The Display: Better than Most, Not as Good as the Pro

When I reviewed last year's MacBook Airs I came away impressed by the displays. The MacBook Air, particularly the 11-inch, was a netbook alternative for many. You got much better performance (at a higher cost of course) than any netbook but in a great form factor. Compared to those ultra cheap machines, the 11 and 13-inch MacBook Air from 2010 had great displays.

This year things are a bit different. Equipped with Sandy Bridge CPUs these new MacBook Airs can still be ultraportable competitors, but for many the new systems are faster than their current notebooks. If you bought a MacBook Pro in 2008, even the 11-inch MacBook Air is faster with its 1.6GHz CPU. Last year's models may have been great ultraportables, but this year's Air lineup are great notebooks. As a result we have to compare their displays to both the low end of the PC market as well as the high end of the Mac market.

Pixel Density Comparison

First the bad news. The 13-inch MacBook Air Apple sent me for review has a noticeably dimmer panel than the one I reviewed last year. The 2010 model I reviewed was 21% brighter at its highest setting. This will vary depending on the panel you get (and the panel you had) but with the wrong combination you'll be left with a noticeably dimmer display. That being said, even at 354 nits the 13-inch MacBook Air is far brighter than most PC notebooks. Not to mention the fact that 354 nits is often a bit too bright, I usually find happiness at around 200 - 250 nits.

Notebook LCD Quality - White

The 11-inch MacBook Air on the other hand was slightly brighter than the one I reviewed last year. Don't get too excited though, my personal 11-inch MacBook Air puts out 408 nits at max brightness - 6% more than the new 2011. It's going to be luck of the draw here but don't expect these new panels to be significantly brighter than last year's. If anything, there's a good chance that your new MacBook Air will be dimmer than your old one (if you're a yearly upgrader that is).

Notebook LCD Quality - Black

Black levels are slightly better on the 13, but not enough to overcome the drop in brightness. Contrast is down as a result on the 13, but up on the 11. Both are still in a league of their own among notebooks in this price range. As far as brightness, black levels and contrast are concerned, the MacBook Air is pretty much on par with the MacBook Pro.

Where the Air stops filling its bigger brother's shoes is in viewing angles and color gamut. The MacBook Air uses a lower quality TN panel than what's in the MacBook Pro, causing viewing angles to suffer.

Viewed straight on the Air's panel looks great. It's bright and has a reasonable ~6800K white point calibrated from the factory; uncalibrated deltaE is around 8.58 though. Viewed from above colors begin to wash out:

Viewed from below there's some color shift and the screen gets much darker.

Left/right viewing angles are pretty good though, colors don't change you just lose a bit of brightness.

The issue with poor vertical viewing angles is particularly a problem on these ultra portables since there's a good chance you'll have to tilt the screen back further than normal depending on your desk/seating/lap position. If you're coming from an older MacBook Pro you'll likely be disappointed by viewing angles on the MacBook Air.

Compared to the old MacBook the Air has a much better display, it's only compared to the Pro that you do sacrifice a bit in quality.

Notebook LCD Quality - Color Accuracy

Calibrated color accuracy is pretty good on the Air, although not quite as good as the MacBook Pro. Color Gamut also hasn't improved since last year's Air:

Notebook LCD Quality - Color Gamut

Apple calibrates white point on all of its Macs before they leave the factory. Both the 11 and 13-inch Macbook Air have a white point around 6800K that tracks consistently across all brightness settings:

There are at least two different panel vendors in the new Airs, both of my Airs used panels from the same company though:

LTH133BT01A03
LTH116AT01A04

It's quite possible that users with a different panel could have a different experience than what I've published here.

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  • tipoo - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    I'd like to know too, in fact I think a decibel reading for laptop reviews would be great. Reply
  • solatic - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    "... [It's] easy to imagine a future where laptops become a lot more like the new Air and shift to a couple high bandwidth ports instead of numerous lower bandwidth connections."

    I agree in a sense, but I very much disagree with the manner of your idea.

    Getting rid of low-bandwidth ports on laptops is stupid because these low-bandwidth ports are industry standards. The standard display jack for projectors everywhere, from business rooms to classrooms etc., is VGA. Good old VGA from the 90's which was never displaced by HDMI or DVI despite their ubiquity and technological superiority. Why is irrelevant, but my point is that I can't tell you how many people I've seen with Apple laptops who time and again have asked to borrow my machine with its VGA port because they can't find their VGA dongle or forgot it at home/the office.

    VGA, RJ-45, USB - we don't use these jacks because of how much bandwidth they move but because we know we will encounter devices in the field that will use them.

    What you really want, Anand, is a docking station. Lenovo/IBM has/did made/make them for some time for the Thinkpad line. You come to the office, slide your laptop in, and boom - the docking connector is a high bandwidth connector that connects you to network, display, audio, interface, etc.

    The only real problem with docking stations is that they're either proprietary (the Thinkpad ones) or they're too slow for higher-bandwidth applications (USB docking stations). If you see a future in Thunderbolt docking station-type devices - like the Thunderbolt display - then this is a good thing. The Thunderbolt display can now be used by any Apple computer with a Thunderbolt port - whereas Lenovo has to manufacture different docking stations for the X and T series and these docking stations can't be used with Toshibas, Apples, Dells, etc.

