The Future of Apple’s Retina Display

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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.

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