The Display

The MacBook Air is really Apple's mass-market notebook, and as such it's not going to be the target for a Retina Display upgrade, at least not this year. While technically feasible, my guess is a lack of supply kept a rMBA out of the cards for this year. There's also the matter of maintaining its thin profile and battery life in pursuit of a retina display.

The MacBook Air display continues to be good, and better than most, but no where near what the rMBP delivers and actually a step behind what the competition in the PC space has been cooking up.

If there was one clear trend at Computex this year it's towards IPS 1080p displays in Windows 8 notebooks. ASUS actually pre-empted all of the exciting announcements (rMBP included) with its Zenbook Prime, complete with 11 and 13-inch 1080p IPS displays. As the MacBook Air retains its TN display, for the first time we can actually say that ASUS' Ultrabook offers better viewing angles than the Air. The difference is quite noticeable:


2012 MacBook Air (left) vs. 2012 ASUS Zenbook Prime (right)


2012 MacBook Air (left) vs. 2012 ASUS Zenbook Prime (right)

ASUS also enjoys a resolution advantage, but it's not really high enough to make good use of integer DPI scaling (at 2x you get a UI sized for a 960 x 540 display). You get sharpness, and additional desktop area, but not the total package you get with the rMBP. There's no denying that what ASUS has done is better, it's just not perfect. And as Apple has shown us in the past, it's not fond of stopgap solutions.


2012 MacBook Air (left) vs. 2012 ASUS Zenbook Prime (right)

Brightness, black levels, contrast, color accuracy and gamut haven't changed over the past year. The MacBook Air's panel remains one of the best non-IPS solutions on the market. The problem is that consumer insistence higher quality displays has pushed Apple's competitors to finally deliver more than TN at MacBook Air price points. Sooner rather than later, Apple will have to respond.

The Panel Lottery

Unlike in previous years, there appears to be three manufacturers supplying panels for the 2012 MacBook Air. LG Philips and Samsung return from before, but AUO now joins the fray. It's quite possible that Apple's volumes have grown large enough to justify adding a third supplier - a trend we may see increase in the future, and across more component categories.

As always, you can try to find out what panel is used in your MacBook Air by executing the following command in an OS X Terminal window:

ioreg -lw0 | grep IODisplayEDID | sed "/[^<]*</s///" | xxd -p -r | strings -6

The output will look something like this:

As long as Apple hasn't masked the data, the first line should be the part number of your display panel. The first one or two characters will tell you the manufacturer: LP for LG Philips, LT for Samsung and B for AUO. Anecdotally, LG and Samsung seem to be the most prevalent. In my personal experience with six 13-inch 2012 MacBook Airs and three 11-inch MacBook Airs, the breakdown was as follows:

13-inch $1499 - Samsung
13-inch $1499 - Samsung
13-inch $1499 - Samsung
13-inch $1499 - Samsung
13-inch $1499 - Samsung
13-inch $2199 - LG
11-inch $1099 - AUO
11-inch $1099 - AUO
11-inch $999 - Samsung

A thread over on Macrumors places the Samsung/LG split much closer to 50/50, however it's not clear if there's a higher incidence of LG panels in BTO or non-default configurations. We'd need many more samples to really get an idea for how all of this shapes up, so don't put too much faith in the results from my experience.

Apple does its best to ensure that all three panels deliver comparable performance, however there are differences. Let's first start with the numbers:

LCD Analysis - White

LCD Analysis - Black

LCD Analysis - Contrast

The 13-inch LG panel delivers tangibly worse black levels than the Samsung alternative. There's even a pretty dramatic difference in black levels between even the 11 and 13-inch Samsung panels. It's also possible that there's panel to panel variation at play here that would result in this sort of a difference.

The LG panel is a bit brighter, which helps it reach a decent contrast ratio but the 13-inch Samsung panel's low black levels give it an advantage. Interestingly enough, the 13-inch LG sample performed very similarly to the 11-inch Samsung. I really do wonder how much of this difference is just normal variance between panels.

LCD Analysis - Color Gamut

LCD Analysis - Delta E

Color accuracy is slightly better on the LG panel, although it's not beyond the noticeable threshold. Color gamut is comparable between the displays.

