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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  • Mumrik - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link


    Anand, on page 4 you categorize the rMBP as a consumer device: "At 220 pixels per inch it’s easily the highest density consumer notebook panel shipping today.", but back on page 2 you made a deal of of calling it a pro "appliance" and pointed out that it wasn't a consumer device.

    Other than that - this DPI improvement really needs to get moving. It's been so many years and we've essentially been standing still since LCDs took over and the monitor business became a race towards the bottom. IPS, high DPI and native support for it in software PLEASE. 120hz would be nice too.
    Reply
  • dwade123 - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I don't understand why Apple doesn't take advantage of their lead in Thunderbolt. This machine screams for E-GPU with GTX 670! Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Probably because right now the user experience would be poor. See Anand's comments about sound and USB cutting out when high-bandwidth transfers are occurring. That would be catastrophic mid-game and would definitely lead me to return the hardware as unfit for purpose. Apple have had their slip-ups but they rarely release hardware that is unfit for purpose. Reply
  • inaphasia - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Does Apple have some sort of exclusive deal (ie monopoly with an expiration date) on these displays, or can anybody (HP, Asus, Lenovo etc) use them if they want to? Reply
  • wfolta - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    In recent years, Apple has been the King of the Supply Chain due to Tim Cook. He's now the CEO. I doubt that there will be many retina 15" screens available for Apple's competitors for a year or more.

    Even if Apple didn't lock up the supply chain, Apple's competitors have been running towards lower resolutions, or the entertainment-oriented 16:9 1920x1080 (aka 1080p), so it will take them a while to pivot towards higher-density displays even if they were growing on trees.
    Reply
  • Constructor - Thursday, June 28, 2012 - link

    Apple has been paying huge sums (in the Billions of Dollars!) to component manufacturers in advance to have them develop specific components such as this one, even paying for factories to be built for manufacturing exclusively for Apple for a certain time.

    It is also possible that Apple has licensed certain patents from various (other) manufacturers for their exclusive use which might preclude open-market sales of the same components even after the exclusive deal with Apple is up, because the display manufacturer may not be able to keep using these same patents.

    In short: The chances for PC manufacturers to get at them just by waiting for them to drop into the market eventually don't look too good.

    After all, none of the other Retina displays have appeared in other products yet. And the iPhone 4 is already two years old.

    So either the non-Apple-supplying component manufacturers or the PC builders will have to actually pay for their own development. And given their mostly dismal profit margins and relatively low volumes in the premium segment, I wouldn't hold my breath.
    Reply
  • Shanmugam - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Anand and Team,

    Excellent review again.

    When is the MacBook Air Mid 2012 review coming? I really want to see the battery life improvement, I can see that it almost tops out at 8Hours for light work load for 13" MBA.

    Cannot wait!!!
    Reply
  • smozes - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Anand states: "[E]nough to make me actually want to use the Mac as a portable when at home rather than tethered to an external panel. The added portability of the chassis likely contributes to that fact though."

    I work with an external display at home, and given that there are none yet at this caliber, I'm wondering about doing away with the external display and working only with the rMBP. In the past I've always needed external displays for viewing more info, and I'm curious if this is no longer necessary.

    Has anyone tried doing away with an external display and just using the rMBP on a stand with a mouse and keyboard? Since the display includes more info than a cinema display, and given healthy eyesight, would this setup be as ergonomic and efficient?
    Reply
  • boeush - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    For several years, I've been using 17'' notebooks with 1920x1200 displays. That resolution had been more than enough for the 17'' form factor; having even such a resolution on a 15'' screen is going overboard, and doing it on an 11'' tablet is just plane bonkers. I don't see the individual pixels on my laptop's screen, and I'd wager neither would most other people unless they use magnifying lenses.

    I really don't get the point of wasting money on over-spec'ed hardware, and burning energy pushing all those invisible pixels.

    I'd rather have reasonable display resolutions matched to the actual physiological capabilities of the human eye, and spend the rest of the cost and power budgets on either weight reductions, or better battery life, or higher computing performance, or more powerful 3G/4G/Wi-Fi radios, etc.

    The marketing-hype idiocy of "retina displays" now appears to be driving the industry from one intolerable extreme (of crappy pannels with sup-par resolutions) right into the diametrically opposite insanity -- that of ridiculously overbuilt hardware.

    Why can't we just have cost-effective, performance-balanced, SANE designs anymore?
    Reply
  • darkcrayon - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Reminds me of comments when the 3rd gen iPad screen was introduced. You have a review which both subjectively (from an extremely experienced user) and objectively from tests shows this is the best display ever for a laptop. Yet people ignore all of that and say it's a waste... I think it would be a waste if it didn't actually... You know... Provide a visibly dramatic level of improvement. And its better to make a large jump bordering on "overkill" than to make tiny incremental steps with something like display resolution- fragmentation/etc being what it is, Reply

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