Mac OS X Lion builds in support for ultra-high resolution ‘Retina’ displays

“Today, Apple seeded Mac OS developers with the first preview of Mac OS X Lion. Apple has outlined a number of new features such as new Mail client, document Versions, and much more,” Arnold Kim reports for MacRumors.

“But one particularly interesting under-the-hood change that we’ve learned about is an evolution of Mac OS X’s ‘resolution independence’ features,” Kim reports. “Resolution independence has been a long talked about feature that would eventually provide support for high DPI (dots per inch) displays.”

Kim reports, “While there has been the beginnings of support for it starting in Mac OS X Tiger (10.4) and into Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6), full support was never realized. In Mac OS X Lion, however, references to Resolution Independence has been replaced with a new system that could pave the way for these super high resolution ‘Retina’ monitors.”

Read more in the full article here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Fred Mertz” for the heads up.]


  1. The display does not have to be “Retina” (above 300 pixels per inch) for this to be beneficial. Some GUI elements, such as the Menu Bar, are directly tied to pixel size (they have NO resolution independence). They are getting to be too small already, with some screens hitting “just” 130 PPI.

    However, some GUI elements, such as the Dock can already be adjusted to any size (they have FULL resolution independence). Other GUI elements, such as icon size on the desktop, can be adjusted incrementally in size (they have partial resolution independence).

    I think the major Mac OS release AFTER Lion (when it’s no longer “X”) will have complete resolution independence. That’s when Mac displays will approach the “Retina” range. Then, the term “native resolution” for new Macs will become meaningless; the user will be able to smoothly and continuously adjust the overall screen resolution using some type of “slider” control, and it will look equally sharp at any setting.

    Until then, I think Lion will implement changes “as needed” to keep things usable with the screens that go above the current 130 PPI max, during the next two years.

    1. I’ve heard many complaints about how small the text is in the Menu Bar. Finder window sidebar text is also ridiculously small already on the highest-resolution displays. We were talking about the need for resolution-independent displays when I worked at Adobe in the late 80’s and 90’s… and I’m still waiting for it to appear. Or maybe it already exists and I missed the announcement because the text on my screen is too small to read!

        1. But that’s “only” 109 PPI (not the 130 on some of those new MacBooks), although most people would use a huge iMac display at a greater distance from eyes compared to MacBook (so it may be about equivalent). And yes, some people DO have better eyes than others.

          The growing problem with the current Mac OS X design is pixel density (that PPI number), not overall resolution (the two X-Y numbers). If Apple wants to go too much higher than the current ~130 PPI max during Lion’s run, Lion will have to do something to address it. Otherwise, I predict that Apple will stay at 100 to 130 PPI for Mac displays until the super-major “overhaul” of the Mac’s OS (AFTER Lion). They’re probably working on it already, in their super-secret lab.

      1. Resolution independent displays existed with the original NextStep and its Display PostScript, however that was abandoned in Mac OS X in favor of the cheaper PDF-based Quartz.

  2. ken1w – thanks for a succinct and accurate capsule of the resolution independence issue. I think your assessment of how Apple will handle this capability in Lion and future OS versions is accurate as well. About the only thing you didn’t mention is that I think we can expect to see the same tech in iOS in the next two years, too.

    1. You getting a bit ahead of the tech. 🙂 For the 15-inch MacBook Pro, the standard res is 1440×900 (about 110 PPI). The HIGH res is 1650×1050 (about 130 PPI).

      Even the 17-inch MacBook Pro is “only” at 1920×1200 (again about 130 PPI).

      It’s NOT about “resolution.” It’s really about pixel density; how small the pixels are and how that affects usability with the current Mac OS X. 130 PPI seems to be about the max, so if Apple wants to go even a little higher during the time “Lion is king,” they need to make some changes in how the OS handles those tiny pixels.

  3. Why on earth would anyone want retina display resolution on an iMac or MacBook Pro? That would cause significant shrinkage to the icons, text and any other thing that is tied to screen resolution.

    Pretty soon you’d end up with ant sized icons which would need super duper vision to even make out what it represented.

      1. Do you not read what I say with respect to retina display resolution as given in the article’s title as opposed to high resolution display? There is a difference. One amounts to an over exaggeration of display quality while the other strives to give a higher display standard.

        1. …”That would cause significant shrinkage to the icons, text and any other thing that is tied to screen resolution. Pretty soon you’d end up with ant sized icons which would need super duper vision to even make out what it represented.”‘/i>

          Ken1w explained very clearly why high pixel density should make no difference if the ‘Retina Display’ support is properly implemented in the form of true resolution independence. As he had already explained, just like the dock can be adjusted to any size, so will other graphical elements become either fully adjustable, or fully independent from pixel density. Much like when a document is prepared for printing, a 24-point tall typeface will always appear 24-point tall, whether looked at on a LCD monitor, inkjet printout or some other output device.

          Nothing prevents Apple from designing OS GUI elements in a way that defines their absolute dimensions (in mm, or inches, or whatever measurement system they choose to use), and let OS use whatever pixels are available on the output medium to display them.

