John Gruber spills 2000 words on the importance of pixels and typography and the awesomeness of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display without ever mentioning that most apps look like ass and relegating to a footnote that the fifteen inch laptop size is a jack of all trades master of none that fits few people’s needs

(Update: On September 19, a couple of months after the retina MacBook Pro came out, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the higher-resolution display. And then in December, Adobe finally updated Photoshop. Most other Adobe apps remained non-retina ready.)

Along with all the usual crop of rave reviews from Apple publications of Apple’s latest flagship notebook, the 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina display, John Gruber’s is probably the most disappointing. The Daring Fireball author offers lofty praise for the new notebook and its dazzling screen:

Like no Apple device since the original 2007 iPhone, the new Retina 15-inch MacBook Pro feels like a device from the near future, something slightly beyond the ken of today’s cutting edge.

But the main thing is the display. That display. This display. Oh my.
Daring Fireball, Monday 13 August 2012

Funny thing about fonts and that gee-whiz display, though, funny thing Gruber forgot to mention. And Macworld forgot to mention in its even longer review. And a lot of other people forgot to mention. If you sling your words in almost any non-Apple program, the fonts look like ass. Total ass. Total, unmitigated ass¹.

Although Gruber says you wouldn’t be able to appreciate Retina crispness on an older display², I snuck this screen shot off a Retina MacBook Pro today which was running OS X “Mountain Lion” with all the latest upgraded apps. Click on the picture below to see a much larger version of the image.
Good and bad font display on retina macbook pro

The program in the upper left corner is Microsoft Word. Look at the jaggies in that 12 point type. Ugly. Now look over to the top right. That’s Apple’s own Pages program with the same words in the same font also at 12 points. Yummy. Likewise, in mid-screen is Apple’s TextEdit program. Smooth as a baby’s bottom. And in the lower foreground, Adobe’s Dreamweaver with text that looks like, well, like ass as Gruber might say.

But, hey, the guy at the Apple store tells me everything will look a lot better as soon as other software makers update their apps to take advantage of the Retina display.

How long will that take for Adobe, which showed a pre-release version of Photoshop at Apple’s Retina display press conference? No one knows. It’s helpfully “in the future,” says Photoshop kingpin John Nack. What about other text-heavy Adobe apps like Dreamweaver? No clue. Or what about Microsoft, not exactly known for ever bringing its popular Office apps like Word and Excel up to the latest and greatest OS X features? Absolutely no idea but sounds pretty far off. So we’re talking about the most popular programs that professional Mac users use every day. Seems worth mentioning in a review, no?

So, okay, the MacBook Pro with Retina display — It’s a not-ready-for-primetime-player of a Mac, a rare misstep in Apple’s lengthy track record of getting things right.

But the lack of Retina-ready apps isn’t the only problem and probably not even the most serious one. There’s also the question of who exactly needs this 15″ portable powerhouse that’s a lot bigger and heavier than a Macbook Air but lighter than a breadbox. Even Gruber seems a bit confused on this score, although he relegates his doubts to a footnote:

When I’m at my desk I want a big standalone display; when I’m away from the desk I want the smallest, lightest MacBook possible. The 15-inch retina MacBook Pro doesn’t fit this model. It’s way heavier and clumsier than the Air when used as a portable (especially on airplanes, a frequent mobile use case for me), and it would be criminal to put this machine on my desk only to hook it up to a fat-pixeled non-retina Cinema Display.

As I wrote about recently in my “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” post, Apple’s current line up is annoyingly out of step with customer needs right now. The Retina display is ahead of its time and comes only on a tweener notebook size and weight that’s falling out of favor faster than Gotye’s last music video. But more desirable MacBook Airs don’t have a Retina display and the desktop line doesn’t even have the latest Intel processors, flash hard drives standard or even USB 3.0 yet, not to mention the lack of Retina-ready external displays. What’s a poor Mac lover to do? Hurry up and wait, I’d recommend.

UPDATE: Thanks to John for linking back here just now. He asks: “I’m not sure what Pressman’s argument is, though. It’s no different than any previous transition — PowerPC to Intel, classic Mac OS to Mac OS X, etc. Apple ships first; developers like Microsoft and Adobe catch up later.”

