Why Apple’s Next-Gen Mac Displays Will Be A Quantum Leap Beyond Retina [Feature]

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iMac with Retina
When this happens, the iMac won't have a Retina display... it'll practically have a Quantum display. Mock-up by Stephen Smith.

Yesterday’s announcement of the new, slim next-gen MacBook Pro took pretty much everyone’s breath away. Largely thanks to an incredible new 2880 x 1800 Retina display, the next-gen MacBook Pro is, without a doubt, the most powerful notebook a video or photo professional could own.

It’s also, technically, overkill. Packing an amazing 220 pixels per inch, the new MacBook Pro actually has almost two million more pixels than it needs to qualify as retina.

Make no mistake. Apple blew the doors open with this one. We were curious, though, what this meant for the rest of the Mac line. So we did the math, and as it turns out, when Apple’s other Macs are updated to Retina Displays, the next-gen MacBook Pro we’re all drooling over? It’ll be the worst Retina display of the entire Mac line.

First thing’s first. When we talk about whether or not a display is Retina, what we’re saying is that the pixels in that display are small enough that they can’t be resolved by a person with 20/20 vision from an average viewing distance. What this means is that there is no minimum number of pixels per inch (PPI) that a display must be to qualify: a 2×2 pixel display could be considered Retina as long as the average viewing distance was far enough away.

We’ve previously argued that Apple didn’t actually need to improve their Mac displays that much to qualify as Retina, because you sit futher away from a Mac than you do an iPhone or iPad. For example, most people sit 24-inches away from a 15-inch MacBook Pro, which means that you only need a resolution of 1920 x 1200 to make the PPI large enough that the display qualifies as Retina.

Apple, however, has decided not to be chintzy when it comes to pixels for their Retina displays. With the next-gen MacBook Pro, Apple has signaled that they will be taking the same approach to making its Macs Retina compatible as it took with the iPhone and iPad: they’ll be doubling resolution across the board.

Given the above, if we double the resolution of all existing Macs, covert that to pixels per inch, then compare it to the minimum PPI Apple needs to reach to qualify as Retina, you can see that Cupertino started with the MacBook Pro for a reason: when it comes to PPI, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is actually the lowest hanging fruit!

Model Screen Size (Inches) New Resolution PPI For Retina Actual PPI Closeness to Retina
11-inch MacBook Air 11.6 2732 x 1536 156.3 270.19 173%
13-Inch MacBook Air 13.3 2880 x 1800 156.3 255.36 163%
15-Inch MacBook Pro 15.4 2880 x 1800 143.2 220.53 154%
21-Inch iMac 21.5 3840 x 2160 122.8 204.92 167%
27-Inch iMac 27 5120 x 2880 122.8 217.57 177%

* — To see how we computed the PPI needed for Retina, please read this article.

Take a look at that chart. Although we’re all ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the new MacBook Pros, they’ve actually got the lowest “Closeness to Retina” rating of all of Apple’s future line-up of Retina Macs. The real showcase Macs are actually going to be the 27-inch iMac and the 11-inch, entry-level MacBook Air, both of which will have almost twice the number of pixels they actually need.

Crazy. And look at the 21-inch iMac, whichwill have the exact same resolution as a 4K HDTV. To put that in perspective, a 4K HDTV right now will cost you over $36,000. And the 27-inch iMac will destroy even that.

These aren’t Retina Displays. They’re Quantum Displays. And only Apple could be seriously talking about making them a reality. It’s going to take the rest of the industry a long, long time to catch up, because the next-gen MacBook Pro? It’s practically from the future.