Web/Tech, Writing

A word of warning before you buy that retina Mac

Apple have a new MacBook out, one with an astonishing price tag and the highest resolution screen around. Should writers rush out to buy it? Honest answer: don’t know. Haven’t seen it yet, have no plans to go out of my way to see it, so what you will now read is mere speculation/hearsay.

A really high resolution display primarily benefits images it seems to me. I have the latest iPad. Photos look amazing on it. So does text too provided it comes from an app that has been retuned for the higher resolution.

That caveat also appears to apply to the new retina MacBook. Apple released new versions of several of its apps yesterday (you probably know that already because of the huge updates millions of us had to download, even though we don’t have that high res screen). It was interesting that Apple’s iWork suite wasn’t among them. I’ve no idea how Apple’s own word processor, Pages, looks on the retina. It hasn’t been updated seriously now in years.

But here’s the Verge on how some other text apps, including Word, look…

A few other apps have this text issue (Kindle and Nook being two of the more aggravating examples), but we don’t want to dwell too much on this. As with the new iPad, we suspect app developers will be fairly quick to upgrade their apps to support the new Retina standard. Some of the notable pain points for now include Kindle, Nook, and the entire Microsoft Office Suite — all the text looks jagged and pixelated in a very grating way.

I love the line ‘we don’t want to dwell too much on this’. Imagine if any other company released something that made text look ‘very grating’. Would they dwell on it then? Ah well…

There’s a rumour that iWork will be updated when Apple release Mountain Lion, the gadget-laden new version of OS X due soon. But then there have been rumours of a new release of iWork many times over the past few years and none of them have come to anything. Nor have Microsoft said if they’ll release a new, retina-tuned version. Scrivener will support it one day, as I’d expect given its huge Mac fan base, and you can read more on this here.

If you’re a photographer, someone who works with video, or deals in other forms of image-based work I imagine this new screen is pretty exciting. But I work with words and frankly I’m not. As far as I can see anyone who buys this thing today won’t see any improvement in the way words appear on screen. In fact they may well look worse than on existing, much cheaper kit and it’s unclear when that situation will change.

I’ve been writing on Macs since they came out in 1984. Apple always positioned itself as a company that supported creative people. It doesn’t seem quite so keen any more. I’m clearly not the only long-term user who feels that way. Here’s an interesting comment from Macintouch

Overall, I’m extremely disappointed with the changes yesterday. Granted, a lot of the new technologies are neat, but they focus on using the Mac as a social networking tool, not as a work/productivity tool.

The demise of the MacBook Pro 17” is a serious blow to my productivity. I’m an admin, as well as a web, FileMaker, and iOS developer.

The Retina Display on the new 15” doesn’t provide readable screen real estate. The pixel size of my 17” is already at the limit of my aging, astigmatic eyes.

Lion does not give me the power I need to work productively – one factor is the lack of Rosetta; another is the dysfunctional Finder. I keep folders organized; I don’t want to search every time I need to access one of the thousands of documents I have.

As of yesterday, applications I’ve purchased within the last year are no longer being upgraded for an operating system that came with my Mac 16 months ago. Really, Apple? I need to upgrade my OS less than a year and a half after buying my computer? Microsoft still releases updates for XP…

As a power user, I feel like I’m being forced to dumb down my workflow. IMHO Apple is restricting users, as it transitions to a consumer electronics manufacturer from a computer manufacturer. IMHO this is a total about-face from the Apple I’ve loved since 1986, which considered my productivity top priority.

I’ll stop now, it’s too depressing…

Really high res screens sound wonderful in principle. On the new iPad they look great with text and pictures with apps that have been reconfigured for the screen. But an iPad is something I use on my lap or close on a table. A laptop’s further away. A desktop screen is much further away. My current desktop, a 27-inch iMac, has the same resolution as the new retina MB Pro. Text looks fine. Would it look markedly better if Apple doubled the resolution of that machine? I honestly don’t know. But I doubt I’d fork out a stack of money to find out. These are just words I’m typing. They look OK two feet away already.

And actually that resolution works very well in Windows too. So since the current project is a Word one I’m using Windows in Boot Camp on the iMac (which makes an excellent Windows host). It’s fast, Word 2010 is immeasurably better than Mac Word, and you have the added bonus of OneNote, a piece of software that is rapidly becoming essential to me, especially since I bought a new Windows phone (an HTC Titan II which is – gasp! – very good) and transitioned from Google Apps to Office 365.

Apple seems to want to make computers that are fun. Which is fine and I’m sure there’s a huge market for that. But I want a computer for work. Nothing more. I’m not convinced the retina MB Pro fits that bill yet, or when it might. If you’re a writer and tempted I’d make sure you see one first, try some writing apps on it, and get some idea when your favourites might be retuned to take advantage of all those extra pixels. Otherwise you could be in for a shock.

