Do we really need razor-sharp screens?

July 3, 2012: 10:06 AM ET

Apple's latest laptops feature an extremely crisp screen -- and PC makers are likely rushing to follow suit. Problem is, most people might not really be able to tell the difference.

FORTUNE -- We always want our gadgets to be better. At one time, that meant a push for the fastest processor, better RAM, more hard drive space. Then the MacBook Air arrived, and attention turned to thinner and lighter notebooks. On the mobile side, that meant devices that were also lighter, thinner, with increasingly larger screens.

When Microsoft (MSFT) announced its Surface tablet earlier this month, much of the criticism lobbed towards at -- at least via Twitter -- focused on the tablet's display. "Surface for Windows 8 Pro" will have what the company calls a ClearType HD display, seemingly the company's answer to Apple's (AAPL) Retina display, but the cheaper "Surface for Windows RT" will not. This little bit of news irked some.

"If Microsoft Surface doesn't beat iPad in screen resolution, then I dunno. To me, screen rez is becoming more crucial to tablet experience," Tweeted one.

"I think this new tablet from Microsoft will live or die on its screen. The Retina display is stunning and non-Apple HW [hardware] have lagged behind," Tweeted another.

The almost-inevitable popularity of Apple devices packing sharper screens like the iPhone, iPad, and more recently, the MacBook Pro, has reshaped our idea of what we want from our gear. For many now, it appears to be extremely high screen resolution, and to some extent, I understand why. After all, if the screen is the one computer or tablet feature we interact with the most -- the literal window to content -- it makes sense that that "window" be as clear and sharp as can be. And on a product like the newest iPad, for instance, the screen is gorgeous. Turn the brightness all the way up and book pages resemble glowing sheets of paper.

MORE: Apple iPad sales will surpass notebook sales in 2016

On the other hand, I don't know if having a super-sharp display is all-that-necessary to have an excellent computing experience. I don't know anyone who complained about their iPad 2's screen -- at least until the next version came along. And having spent quality time with the newest, lightest, thinnest 15-inch MacBook Pro, I instantly appreciated that display's clarity but (mostly) didn't mind going back to the "antiquated" 1,440 x 900 resolution of my old MacBook Air.

A device can still be a great one regardless of how many pixels it's packing. If early reviews of Google's (GOOG) Nexus 7 -- a device with a quality screen not-quite-up to Retina standards -- are any indication, Google finally has an excellent tablet on its hands.

Which is all to say, a quality display may be all well and good, but it's not the deal breaker some make it out to be.

What do you think? In this post-iPhone 4, "new iPad," and MacBook Pro-era, is a Retina Display-quality screen a make or break feature now for new devices?

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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