I'm buying a new laptop that I'll be using mainly for programming. A couple of options that really intrigue me are the Asus Zenbook UX31A and the new Retina Macbook Pro. It's obvious that the high-resolution displays on these laptops is useful for entertainment, photo-editing, and other things. My question is this: Do these displays provide any benefit for programmers? Do these displays make code any easier to read? Are they any easier on the eyes after a whole day of staring at the screen?

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  • 4
    Those two laptops are not really comparable. The Asus has an ordinary 1080P display, while the other laptop has a Retina display (I'm guessing about four times as many pixels). That said, unless you do detailed graphical design, I'm not sure that much more graphical horsepower is worth it if you're just writing code. A 1080P display produces pretty sharp 10-point characters. The amount of available screen real-estate is a more important factor; a larger screen than 15" might justify more pixels. – Robert Harvey Jun 28 '12 at 17:58
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    I suggest you read the answers I got on apple.stackexchange.com just yesterday apple.stackexchange.com/questions/54905/… – Kyle Hodgson Jun 28 '12 at 18:25
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    Do keep in mind that the Retina Display by default does not give you an effective resolution of 2880x1800. It scales non Retina apps, and keeps Retina apps the same. So your effective resolution is 1440x900. There are third-party apps you can download to change this or use the scaling feature in the display to get a 1900x1200 resolution. But I've found that anything more than 1680x1050 is almost unreadable on a 15" screen. – Andrew T Finnell Jun 28 '12 at 18:34
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    Quick answer is 100% no – Rig Jun 28 '12 at 18:40
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    Screen real-estate makes a huge difference; pixel density not so much. – tylerl Jul 3 '12 at 7:19

The benefit to a higher resolution is the ability to fit more on a screen. This may or may not be useful to you as a programmer. Having more lines of code can help you grasp some things better, other times its just more clutter. As for eye strain that depends on what color schemes, brightness, contrast, lighting, test size, refresh rates... Text size is really the only thing that resolution affects and even that is adjustable outside of resolution.

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    The real benefits of a high res display isn't that you can fit more (even though, obviously, you can). It's that at a given point size, the text will be much more legible on the high res display. So, if I already can fit as much text as I want, going to a higher res means everything is easier to read. – Bryan Oakley Jun 28 '12 at 22:58

I'm typing this on a Retina MacBook Pro. The biggest improvement of the high-res screen isn't the available real estate but the greatly improved sharpness and clarity of on-screen text. It looks like print. Programming is one of the activities that benefits most from better looking text.

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    I agree. The MacBook Pro Retina actually reduces eye stress, and with all the staring at text that programmers do, the Retina display makes programming so much easier on your eyes. – John Davis Jun 29 '12 at 0:48

tl;dr = yes; code readability decreases sharply with resolution, and I see no reason why making bugs literally harder to see wouldn't result in...making bugs harder to see.

The stats have it. Reading speed is increased by up to 25% on displays of 300dpi (as opposed to the average resolution of PC desktop monitors.) Or so says usability guru Jakob Nielsen, at least. Comprehension is also up sharply, IIRC.

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/web-typography.html is a little OT, but provides excellent context for the somewhat older guidelines at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html.

I can already hear gruff geeks trying out some tough-guy line about how real coders have so much screentime behind them that they can read code at any resolution. But of course they can't prove it, because they've never benchmarked their own brains. They just have gut-intuition that they read pretty good on a computer, perhaps better than most, and that it comes with the territory. So file this one under other flights of hypermasculinity and cultural egocentrism. (How do you suppose resolution affects a non-native reader of English? How do you suppose that the industry is affected by restricting the supply of coders to those with unusually precise eyesight?)

Yes, resolution matters -- a lot -- and yes, Apple is slaughtering everyone else as usual, because no one else seems to consider the 'U' in UX. Go buy that Retina MBP. I might bump into you in line.

  • one of the few answers "on topic" (not talking about "having more windows open in the bigger amount of pixels"). – Rafa Aug 31 '13 at 22:10

Resolution does matter for development even on a laptop. Try to run Eclipse with the Package explorer open and a source file with the MacBook Pro 13". It is not fun. IDE's are not meant to run on low resolution displays. If you are used to vi and tabing around I imagine a low resolution display will work just fine.

The next important thing is to make sure all the text is very clear. Nothing worse than a high resolution on a small screen where you cannot read the source code.

Use SetResX to change the Retina Display to effective 2880x1800, it's not worth killing your eyes over. But the default 1440x900 or even the resolution above that gives nice results.

Also based on what I read about the Asus notebook the MBP beats it hands down in every way. So you are really talking about money here. If you are willing to spend the $2400-$3000 ish get the MBP. If you have to stick with something less than $2k your option is only Asus. If you want the most performant machine the MBP Retina Display has fantastic hardware in it.

  • Can you confirm that with SetResX, that text looks good on Eclipse? What other tools have you tried? – Kyle Hodgson Jun 28 '12 at 18:49
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    Forget about resolution; if you're trying to do development in an IDE on a 13" screen, there's your problem right there. – Mason Wheeler Jun 28 '12 at 18:50
  • @MasonWheeler touché – Andrew T Finnell Jun 28 '12 at 18:50
  • @KyleHodgson The text in Chrome looks better at 2880x1800 because it isn't scaling it but its pretty much unusable because of how small everything is. Eclipse appears to be using the DPI routines in the SWT layer as the text looks fine at any resolution. Either that or I'm very tolerate with how text looks. MS Word document text looks bad. But surprisingly MS Outlook looks pitch perfect. – Andrew T Finnell Jun 28 '12 at 18:56
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    @MasonWheeler: Yep. One of our architects replaced his desktop box and 19" monitor with a 15" laptop and after a week was complaining about neck pain. Turns out he was hunching over his desk to see the smaller screen. If I had to work on a laptop for more than an hour, I think I'd crank the resolution down, dump the IDE and go back to vi. Productivity loss would be about the same either way, and I wouldn't have a headache when I was done. – TMN Jul 3 '12 at 17:10

Generally speaking, increased visual real-estate is a good thing with programming. Most modern IDEs have a number of panels that you'd like to have open and it's nice to be able to see all of that information "at once."

