Retina Displays and Flash Storage: The Future of Computers

With the introduction of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, Apple has mainstreamed two technologies. One is new on this type of computer – the retina display – and the other has been around for several years, but is starting to become the norm with laptops: flash storage.

No one who has a retina display iPad has not been impressed by the increased readability of fonts, and the crispness of graphics. From the very first retina iPhone, it has been obvious that this trend will soon become the norm. But it was only when the iPad offered a retina display that the difference became obvious. The small size of the iPhone’s screen did show off the quality of the higher pixel density, but the larger iPad display made it shine, especially when reading text, such as ebooks.

With Apple’s release of a first retina display laptop – the new MacBook Pro – the company has begun its transition to all retina, all the time. I haven’t seen one, and, while I’d like to own one, don’t really have the need, given the additional cost for the display. However, I work with a 27″ Cinema Display, and would buy a retina version of that monitor in a heartbeat. Given that most of my work involves text, a higher DPI on my display would make my eyes work a bit less. At my age, with glasses perched on my nose, this would be welcome.

However, I wonder whether my current desktop Mac – a Mac mini – would be able to drive such a display. Given that the MacBook Pro’s retina display has about four times as many pixels as the non-retina model, a more powerful video card is needed to manage the display. My Mac mini can handle the 27″ display plus a second one, but could it handle four times the number of pixels of this display? Assuming the same DPI of the MacBook Pro, a 27″ retina display would be around 5120×2880; or 14,745,600 pixels. However, Apple might choose a slightly lower pixel density for desktop displays, since they tend to be just a bit further away from the user than laptops.

The other trend we’re seeing is the move to SSDs, or solid-state drives. With no moving parts, these are more reliable, and much, much faster than hard drives. Interestingly, on the MacBook Pro, Apple calls this “flash storage,” though on the Mac mini it’s called a “solid-state drive.”

SSDs or flash storage have brought huge performance boost. I’ve been using this type of storage since the release of the first MacBook Air in 2008. I updated my MacBook Air in late 2010, and when I bought a Mac mini in 2011, I paid the extra bucks – roughly the cost of the entire computer – to get an SSD. These computers boot in a few seconds, most applications launch in one second, and file operations – copy, compression, etc. – are lightning fast. I wouldn’t ever go back.

I do use hard drives, notable for my large iTunes library, which I store on a second drive in my Mac mini. I have several external drives for backups, for which one doesn’t need the extra speed. But SSDs and flash storage are clearly the way things are going.

We are currently seeing a major transition in computer hardware, with retina displays and flash storage or SSDs. Over the next few years, we can expect Apple to make these standard across their product line. At first, this is going to cost more, but with the economy of scale, and certainly improvements in the technology, these prices will come down. This transition is one of the most important since the demise of the floppy disk and the advent of USB. We will benefit in many ways from these changes, not only with more responsive computers, but our eyes will also be more comfortable with better displays.