The Old World Display

Maybe a decade ago, a web-designer and friend of mine told me a classic “client from hell” story. The details have since become fuzzy, but the crux of the story revolved around a particular design the client wouldn’t approve. There was this one detail that was off, a particular element that just wouldn’t center properly in the layout (it was insisted). Thankfully the client had come up with a seemingly simple fix: just draw half a pixel! Who would’ve guessed that just a decade later, “The Apple Retina Display” would herald the arrival of just that: the halfpixel?

While the term “retina” is mainly marketing chatter meant to imply that you can’t see the pixels on the screen, it’s not just about making sure the display is arbitrarily high resolution. In fact, it’s pixel-doubling. The 1024×768 iPad doubled to 2048×1536 when going retina, and while the implicit goal of this was clarity and crispness, the exact doubling of screen dimensions means UIs elements scale perfectly: 1 pixel simply becomes 4 pixels. It’s quite brilliant, and there’s only one pitfall.

For a designer it’s more than easy to get carried away with quadruple the canvas. In the plebean resolution of yore, tiny UI elements had little room for error: icons had to be perfectly aligned to even pixels, and ideally their stem weight would be a whole pixel-value. The atom of the display — the pixel — was the tiniest unit of information possible, and if it wasn’t mindfully placed it would blur and artifact under heavy antialiasing. In The Old World we had a term for this: pixel-perfect.

However inside the retina display lives the halfpixel siren, and her song is alluring. She’ll make you forget about The Old World. She’ll draw tiny tiny pixels for you and she’ll make your designs feel pixel-perfect, even when they’re not. It’s an irresistable New World.

David Pierce reviewing the new iMac 5K for The Verge:

I drove an Audi and never looked at my Saturn the same way again. Remember the first time you used a capacitive touchscreen, threw your 56k modem out the window and switched to broadband, or switched from standard-def TV to 1080p?

It only took about ten minutes of using Apple’s new iMac with Retina display to make me wonder how I’m ever supposed to go back. Back to a world where pixels are visible on any screen, even one this big.

It’s a good life in The New World. It’s a good life here in the first world. It’s so true: no-one should have to endure the pin-pricking misery of looking at old-world 1x screens! (Actually, my 35 year old eyes aren’t good enough to see pixels on my daughters etch-a-sketch, but I can still totally empathize with how completely unbearable the pain must be).

It gets worse — are you sitting down? Here it comes: most screens aren’t retina. One wild guess puts the population of non-retina desktop users (or old-worlders as I call them) at 98.9%.

That’s not good enough, and it’s time to fight for the halfpixel. We’re at a fateful crucible in history, and I can see only two possible paths going forward. Either we start a “retina displays for oil” program to bring proper high resolutions to the overwhelming majority of people who even have computers, or we just have to live with ourselves knowing that these old-worlders will have to endure not only disgustingly low resolutions, but indeed all of the added extra blur and artifacts that will result of future computer graphics being designed on retina screens and not even tested for crispness on 1x screens1.

Oh well, I suppose there’s a third option. I suppose we can all wake up from this retina-induced bong haze and maybe just once in a while take one damn look at our graphics on an old world display.


  1. Hey Medium… We need to talk.