    1. Icon shrinkage is exactly the problem being addressed by the new “HiDPI display modes” the article talks about.

      The new 15″ MacBook Pro is available with a 1440×900 display or a 2880×1800 display (for an extra $100) WITH THE SAME SIZE ICONS. No shrinkage. Just choose the “Hi-Res” configuration at the Apple online store.

      1. There is NO option for 2880×1800, even on the 17-inch MacBook Pro. The $100 “high-resolution” option is 1650×1050.

        At 15-inch 2880×1800 display with Snow Leopard would be nearly unusable.

  4. ken1w’s concept is NOT screen resolution independence. At best it describes an smart vector graphics implementation.

    It has nothing to do with what is being done in the Dock which is a vector graphics implementation and is screen resolution independent. It has nothing to do with “Retina Displays”.

    Screen resolution can be thought of this way by doing this “thought experiment”:

    1. Start up a Mac with a 100.42 dpi screen.
    2. Open Illustrator or other vector graphics drawing program and draw a 10″ circle on the screen. Make it as close to 10″ diameter as physically possible.
    3. Save & close the file and exit the program.
    4. Open the file and verify that the circle on the screen is still 10″ in diameter.
    5. Close the program and shut down the computer.
    6. Replace the monitor with one that has a very different screen dpi — say 157.32 dpi.
    7. Restart the computer and open the file.
    8. If the circle on the screen is still 10″ in diameter then you have true screen resolution independence.
    9. Shut everything down and replace the monitor with one that has a “Retina Display”, say 325.1 dpi.
    10. Start everythin back up and open the file.
    11. If the circle is 10″ in diameter then you have true screen resolution independence. If it is different then you don’t have screen resolution independence.

    Another way to look at it is to hook up both the monitors concurrently.
    Open the file on the one with the 100.42 dpi and verify it is 10″ in diameter.
    Drag that window over to the 157.32 dpi screen.
    Is it still 10″ in diameter? If not you don’t have screen resolution independence.

    There are two issues with this:
    1. This takes a LOT of computational power as everything must scale — very likely in floating point. All screen draws must be scaled. No assumptions on fixed point sizes.
    2. How does the computer/OS know the screens’ resoltuons? It could be input manually (at startup or in a control panel), but it would be better if the computer/OS could queery the monitor to get that information directly. However, that won’t happen for some time (if ever).

    1. Mac OS tends to know quite well what is the PPI value of attached monitors. Since pretty much ALL modern monitors identify themselves over DVI (even VGA) to the OS, based on the model pixel resolution and display size (18″, 1280×1024, for example), OS can easily figure out the PPI value.

      None of today’s GUI OSes has complete resolution independence. However, at least on Mac (I don’t know for Windows), most professional applications that deal with graphic (DTP, illustration, image manipulation, etc) actually HAVE decent level of support for resolution independence. In Illustrator, for example, there is a setting for PPI value in preferences. Based on this setting, Illustrator will always display the image correctly. If it does not figure it out directly from the OS, which it often does, you can manually change it to whatever PPI value is for your display.

      I believe that both InDesign and Illustrator have independent settings when more than one display is connected to the computer, so they will always display the content in exactly correct size.

      1. Some monitors report their information, but most of those that do are not all that accurate in their reporting. Additionally, in most cases these are so called “standard” resolutions (VGA and it’s many follow ons). For true screen resolution independence it would not matter what the resolution is. You could hook up something like one of IBM’s old T221 monitors and you’d still get a proper 10″ circle or you could be driving something like one of E&S’s 8k x 4k systems and you’d still get a 10″ circle.

        Also taking Illustrator or any other graphics program and having it do the job is not the point here. We’re discussing screen resolution independence in the OS.

        And I’ve never found a way for InDesign or Illustrator to show true image size when I’ve moved the window across multiple monitors that have very different dpi levels. (Typical work environment is an Apple 30″ display as main and a third party 21″ auxiliary.)

    2. By the way, there is no need to shut down a Mac and re-start if all you’re doing is disconnecting and re-connecting monitors. Mac is smart enough to figure out when a monitor is hooked up (click ‘Detect displays’).

      1. Yes, the Mac OS does not care about swapping monitors mid stream. However, many video cards react very badly to hot swapping. Blow up just one $1,000 plus video card and never hot swap again.

    3. The step missing from your steps is that after drawing a vector image at a specific “real-world” physical size (10 inches for example), you would then need to tell the application to view the image at “actual size” (which may or may not be the same as 100% size, depending on how the application is coded). If the program is smart enough to do that correctly, then you can follow the remainder of the steps, repeating the “view at actual size” part as necessary.

      But even then, you are testing only one application in the OS. The vector app could be smarter or dumber than the OS when it comes to resolution independence. Another step would be to open the saved graphics file in another application (maybe OS X Preview app), scaled to “actual size” (assuming it had such a feature), on another display, with a different PPI resolution, and see if it appeared the correct size. If so, you’d know you had a good resolution-independent OS architecture.

  5. My wife a teacher would like a Mac but stays with a PC because she can change the DPI in Windows. The smaller Fonts are no big deal if your younger. But I can definitely say that I will not buy a super high resolution Mac.

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