Now that the new iPad has joined the iPhone in getting a “Retina Display,” Apple’s moniker for displays of extreme pixel density, rumors have been swirling as to whether the Macbook line is next. For example, one rumor from Digitimes reports that a new Macbook Pro will be launched in Q2 2012 with a 2880 x 1800 display, twice the resolution than in the current 15” model.
Before we jump to any conclusions, let’s clarify some points: what exactly counts as a retina display? Apple states that when viewing a Retina display from a "normal distance", the pixels are small enough that they cannot be resolved with the human eye. This is why despite the lower 264 pixels per inch (PPI) on the iPad versus the 326PPI on the iPhone, the iPad still has a Retina Display because it is normally held at a farther viewing distance (15 inches as opposed to the iPhone’s 10 inches, according to Apple).
Phil Schiller at the new iPad keynote, explaining the math behind the Retina display
Going along with this, how many pixels would a Macbook display need in order to have a Retina display? Not as many as you might think. This article, published on TUAW, does a good job of breaking down the math behind Retina displays and pixel density. According to the article, a 13.3” Macbook, viewed at a distance of 22 inches, needs a pixel density of 156.3PPI in order to count as a Retina display. Right now, the 13.3" Macbook Pro has a screen resolution of 1280 x 800, which comes out to 113 PPI - decidedly below Retina display standards. Doing some math, and assuming the aspect ratio of the screen stays the same, the minimum display resolution that a 13.3” Macbook needs to have a Retina display is 1763 x 1102. That’s not exactly a common pixel count, but the closest one higher than that is 1920 x 1200 (the pixel count in the current 17” Macbook Pro).
From these calculations, its clear that a doubling of screen resolutions, as Apple as done with its iPad and iPhone, is not necessary for the Macbook line in order to achieve Retina display standards. However, based on the discovery of hidden HiDPI display modes in OS X lion, it seems probable that Apple might just go ahead and do it anyway. This is because scaling interface elements to fit a 2x resolution is much easier (just scale the width and length of everything by a factor of two).
Currently, the technologies required to achieve such high resolution displays seem difficult and cost prohibitive, but if any company will pull it off, it will be Apple. Will 2012 be the year Apple introduces Retina display Macbooks? Let’s hope so.