Counterpoint: The Retina MacBook Pro Is Not a "Boondoggle" at All

At ReadWriteWeb, we often disagree with each other. We rarely disagree violently. But wading through angry responses to a post that Antone Gonsalves wrote about the Retina MacBook Pro, I found myself sympathizing with the hordes. There was a lot of bloviation and idol worship in the reactions, but I basically agreed with their substance. Antone said a Retina screen was something “no one needs.”  He couldn’t be more wrong. Here’s why.

Those who follow Apple are used to unhinged, almost religious disagreements between factions on both sides. It's a little bit sad, actually, that people spend so much energy attacking or defending consumer products. But the MacBook Pro with Retina display is not merely a product. It's the manifestation of an inevitable trend toward a world where display resolution doesn't matter and pixels are invisible.

In his original post, titled “Apple’s Brilliant Boondoggle: MacBook Pro Retina Display,” Antone asserted that the Retina MacBook Pro is sold at “a $400 premium for a feature that no one needs, few people will notice, doesn’t work with most apps and was not on anyone’s wish list until the company announced it last month.”

There’s an inaccuracy in every clause of this sentence.

“a $400 premium… ”

As Marco Arment already pointed out, when the Retina and non-Retina MacBook Pros are equipped for the same specs, the non-Retina version is actually more expensive.

The problem with Antone’s price comparison is that he considered a non-Retina MacBook Pro with a spinning-disk hard drive to be “roughly comparable” to a Retina MacBook Pro with a solid-state drive. That’s quite a rough comparison, indeed. An upgrade to an SSD is enough to make a computer feel like a whole new machine.

If Antone is going to compare the two MacBook Pro lines, he ought to use models that are actually comparable.

“… for a feature that no one needs… ”

The Retina MacBook Pro launched on June 11. By the next morning, the machine was on back-order for “2–3 weeks,” according to Apple's website. By the end of that day, it had extended to “3–4 weeks.” That shipping delay lasted more than a month, not stepping back down to 2–3 weeks until mid-July.

One might argue - somewhat crazily - that not all these people buying Retina Macs need them. But that kind of demand hardly signifies “no one.”

“… few people will notice… ”

Open a Retina MacBook Pro. Read an article. Close it. Blink twice. Open a non-Retina computer. Read the same article. You’ll notice. The text on a Retina display looks real. It's soothing to look at. This is why these displays will eventually be everywhere.

“… doesn’t work with most apps… ”

This is the most straight-up factual inaccuracy in the post. It works fine. If the graphics aren’t Retina-enhanced, they won’t look as good. But except in very strange cases, they work perfectly well.

The fact is, text is the primary way we deal with computers. Most of our day-to-day applications and websites are primarily made of text, and text shines on a Retina display. Apps that render their own text - like Twitter for Mac and, painfully, Apple's own iWork suite - don't look great, but those will get updated. The world wasn't broken when the iPhone 4 launched. Apps looked a little fuzzy in places for a while, and then it got fixed. That's all that will happen here.

“… and was not on anyone’s wish list until the company announced it last month.”

… except those people who use Macs.

Some People Who Wanted Retina Macs Before Last Month

Panic has been making Mac apps for 14 years. Its apps are widely acclaimed. One of its most celebrated applications is called Coda, a friendly but powerful app for building and editing websites. It won the Apple Design Award for Best User Experience in 2007.

Back then, even though the first Retina display was three years away, Apple was already asking Mac developers to make their applications resolution-independent. “We took Apple’s original call for resolution-independent apps seriously,” says Panic designer Neven Mrgan.

“Coda 1 was actually Retina-ready in many respects, if you can believe it,” adds Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser. The requirements for resolution independence were different then, but, as Sasser points out, the “first useful tool for Mac Retina work was added in [Mac OS] 10.5!” That’s 2007, for those not up on their OS X version numbers.

“When Coda won the design award,” Sasser recounts, “I remember [Apple Director, Technology Evangelism John] Geleynse saying on stage, 'And it’s also high-DPI ready, for some reason!'” That reason would become abundantly clear in 2012 when Panic shipped Coda 2, completely ready for the Retina MacBook Pro, right on time.

Making Pixels Disappear

Alex Schleifer is the creative director here at SAY Media, and he’s the guy tasked with redesigning ReadWriteWeb. Fortunately for us, he’s pretty stoked about the Retina MacBook Pro, so I’m sure our site will look absolutely bodacious on it.

“I’ve been wanting a Retina display [Mac] ever since I saw it on the iPhone 4,” Schleifer says. “The whole feeling of us moving towards a post-resolution era was reinforced when I got the new iPad. We’re moving towards resolution being so high that it’s neither noticed or discussed. Apple’s just the first to stake its claim there.”

“On a practical side, specifically for creative work, it brings far higher fidelity,” says Schleifer. “[The Retina MacBook Pro] might be more instantly attractive to designers, but there’s no doubt to me that making resolution essentially disappear by being so high that the human eye stops perceiving it is the way to go.”

What Antone’s Post Got Right

Though the body of Antone's post has problems, his analysis gets better when he zooms out. “Long term, Apple is attempting to use the new MacBook Pro to set a standard for quality that people will demand from other PC makers,” Antone wrote to conclude his first post. And that’s absolutely right for the reasons Schleifer describes above.

In his follow-up post, Antone refocuses his argument on the fact that the trend towards Retina is real, it's just too early in the trend for "the average user." That’s probably true. That’s why the MacBook Pro is called the MacBook Pro. It’s for people who identify as pros.

People are capable of making their own decisions about which computer to buy, and Apple isn’t tricking anyone into buying this one. The fact is, Apple can’t keep them on the shelves. No, it’s not for everyone. But it’s not a “boondoggle,” either. That description just doesn’t conform with reality. With the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple has established a beachhead in the future, and customers are already swarming ashore.

But seriously, people. It's a computer. Next time you feel like fighting with people over the resolution of the screen on a computer, try just looking out a window instead. Or going outside. That's one hell of a display.