Independently, neither the Samsung or LG panels is particularly bad to look at. These are still TN panels so you get poor vertical viewing angles, but the quality is still better than the cheaper TNs we often see used in less expensive notebooks. It's when you compare the two or you're used to one that you can really tell a difference: the Samsung panel, particularly when displaying black text on a white background, looks better than the LG.


13-inch LG LP133WP1-TJA3 panel (left) vs. Samsung LTH133BT01A03 panel (right)

I had some friends over and tossed them a pair of 13-inch MBAs. One had the LG panel and one had the Samsung panel. They used the MBAs and swapped after a short while. Almost instantaneously they could tell the difference between the panels. Everyone significantly favored the Samsung.

I was actually a bit surprised how quickly they noticed the difference. With these type of things I always assume I'm just more sensitive than most, but in this case the difference was noticeable enough to pick out. Everyone added (and I agreed) that the difference was most pronounced because they were able to switch between two. In a vacuum each one seemed fine.

I tried my best to capture the difference between the two panels on camera. The easiest way to describe the difference is text on the Samsung panel just looks darker (mouse over the panel name in the table below):

LG LP133WP1-TJA3 Samsung LTH133BT01A03
original original

Just like last time, I believe the two panels behave differently in how they react to off-center viewing angles but I couldn't really capture the slight differences on camera. Although I didn't have an AUO equipped MBA on hand, the one I saw in an Apple store looked closer to the LG than the Samsung.

The good news is after a calibration pass using Color Eyes Display Pro, the difference between the two is significantly reduced - to the point where I can no longer tell the two apart:

LG LP133WP1-TJA3 Samsung LTH133BT01A03
original original

The obvious problem with this solution is you need access to a decent colorimeter or spectrophotometer and calibration software. There are some color profiles floating around the web that may help (I've uploaded mine for the LG here, Samsung here) but every panel is going to be at least somewhat different so this is still not perfect.

Subjectively, I'm fine with the LG panel, although I do like the look of the Samsung better. Both are a bit of a disappointment compared to what you get from the Retina Display in the MacBook Pro however. It's just presently what you give up for portability and cost.

To Make a Retina

The thing about the MacBook Air is that it's already quite minimized on the inside. The vast majority of the chassis is occupied by a battery, and there's no traditional HDD or optical drive to remove for additional space. Apple can't simply toss a much higher resolution panel on the system and call it a day, at least not without a tangible reduction in battery life.


13-inch MacBook Air (Mid 2012) - iFixit

Apple had to give the MacBook Pro with Retina Display a 95Wh battery (up from 77.5Wh) just to deliver similar battery life to the regular MacBook Pro. The higher resolution display requires a brighter backlight to push light through the panel and maintain comparable brightness levels.

The motherboard itself can stand to lose a single chip (the PCH) with the transition to Haswell, but that's not going to give us a ton of space either.

In the short term Apple could opt for a slightly thicker chassis (similar to what happened in the 3rd gen iPad) to accommodate a larger battery. Eventually the hope is that panel efficiency will increase to the point where we won't need significantly brighter backlights.

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  • name99 - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    The most likely reason for the USB3 problems is devices that are just slightly out of spec, demanding more power than USB3 can deliver. The larger rMBP is willing to give them this extra power, the smaller MBAs cannot.

    This is a very common problem these days with flash storage. Look at a table of the power demands of various disks for either startup or sustained writes --- it is depressing how many are almost (but just over) the USB3 limit --- and there are plenty of manufacturers (yeah, OCZ, I'm looking at you) who are quite willing to sell you a "USB3" drive which kinda sorta appears to run until you generate a long series of sustained writes at which point it hangs.

    So why does the failure for these drives appear at plugin time?
    One possibility is that they need a burst of juice to start themselves going, another is that they negotiate with the host and can't negotiate as much power as they want. (I don't know the USB3 power negotiation protocol.)

