When I got my first laptop about 10 years ago, I wanted something that was top of the line and could last several years with a modicum of maintenance. I finally opted for a Dell Inspiron 8200 that I was still using in 2008, and whose total price, considering also the additional RAM, new hard disk, replacement batteries and replacement cooling fans I opted or had to buy the course of that long period, was in the whereabouts of 3k€, most of which was the initial price.

One of the most significant qualities of that laptop, and the one thing that I miss the most still today, was the display, whose price accounted for something like half of the money initially spent on the laptop. We're talking about a 15" matte (i.e. non-glossy) display at a 4:3 aspect ratio, with 1600×1200 resolution (slightly more than 133 dots per linear inch), 180 cd/m² brightness at maximum settings. In 2002.

When six years later I had to get a new one for work reasons (the GeForce 2 Go on that machine was absolutly not something you could use for scientific computing, whereas GPGPU was going to be the backbone of all of my future work), I was shocked to find out there was no way to get my hands on a display matching the quality of what I was going to leave.

This was not just a matter of price: there were simply no manufacturer selling laptops with a high-quality display like the one of my old Dell Inspiron 8200. All available displays had lower resolution (110, 120 dpi top) and the only one that provided matte displays was Apple (that offered the option with a 50€ addition to the price tag).

I can tell you that dropping from the aptly named TrueLife™ Dell display to the crappy 1280×800 glossy display featured on my current laptop (an HP Pavilion dv5, if anybody is interested) was quite a shock. Even now, four years after the transition, I still miss my old display; and how could I not, when I see myself mirrored on top of whatever is on screen at the time, every time I'm not in perfect lighting conditions, i.e. most of the time?

Not that the desktop (or stand-alone) display was going any better: somehow, with the ‘standardization’ of the 1920×1080 as the ‘full HD’ display resolution (something that possibly made sense in terms of digital TV or home-theater digital media like DVD or BluRay discs, but is purely meaningless otherwise), all monitor manufacturer seemed to have switched to thinking ‘ok, that's enough’.

The dearth of high-resolution, high-quality displays has always surprised me. Was there really no market for them (or not enough to justify their production), or was there some other reason behind it? What happened to make the return-on-investment for research in producing higher quality, higher density, bright, crisp displays too low to justify ‘daring’ moves in that direction? Did manufacturers switch to just competing in a downwards spiral, going for cheaper components all around, trying to scrape every single possible cent of margin, without speding anything in research and development at all?

Luckily, things seem to be changing, and the spark has been the introduction of the Retina display in Apple products.

The first time I heard the rumors about a Retina display being available on the future MacBook Pro, I was so happy I even pondered, for the first time in my life, the opportunity to get an Apple product, despite my profound hate and despise for the company overall (a topic which would be off-topic here).

My second, saner thought, on the other hand, was a hope that Apple's initiative would lead to a reignition of the resolution war, or at least push the other manufacturers to offer high-resolution displays again. Apparently, I was right. Asus, for example, has announced a new product in the Transformer line (the tablets that can be easily converted into netbooks) with a 220 dpi resolution; Dell has announced that HD displays (1920×1080) on their 15.4" products will be available again.

How I wish Dell had thought about that four years ago. My current laptopt would have been a Dell instead of an HP. Now however, as the time for a new laptop approaches, I've grown more pretentious.

How much can we hope for? It's interesting to note that the Apple products featuring the higher resolution displays actually have a decreasing pixel density, with the iPhone beating the iPad beating the just-announced MacBook Pro. This should not be surprising: when the expected viewing distance between user and device is taken into consideration, the angular pixel density is probably the same across devices (see also the discussion about reference pixels on the WWW standard definition of CSS lengths).

However, as good as the Retina is, it still doesn't match the actual resolution of a human retina. Will the resolution war heat up to the point where devices reach the physical limits of the human eyes? Will we have laptop displays that match printed paper? (I don't ask for 600 dpi or higher, but I wouldn't mind 300 dpi).