    But to propose getting rid of VGA and RJ-45 ports now is not something I can agree with. Put Thunderbolt on new machines, make Thunderbolt projectors etc., wait for them to saturate the market - and then, only then, does it really make sense to get rid of these slower ports.
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    It certainly makes sense to ditch VGA on a product like the MacBook Air, since a VGA port is too large to physically fit inside it. And it makes sense on all other laptops since most people would rather have 10 more mins of battery life all the time than a VGA port on the odd occasion that they need one. I propose that those who own archaic video devices lacking a digital interface buy a $5 adapter and leave it attached to the device, that way people with modern notebooks can connect to them without issue.

    The lack of a wired Ethernet port on the Airs is also due to its ultra slim profile, but it amazes me how many people I know that have no idea that they can plug their laptops into a wired network and get far better throughput. As long as WiFi offers more bandwidth than most people's ISPs, I think you can kiss that RJ45 port goodbye without upsetting too many folks.
    Reply
  • Wolfpup - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Great reviews like this are why I love this site. Super thorough and interesting on the tech, and, interesting thoughts on practical stuff too.

    I prefer Windows, but have been wanting a secondary Mac for a while for the heck of it. I'm SUPER torn on what to get...

    The 11.6" almost seems perfect, since I can throw it in my bag with my main notebook and be okay-stick it on my desk without too much issue. But...if I ever actually used it as my primary system, the 13.3" one would be a lot more usable. And at THAT point, the 13.3" Pro is a lot more usable, and at THAT point, the 15.4" Pro isn't much larger, and completely destroys it, and of course could be my main system...

    Sooooo you see my dilemma ;)

    Heh...maybe I should just go with the 11 since I'm not planning on using it as my primary.
    Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    "All three parts support Hyper Threading and Quick Sync, although the latter remains mostly unused in OS X. "

    Quick Sync is used by iChat HD, is it not?

    The other natural client for it would be AirPlay. My guess is that, come iOS5 in September, we will see AirPlay on SNB macs beefed up to be able to stream any content (not just h264) to AirPlay devices by doing the transcode transparently on Quick Sync.

    The third obvious sort of client would be a library that third party apps like HandBrake would get to. What's the currents situation now --- do you need to be root to get to QuickSync or can any app use it?

    My guess is that we are facing the constant problem of new "weird" hardware --- it never comes virtualizable in the first iteration, which means that there is ALWAYS the problem of how to mediate access. And we generally see the same pattern
    (a) A single app that is allowed access.
    (b) Some sort of library that provides its own mechanisms for mediating access.
    (c) The hardware (FINALLY) becomes virtualizable.

    Apple is currently at step (a). Getting to (b) is never completely trivial (in spite of the claims of no-nothings in blog comments), at least if you want to do the job properly. You have to consider questions like --- do you use a reservation model, or do you simply provide notifications when you want to grab the hardware away from a user? How easy is it juggle state and provide something that looks virtualized? etc etc.
    And there are ALWAYS, at least in the first gen, weird hardware interlocks that make life more difficult. I know nothing about QuickSync but I would not be surprised if, for example, using it has implications for using the main GPU, meaning one more thing that has to be balanced in the attempt to make it used more generally.

    Can someone from the Windows world (who understands these issues, and has something more useful to say than "Macs suck") tell us how QuickSync is used in the MS world? Does MS provide a general purpose library, and how does the mediation model for that library work?
    Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Oops, my bad. The Macbook Airs apparently do not have an HD camera because it can't fit in the available depth of the thin screen. So no iChat HD on these models.

    I think the rest of what I said, especially about AirPlay, still stands.
    Reply
  • rootheday - Friday, July 29, 2011 - link

    The sharing/scheduling of the GPU enginers by multiple client applications on Windows is mediated by the OS as part of the WDDM driver model dating back to Windows Vista - QuickSync is no exception. This means that we are already at c) on your hierarchy on Windows with multiple client applications able to easily share the GPU for encoding.

    Moreover, Intel has a library already for this - see http://software.intel.com/en-us/articles/media/

    The media sdk library provides an API that applications can use to perform encoding and decoding. If run on a system with QuickSync hardware support and drivers, the work is routed to the GPU. If not, the library offers a CPU fall back path. This allows ISVs to write their application once - it will just run faster on Sandybridge systems.

    I don't know enough about Apple OS and graphics driver model to comment on how hard it would be for Apple to get to the same level.
    Reply
  • jvmxtra - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the great review. I throughly enjoyed your review but I feel like one thing is missing.
    In fact, for a laptop review, I really want all the sites to start devoting some time and even creating a method to measure the heat that laptop brings on. We have to create some type of way to measure(benchmark?) the heat index as I feel like how hot laptop gets under certain circumstance is critical factor.

    In fact, I had to trade in my 15 inch mbp since it was just getting too hot.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    The thermals and power consumption page is a start. Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, July 28, 2011 - link

    "This is what Thunderbolt was meant to do. All we need now is widespread adoption, more accessories and a standard for external GPU form factors."

    AND device manufacturers who are not idiots. In particular, where are the TB hubs?
    The device the market obviously wants is a TB to USB3 hub ---
    two TB ports, four USB3 ports --- and yet we still have not seen this.
    I'm sorry, Sonnet, but this would be VASTLY more useful than your EN and FW800 bridges.

    WTF is going on?
    Reply

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