In Praise of Pixels

When it comes to pixels I can’t get enough. Ditto my need for a huge desk. I want a lot of pixels on my screen and I want a lot of space on my desk.

It’s not because I want to use these spaces to store application windows and external hard drives. Quite the opposite: I want to use this space for nothing. I work well when I’m sitting at a large and oversized desk that has little on it beyond a big glowing screen and a clicky keyboard. The same goes for my computer monitors. I like a lot of pixels available so that I can not use them.

Why this is, I’m not sure — it’s a part of my personality, but it’s also how I imagine my mind working. When the mind is clear like an open field on a blue-sky day it has absolute liberty to run and twirl and throw the frisbee as far as it can. There are no walls or hinderances or buildings that stand in the way of clear and imaginative thinking.

When I’m at my desk typing on my computer it means my mind is working. And the more open my physical and digital workspaces are then the more open my mental one can be.

In Praise of the 23-Inch Apple Cinema Display

My first Mac was a 12-inch PowerBook that sat on the wrong side of the excessive screen real-estate scale. It was the smallest and cutest computer Apple made at the time, and it had a screen resolution of 1024×768 pixels. I cut my teeth as a print designer on that tiny screen, learning the ropes of Photoshop and InDesign and giving myself a splitting headache. I constantly worked in a slouched over position, with my neck stretching forward to get my head closer to the screen.

After my first paid print job I used the funds to buy myself an external monitor: a 19-inch Somethingorother from the Tiger Direct catalog. A few years later I had saved enough for a Mac Pro and with it I bought a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, a device that I consider to be one of Apple’s finest pieces of hardware ever.

I had spent many occasions in the Apple Retail store looking at the displays, and I read all of the famous Mac setups featured on Glenn Wolsey’s old blog. The 20-inch model was too small; the 30-inch was too big even though it entitled bragging rights; and so, by deduction, the 23-inch was just right. (I think Apple realized this as well and they cut the sizes of their Cinema Displays down to just the 27-inch monitor. This is a great size, it’s big enough to be big but not so much that you lose open applications.)

I have now been working on a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display for half a decade. I’m on my second one because my original was sold with the Mac Pro. You can’t find them as easily as you could even just a few years ago, especially if you want one in good condition.

What I like about the aluminum Apple Cinema Display is that it epitomizes what I consider to be the highest breed of products designed by Apple in California.

The front of the display is nothing more than a matte screen surrounded by an aluminum bezel. The bezel is not so fat as to distract for your attention. Nor is it too thin. Its proportions are sound.

At the bottom-center of the bezel is the Apple logo in shiny aluminum — subtle. The bezel wraps over the top and bottom of the display, and covers the whole back of the enclosure in a sheet of aluminum as well. The corners are rounded, the sides are white plastic, and the base is a hearty aluminum foot.

On the right edge are the only three buttons: one to power the display on and off, and two for adjusting the brightness of the backlights up or down. At the bottom right-hand corner of the front bezel is a small hole cut out with a white light that shines through. This light “breathes” as the old PowerBooks did when the computer is sleeping. When you turn the display on or off that small light gets bright all at once and then dims down to darkness again.

The greatest feature of all however, is what this display lacks: there is no glass panel glued to the front. The aluminum cinema display sports the great matte screens of yesteryear. And a CJ7 will always be cooler than a modern Wrangler.

What has kept me from upgrading to this next generation of displays found in today’s Apple stores has been that front glass panel. I have worked on these displays (and their iMac cousins), and I admit that they are nice and crisp and pleasing on the eyes. They pose well in pictures of our desks and they display colors and text vividly. They are also much easier to keep clean — the solid glass panel on the front makes it easy to wipe off any trace of dust and fingerprints without fear of damaging the pixels underneath.

In Praise of Retina Display Macs

My 12-inch PowerBook had a good long run. After it I bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro (the aluminum body kind that closely resembled the Power PC laptops that had come just before it). I bought the 15-inch MBP for a few reason: I wanted a laptop with more screen real-estate for the times I was working not at my desk, and Apple had discontinued the 12-inch lineup and replaced it with the 13-inch plastic MacBook which came in white or black. Those plastic laptops never appealed to me, which meant there was only one option: the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Fast forward a few more years to the summer of 2011 where the laptop which superseded my MacBook Pro was a 13-inch MacBook Air.

