Why Do Some Apps Look Bad On My Retina Display? (And How to Fix It)

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retina display problemsWhen Apple released the MacBook Pro with Retina display this time last year, they raised the bar for laptop display technology, as they previously did for the smartphone and tablet industries. The only issue they created was a software one: suddenly apps designed for non-Retina screens looked bad.

The problem wasn’t only with third-party apps but also some of Apple’s own bundled software too. While many of these have had the Retina update they so deserved, some apps haven’t and others never will. If you’ve got a Retina-equipped MacBook, or are considering one, you should know why old software looks bad and what little you can do to help the situation.

The Apple of My Eye

I must point out that I wasn’t that surprised or disappointed after unpacking my new MacBook Pro with Retina display and noticing some unwelcome pixels. While it’s virtually impossible (for me at least) to see individual pixels on one of Apple’s Retina displays, non-Retina apps are plastered with big, unsightly ĂĽber-pixels. Some fonts also encounter the issue, something that can badly mar what would otherwise be a pleasant reading experience. Just ask the developers of Spotify, who still haven’t updated their premium app to use Retina-grade fonts despite redesigning it since (hint, hint).

retina display problems

Retina display technology means new MacBook models are capable of outputting twice the resolution of traditional pre-Retina baseline Apple laptops. Even though the display appears to be 1440×900 by default, in actual fact the Retina version is displaying double that at 2880×1800. Clever use of scaling offers a virtually identical resolution with double the pixel density, at 220 pixels-per-inch compared to 110 pixels-per-inch in previous models. With double the pixel density, images need to be double the resolution in order to display as intended. UI elements need to be upscaled, else they will be rendered at the standard non-Retina resolution and “stretched” to accomodate the desktop.

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retina display issues

This is far less of an issue now than it was when the Retina MacBook initially landed. I was personally stuck between a pixellated and ugly looking version of Chrome’s stable build and the incredibly wonky and frustrating bleeding-edge build, called Chrome Canary. Rest assured all major browsers have been updated now, and as a rule of thumb if the software is still in development then it’s highly likely to be updated for the new display standards at some point. Similarly, new apps are built ready, just as they are for the updated screen on the iPhone 5.

What Can I Do?

There are three things you can do if this bothers you. The first is probably the least attractive, and that’s simply “have patience”. Twitter took a long time to update their sorely neglected Mac app, but the update came eventually. As previously mentioned, I was using Chrome Canary for around three months before Google eventually dropped Retina rendering into Chrome’s stable build. Most new apps these days will be built to accommodate new and old displays, and many developers have already updated their older software. Failing patience, you could always contact the developer and let them know there is a demand for a high resolution version of their product or project.
retina display issues
The second thing you can do is to use only Retina-ready apps. Hunting for them yourself could be an absolute nightmare, which is why it’s a relief to see a jam-packed resource like RetinaMacApps.com. At the time of writing the website contains a searchable database of more than 260 Mac apps that are optimized for high-resolution displays. A quick perusal of the list gives you a good idea of what has already gone high-PPI, including cross-platform apps like Skype and Pocket, as well as virtualization software like Parallels and even games like Civilization V and Quake IV.

retina display issues

The final thing you can do is download Retinizer, a free Mac app for converting outdated UI elements from rendering at 1x to rendering at 2x. This fixes many app widgets, text, buttons and other UI elements, depending on the app.

macbook retina display issues

Above you can see a comparison at 100% of Snes9x before and after being Retinized. Snes9x is one of those old emulators that hasn’t seen an update in forever and probably won’t for a while either. It’s the perfect app to use with Retinizer to remove the blur and spruce up the UI. It will not replace blurry images, nor will it sharpen icons – all Retinizer does is tell the OS to render certain elements at double their resolution. It won’t work with everything, but it might make all the difference in some situations.

retina display problems

To use Retinizer first disable GateKeeper and then download and install it as you would any Mac app. When you launch the app it will display a small window on all desktops. Open Finder, click on Applications and drag your chosen app into Retinizer before clicking Retinize. If the app is still open you will be prompted to close it, before Retinizer does its thing. If something goes wrong then you can repeat the process and choose De-retinize in the same window.

Download: Retinizer (Free)

The Bottom Line

The Retina display outputs a beautiful, rich and detailed image that has to be seen to be believed.If you’re half-way between choosing a Retina and non-Retina model, outdated software probably shouldn’t influence your decision as much as the price or portability of your new machine. The vast majority of software that most end-users will end up using on their Macs has been updated, there are replacement Retina-ready apps for those that haven’t and failing that you can always give Retinizer a go, for free.

Do you have a Retina display on your Macbook? Any apps that need an update? Is it much of a problem for you? Let us know what you think, leave a comment below.

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5 Comments - Write a Comment


Darryl Park

Although it’s double the dimensions of pixels, it’s actually 4 times the pixel density so you comment saying “Clever use of scaling offers a virtually identical resolution with double the pixel density, at 220 pixels-per-inch compared to 110 pixels-per-inch in previous models”, is actually 440 pixels-per-inch. If both dimensions are doubled, it takes 4 pixels to fit where one used to be.

Tim Brookes

I’m fairly sure that’s not quite how it works, but you’ve confused me now. While it does take 4 pixels to fill the space of one (2 on each axis), this doesn’t change the screen pixel density to 440 pixels-per-inch (that would be a difference of 8 pixels). This is backed up by specifications in manuals and marketing materials, as well as the rough understanding in my head. Each axis is doubled but this still only counts as 220 pixels per pinch, after all there’s only double the pixels on each axis, so double the pixels overall.

Michael W

The key is in the units. Pixels per inch, not pixels per square inch. You are quadrupling the number of pixels per square inch, but only doubling the number of pixels per inch.



Great and very useful post. Microsoft Communicator was not displaying in retina mode and it was disturbing. Retinizer is a great app. Thanks for pointing that out.



Retinizer is so cool……I wasn’t enjoying earlier…….Now its great….Super Cool app….Thanks a lot

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