4 thoughts on “A word of warning before you buy that retina Mac

  1. Justin Williams

    Great post, David.I've used Apple gear since the late 1980s when we started putting pages together in Quark 1.1. Since then, I've fallen in and out of love with their hardware several times. I migrated back from PCs when OSX came out in 2000/01 and have stayed faithful until now, building up a collection of MacBooks, a Mac Mini (yours once, I believe), iPads and iPhones.But my patience is now wearing thin. Like you, I need devices for work and productivity. Despite still loosely describing myself as "a creative", I'm now too old and too busy for devices that are primarily built for entertainment. Apple's new hardware may be wonderful and beautiful and have all the fanbois drooling, but their software is, frankly, shit. Pages – be it on Mac or iPad – is unusable as a serious work tool and Numbers is worse even than the terrible spreadsheet on Google Docs. Keynote is useful as a wireframing tool but is a even worse memory hog than Photoshop CS6.I've been using a Nokia Lumia 900 for the last three weeks and have, like you, found Windows Phone to be a serious bit of kit. It does everything that I want it to do, even down to allowing me to read client comments on Word documents. It's not an entertainment device like the iPhone and it doesn't give me access to a gazillion time-wasting apps. My iPhone 4S remains in my bag – I haven't yet been tempted to turn it back on.I'm sceptical about the new MacBook Pro, too. The scrapping of the ethernet port troubles me (particularly as Apple are now selling another £60 adapter to restore this functionality) and the Retina screen sounds like a gimmick. Dunno, really, but am certainly not rushing out to buy one particularly when I'm running Windows 7 or 8 in a VM most of the time on my existing machine just to get access to usable versions of Microsoft Office.

  2. I fully agree and, if fact, I've been posting my criticism that Apple is out of touch with the work-a-day world to every Mac site I can whenever a news story offers a plausible excuse.One small example are the spell-correction suggestions. About a third of the time OS X apps dependent on it can't give me the right spelling. Yet when I put that same misspelled word into a Google search, it comes up with the right spelling as "Did you mean" about 95% of the time. That is a big, big time waster for someone who writes a lot.Going on, why are Macs text services, on which developers like Keith at Scrivener so dependent on, stuck in the world of Wordstar circa 1982, meaning ruler bars but no named paragraph and character styles? Word has had real styles since the late 1980s and every commercial grade word processor includes them, including Apple's own pages. Why can't Apple build that into OS X, so smaller developers can add it to their products? Names styles are another huge time saver for those who work with words, which is about everyone in a white collar job. They're also critical to moving documents (via ePub) to devices with a variety of screen sizes.Why is the easiest and quickest way to get a document on to my new iPad sending it through Amazon printer drivers to the Kindle app on my iPhone or iPad? What doesn't OS X have a Digital choice on the File menu that can be tailored to send anything I can print to my iPad and iPhone or that of colleagues. Why this kludging with email (the 90s approach) or iTunes (circa 2004)? And why can't OS X export to ePub as it does to PDF? What doesn't it understand something as simple as Markdown? Why can't Apple use its creative skills to make a GREP that's user friendly? I love the power of GREP in InDesign. I'd love to have it with every text app I own.More and more, Apple seems to see their customers as like the Eloi in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. Here's is how Wikipedia describes the Eloi. Note even the Steve Jobs' like obsession with fruit."a society of small, elegant, childlike adults. They live in small communities within large and futuristic yet slowly deteriorating buildings, doing no work and having a frugivorous diet. His efforts to communicate with them are hampered by their lack of curiosity or discipline, and he speculates that they are a peaceful communist society, the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and subsequently evolving to adapt to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous to survival."Add an obsession with being entertained, talking on the phone, and taking pictures and you have a near perfect description of Apple's view of its customers. If you doubt me, look at their ads. No offices, not projects, no deadlines.And yes, I can understand how Apple's culture developed that attitude. In the mid-90s, Microsoft owned the business/government/work market. The only people Apple could sell to were creative professionals who wanted to "Be Different" and people who wanted their computers to be toys. Succeeding with the iPod, the ultimate toy, only exaggerated that mindset.But the market has changed. Microsoft blundered badly with security and the iPhone gave Apple an opening in the business/government/work market. But as the frustrations expressed above illustrate, Apple's isn't delivering improved products for the working world. They spend huge sums tweaking some music codex to be a bit more efficient. But they won't spend a pittance to make their spelling checking anything less than a piece of junk. Notice that iTunes gets updated almost monthly with new features while iWork hasn't seen an upgrade in two years. Apple thinks we are Eloi.*****Like you, I'm also dubious about Retina displays on laptops. I use both a five-year-old MacBook and the latest iPad for writing. Just recently I realized that the screen on the former doesn't bother me in the least. I love that iPad, particularly for extensive reading. But writing isn't like reading. When I'm writing I'm not focused on the words I see. I'm focused on what I want to say. As long as that's legible, I'm happy.I would add that we shouldn't give up on Apple quite yet. Tim Cook seems to have brought a greater willingness to listen and change than Steve Jobs ever displayed. Cook studied industrial engineering at the same university where I studied electrical engineering (Auburn University). It's a sensible place that doesn't teach any silliness about a lone artistic genius imposing his vision on an unwilling world. If fact, when I was there, we called such people 'artsy fartsies." Land grant universities like Auburn were established to teach practical skills.Keep up the drumbeat and I do believe that Apple will change, although unfortunately not in time for Mountain Lion's pending release.–Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

  3. David Hewson

    Depends on personal taste. If I was buying from scratch right now I'd buy a 14 inch laptop with a high res screen (1600 x 900) and whatever desktop I'd fancied. Both Windows.

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