The consumer electronics market is being flooded with devices that have incredible high-resolution screens.
The 10-in. iPad has one, as do the Archos 97 Titanium HD, Onda V972, Freelander PD80, Ainol NOVO9 Spark, Cube U9GT5 and others.
So does a new class of laptops, including the Google Chromebook Pixel, Acer Aspire S7, Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display, Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, Asus Zenbook UX32VD, Dell XPS 12, Dell XPS 13, Samsung Series 9, Sony Vaio Duo 11 and others.
Asus recently announced its lust-worthy ASUS PQ321 31.5-in. desktop display, which is a 4K display.
And for the truly wealthy, Apple announced this week that its upcoming Mac Pro will be capable of powering three 4K screens simultaneously. Imagine the Mac Pro running three 31.5-in. 4K displays! The displays are $3,799 each, so it would cost about $12,000 just for the displays. Current Mac Pros are well over $3,000, so we're looking at an absolute minimum of $15,000 or so. (Hmm. Maybe if I sell the car...)
The problem with Retina-quality, ultra high-resolution and 4K screens is that once you've used one, it's hard to go back to lower resolutions.
Believe me. I know.
For the month of May, I used a Chromebook Pixel -- Google's cloud laptop with super high-pixel density -- as my main computer. At the end of the month, I packed it up and went back to my old MacBook Pro. Suddenly, the screen quality looked horrible.
I was happy before. Now I'm miserable.
This is especially true since Apple didn't announce a Haswell-based Retina MacBook Pro at its developer's conference this week. (I expect the company to launch such a machine in a few months, so I don't want to buy a Retina MacBook because it will become obsolete when that happens.)
What is a super high-resolution screen, anyway? And what makes one so awesome?
Apple coined (and trademarked) a word for its own super high-resolution screens. It calls them Retina displays. It's not a technical term, but it's what Apple calls any screen on which the individual pixels cannot be perceived by people with 20/20 vision who are looking at it from a "normal" distance.
That's a great way to think about these screens. Even though pixel densities on consumer electronics devices with screens have gone up steadily over the years, there's something binary about the new super high-resolution screens.
Suddenly, it's possible to look at a screen and for the first time ever, see no pixels, no "jaggies" (the jagged edges of pixelated raster images) and no gray boundaries around letters. We've crossed some kind of line.
Technology is cool, and definitions are useful. But ultimately the mind-blowing thing about super high-resolution screens is the effect they have on your mind.
Suddenly you realize that all this time you experienced not only subtle eye fatigue, but also a subconscious psychological irritation at the fact that your brain has always wanted to see clean letters and smooth lines in photographs -- to experience on-screen images the way you experience vision in the physical world -- but what you were actually seeing was a digital impressionist painting that wasn't quite what it was supposed to be.
Suddenly, there's harmony. Your eyes actually see what your brain wants to see. It feels good to look at these screens.
Another interesting attribute of the super high-resolution screens is that it's a new technology without controversy, except perhaps its higher price.
Almost every user interface advancement has been something to argue about, a question of preference. Some people love touchscreens, others hate them. Some people love Samsung's new Air View (in which getting a finger or stylus close to the screen without touching triggers certain behaviors), others hate it.
We live in a world of controversial user interface cul de sacs, gimmicks and parlor tricks.
Yet super high-definition screens are a pure, unalloyed good for users lucky enough to enjoy good or corrected eyesight. They are just better.
And super high-resolution screens are making other things better, too.
Better interface design
Because all newer Apple phones have Retina-quality super HD displays with pixel densities of 326 ppi, Apple was able to create the first ever super HD-specific user interface.
When Apple unveiled iOS 7, some people said was a "flat" design devoid of skeuomorphism. Others said Apple copied other operating systems like Android and the Palm OS. Still others said iOS 7's bright, overly cheerful colors looked like some kind of My Little Pony theme.
There's vague truth to all these claims. But the most conspicuous attribute of iOS 7 is that it's a pure creature of the super HD world.
I've been playing with the developer release of iOS 7, and I've been struck by the purity of its vision for super high-definition displays.
For starters, Apple moved to a typeface called Helvetica Neue UltraLight, a super-thin font that appears in very small letters in iOS, such as under icons and for the display of the wireless carrier and time at the top of the screen. Top right on the main desktop view are location, alarm and "it's charging" mini icons that are microscopic, yet highly resolved. Many of the lines in icons and inside apps are incredibly thin.
All this adds up to a very designy look that would have been impossible on lower-resolution displays.
No matter what your opinion is about Apple's new iOS interface, you have to admit that super high-resolution screens give designers a lot more freedom to create better designs.
More flexibility on screen size
Another unexpected benefit of super high-resolution screens is that they give users more choice in terms of screen size. Let me explain.
Each of us has a probably unstated tolerance for how big a screen we use for desktop, laptop, tablet and phone. For example, I personally feel cramped on a 13-in. screen laptop or smaller. 15 inches is fine. 17 inches or higher is great (although too much to carry).
But I didn't feel cramped on the Chromebooks' 13-in. screen. Because the screen is higher resolution than other screens, I can see the same information and detail on a smaller screen.
The same goes for phones and tablets. Super high-resolution screens enable you to do more serious reading and desktop-type work on a smaller mobile device.
But most of all, super high-resolution screens simply make our lives better. Most of us spend way too much time staring at screens.
The new super high-resolution screens bring beauty, clarity and precision to our work and play. They're expensive, it's true. But I think they're worth the money.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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