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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  • wfolta - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    You may be satisfied with 1920x1200 on a 17" notebook. But once you try 2880x1800 on a 15" notebook, you will see pixels when you go back.

    Your eyes are literally opened. (Given that you don' have uncorrected vision issues.)

    It's not a waste of money, and if you really believe you can't see the difference, you're free to keep your money in your pocket.

    The rMBP is the most balanced laptop out there. What people keep throwing out as "way better" are in fact unbalanced laptops that are great for gaming but big and heavy, or are tiny and have batteries that last all day but don't have much computing power, or ...
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Is it really? Because seriously, those surface temperatures look unpleasant to me.

    I think the point we're both driving at is that there is no "best laptop" and while this may come closer for many, it's still going to fail to meet some users' requirements.
    Reply
  • kasparsv - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I mean do they look "bad" only in comparison with the rest of the system or are they actually worse-looking than on older MBPs? Reply
  • Randomoneh@gmail.com - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I don't know if anyone already said this, but some some studies show that average person can perceive much higher quality than Apple would like you to think.

    Of course, their wording wasn't "You can't perceive higher quality than this." but they pretty much implied exactly that.
    Reply
  • Randomoneh@gmail.com - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Oh yeah, and I forgot to add that I greatly appreciate what Apple is doing in terms of quality of their products. Reply
  • cdhorner - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    I'm wondering what some of you working professionals with jobs like web/app developers are using as far as external storage.

    I'm looking for the first time to switch over from a desktop/office setup to a MacBook Pro, connected to an Apple 27" cinema display so I can work at a home office, as well as a secondary office location - and still have decent access to external storage. I've been looking at a cloud storage solution, but then the real point of having this in my opinion is to drop files on it - and access them directly through your file system (in OS X finder for example), with the ability to only store files for instance in the cloud and not on your machine as well in cases. Is this possible? I'm using DropBox right now, and at least under OSX it's pretty lacking...

    Do any of you guys have a similar type of setup/requirements?
    Reply
  • Fanfoot - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Anand,

    Fabulous review as always. One thing I'd love to see get some of your attention though is the trade-off between display resolution and battery power required. Obviously with the near doubling of WHr in the new iPad and the 23% increase in WHr in the rMBP, these higher resolution displays take quite a bit more power. Now obviously the early rumors that Apple would go with Sharp's IGZO panels for the rMBP turned out to be false, but I assume they're still a possibility for the long run, perhaps MacBook Airs for next year say, where there is less ability to make make the laptop thicker to add more battery and everything else has already been removed or paired down. I've never seen a real analysis of HOW MUCH more efficient IGZO is than IPS say. Would it allow a MacBook Air with 220ppi without increasing the battery size at all? Or is it really only slightly more efficient than IPS?
    Reply
  • Ritchey - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Wonderful! 3 external displays, all rendered useless as soon as you decide to click on full screen mode on the internal one... Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Hehehe... Not a problem worth mentioning in any review though, right? ;) Reply
  • jjjjj - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    I have heard that Mountain Lion fixes Lion's bad implementation of full screen mode. See http://www.apple.com/osx/whats-new/features.html#s... , although it's not clear from that description that it is actually fixed. Reply

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