Tech Crunch’s review of the new MacBook Pro with blast processing retina display is almost embarrassing. Or I suppose it would be, if this kind of bloviating hadn’t become standard fare for professional tech bloggers. Perhaps fearing the irrelevance that plagued hobbyist tech enthusiasts before the era of the iPod and the Kindle, today’s tech bloggers have fully embraced the lowest common denominator. As part of this general project, they frequently herald the triumph of “user experience” over such ivory tower pedantries as “specs” and “functionality.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s half as functional as it could be, so long as it looks pretty doing it. (This also appears to be the design principle that guided J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.)
I get that not everyone grasps or even wants to grasp the intricacies of what’s under their laptop’s hood. But I have this vague impression in my mind that journalism is supposed to teach us things, rather than simply reinforce our ignorance. So niche journalism should serve those who are interested in its niche, rather than trying to reach all the masses who can’t be bothered to learn about the subject. I’m not particularly interested in the intricacies of the automobile industry, so I don’t read car magazines or blogs. And I certainly don’t pick up a car magazine expecting it to stoop to my level of ignorance and tell me nothing beyond, “This car is red. And shiny.” Yet that’s precisely the function that tech bloggers now seem content to perform.
“The spec is mainly dead” (a phrase used in the review linked above) is precisely the kind of phrase that you expect not only from tech bloggers, but Apple users in general. Is that how they justify paying $2000 for a mediocre computer?
As much as I hate to jump on the “lol Apple users are sheep” bandwagon, it’s genuinely amazing to me how entranced Apple loyalists are by the company’s transparently fluff-based method of advertising. Ironically, they’ve become the blank-staring crowd of identical-looking people from the famous Apple ad of 1984. See what the same reviewer says in his “specs are dead” article from last year:
Whereas PC sites often trumpet the processor and other specs on the main landing page for their products (HP laptops, for example), Apple instead focuses on natural language descriptions: “The new, faster Macbook Air”.
Well obviously. If you rely solely on adjectives like “faster” (or, infamously, “magical”), you can claim whatever the hell you want. If I, for some reason, desire to convince people that I’m taller than Yao Ming, my strategy is going to be to tell them, “I’m taller than Yao Ming,” not to actually state my exact height and compare it to his.
But let’s talk about the retina display for a moment, if only for the sake of schadenfreude. Riding on the memetic success of their somewhat misleading marketing term, Apple has applied a so-called retina display to their latest MacBook Pro. In his crusade against specs, the reviewer won’t actually state the resolution of the screen (it’s 2800×1800, fyi), but he does rave about its clarity—under the right circumstances.
Let me address one point first: 2800×1800 is certainly an extremely high resolution for a 15-inch screen, but by applying the term “retina display” to it, Apple is demonstrating how mendacious that terminology has always been. The entire premise of the retina display is that, at a distance of about one foot, the human eye sees at a resolution of about 300 dpi—the figure cited by Jobs himself when he introduced the retina display at the WDC—so for any display denser than 300 dpi, the human eye should, in theory, be incapable of distinguishing individual pixels. And indeed, the iPhone 4 has a pixel density of 329 dpi. But make the screen any bigger than that, and suddenly not only can you see pixels, you can almost make out Apple’s nuts teabagging your gullible brain.
To wit: the iPad 3, also advertised as bearing a retina display, has a pixel density of only 264 dpi. With the new MacBook, the situation is even worse: even at its whopping horizontal resolution of 2800 pixels, its 15-inch screen stretches those pixels out to a “mere” 220 dots per inch. It’s simply much harder to achieve such high densities on a larger screen—as you increase its diagonal size, its screen area grows geometrically.
But let’s be fair a moment here: 200+ pixels per inch is still pretty damn high. Let’s say you have a 50-inch 1080p TV. It looks pretty fuckin’ crisp, right? Like the Joker could punch through the screen at any moment, grab you by the throat, and ask if you know how he got those scars. Would you like to know the pixel density of your fancy-ass 50-inch HDTV? 44 dpi. So yeah.
So I’m not saying 220 dpi is terrible. But I am saying that “retina display” is, as I’ve been intimating all along, a meaningless marketing term. And the reason Apple and its user base don’t like specs is because actual numbers have a tendency to expose the man behind the curtain. The actual point here is that if you’re told you’re buying a product with a “retina display,” the truth is you have no idea what you’re getting. Whereas if you buy a product with a screen resolution of 2800×1800, you know exactly what you’re getting. And if you can’t or won’t interpret those numbers and deduce what they mean for you, ask someone who will. Just don’t ask somebody’s marketing department (or, in the particular case of the tech industry, the journalists who fellate those marketing departments).
But let’s not forget that it’s all about the user experience. Okay, so what’s the experience of using a MacBook Pro’s retina display like?
Everything looks like a beautiful glossy photograph.
Well, everything natively included in the slightly updated version of OS X Lion, that is.
The biggest downside of the entire device in my mind is just how bad it makes most of the web (and quite a few native OS X apps) look. While this version of OS X Lion does upscale text and some graphics to be “retina”-ready, much of the web is not. Take Facebook, for example. The text is fine, but all the images, including the logo, are extremely blurry. Google? Same problem.
And that’s the picture if you’re using the version of Safari bundled with the Retina MacBook Pro. If you try to use Chrome, you may vomit. Everything is rendered poorly — text included. Luckily, Google is moving fast to correct this and a retina-ready version of Chrome is already in the Canary (early beta) build.
Some native apps look awful too. Twitter for OS X is one notable example. It’s essentially unusable because the text is so blurry (as are all icons).
So its magical retina display makes most of the Internet look like shit. Great user experience there. I’d rather see the pixels, so long as they form readable text and visible images.
Of course, it’s not Apple’s fault. Oh wait, yes it is. It’s their fault for putting a 2800×1800 display on a laptop, knowing full well what happens when you look at normal-resolution content on it. It’s like taking your aforementioned 50-inch 1080p TV and watching VHS tapes on it. And if the vast majority of your movie collection consists of VHS tapes, you would be rather unwise to purchase a gigantic 1080p TV.
In the future, when Blu-ray SuperXtremeHD comes out and you can actually buy movies in 2800p, displays with such a resolution will become practical. For now you’ll get a better user experience by sticking with 1920×1080.