Easy answer: I’m not seeking “complaining” but reviews of the Retina MacBook Pro ought to clearly let people know that a lot of apps not only don’t get Retina-quality text but actually look worse than they do on older, non-Retina displays. I’m not blaming Apple or anyone, really. It’s just a highly relevent fact to a potential buyer.

Having read a bunch of early reviews, similar to John’s, I went into the Apple store in June thinking I might actually buy one soon. But I was shocked at how poorly some of the apps displayed text. So the apps aren’t ready yet, hence the bottom line: hurry up and wait.


¹There is this vague bit but it doesn’t make clear that non-Apple apps are screwed and implies it’s only a problem on web sites: “Retina text looks better on the MacBook Pro than on the iPhone or iPad, even when you move in pretty close to the screen — and non-retina text and graphics (on the web, or UI elements in not-optimized-for-retina-yet apps) look far worse on the MacBook Pro than they do on the iPad or iPhone”

²There’s at least one other minor, if glaring, error in the piece. Gruber says the new Retina Macbook Pro is “noticeably and appreciably thinner and lighter than any previous MacBook Pro.” But at 4.46 according to Apple’s specs, it weighs exactly nine-tenths of one percent less than the 4.5 pound 13″ MacBook Pro (like the one I’m typing on right now), which doesn’t count as either noticeably or appreciably lighter in my book.

  • David

    “But at 4.46 according to Apple’s specs, it weighs exactly nine-tenths of one percent less than the 4.5 pound 13? MacBook Pro (like the one I’m typing on right now)”
    So are you saying that because a 15″ laptop is barely lighter than your 13″ laptop, it is not lighter than the previous 15″ laptop?

  • Quote was “any previous Macbook Pro” not the previous model 15″ MBP

  • Jurassic

    Someone forgot to take their happy-pill this morning. ;-)

  • yoshipod

    This is why Apple refused to allow flash based apps on iOS.

    The reason that non-Apple apps have such crappy text is that they are not using the APIs that Apple provides. They are either using their own text APIs or extending Apples in a way that breaks retina compatibility.

    If you use the tools Apple provides to develop your Apps, you should be fine with future proofing, like retina displays.

  • RedMercury

    I think you’re sort of missing the point here.

    It isn’t about whether Apple should have released the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Apple does this–they drag developers kicking and screaming along behind them. It’s not a bad thing.

    The point is that the “Mac Press” that is ignoring this very important fact. If you use Adobe or Microsoft products with a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, your text will look like crap. This is a fact that John Gruber, noted Apple sycophant, will choose to ignore. This is a fact that MacWorld will choose to ignore–or at least stick it in a footnote somewhere (“Oh, yeah, if you use third-party apps for text, it will look somewhat less than ideal.”)

    I have no problem with reviewers waxing poetic about the gorgeous display. But if the applications I need to use look like ass, that’s kind of an important thing for me to know.

    So, an important take-away here: Definitely don’t depend on Gruber or MacWorld for decent reviews.

  • RedMercury

    The “size” issue of the MacBook depends really on your use.

    I have a *gasp* 17″ MacBook Pro. I love the nice big screen. At home, I pair it up with an old 20″ Samsung.

    You’re right that I’m not going to flip it open and use it on the airplane. I’ll probably not whip it out in the coffee shop. But when I arrive at my destination, I can pull it out and have plenty of screen real-estate for Xcode and my application.

    I refer to these devices as “Transportable.” You can reasonably take them with you when you go somewhere. You won’t use them on the go, but you can carry them with you.

  • chris

    if we are going to pick nits, the mbp is indeed appreciably thinner than any previous mbp, it is also lighter than any previous mbp.

  • macgamester

    So tell me, if the Retina MacBook Pro has no place, what I should buy for my college student who wants:
    1) A Mac
    2) A machine capable of playing some modern games (Starcraft 2, Civilization V) decently well
    3) A notebook (not an iPad – his personal preference) that he can carry to class and around campus.

    Buy a MacBook Air AND an iMac? Get real.
    Buy a MacBook Air and a PC desktop for gaming? Another waste and a support nightmare.
    Buy a MacBook Air and an XBox? He won’t have a separate TV, and many of the games he likes aren’t on the XBox.
    Buy a “classic” Macbook Pro? It’s gotta have a decent graphics chip, so that means the 15″ version. If you take the 15″ version and spec it like the Retina MBP, it ends up costing more and being heavier. What advantage does this give?
    Buy a MacBook Air and tell him he’s not going to college to play games? This sounds attractive but I’d rather not have him hating me for the next 4 years :-)

    In the end, it seems to me that it’s the “classic” 15″ MacBook Pro that has no place, and the Retina MBP is the one to beat.

