Is a Retina display worth it? Not all of Apple’s MacBooks and iMacs have super-dense Retina displays, so how do you know which to choose? The Retina versions cost hundreds of dollars more than non-Retina versions, and some reviewers even say the MacBook Air is the perfect laptop — and it doesn’t even have a Retina display. If you’re not a graphics or media professional, where do you start to make a choice?

If you could see a Retina display on a MacBook Pro side-by-side next to a non-Retina MacBook Air, would seeing mean believing in Retina?

Yes and no. A sharper image and crisper text might seem a little prettier, but do you need pretty to get work done, mess around with social media, or stream movies? Not really. And yet, isn’t more usually better than less?

Figuring Out Whether Retina Is Worth the Money

Here’s how to figure out if you should error toward a MacBook Pro with Retina display or consider the new 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display:

Will you use your MacBook or iMac for hours every day?

If you’re a heavy computing user, error toward the Retina display. Your eyes will appreciate the extra sharpness of the display — and the extra-crisp text. The investment will pay off.

In this situation, you’ll need to choose between the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display or go big with the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display — or go huge and get a 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display.

If your usage is more casual, your choice shouldn’t rely on just a Retina screen — your choice should actually shift away from the Retina display and get into form-factor and computing power instead.

Which MacBook?

A typical MacBook choice comes down to three options:

  • 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display
  • 13-inch MacBook Air
  • 13-inch Non-Retina MacBook Pro

In my mind, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina handily beats the 13-inch MacBook Air, but not just because it has the sharper display. Why? It’s almost as light and portable, but it comes with something that will become more valuable as time goes on: 8GB of memory vs the 4GB of memory that ships with the MacBook Air. For most people who browse the web, do email, and create documents, this won’t matter at all. If you spend a lot of time with photos, videos, and want to do more serious video editing — not to mention play games — you will appreciate 8GB (and the faster processor that fits under the hood).

As for the 11-inch MacBook Air, choose it if you value the lower cost and extreme portability.

The non-Retina MacBook Pro, by the way, is a dark horse option: It is heavier, includes a DVD SuperDrive, and it has an older, slower hard drive. It is, however, massively upgradable. You can easily add more memory (which you can’t do on a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina) and you can easily upgrade later to a super-fast and large flash-based SSD drive. Plus, if you typically use your laptop at a desk for serious work, you can connect your MacBook Pro to an external monitor to get a larger and potentially sharper viewing experience.

The non-Retina MacBook Pro is a good compromise for families that share one Mac and have a lot of photos and videos they all store on it, either as one general user — or as their own users logging in separately. In this situation, the available space on its 500GB traditional hard drive is important.

How to Choose an iMac

While the regular iMacs boast gorgeous displays, they just don’t have the pixel density of the stunning 5K Retina version. If you want the 21.5-inch iMac size, which is 1920 x 1080 in resolution, there is no Retina option, so forge ahead.

If you’re thinking about the huge 27-inch iMac, the natural, effective working “space” is essentially the same between 27-inch iMacs: The non-Retina iMac has a resolution of 2560 x 1440 . . . and while the Retina version has 5120 x 2880 pixels, those pixels are combined in a more nuanced way to render essentially the same visual size of workspace. So, for most tasks, you don’t actually get more working space on the Retina iMac . . . unless you use an application that needs all those pixels, in which case you could utilize them via the app. When does this matter? For most people, only if they want to edit a huge 4K video file, which means you can see every pixel on the iMac’s screen. That’s overkill for most people, especially if they don’t have 4K TVs or they’re just producing YouTube video clips that will rarely, if ever, be viewed at a 4K resolution.

In a few years, yes, more people will be producing higher resolution video. But does it matter right now or next year? Not unless you’re seriously into video.

As for photos, if you’re into photography, all those pixels will make your 16 megapixel photos look glorious. And if you’re into editing, you’ll be able to do it with improved accuracy over less capable monitors.

Will a Retina iMac help you write a better paper? Not really. Produce a more accurate spreadsheet? No way. But the overall color, brightness, anti-glare coating, and clarity of the display — even when viewed from angles — will be noticeably improved.

So is it worth it?

The answer really comes down to two things: 1) your budget, and 2) how much time you’ll spend in front of your screen.

If you can’t afford it the $2,499 price of entry, wistfully shake your head and tell yourself you’ll be able to buy the new and improved version in a couple of years. As for the second factor — screen time — if you’re going to spend a lot of time doing meaningful work or lots of play on your iMac, splurge on the Retina version. Your eyes will appreciate it and the sense of perfection might actually inspire you to work better, faster, or longer, ultimately helping you to recoup your investment over two years or so.

The same questions and answers go for the MacBook Pro with Retina vs the MacBook Air: If you can afford it, go Retina. If Retina strains your budget but you will do serious work on your Mac, try to find a way to go Retina. For casual Mac users? The difference is like choosing to drive a Camaro vs a Corvette — either way, you’ll still be driving a sweet ride.

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.