The King of All Notebook Displays

For years Apple has been shipping some of the best displays in consumer notebooks, but the MacBook Pro’s Retina Display is in a league of its own. While I never liked the phrase “painted on” in reference to the iPad and iPhone Retina Displays, that’s the best way I can describe the effect the MacBook Pro’s Retina Display has on me. Text really does look painted on. The effect is really the result of two things.

The first is Apple’s removal of its cover glass. LCD panels aren’t particularly attractive, they are ugly squares composed of two pieces of glass and a number of filters/polarizers. To hide the ugly edges, display makers wrap bezels around the display. Most people aren’t fond of bezels so next came a ton of effort to minimize bezel size. An alternative is to simply place a third piece of glass over the entire LCD assembly and make it look as if the bezel and LCD panel are integrated. This outermost layer is known as a cover glass and is what Apple uses on all of its glossy displays. If you’ve ever taken apart a Cinema/Thunderbolt Display or a newer iMac you’ll know that the cover glass is literally just a piece of glass that you have to remove with some suction cups.


Non-Retina MacBook Pro, notice the gap between the outermost LCD glass and the cover glass

The MacBook Pro’s Retina Display does away with the cover glass and instead uses a fairly unique LCD assembly. There are still two pieces of glass but the outermost glass is actually a different size and shape - it integrates a bezel. By integrating the bezel into the outermost glass in the LCD stack you get the same effect as a cover glass but without the added reflections it introduces.

You also limit the possibility of dust getting trapped between the cover glass and the LCD. The danger is that you no longer have a protective piece of glass in front of your expensive new LCD. If you scratch the display you're scratching the LCD itself. While this has been true for conventional matte displays for a while, it's worth mentioning if you're used to Apple's glossy displays where you did have that added security layer.


The MacBook Pro with Retina Display, no gap, no cover glass


The 2011 MacBook Pro with High-Res Matte display option, no cover glass, top bezel


From left to right: 2010 High Res Glossy MBP, 2012 rMBP, 2011 High Res Matte MBP


Glare handling indoors - 2011 High Res, Glossy MBP (left) vs 2012 rMBP (right)


Glare handling indoors - 2012 rMBP (left) vs. 2011 High Res, Matte MBP (right)

The Retina Display is also obviously an extremely high resolution panel at 2880 x 1800. Note that this is 44.6% more pixels than Apple’s 27-inch Thunderbolt Display, and 26.6% more pixels than the 30-inch panels that we’ve loved for so long - all in a 15.4-inch notebook display.


An iPhoto shortcut, High Res 2011 MBP (left) vs. Retina Display MBP (right)

At 220 pixels per inch it’s easily the highest density consumer notebook panel shipping today. At normal viewing distances and even with my face closer than I’m comfortable putting it I simply cannot discern individual pixels.

It’s the combination of these two elements, the removal of the cover glass and the insanely high pixel density that makes everything from text to UI elements just look painted on the new Retina Display. And the effect is gorgeous. I’ve never seen a prettier panel and it’s actually ruined me for pretty much all other displays, notebook and desktop.

While I can appreciate the iPad’s Retina Display, the impact from the MacBook Pro’s display is even more significant. Perhaps it’s because I still spend so much time working on a standard, non-tablet display, but I’m far more excited about this display than anything else Apple has delivered under the Retina moniker.

It’s not just pixel density that Apple has to offer here. Similar to its Retina Displays in the iPhone and iPad, the MacBook Pro’s Retina panel ditches TN in favor of IPS technology. The result is an incredible improvement in viewing angles. On a notebook I don’t spend a lot of time viewing it from far left/right angles, although I see the benefit when I’ve got others huddled around my display. Here the panel performs admirably - you lose brightness at far left/right angles but there’s no perceivable color shift. In fact, the painted on effect is even more impressive at these far left/right viewing angles.