  • Mike

    “I’m not blaming Apple or anyone, really. It’s just a highly relevent fact to a potential buyer.”

    But… you are blaming Apple, it seems to me:

    “It’s a not-ready-for-primetime-player of a Mac, a rare misstep in Apple’s lengthy track record of getting things right.”

  • I’ve got the retina display MBP and although the difference in apps updated and not updated for it is noticeable, it’s not a huge deal. I do have to use MS Word on it because I have to grade papers in Word, using the built-in comment system, but it’s really not a major bother. If anything apps that aren’t updated simply look like they do on a normal screen. It’s the apps updated for the retina display that bring out the difference. I’m incredibly satisfied with mine. There’s no way I’d use anything else now.

  • John Smith

    This screen shot is 2560×1600. How does that work on the Retina MacBook Pro? How do things look at the “native” 1440×900 Retina resolution that should fit well with pixel doubling?

  • John, the screen shot comes across at that huge size even though the MBP was set at the middle “best for retina display” setting which emulates 1440×900 (actually 1920×1200, I think). I looked at all 5 settings and the text display problem is visible in all of them. Good explanation here:

  • MrMLK

    Two problems with this post:

    1) You show a huge 2880×1800 graphic to make a point about how much worse non-retina apps look on the retina display. And yup, if you blow the image up on a non-retina display, they look pretty bad. If you show them at 1-1 on a retina display, they don’t look as good as the retina apps, but they are certainly usable. But more important, if you take that same image and look at it the same size on (for example) a 24″ cinema display, the old apps look exactly the same. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t want retina apps, it means that people who say that the apps are not usable on a retina display are talking themselves into something. If the comparison is killing you, just run your apps maxmized and you will be surprised to see how quickly you stop noticing.

    2) Your bigger problem is your comment about “who needs this computer”. Here you make the mistake that a lot of bloggers make. You assume that because you don’t need one, no one does. You are wrong. Many people for many reasons are not happy with an Air, even though it is smaller. While I am happy for you that the Air is good enough, surely you can understand that for some people more weight/size is worth it to get a bigger screen.

  • You’re certainly entitled to your opinion in #2 but the image is not blown up — it is the actual screen shot off the MBP which is displaying at an effectivelty smaller size. The crappy fonts are quite clear with their jaggies and ghosting. Go look and see for yourself. One commenter claims this is no worse than on non-retina displays which is simply false. More about screen shots and the retina resolution here

  • You are wrong., sorry. See for example links I provided of people complaining about using Word on the retina display. It’s much worse than a non-retina display.

  • Who’s it for? People who live on their laptop, same as MBPs always have been. If that’s not you, then it’s not for you. You’re committing the classic “I don’t need it, so nobody does” mistake.

  • A

    The Retina is ideal for developers, though — it’s a lightweight powerhouse machine that displays text as wonderfully crisp; ironically enough, is retina-ready!

    Using tmux+vim, or I reckon most other non-fancy text editors, is a boon on the Retina, as well as having this many IVB cores.

    That’s probably one of the main reasons Apple started off with just the 15″ — it’s clearly a dev-first machine, not yet ready for general consumption.

    For me, and I imagine plenty more like me, it’s the perfect machine.

  • mikelpr

    It’s terribly ugly, I agree.
    It actually drove me to make a drag-and-drop app that fixes text rendering and UI widgets since they shouldn’t be pixelated just because apps lack retina rendering.

    Here it is, it’s free :)

  • I guess it really depends on what toolset you use. I use Safari/TextMate/Pages/XCode/Photoshop and except for Photoshop, all is perfection. And when I use Photoshop, the focus is always on my image, which looks great.

    So I wouldn’t say most apps “look like ass”. It just depends on your specific workflow. I wouldn’t be surprised if in time people’s app sets change if Adobe et al don’t get their acts together.


  • jose

    i have this new laptop and I have been fairly surprised at the poor quality of type on many apps – especially since i bought it for… reading and writing. i haven’t felt this cutting edge since… well, never. :-)

  • Tom

    When shopping for one in the Apple store, I noticed the ugliness of MS Office apps on the Retina too. It concerned me a bit, but then I remembered that I haven’t used Office in years.

