Yesterday the unthinkable happened: my local Apple Store got their mitts on a mid-grade MacBook Pro with Retina display they could actually sell. That’s right: Instead of putting it out on one of their tables with a security leash to torment passerby, you could buy it with real money! I was on a list, so they gave me a call, and by mid-afternoon, I’d picked it up (still in the shipping box as I exited the store — very sneaky), cancelled my online order and was busy migrating data from my now comparably Lilliputian-looking MacBook Air.
And then I discovered what everyone else who’s laid hands on one of these things already must have: The apps that don’t use Apple’s system fonts or haven’t had their graphical assets super-sized look terrible, making you wonder whether the Retina Pro’s greater achievement wouldn’t have been some kind of “magical” focus button instead. Not that focusing’s going to help much when you’re upscaling graphics (way up) across a compact 15-inch display area that’s harboring well over five million pixels.
When everything comes together, the screen’s definitely a looker: I can now pick out individual hikers in all those 6-megapixel shots I took of the Grand Canyon last year with a camera that’s frankly too good for me. Diablo III at 2,880 x 1,880 is a wonder to behold, though sometimes it chokes pushing all those pixels around (at least you don’t need to worry about anti-aliasing anymore). And I can finally read the small print on the Apple Mail postage stamp icon, as well as the “Here’s to the crazy ones” note on the TextEdit icon (years of productivity-killing sleuthing solved!).
But everything else, including most of the Internet, looks a mess. Words baked into images resemble still frames from bad Flash animations. Pictures on websites — from thumbnails to splash shots — are blurred and aliased. Applications like Logic Pro and Pages are so fuzzy they hark back to what it was like using Apple computers when they were sub-labeled “II.”
The chances much of that’ll change anytime soon seem poor, since the Retina Pro’s sell-through rate — people receiving systems they ordered online or actually walking out of a store with one — is reportedly low due to alleged screen manufacturing issues. And the Pro is just one computer, far from the most popular in or out of Apple’s lineup. Why hurry to update your apps or website to placate a fractional slice of the user pie?
With love in my heart for what Apple’s pulled off with the Retina display, but also dismay that it launched so unsupported, here’s a list of the apps I’ve found the most depressing to work with at the Retina Pro’s preferred “1440 x 900” setting (remember that everything’s still native 2,880 x 1,880, just upscaled to look like you’re running at 1440 x 900). Think of it as a crib sheet of caveats if you’re in the market for one of these things — mostly mainstream apps, or ones charting in the “top paid” view on the Mac App Store.
Twitter. I’m talking about the official app version that lives in the Mac App Store. The dock icon looks great, but the font used in the general feed is stretched and blurred, as are the icons at left. Twitter account pics ought to be fixable with an option to display higher-res thumbnails, since zooming on individual ones showed most of the people I follow already have high-res thumbnails in place. (Twitter allows you to upload up to 700K images, but apparently compresses the heck out of them.) Also: Please fix the distorted menu icon — is it a bird, or a whale with wings?
iWork. All three apps: Pages, Numbers and Keynote. It’s a shame Apple didn’t have these ready at launch. I use Pages and Numbers daily, but after playing with them on a demo model at the Apple Store a few nights ago, I opted not to install iWork because the apps looked so awful. Is “iWork 12” or “13” or “X” around the corner? Perhaps. But I’ll gratefully settle for a simple Retina update at this point.
Microsoft Office 2011: Like iWork, Office 2011 for the Mac doesn’t look so bad that you can’t use it, but it’s still kind of depressing staring at all that fuzziness. This one’s arguably the most important app in the bunch given Office’s ubiquity, but don’t hold your breath — Microsoft took forever getting a “full screen” update out for Office 2011 after Lion arrived.
Logic Pro. Everyone’s favorite Mac DAW looks pretty abysmal on the Retina Pro. You can mitigate this somewhat by switching the Retina Pro’s display scaling to “Looks like 1920 x 1200,” and Logic Pro is the kind of app that benefits from the extra screen real estate (like Final Cut Pro, which is already optimized), but hello Apple, Retina support please (or, you know, just shock the DAW-verse by releasing a true 64-bit version of Logic Pro — call it “X”? — with Retina support).
Pixelmator. It’s the most popular non-Photoshop Mac image editing app going, one I switched to after discovering Adobe Photoshop CS5 wouldn’t fit comfortably on my MacBook Air’s 1366 x 768 screen. Usable on a Retina Pro? Absolutely, but the toolbar icons are pretty pixelated.
Spotify. Most of the left and righthand interface looks fine, since it uses OS X’s system fonts, but the main window sandwiched between these is full of blurry pictures and fuzzy inline text. If you’re using the freebie version, like me, it’s even worse, with those horizontal/vertical ads now popping up to annoy you and looking terrible.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 10. Where’s CS6 on this list? According to Adobe, it will “soon provide unparalleled fidelity, power and precision” on the Retina Pro, so at least it’s confirmed. But Adobe’s said nothing about Photoshop Elements 10, and it’s the more popular tool (number two on Amazon in Mac Software bestsellers). How about a timeframe for this one, Adobe?
Google Chrome. As you’ve heard, Chrome’s pretty fugly-looking on the Retina Pro. Yes, you can fiddle with Retina support in Chrome Canary, but we’re talking pre-beta Chrome here, and who wants that?
HipChat. Never heard of it? It’s an Adobe Air-based group chat tool I use for work, and currently a black and white sea of fuzzed-up text.
AutoCAD 2013. I ran out of apps I actually use at the nine count, so I plucked this from the ether, given its illustrious reputation as the premiere tool for computer-aided drafting and design. After fiddling with the trial version, I can say it fares better than expected, since the drawing area was already designed to scale without blurring. But the interface is full of fuzzy icons and the ViewCube text — used to rotate objects three-dimensionally — is barely legible (and badly aliased) at angles.
Honorable Mentions: Dropbox, Skype, Sophos Anti-Virus. Since these either use system fonts or have minimalist GUI interfaces, it’s really just the menubar icons that need fixing, and they ought to be a snap to update.
What am I missing? If you have a Retina Pro, what’s on your list of “must have now” updates?