There is a nefarious relationship between resolution and screen size. The easy rule of thumb is "the higher the resolution, the better" along with "the bigger the screen, the better." The problem is when one of those elements becomes fixed. A super high resolution on an itty bitty display will simply be unreadable or will lead to eye strain.

Many developers work with multiple monitors for the above reasons. It's a reasonable way to balance the relationship between resolution and screen size, but still keep adding to the overall real estate.

As others have pointed out, the two systems you mention have significant differences in the display resolution. The Mac will have more effective real estate without venturing too far into too-small-to-read territory.

Your questions:
- Yes, there is distinct benefit for programmers with larger screens and higher resolution.
- It won't make the WTF code any easier to understand, but having larger blocks of code available makes it easier to understand overall program flow.
- I don't think you'll see a noticeable difference in eye strain with the two models you mentioned. OTOH, this answer is pretty particular to your question and not very generalizable.

My ideal setup would be two or three 24" widescreen displays for coding against. If a laptop was my primary system, I would be happy with one or two 24" widescreens to supplement the laptop display.


Yes resolution makes a big difference, in that you have crisper text. Just open up terminal on a retina macbook, turn the font size down and see how easy it still is to read it.

Now if you are using colorful IDE color schemes in anything from VIM to XCode it also makes a big difference. Fonts are smoothed on most LCD screens using subpixel rendering which takes advantage of the red, green and blue bars in a common LCD pixel, using them as partial pixels, and then compensating for perception of colors at the edge to produce much "clearer" text. This works really well with black and white text, but much less with colored text, especially at low point sizes. As a result a low-res laptop displaying a lot of code in a smallish (9-10px) size, looks pretty bad. Retina displays effectively double the font size and half the screen size (on each dimension) reducing the effects of sub-pixel rendering on color text.

Also, refuting another post, the inverse square law does exactly not apply here - we perceive (size and hence) detail in any given dimension linearly related to our distance from it - this is why we can measure things in minutes of arc/angle in astronomy and marksmanship ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minute_of_arc ). The other post does not actually claim other wise, but may imply that doubling the distance from an object Quaters its clarity, when really its half.

Megapixels in a display, scale in both dimensions (so does cost!) but we can safely consider detail in terms of distance and/or resolution by looking at single dimension proportions. That makes the retina displays about doubly clear, though maybe 4 times more expensive.


Yes, the screen resulution is extremally important thing for programmer. While the quality of the colours is the most important for web developers (for SQL programmers etc. it's a minor issue), everyone will benefit from high resolution.

I'm actually working on laptop with screen resolution 1366x768 and it's a big mistake to buy something like that for the programmer. It's hard to work with Eclipse, because not much code fits on the screen. I need the console which is 200 characters wide and it hardly fits on the screen, the Android simulator doesn't fit at all. Fortunatelly I have external screen, but it's not very comfortable to type on laptop keyboard and look on the screen that stays on the side.

Almost everyone I know uses 2 displays when it is possible, and some use even 3. Generally, they are using the biggest display available, 24'' with full HD. Such resolution makes sense, because you can fit more things on screen - and one use a lot of them - IDE, a few consoles, web browser, skype etc. - and what is worse, everything should be visible at once.

So, if you want to make your developers more productive, don't buy the laptop with low resolution, please!

  • Get an external keyboard and mouse. – Seun Osewa May 28 '13 at 20:53

The higher resolution isn't likely to be particularly useful to you on a notebook. The reason high-res displays look better on tablets is because you tend to hold them a lot closer to your face than a notebook. By the inverse-square law, if you hold something flat twice as close, you see twice as much detail in both the X and Y dimensions.

So having a notebook without an ultra-high resolution display, and keeping it at a normal distance from your eyes, will give you the same experience as an ultra-high resolution tablet display held much closer. Any claims to the contrary (see: MacBook with Retina display) are just marketing hype, and as Kyle pointed out, tend to actually look worse unless they're designed specifically with the ultra-high resolution display in mind.

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    they look good because they're using higher DPI setting to draw fonts and icons, not because your holding them much closer – Hubert Kario Jan 13 '13 at 16:29
  • @Hubert: Yeah, that's what they say in their advertising. Basic physics, though, says otherwise. – Mason Wheeler Jan 13 '13 at 16:45
  • What basic physics say otherwise?! You have more pixels that take the same amount of physical space. You draw stuff assuming the same physical space (before the letters were supposed to be 3mm in height on screen, now they have to be too 3mm in height). If you're using a toolkit (Qt, GTK) that is DPI aware and the OS reports correct DPI for the screen, the whole application will look good. Not Apple's fault that programmers use shit toolkits to make their applications. – Hubert Kario Jan 13 '13 at 20:15
  • Oh, and for their marketing claims, if you assume 20/20 vision, then iPhone's 5 326ppi at 10 inches, iPad's 3 264ppi at 15 inches and MBP with Retina's 220ppi at 20 inches is above your retina resolution. – Hubert Kario Jan 13 '13 at 20:19

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