Everything about the Air was appealing to me except for one thing: the screen. By the summer of 2011 I was no longer doing print design work and so I wasn’t in absolute need of the biggest screen I could carry in one arm. But my affection for a large screen remained. I was able to justify this conflict thanks to the fact that the 13-inch MacBook Air has the same number of pixels as my 15-inch MacBook Pro. Therefore it would provide me with all the same screen real-estate, just in a smaller and sharper image. I was okay with that; I have good eyes.

But there was a second drawback to the screen on the MacBook Air and that was the screen itself. Though it’s not adorned with a sheet of glass like you find on the modern MacBook Pros and iMacs, it does have a slight shine to it. It’s not matte, it’s glossy.

I thought long and hard about if I could handle working on a glossy screen. It seems like a trite detail, but if you’re a nerd then you understand. We all have our various trite details which can act as peas under our mattresses, and I feared that the MacBook Air’s glossy display would cause me to lose sleep at night.

In my mind’s eye I placed the glossy screen on one side of the scale and on the other I placed the all the rest of the hardware (the new i7 Core Duo processor, the Solid State Drive, the long-lasting battery, the Thunderbolt connection, the slim and light form factor). It was no contest and the scales tipped heavily in favor of the bells and whistles of the new MacBook Airs. I drove to the local Apple store and bought one.

And after all that the glossy screen has proven to be a non-issue for me. What a boring end to the story, right?

There is something that I left out, however. And it’s that all my time using my 15-inch MacBook Pro, I was wishing for a version of it that copied the Air’s form factor. A lightweight, teardrop-shaped laptop that was minus an optical drive and had a Solid State Drive and 15-inch screen. To me, at the time, that sounded like the ideal laptop.

You can do well to figure out future Apple rumors by simply betting on what seems obvious-but-is-not-yet. And a 15-inch MacBook Air strikes me as just such a device. It’s not “mind-blowing” because we can all imagine what it will look like. And it’s not “exciting” because we can all pretty much see it coming — surely it’s only a matter of time.

Earlier this week 9to5 Mac posted a rumor about the what an upcoming 15-inch MacBook Pro may look like. According to this rumor, however, the new MacBook Pro would look just like the current model but thinner, rather than sporting an Air-like teardrop shape.

The biggest talking point, however, isn’t about the size or shape of the laptop but rather the pixels on the screen. The next MacBook Pro is supposedly going to have a Retina display.

The iPhone 4 was too amazing to not push that display into bigger and bigger devices. Retina display Macs have been a long time coming. Last summer, with Lion, the phrase being whispered on the air was the Back to the Mac tagline which Apple themselves used when first demoing the new operating system. That tagline continues to stay relevant, because not only is the software of iOS continually influencing OS X, but we are seeing iOS hardware make its way “Back to the Mac” as well. The Magic Trackpad is a good example, “natural scrolling” is another, and next will be the Retina display.

The idea of a Retina display on a Macintosh sounds fantastic. The words I’m typing at this moment are onto my iPad with its high resolution screen, and the text looks stellar. Retina displays rock. Sure, there are downsides and ugly bits that a Retina display Mac would bring with it — such as non-retina applications and websites — and Marco Arment does a good job of articulating those.

I have the good fortune of using applications on my Mac that are developed by bleeding edge developers. In addition to the native OS X apps I use (Mail and Safari), the 3rd-party apps like OmniFocus, Yojimbo, Coda, Transmit, MarsEdit, Byword, iA Writer, and others which are all run by developers which I have no doubt will be quick to update their Mac applications to support Apple’s new high resolution displays.

While it’s true that non-Retina apps on a Retina screen are like sandpaper on the eyes, the tradeoff is worth it to me. I will suffer ugly graphics on the Web in exchange for print-like text, sharp high-resolution photos, and all the other elements of the operating system which will have Retina assets.

I heard someone mention that it’s not unlike iOS shipping without support for Flash. There was a short period of time when you didn’t get the “full web” when on your iPhone and iPad, but now, a few years later, I can’t remember the last time I visited a website and my iPad was sent back out to the cold thanks to its lack of Flash.

* * *

I began this article talking about how fond I am of big displays with lots of unused space. Contrasted against this truth is the fact that I also enjoy working from my iPad. My iPad is the smallest screen I work from.

Not including my iPhone (I don’t work on that device) I have three work screens. Listed in order of screen size, from smallest to largest, they are: iPad, MacBook Air, and Cinema Display. But listed in order of pixels, from least to greatest, they are: MacBook Air, Cinema Display, iPad.

The smallest working screen is also the one which sports the most pixels. Surely there is a connection here as to why I prefer to work from either my extra large Cinema Display or my extra dense iPad.

Retina displays are coming to the Macintosh — it’s only a matter of time — and the sooner the better.

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