MacBook Pro with Retina Display or MacBook Air? Compromises abound.

I had previously wrote and talked my about my plans to get a 13-inch MacBook Air with a 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. It seemed like the perfect on-the-go and at-home setup I could think of. Then Apple released a high DPI laptop display.

High DPI (dots per inch) displays are the future of computing (Apple calls these Retina Displays). These displays are already taking over on cell phones and tablets. I wouldn’t recommend getting anything less than a cell phone with a least 300 DPI or a tablet with at least 250 DPI. Your eyes will thank you.

And so, why would I recommend going with a non-high DPI laptop now that one is available? The new MacBook Pro has 220 pixels per inch (PPI). The 13-inch MacBook AIr has 128.  We’re not talking about remotely comparable experiences here (the farther away you use a computing display, the lower the PPI needed for a good experience, which is why cell phones really need a lot of pixels per inch).

Yet, I’m conflicted. I’d prefer something lighter than the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. The MacBook Air that I had my sights set on is about 1.5 lbs. lighter. That’s a big deal when you’re on the go a lot, and I will be traveling to school a few times a week and working from different locations with my laptop.

I also never saw myself seriously considering a 15-inch laptop. I find that 13-inch displays are the sweet spot. They work well in a desk or on the go. The 11-inch Air and similar laptops also make more sense to me as laptops than 15-inch ones do, but they really benefit from an external display for longer work sessions.

But that Retina Display. 220 pixels per inch. 2880 by 1880.

How could I go with anything but a high DPI display if I have the choice? Within two years, I would expect all Macs to ship with Retina Dislays. Within five years, the only way to get a non-high DPI display will be to buy a really bottom-of-the-barrel computer — something that I wouldn’t recommend for work purposes.  Buying a non-Retina Display Mac is buying into the past.

I don’t think I could do that. I’ve suffered from eye strain for several years, and the high DPI displays on the latest iPad and the last two iPhones have made a real difference in my life.

My eyes became less fatigued. It’s easier for me to read, write and get work done. A lot of people will discover that their eyes feel a lot better when they start using displays with higher pixel densities.

Eye strain doesn’t just manifest itself with pain. Eyes train can cause chronic dry eyes, headaches, migraines and other physical issues. It can also cause you to must not want to work anymore.

It’s a serious issue.

As a person studying usability and computer interfaces, I’m torn between the increased usability of a higher DPI display and the increased usability of a lighter, smaller computer. And my back and shoulders would prefer the lighter laptop.

I expect it to be at least a year (more likely two) until we see Retina Displays in MacBook Airs do to the GPU and battery demands. We may see a 13-inch MacBook Pro before then, but that will still be a bit heavier than a MacBook Air. I need to buy a new computer this summer.

Obviously, I’m leaning heavily towards the MacBook Pro, despite it’s bigger size. But I haven’t made up my mind yet.

Note: It’s not the resolution that matters but rather the resolution / display size while also taking operating distance into account. Sitting on a couch, text is perfectly readable on an HDTV, but get up close and everything goes to hell.

That Thunderbolt Display is definitely not happening, however. There is no sense in spending $1,000 on a display that will be obsolete in a year or two and that will look out of place next to a high DPI laptop screen.

What are your thoughts? Will you be buying a non-high DPI display again? How big of a laptop would you buy?