Is Apple's Retina Display Really A Major Selling Point?

Reports out of Korea on Tuesday suggested that Apple is planning to bring its Retina display to the MacBook Air. Not surprisingly, reporters around the world picked up the story and suggested that the move makes sense.

Those reporters might have a point. Apple has been slowly but surely bringing its Retina display to its entire product line. The company started with its iPhone and iPod Touch and then extended its support to the iPad. Soon after, Apple delivered the Retina display to its MacBook Pro. Now there’s talk of it coming to the next-generation iPad Mini.

Assuming that happens, a major void in Apple’s product line would be left if the MacBook Air doesn’t get a Retina display. The company’s customers would head to the store expecting a Retina, and if they find that it doesn’t come in the MacBook Air – an integral piece of Apple’s battle with Intel’s ultrabooks – they might just decide to go somewhere.

Or so conventional wisdom suggests.

Apple MacBook Air

The reality is, it’s not clear whether Retina displays are truly all that important in the buying decision.

Just look at the iPad Mini. According to Macquarie Research, Apple’s full-sized iPad sales will decline by 40 percent in the first quarter due to the popularity of the iPad Mini. What’s more, reports have been swirling that Apple has cut back on full-sized iPad production to make room for its smaller slate.

So, what gives? Surely if the Retina display was so important to customers, they would do everything they could to spend the extra cash and pick up a full-sized iPad, right?

The truth is, today’s buying decisions are driven more by value than the quality of a screen. Apple’s iPad Mini is a notably cheaper product than its full-sized brother and comes with a design that people like. Sure, it can’t display as many pixels per inch as the full-sized iPad, but whether that really matters is decidedly up for debate.

The iPad Mini’s screen comes with a 1,024-by-768 resolution, delivering 163 pixels per inch. To put that into perspective, the average 19-inch 1080p display can deliver 116 pixels per inch. That means that despite the iPad Mini’s seeming lack of pixel density, it can still dole out better visuals than your HDTV. And for most customers, that’s just fine.

So, perhaps the Retina display is more about marketing and less about true value to customers. Apple has a vested interest in customers getting lured by the Retina display and spending hundreds of dollars more for it. Like any other technology company would, Apple has found a way to make something relatively unimportant seem, well, important.

So, why should we care so much whether the MacBook Air is getting a Retina display? Would it be nice to pack more pixels into a screen? I guess. But at what cost? Apple’s MacBook Pro without the Retina starts at $1,199 for the 13-inch model and $1,799 for the 15-inch version. Those who want the Retina option need to pay an additional $300 for the 13-inch and $400 for the 15-inch options. A similar scenario would likely play out with the MacBook Air.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide breakdowns of sales between Retina-equipped models and those without. But if I had to guess, the Mac-based Retina isn’t driving the kind of sales that some Apple acolytes would expect. And customers are discovering on their own that it’s really only important to a point.

Maybe (just maybe) the Retina display isn't such a desirable feature after all.  And while we're at it.  It's really just a high res panel that makes the technology "Retina" in Apple terms.  Let's not mix words.