    It would be an interesting experiment, IMHO, for Anand to try the problematic devices again with a Y cable that could deliver extra USB power from a second port.
    Reply
  • jospoortvliet - Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - link

    On a related note - neither can anyone sell the nice magsafe(2) adaptors, it seems. Quite annoying - I don't really get why it's legal that Apple can stop others from making those? I get they have patents on it, but wasn't the idea of the patent system to ensure inventors get decently renumerated, not to let them block others from using their inventions? I thought you HAVE to license your patents for a 'reasonable' fee... Still, all other laptops come without a magsafe-like plug... Reply
  • Romberry - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    ...or drowning in Kool-Aid. Apple cripples other OS's on their hardware (and does so for no good technical reason at all.) See my previous comment for more. Or take a look at Ed Bott's recent article on another site concerning battery life on a Mac running Windows. Or fire up Google. Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Here's what Ed Bott said:

    "I don’t blame Apple for this terrible performance. They’ve focused their engineering resources on their own hardware and their own operating system. For Apple, Boot Camp is a tool to use occasionally, when you need to run a Windows program without virtualization software getting in the way."

    It's always been obvious that Boot Camp drivers are subpar, though it is getting better. However, most people aren't buying Macs to run Windows as the primary OS. They do enough to get Windows running occasionally, but they rightfully spend their time and effort optimizing their hardware for OS X. What's the issue there?

    Incidentally, the new Boot Camp drivers do enable AHCI support, so TRIM, etc. will work in Windows 7 and Windows 8. They also generally deliver decent performance (the Core i7 bug notwithstanding). Apple doesn't need to make Boot Camp available at all.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    No good technical reason, for sure. Business reasons, on the other hand... There are many people out there who don't get the technical side of it, they just get what works and what doesn't. They see Windows running poorly on the same hardware, so they assume that with all things being equal that Windows is the source of the problem. Makes a simple kind of sense unless you know that Apple are responsible for tying the 2 together. They could easily do it properly, but they never will. Because they're Captialist Pigs! Yaaayyy! :D Reply
  • Freakie - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Wait wut... Are you being sarcastic? o_O It's not Apple's choice to allow other OS's on their laptop, it's the hardwork of the programmers for the other OS's that allow their OS's to be compatible with an incredibly large range of hardware. Unlike OSX which can't even figure out it's own small range of hardware. It's out of Microsoft's own decision that it can run on non-partnered computers that you build yourself, or buy from a company that doesn't make Windows computers. In fact. Apple puts specific features in OSX to make it not run on any hardware but theirs and users have to hack in order to get it to run on anything else.

    Apple should be hanged for their nonexistent allowances of other OS's.
    Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Uh, without Boot Camp, it would be very difficult to run Windows, because Windows doesn't support Apple's implementation of EFI (which predates Windows' support for UEFI). Also, they do write drivers for their components. Microsoft's stock drivers don't support all the hardware used. Reply
  • Freakie - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Yes, Microsoft uses a new, more advanced, and completely 64bit compatible version of EFI. Just because Apple did it first, doesn't mean they somehow do it better now xP Though from what I've seen, the ability to put Windows on a Mac without any modifications isn't a fault of Windows, but differences between the two OS's as well as Apple's insistence of only allowing Windows on their system under their own terms. If Apple was more open about things, then hackers would have had to work less =P

    I also never said they didn't write their own drivers? o_O I mean, they obviously don't write all of their own drivers 100%, as I am sure that the hardware manufacturers have to give them something to start with.

    And Microsoft's stock drivers are actually quite impressive. Of course they can' support every little peripheral, but they do an amazing job of supporting a countless range of combinations of hardware. There is no doubt that Microsoft's view on how it develops drivers is much more open than Apple's. Microsoft support DIY builders and system integrators as well, while Apple does not.
    Reply
  • KPOM - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    Boot Camp came out before Windows supported EFI at all. Apple has no real incentive to switch to UEFI because it doesn't really offer significant benefits, and they'd have to modify UEFI anyway to keep OS X proprietary.

    My point wasn't about UEFI, though. It is about Apple enabling other operating systems to run on their computers. They actively added that capability when they didn't need to.

    Your point about MS' openness vs. Apple is well known. Microsoft is primarily a software company. Up to now, they haven't cared whether you installed Windows 7 on an Apple, a Dell, HP, or something you built yourself. However, with Windows RT, they are going partly the Apple route, since they won't sell the OS separately, and will individually approve manufacturers and designs. So apparently even they recognize there are advantages to a closed model.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - link

    "When they didn't need to" <- What nonsense is this? A market requirement translates as a need. They would have lost all of the customers out there who require genuine Windows applications running under non-virtualised Windows. This is a non-trivial portion of the market.

    Apple do not do anything out of the generosity of their hearts. What wealthy company does?
    Reply

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