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The new scaled Retina MacBook

I stopped by the Apple Store today to look at the Apple Watch (summary: amazing tech, but it’s a watch, yawn) and the new ultralight MacBook, which is potentially much more interesting to me than a watch.

I spent some time typing (definitely less travel and firmer, but felt fine to me), and looking at the colors (silver—boring, gold—schlocky, space gray—omg perfect!). Speed for simple tasks seemed more than fine, though I’d hate to push it with Motion or Final Cut or anything like that. It’s definitely amazingly thin and light.

But the thing I really wanted to look at was the screen. This is a retina device, with a stated screen resolution of 2304×1440. On the MacBook Pro side of the fence, each of the stated pixel values is halved to get the effective ultra-sharp resolution you’ll see in the machine’s default mode. The 13″ rMBP’s 2560×1600 screen is effectively 1280×800 as shipped; the 15″ rMBP’s 2880×1800 gets you 1440×900. In both cases, each full-resolution dimension is halved to find the default usable screen resolution.

Given that the new MacBook’s screen is 2304×1440, I was expecting to see the display effectively at 1152×720. This is less than you get on an 11″ Air (1366×768), which is odd given the larger screen. I was curious how it would look. I should however, have read Jason’s reviewer’s notebook before heading to the store, as he points out that this isn’t the case.

Instead of shipping set to create an 1152×720 display, the machine defaults to a scaled resolution that “looks like 1280×800,” which is the resolution on the 13″ rMBP:

If you open this same panel on a 13″ or 15″ rMBP, the Default icon highlight is around the next box to the left. Click that box on the new MacBook, and you’ll see that it is, indeed, the true “looks like 1152×720” 2x option:

So what does this mean in actual day-to-day use? Based on my time in the store, probably not much (and Jason’s observations, with many more hours of use, are the same). The 2x setting is probably clearer in a technical sense, but there are so many pixels on that small display already that it’s hard to notice any difference—I switched back and forth while reading various web pages, and never once saw anything that called out the resolution differences.

Still, this marks the first retina machine that Apple has shipped where the display isn’t set to the ‘2x’ value by default. And as Jason points out, if you’re going to run it at 1280×800, you might as well go for the “More Space” setting and gain a few more critical pixels without much loss in terms of readability.

Given that there appears to be no performance hit for using scaled mode (there’s no warning about performance when hovering over a scaled value, as you get on the 13″ and 15″ rMBP), and that I can get a resolution that matches my 13″ rMBP, the machine is more interesting to me now.

The other tradeoffs (cost, loss of connectivity) are still too high to make a purchase today, but a second generation machine may be very intriguing.


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  1. Rob, thanks for this article.

    A year ago i bought a retina MBP because the 1440×900 i had on my 13″ MBA was no longer enough for me (at least for some of the (hobby) things i do). I have set it to a resolution of 1680×1050 rather than default 1280*800 with retina (although it comes with a performance penalty). The MBA i now use for work.

    I’m very interested in replacing this MBA with the new MacBook, some day in the future, in which case i would use it in 1440×900 mode. I love the 16×10 aspect ratio, which i believe is much more usable than the 16×9 aspect of the 11″ MBA (which i forwarded to my wife after having used it for a couple of years).

    What’s your experience with regards to performance in any of the alternative modes, Rob?

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