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Speculation on the next iMac

2012-07-30 16:58:11

I got the new Retina MacBook Pro. The screen is incredibly beautiful. It really makes the screen on our home computer, a 27" iMac, seem dated and ugly by comparison. So I've been daydreaming about what Apple might do with the iMac form factor.

Most nerds who like to talk about the next big Apple thing probably would agree with most of these assumptions:

  1. the next iMac refresh will add an option for Retina screens, even if not all new iMacs are HiDPI.
  2. there won't be internal optical drives.
  3. SSD will be the primary storage device

Screen Dimensions

What 'Retina' actually means in specs has turned out to be quite variable. On the iPhone 4, it was 326 DPI. On the iPad (3), it was 264. Now, on the MacBook Pro, it's 220 DPI. There's a lot of justification that these are all 'Retina,' meaning the dots on the screen are too small to see at 'normal' viewing distance. I'm not going to nitpick about that. The payoff is that all these screens look fantastic, and are so sharp they seem fake. Like somebody mocked up a screen and printed it on a laser printer, and stuck it behind a piece of glass.

In practical terms, these displays are all pretty much 2X: in vertical and horizontal measurements, two physical pixels represent one 'point' or virtual pixel. This is very convenient for app developers to deal with.

I can't imagine the manufacturing processes and quality control needed to get the huge yields needed by Apple to sell these high volume devices. It seems impossible enough that they could do it for the small iPhone screen. It's mind-blowing that they can do it for the giant 15" screen of a Macbook. But somehow they are doing it.

My naive view of mass production of screens is that if you are making millions of screens with a given screen density, it will be more economical to extend the same technology and density to larger (or smaller) screens. So I'm assuming that iMacs will have Retina screens that are the same technology as the Retina MBP screen. That screen is 220 DPI, and is 15.4" diagonally.

So what kind of iMac screen would Apple make out of this tech? The 21.5" iMacs available today have a native resolution of 1920 x 1080. It's not a coincidence that this is exactly the layout of a 1080p HD Television. 16x9 is a nice, familiar ratio for consumers, and lots of TV content fits perfectly when played full screen. Let's say Apple is going to maintain this 16x9 form factor for the popular smaller iMac size. How big would it be? Retina would mean 2X, so the physical pixels would be 3840x2160. At 220 DPI, the screen would be 17.45" x 9.81", which yields a diagonal measurement of 20.03". That is a nice size. It's a tiny bit smaller than the current iMac, but it would look great.

Doing the same math for the 27" iMac (2560x1440) results in a 26.7" screen. Close enough that they could call it a 27" iMac still. I have no idea if it's yet possible to make such a large screen in volume. That's 14,745,600 pixels, nearly three times the number of pixels in the new MacBook Pro, which is not a cheap computer.

Might Apple release a Retina iMac in only the smaller 20" size? It might be weird. 'Hey, check out this awesome 20" iMac. It looks awesome, but wait you can have a larger 27" iMac for the same money, but the screen looks less awesome.' Seems like it would be a confusing pitch to make to regular people in an Apple store. I think if it's not economically viable to release a 27" Retina iMac alongside a 20" model, Apple might drop the 27" model until they can.

Another idea is that they could make an iMac "Pro." So they could keep the 21" and 27" iMacs available as they are (plus USB 3.0, presumably), and have a "Pro" iMac 20" with Retina.This iMac could then have a higher price point, maybe comparable to the current 27" pricing.

View image

Form Factor

When I look at the MBP Retina, I can't help thinking about what kind of influence it's industrial design would have on the future iMac. When you compare an iMac with the MBP, it's kind of amazing how thick the iMac is. Why is it so much bigger? It's the 3.5" hard drive, the optical drive, the integrated power supply and space for airflow around the less power-efficient non-mobile processors.

If you take away the optical drive, the 3.5" disk, how much thinner could it get?

What if, instead of taking away from the iMac design, you started with the MBP Retina design and worked from there to a desktop computer:

  1. build an integrated glass/LCD panel like the MBP, but sized to the iMac
  2. use the motherboard, chipset and SSD from the MBP.
  4. integrate the power brick.

Maybe the power supply and the power brick are a wash. But if you just look at the new MBP, and imagine keeping the same volume and flattening it out with a rolling pin to the size of a 20" screen, it would be amazingly, insanely thin. It would look fake, like a mock up of a screen. Even if it's not feasible to make it any flatter, imagine an iMac that is the thickness of a closed MBP. That alone is way thinner and more elegant than the current iMac.

I'm doing a lot of handwaving here: what about the stand? If it is mounted to the middle of the back of the screen as it is today, it will need a certain amount of mechanical bracing for strength and balance. What about ports? Maybe it's fine for a Macbook to have ports on the side, but Apple has always wanted to hide ports on the back of the iMac. I don't think Thunderbolt, USB or Ethernet would fit depth-wise on a case the thickness of the new MBP. To say nothing of the power cable.

Wouldn't it be interesting if Apple returned to the 'desklamp' style iMac: remember the old one with a hemispherical base and the display on a pivotable arm? Except now the base could be flat and square like a Mac Mini, and the display would be crazy thin like a MacBook Pro Retina. That would accommodate the ports, and the power supply.

Looking forward to January 2013!