Higher-definition. Less power-hungry. Thinner. Those are some of the terms describing the displays on Apple’s latest iMac models and MacBook Pros. And you can expect those same traits to define the monitors on the company’s desktop and laptop systems for the next two years.
Buyers want, even expect, longer battery life and sleeker design with every new generation of Apple products. And we should see the company continuing to put out machines that satisfy this market, partly because it recognises that the display is a crucial part of the user experience.
That isn’t typical of the rest of the computer-display market, though. Monitor makers have hit hard times lately, in large part because IT departments nowadays treat their products as afterthoughts: better-quality screens aren’t a high priority. That, in turn, has brought down profits and prices.
Apple, with its introduction of Retina displays and Thunderbolt technology, is the exception to that trend, as its brand is based on quality rather than price. Since it focuses on the high end of the market, it can make good-looking screens a higher priority.
So in light of those broader market trends, what kinds of displays can we expect to see over the next couple of years?
More Retina, Slowly
Of course, Apple introduced the high-definition Retina screens to the iPhone and then the iPad before bringing the technology to the MacBook Pro in stages. Even though HD screens are expensive, consumers are still prepared to pay for them.
If like us you’ve used a Retina display for a while and then tried working with an old screen, you’ll be aware that it’s very hard to go back. As Retina displays spread through Apple’s product lines, they will become yet another feature that separates it from other computer, tablet and smartphone vendors.
This rollout could be slower on the desktop front though, largely because it’s still more cost-effective to use standard-definition technology for displays measuring 19 inches and bigger. And that means the iMac could be the last to go Retina.
In the end, Apple may decide that larger displays aren’t the best use of Retina technology. You can argue that it would be overkill for a 24in or 27in monitor; it would be gorgeous, but it would also be expensive.
Apple is facing competition for its Cinema Display line (last updated in July 2011). Its current line-up of large monitors relies on high-grade in-plane switching (IPS) panels, which allow a broad gamut of colours to be visible from a wide range of angles. But Samsung is set to release its new plane-to-line switching (PLS) displays, which it claims beats IPS for viewing angles, brightness, image quality and cost of production. Analysts expect Samsung to come out with a series of low-end PLS-based monitors next year. We’ll have to see how Apple responds.
More Screen on Your Monitor
The newly released iPad mini (read our review at bit.ly/RzhRII), with a much smaller bezel than earlier iPads, offers a clue about the future of Mac displays. As do the new iMac models, which are 45 per cent thinner and around 4kg lighter than previous generations of the computer. In other words, smaller bezels and shrinking profiles are expected to become the norm for standalone computer displays, as well as for all-in-one machines. One particular benefit: the slimmer the display panel, the lower the power consumption.
No Desktop Touchscreens
Apple’s Cinema Displays (above) use high-grade IPS panels, while the latest iMac models (below) have slim and light displays.
Since iOS devices have led the way for Apple on the HD display front, some may argue it stands to reason that the portable devices’ touchscreen technology is also on the way to the Mac. After all, competitors such as HP have been incorporating touchscreens on their desktop and laptop systems for years.
Apple has been resistant, though. Steve Jobs famously observed that the ergonomics for desktop touchscreens are all wrong: reaching up to interact with your computer is a lot less comfortable than keeping your hands down on a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad.
On top of that, although Apple has so far been careful to maintain the boundary between its iOS and Mac operating systems, maintaining that boundary would be more difficult if everything the company produced had a touchscreen. The latest versions of the Mac OS have employed trackpads as touch-by-proxy, and the market seems to like that compromise.
One final question mark for Apple’s display technologies: what happens with Thunderbolt? Making that connector port standard on all Apple computers certainly makes good economic sense; the company can reduce overall costs by using Thunderbolt ubiquitously rather than just on the high end. And although Thunderbolt lets you connect four HD screens at a time, how many people want that?
The same economics that allow Apple to include Thunderbolt on all its computers helps it put high-end displays on them, too. Customers don’t expect Apple to offer the best-possible technology yet charge only £400 for each laptop. Without pressure to keep the costs of displays down, the company can be more adventurous with its offerings.
As with Thunderbolt ports, deploying such screens widely makes them more economical. Apple is often a first-mover on new technologies. That allows it to lock up the supply chain and gain a price advantage. And that means Apple is unlikely to go back to using average displays.