There’s been a good bit of chatter around the net about how good or bad the new MacBook Pro’s Retina display would be for software development, especially in IDE’s like IntelliJ, due to the way text would be rendered by the Java VM. Since I spend much of my day in bash, Python and Java, and because my 17” MacBook Pro is on it’s last legs, I have a vested interest in this topic. This afternoon I swung by my local Apple Store and played a bit with one to find out.

Technical note:

It’s hard to do justice with this display via screen shots since the pixels on your display will look much larger than they were on the MBPr (unless, of course, you’re reading this a retina display) but I think they get the point across well enough. All of the screenshots were taken with at the highest resolution setting which gives you the screen real estate equivalent of a 1920x1200 display for applications not tuned for retina yet. If you click through to the full screen shots you’ll notice that they are double that size in both length and height (3840x2400), [Anandtech has an excellent article][anand] explaining how/why Apple is doing this. [anand]:

Terminal Text Rendering:

The majority of what I do is in iTerm, they didn’t have it installed there (and I didn’t take the time to do so either), but I doubt Apple’s Terminal application would be appreciably different. Here’s a crop’ed capture of some Java code in vi (right) next text rendered in Safari (left): Screenshot of Java code in vi and Safari
(Click here for un-cropped original)

It looks okay, but the next time I’m there I’ll try turning on font anti-aliasing to be more like how I use iTerm on my current machine. To be honest, even with my “better than 20/20 vision, the default font was actually a little too small for my taste; but I think the same would be true on any 15-inch display with a native 1920x1200 resolution. I would raise the font size a point or two unless I really needed the screen real estate.

IntelliJ / Java Text Rendering:

Java applications, like IntelliJ aren’t so lucky since the JVM’s text engine doesn’t appear to have been updated yet. Here we see the IntelliJ 11, “Quick Start”, page; you clearly can see a lot of pixels blurring the JVM rendered text compared to that of the Safari bookmark and title bar (this is a composite of 2 crops from the same screenshot - the black line separates them):

(Click image for un-cropped original)


Next, we have the IDE editor window, where we spend most of our time:

(Click images for un-cropped original)


I believe I would be fine with this display; I was very impressed with the scaling of text and when (or if) they update the JVM to support it, this thing will be absolutely gorgeous. I won’t get into debating image applications (although the demo pictures in iPhoto there were absolutely amazing!) or the merits of the proprietary hardware here.

I didn’t get into compiler speed or application performance either; I’m sure it would be very similar to a comparably equipped non-retina MacBook Pro. It certainly is “teh snappy” coming from a 2007 era model like mine!

As a Java developer I’d be happy to own this machine - whether or not I’m going to buy one is still up for debate though. (I plan to post another article about that soon too.)

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17 June 2012


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