I think John Siracusa is exactly right: just about all of Apple’s products are in transition right now, and thus none of them feels spot on.
We can look at a product like the iPad mini and immediately fall in love with its smaller form factor and easier-to-hold light weight. But then we wince at the non-Retina display. We can easily picture a future where this awesome new iPad has that perfect screen, but we know we have to wait another year or more for that to happen.
All great design is compromise. What to put in, what to take out. But in this age of Retina screens vs. battery life, Apple is being forced to leave out a little more than we’d like. Or, in the case with the iPads 3 and 4, they leave in something we don’t want: bulk and weight, in order to get that crisper display.
We can see the trade offs far more clearly this time.
This didn’t seem to be an issue when Apple released its first Retina display on the iPhone 4. That device felt like most Apple devices; a nice improvement over the previous generation in all respects. Because Retina was new, we never expected it on previous devices. Apple had the luxury of releasing it when battery and weight specs were ready.
But Retina is a technology that doesn’t scale so easily.
Take a look at the laptop line. The laptop everyone wants is the MacBook Air with Retina display. Instead, we get the 15-inch and 13-inch MacBook Pros, much heavier machines that cost more and can barely handle the extra graphics overload from that quadruple dose of pixels. A laptop line that a year ago was dominated by the super-thin, wedge-shaped Air has now taken a step backwards, in terms of size and weight, in order to move forward with the screen.
Owning a Mac with a Retina screen at this point is definitely a mixed bag. Between the graphics card struggling to keep up with simple tasks like scrolling, and web pages and apps that are not yet fully optimized for Retina, having either the 15-inch or 13-inch Retina laptops at this point feels like you’ve arrived 15-minutes early for a party. You know it’s going to be great eventually, but at the moment you just feel alone.
This leaves die-hard Apple lovers like myself in the strange position of not necessarily wanting the latest and greatest Apple products right now. I’m willing to wait for a Retina MacBook Air; I didn’t even consider the current Retina Macs. At the same time, I’m about to sell my 3rd Generation Retina iPad and get a non-Retina iPad mini with 4G, rather than getting a 4th Generation Retina iPad. And I’ll very likely replace my aging iMac with a new non-Retina model in another month. I’m not rejecting Retina as a technology. Far from it. I just think the trade offs are too great at the moment.
Apple is clearly aware of the current pubescent state of its lineup. That’s why products such as the non-Retina MacBook Pro and the iPad 2 are still around. They know that for some, the cost of Retina is still a little too high.
The need for this transition is obvious. Retina displays are simply better, and it’s only natural that all of Apple’s devices (save the iPod shuffle) go Retina eventually. Those of us with rational minds and a bit of knowledge about the current limitations of technology don’t fault Apple for putting these compromised products into the world. After all, they are the best machines that can currently be produced, and in most respects they do their jobs just fine. But in our hearts, we’re longing for the devices we can’t yet have. We’ve seen a brighter future, so the present no longer satisfies. That’s a serious challenge for Apple moving forward. The sooner Apple can get its products out of this weird adolescent stage, the better.