The rMBP straight on


The rMBP viewed from the left

For a single user however the more impressive characteristic is just how good the display looks at vertically off-center angles. I wrote much of the initial parts of this review while on an airplane in coach, which with a 15-inch notebook on my lap means I’m going to be looking at the display at a weird angle to begin with. The thinner rMBP doesn’t do enough to make the airplane usage model any better if the person in front of you decides to recline, but the IPS panel does make the display perfectly usable at the off-center angle you’ll inevitably have to deal with.


2010 High Res, Glossy MBP (left) vs. 2012 rMBP (right)


Hello colorshift! 2010 High Res, Glossy MBP (left) vs. 2012 rMBP (right)

Ports & Expansion The Retina Display in Numbers
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  • Fx1 - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    It makes a big difference to the glare when you take away that glass. Why don't you go have a look at a rmbp and see how thin the lid is and you too will be impressed. A LOT of work must going into designing these notebooks. Why don't you spend you time bitching at the windows notebook makers and see how CRAP their designs are. Because they deserve it. Full Stop. Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Why don't you go and eat a dick, child. Reply
  • gstrickler - Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - link

    It's not a matte screen. Matte screens are etched to diffuse the light in many directions. This makes them slightly less "sharp", and lowers their effective brightness slightly. The Retina display in the new MBP has a low reflectance flat surface, not a matte surface. It's an important difference as an etched surface would compromise the sharpness of such a high DPI display. Reply
  • Spunjji - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I give up. Too many fanboys on both sides. Reply
  • jjbwbc - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I bought one of these guys and I really love the display but I cannot for my life see if this is glass or plastic or what makes the outer layer of this display.

    How fragile is it? I mean, it seems like a combination of durable and extremely fragile too. Makes me nervous... can anyone weigh in on how fragile the screen on this guy is compared to regular LCDs?
    Reply
  • Constructor - Thursday, June 28, 2012 - link

    It's definitely glass, and likely of the 'Gorilla' variety. It will still scratch or break if you try hard enough. But with no access to Apple's internal QA information we'll have to wait until someone actually manages to break theirs to really know...! ;-) Reply
  • SimaYi - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I'm disappointed in this review, as I was very much hoping to get some advice about whether this laptop can run recent games at 2880x1800.

    The only frame rates mentioned for this resolution were Half Life 2 (42 fps) and Diablo 3 (18 fps).

    @Anand, is there any chance you will update this article with some detailed feedback about gaming at 2880x1800, and framerates for running recent Windows games in bootcamp at this res?
    Reply
  • seapeople - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    No, it can't run recent games at 2880x1800. This is not something that needs to be benchmarked; it is obvious from the combination of a middle-of-the-road laptop graphics card and the highest resolution notebook screen ever made. Reply
  • wfolta - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    And you got this idea, despite the article mentioning Diablo III (about as recent of a game as you can get)? It runs Diablo III (Normal Act III) at 20+ FPS, with most settings cranked to max. It runs other recent games fine. Perhaps you should give details of what games you mean when you say "recent"?

    And the fact is you can run games at lower resolutions (which still look better at that resolution than if you only had that many pixels) and drop a few settings and double your frame rate.
    Reply
  • SimaYi - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Thanks very much for the feedback!

    Are you saying from personal experience that it runs D3 on High at 20fps? How about if you reduce the settings, say with no AA and lower setttings, can it run D3 above 30fps?

    For most games, 25-30 fps is quite playable. Above 30fps is great.

    As for "recent" games, I would be extremely interested to know the performance at 2880x1800 (on low or med settings), for games like Skyrim, DXHR, RAGE, Arkham City, BF3, Sniper Elite V2, ME3, Risen 2, MW3, Witcher 2, Civ 5.

    Never purchased a mac laptop before and this is the first time I'm seriously considering it, primarily because of the display. However, if I can't run any games at 2880x1800, it seems like a waste.

    Trying to decide between either buying an MBP or a Windows laptop with 1080p display and decent GPU, along the lines of a DV6t (Nvidia 650m) or Envy 15 (AMD 7750m).

    I wouldn't call the 650m necessarily "middle of the road," as it's one of the fastest mobile cards currently available for laptops that are not bulky desktop replacements. Do Mac laptops run games slower on bootcamp compared to Windows laptops with the same card?
    Reply

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