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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  • Ohhmaagawd - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    It's a first step. There will be retina monitors in the future. Reply
  • Freakie - Monday, June 25, 2012 - link

    Lolwut... Monitors that have great quality color are already high resolution... They were pushing major pixels before it was popular ;) Reply
  • vegemeister - Monday, July 02, 2012 - link

    With the exception of the (discontinued and originally $10,000) IBM T221 and it's derivatives, no desktop monitor has resolution exceeding 2560x1600, and that resolution is only available in the 30" form factor. Reply
  • Solandri - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    I have the lower-end version of that particular laptop ("only" a 1600x900 screen, 2x64 GB SSD). I wish I'd opted for the 1080p screen. 1600p wide isn't really enough to put two apps side-by-side. I do that all the time on my 1920x1200 external monitor though.

    The screen is a glossy TN panel, but is pretty much the best TN panel I've used. My desktop monitor is IPS so I can see its limitations. But when I'm using the Z in public, the most frequently comment I get is how beautiful the screen is. Sony also does a stellar job with their anti-reflective coatings. it's a glossy screen, but I almost never see reflections (except in sunlight). Colors are a bit too saturated, and the custom color profile I made tones it down. Unfortunately none of the reviews on it tested its gamut. But from photo editing, it's got a wider gamut than most high-end laptop displays I've seen. And it's blindingly bright too - perfectly usable in direct sunlight at max brightness. I rarely run it over half brightness.

    The quad-SSD was because the laptop came out before SATA3 SSDs were available (the SATA3 spec had only been finalized a few months prior). 2.5" SSDs were already hitting the limits of SATA2 (3 Gbps) and the only way to get around it was by putting multiple SSDs in a RAID 0 array. So that's what Sony did. The 4-SSD version benchmarks at 430-500 MB/s sequential read/write. Not too shabby in 2010 using 150 MB/s mSATA stick SSDs on SATA2.

    Optical drives are more a matter of preference. I end up burning a lot of DVDs so it's definitely convenient. But if you don't do that or watch movies, then yeah I can see it being superfluous. As much as I'd like to see media being distributed on USB sticks, their cost of $1-$2 for 4GB vs. a few cents for a DVD means it's not happening yet. Do note that the Z tops out at 2.9 pounds. It's lighter than the first and second gen Macbook Air despite having a DVD/Bluray drive. That's the second most common comment I get - "It's so light!"
    Reply
  • OCedHrt - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    The 1080p panel on the Z is IPS. And it's not glossy - you don't have a glass on your laptop. I believe this is more for weight reasons than anything else. Reply
  • maratus - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    No, it's not IPS. Reply
  • Solidstate89 - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    You have to be the most ignorant jackass I've ever seen. You've basically never even heard of that product until now yet that doesn't stop you from making baseless accusation after baseless accusation.

    Get the fuck over yourself. And Windows has always handled resolution scaling better than OS X, and it still does.
    Reply
  • ananduser - Saturday, June 23, 2012 - link

    In 2010 Sony offered a 13" MBP equivalent with matte 1080p TN panel(like all the other macbooks). It had a BluRay built besides a quad raid SSD option(that still exists). The current Z has the video card inside an external dock, it is as slim as the thinnest ultrabook with a full voltage CPU. Reply
  • OCedHrt - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    Sony offered it in 2008 :) Reply
  • OCedHrt - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    You are not applying the correct context.

    1080p is okay because windows has DPI scaling - though I agree with Anand that this doesn't work with apps that aren't written correctly. But the same applies to OS X. OS X handles it better because of vector based UI.

    It is an IPS display with 92% color gamut that Anandtech called amazing. Don't even try to pretend it sucks: http://www.anandtech.com/show/5530/sony-vaio-z2-ev...

    Blu-ray is not a default option, it is an extra configuration that you'd have to pay for. This isn't Apple were talking about - even Sony has typically more options than Apple.

    Quad-SSDs. Yes. You need to remember that his happened back in 2008 when SSDs were not doing 500mb/sec. This was back when a quad SSD only netted you about 300mb/sec and before TRIM was prevalent.
    Reply

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