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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  • OCedHrt - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    He missed another important point. All of that was in 3 lbs. Now, the current generation starting from last summer has an external discrete graphics and optical drive connected via a thunderbolt based connector (because Apple had exclusivity) with the laptop being only 2.5 lbs.

    This isn't going to compare to the retina macbook pro though - at 15 inches 4.5 lbs is pretty impressive though I think if Sony wanted to do it they could do 4 lbs or less.
    Reply
  • deathdemon89 - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    I agree completely, I'm a proud owner of the old Z, and even today it doesn't feel the least bit dated. And the 1080p screen is holding up admirably well, with no signs of pixellation at normal viewing distances. This device was truly innovative for its time. I still don't understand why it received such mixed reviews by the press. Reply
  • Spunjji - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Mainly the price. Only Apple are allowed to charge that much for a laptop. Also, only Apple can have hot systems. Repeat ad infinitum. Reply
  • mlambert890 - Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - link

    Really ridiculous comment. I can see you are bitter, as is the other mega z fan, but come on already. I worked for Sony for 5 years and love the company. I have owned probably a dozen Vaios including the top of the line last gen Z (with the SSD RAID)

    Instead of ranting and raving you need to ask yourself *why it is* that "only Apple can charge so much" and why "Anand only gives a free pass to Apple"

    You feel what exactly? That there is some grand conspiracy in play? Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?

    WHY has Sony *lost the ability to charge a premium*? In other words WHY have they *burned all customer loyalty and good will*? I left the company back in 1999 because I saw the writing on the wall.

    You (and the other Z guy) are no different than any other apologist. Companies dont bleed marketshare and fail to sell cancer curing products (you guys are presenting the Z as "truly revolutionary" right?) for no reason. Sorry to tell you there is no "big conspiracy".

    Sony sells super high priced products into a super commoditized market and then they layer on a CRAP TON of bloatware dragging the machine to a stop, make idiot decisions like the HDMI one, and push proprietary crap *worse* than Apple ever has. All of that into the Wintel space which, sorry to tell you, was *always* driven by the cheapest possible parts at the best possible price.

    The PC industry grew *because it was cheap*. Apple *always* occupied a premium niche. I vividly remember the initial release of the Apple I, the Lisa, the Mac 128. These were all always premium products and the competition at the time (be it Commodore, Atari, Ti, or the wintel ecosystem) *always* captured share by being cheap.

    That may annoy you for some reason, but Apple has pretty much *always* held a core premium audience. The only exception was the period of insanity when Jobs had been pushed out and Scully destroyed the company. Even then, the core fans stayed.

    You two make it sound like poor Sony is a victim because the world doesnt all run out and by the Vaio Z.

    Even *without Apple* Sony would be going under, hate to tell you. Sony's problems are Sony's and the whole is *not* the sum of its parts with a laptop.
    Reply
  • solipsism - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    None of that makes sense and is, in fact, rubbish.

    Sony added 1080p because it was it was popular not because it made sense. You have a 168 PPI display on 13" machine which makes text too small to be a good experience for most users.

    They also didn't use a good quality display or add anything to the SW to make the experience good (unlike what Anand talked about in this review), they just added the single metric that was trending because of HDTVs.

    Blu-ray in a notebook has always been a silly option for most users. There is a reason the BRD adoption failed on PCs and it's not because everyone is stupid... except you. ODDs are long overdue for being removed since they take up 25% of the chassis, require them to placed at an edge reducing over 5" of port real estate and restricting design, require a lot of power, are noisy, more prone to break due to the many moving parts, are slow, are just too expensive to be feasible, and add nothing visually that most users trying to watch a movie can discern.

    Quad-SSDs? Really? That's a sensible solution for a consumer notebook?
    Reply
  • EnzoFX - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    and that really is what people don't get. It isn't just about raw specs. The package needs to be complete, polished, what have you. In this case of high dpi screens, is good scaling support, and Apple did it. Support on the software side is something they never get credit for by the Apple haters. All they can see is numbers and think "I've seen numbers like that before". Reply
  • mabellon - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    No Apple didn't do it. Just like on the iPad, they increased resolution by doubling width and height. Their software simply doesn't scale well to arbitrary higher resolution. If it was done right then Chrome would work out of the box - instead the OS 2x scales everything without increasing resolution/quality.

    To the consumer, the choice means a good experience without breaking apps. But claiming that Apple was successful simply bc of software? HA!
    Reply
  • Ohhmaagawd - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    Did you actually read the retina part of the review?

    Chrome doesn't work right because they do their own text rendering. Read the review. If an app uses the native text rendering, the app will look good (at least the text portion). They will have to update the graphical assets of course.

    BTW, Chrome Dev builds have this issue fixed.

    Windows DPI setting isn't default, so few use or even know about the setting and devs haven't made sure they work properly in the high DPI settings.

    Apple has made a move that will be short-term painful in having apps that aren't updated look a bit fuzzy. But since they made it default, this will force devs to update.
    Reply
  • OCedHrt - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    What do you mean Windows DPI setting isn't default? You can change it in a few clicks, but the same thing applies - if your app does not read the DPI values, then Windows can't help you. This is because windows UI is not vector based (I don't know about now, but older apps definitely not) and many applications back then were coded with hard coded pixel counts.

    When the DPI is changed, windows scales the text but the UI dimensions is controlled by the application implementation.
    Reply
  • KitsuneKnight - Saturday, July 07, 2012 - link

    On Windows, changing the DPI will generally mean a huge amount of applications will become simply unusable.

    On this Retina MBP, the worst case appears to be slightly blurry text (which was quickly updated).

    Apple's solution is a good one, because it does things in a way that should keep existing apps working fine, while allowing future developers to leverage new APIs to take advantage of the increased resolution.
    Reply

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