump on this as pushing higher resolution is probably easier than developing a touch capable portable OS.

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  7. In my opinion, you guys miss one thing: the more dense the pixels are, the higher resolution you get on the same size display which obviously requires a higher GPU brute force. Got it?
    OK, now consider Jobs involvement in movie industry (Pixar), 3D as the next big thing. Got it? OK, one more hint: duo retina-display goggles, a device for personal 3D movie playback. Device name? Well, I suggest iEyes.

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  8. I certainly hope they start incorporating it elsewhere! I love my 24″ iMac and yes, I’m still drooling over the prospect of a 27″ version, but I can wait a little longer if it means having a display that gorgeous on my desktop. Granted, I’m not sure how economically feasible it is, but I can certainly dream! :)

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  9. I’ve long wondered why Apple has failed to update the 30″ ACD. I think if it is to remain the top of the line display, it has to be the prime candidate to be first to up the pixel density. i think it’s unrealistic to expect Retina class density, but 256 ppi is a distinct possibility …. at a price. So is the Retina’s 326 ppi but I think the price will be prohibitive to all but the most demanding pro photographers and HD filmmakers. It’s possible we’ll see displays back in the $3000-5000 range at first. Less for 250ish ppi.

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  10. hmm it would be very nice to have a higher pixel density in the mac line up, the displays look nice but a higher detail is always welcome…

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  11. I’m sure part of the issue is waiting for the cost to come down. Buy including this technology on millions of iPhones sold, Apple builds the economies of scale needed to make the technology cheap enough to include in other displays ranging from 9.7″ to 30″. Of course, when Apple introduces iMacs with 27″ Retina Displays or a new 30″ Retina Cinema Display, it will be greeted with a collective yawn by the geekstapo. However, Apple will have once again raised the bar by incorporating cutting edge technology in a user-friendly package.

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