The resolutionary wars

By on August 6, 2012
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Retina displays will re-ignite the GPU wars.


Fifteen years back, a GPU upgrade was super exciting yearly ritual with NVIDIA and ATI fiercely competing for the performance crown. To further challenge their engineers, monitor sizes and resolutions kept growing bigger as well. But then came high definition televisions that “fixed” the resolution to 1920×1080 pixels and the computer display industry followed. Display sizes settled between 21 to 24 inches and resolutions on these displays never really exceeded 1920×1200 pixels. Some enthusiasts (myself included) bought 30” monitors with a higher 2560×1600 resolution but even that standard has been around for almost a decade now.

With resolutions locked in, GPU manufacturers started adding features such as better Anti-Aliasing and higher Anisotropic filtering to improve image quality instead of pumping more pixels. However, all that is about to change back and Apple is currently leading the industry with it’s ultra high-res retina displays. The iPhone was the first one to get such a screen but then the iPad followed and now we have a MacBook Pro with retina display that has a screen resolution of 2880×1800 pixels on a 15.4” panel.

Suddenly, the CPU and GPU are required to do a lot more work and I find it amusing how this quad core of a beast with an NVIDIA GT650m GPU can sometimes struggle to render web pages that my outgoing MacBook Air with a Core 2 Duo and an integrated GPU could handle gracefully. But that’s the sacrifice you make to shape up the future of technology. I’m a sucker for beautiful displays and I’m glad that Apple has taken this initiative to pretty much remove any form of pixelation that is now suddenly so obvious on other laptops with standard screens.

In order to provide a good user experience, the new MacBook Pro has forced Apple to do something that you would never expect them to do- overclock a component. The GT650M GPU found on the retina screen MacBook Pro has a clock speed of 900MHz which is even higher than the stock speed of a GeForce GT660M (835 MHz.) That’s a pretty bold move by Apple that normally likes to underclock components, however, it just goes on to show that the current form of technology, as far as performance and thermals are concerned,  isn’t necessarily retina-ready.

Since Apple has already fired the first shot, it won’t be very long before such high resolution displays become the norm in high-end laptops and then an industry standard for any mid to high-end product. We’ve already seen a good number of phones with even higher resolutions than the iPhone while ASUS has already come up with Transformer Infinity that is approaching the pixel density that the new iPad sports. Surely, laptops are next.

This will also kick start the GPU race once again to handle a larger number of pixels and besides NVIDIA and AMD, Intel will also be a challenger. And while ten years back nobody really looked at power consumption, the challenge this time around will be harder to keep components cooler and quieter. GPUs with cooling solutions that sound like hair dryers are no longer in fashion and in order to compete the players now have much stricter referee. Fun times ahead.


Abbas Jaffar Ali is the founder of and a blogger, geek and self-declared tech pundit who can't stop talking about technology. Find him on twitter as @ajaffarali

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