    2 months in, all the apps that I use (admittedly not that many: Xcode, Reeder, Chrome, Evernote, vim, iTerm, Sparrow) are retina upgraded. Even before they were upgraded, they were not nearly as bad as Office, which seems to be an outlier in terms of visual badness.

    The retina display is a godsend for those who want to do Xcode development on their laptop and by far the best laptop I’ve ever used. The minor issue of eventually running into some rendering ugliness down the road is an acceptable trade-off.

    I can see how things may be different for heavy Office users with an eye for beauty, but if the, IMHO, superb Retina Mac is considered a misstep, then Apple doesn’t have to worry.

    Somebody had to introduce a product hidef LCD panels first, and that product would inevitable result into some rendering issues. What was the alternative? Holding off forever?

  • good point, one would assume that the comparison was 15″ to 15″

  • Warren

    Let the market decide! Non retina display apps are still useable and, over time, many will be updated. In the meantime, we can all “suffer” a bit with those apps which are less than pristine. Alternatively, the customer may gravitate towards retina display apps. The fact the Apple offers both models gives us and you choice in the matter. Pushing the envelop while providing choice is what we want from Apple. They have done far more here than they usually do…

  • Caesar

    Your screenshot is misleading. It’s a full 2560×1600 image, which when viewed at 1×1 pixel size will greatly exaggerate how bad the fonts look. When viewed on a Retina MBP with the pixels the proper size, the non-Retina apps look normal.

    What you’re seeing as the fonts looking like ass is fonts on non-Retina displays do, in fact, look like ass.

    (sorry if this is a dupe, wasn’t sure if my first one went through)

  • Caesar

    Exactly. The retina MBP is a fantastic machine.

  • Tom

    The screenshot is not misleading. I’ve seen it in real life: it’s really that ugly. But Office is the only non-retina enabled app that I’ve seen for which it’s *that* bad. I can’t really explain why other non-retina enabled apps don’t suffer as much. (E.g. Sparrow and Reeder, before they were fixed, rendered the left side bar text extremely soft, as if sent through a low pass filter, though the main text was fine.)

    I don’t use Office, so it wasn’t a deal breaker for me, but if you’re using it full time, it’s definitely not pretty.


  • Seurahepo

    “The Retina display is a godsend for those who want to do Xcode development on their laptop”

    I am not disputing it, but could you elaborate a bit. Why is it so wonderful? Just because of crisp text, or can you go for smaller fonts, And see more code, at the same time?

  • retina owner

    Load up a Word document on the retina Mac, and the same document on any other laptop. Compare them side by side. It isn’t that Word on the retina Mac is somehow magically worse, it is that proper high res content on the retina Mac is so, so, so much better, that when you see ugly old pixels, you think, “Hey, that looks like ass.” Actually, you’ve been looking at ass all along.

  • Account 765

    Dude, you seem pretty irritable . . . it’s a computer with a great screen and some apps look poor on it.

    Oh well. It’s not for you . . . but, no one’s screwed who buys that laptop. They likely have more money than you and can afford it.

    And, Gotye references? Really?

  • Tom

    – Crisp test that’s still very clear in 1920×1200 mode. On the old MPB 15, the 1920×1200 was ok, but now it’s better.
    – Interface Builder -> retina iPhone/iPad simulator. Though that’s less of a factor for me.

  • designcouch

    You just made my day with this comment. I could NOT agree more.

  • Jon T

    Seems to me that if there is reluctance to upgrade apps on the part of Microsoft and Adobe, then it is just one more illustration of further behind they are falling.

    Apple will continue to lead, and over time more and more will switch to Mac, whichever the model for them. And for me? As a photographer, theRetina is a dream come true.

  • neapel

    Wow, that is terrible, especially scaling the subpixel anti-aliasing, which makes no sense at all. Didn’t Apple invent DisplayPDF for that exact reason? To render Fonts at native resolution under any circumstances?

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  • Jen

    They really do look worse. I am working on a UI project that looks crisp and clean on my old 13″ MBP, but now that I’ve switched to the 15″ retina, it looks pixilated and awful. Even vector shapes in Illustrator look pixilated on the retina because Adobe isn’t optimized for retina yet. Very frustrating when designing.

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