Display

When I reviewed the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, I viewed it as the true Retina MacBook Air that everyone was waiting for. With modest increases in thickness and weight, the rMBP13 gave you a much better screen and a larger battery to drive it. Apple’s lineup made sense.

After being in Taiwan earlier this month and checking out all of the 13.3-inch 2560 x 1440 displays being used on notebooks similar in size to the 13-inch MBA, I was beginning to reconsider my position.

To hit an aggressive schedule, you have to mitigate risk. In the case of the 2013 MBAs, Apple kept the chassis spec unchanged in order to do just that. As a result, the displays too, remained unchanged. We’re talking about TN panels (admittedly higher quality than most) and traditional pixel densities. Compared to the Retina Displays deployed across the rest of Apple’s product lines, these panels just aren’t as good. Compared to what you typically find elsewhere, they’re still among the best.

Pixel Density Comparison

There are two aspects to deploying a Retina Display in a MacBook Air that are worth discussing. The first is power consumption. Greater pixel density requires a more powerful backlight to drive the panel at the same brightness, which in turn reduces battery life. Apple’s solution is to deploy Retina Displays on products it can outfit with a sufficiently large battery. I’d argue that given the battery life of the 2013 MBAs, Apple could move to a Retina Display and still deliver reasonable battery life - but it would be a regression.

The second thing to consider is price. I don’t know just how much more a Retina Display would add to the cost of a MacBook Air, but it’s clear it would be non-negligible.

There’s no real solution to the first problem, but the second one should be less of an issue as panel prices come down. I don’t know where Apple will eventually land on all of this, but today what happens is we get a well defined separation between MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Professional users who need greater color accuracy and/or additional desktop resolution really should go for the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. If you don’t need either, the MacBook Air will suffice.

In practice, the MBA’s display isn’t bad by any means. I’ve been staring at it non-stop since WWDC and don’t mind using it at all. The biggest visual issue for me is actually the shifting contrast at off-center vertical angles. It’s not a problem once you properly adjust the display angle but it’s something you don’t have to deal with on the rMBPs. When I'm not in crazy work mode, the lack of resolution isn't a huge deal - but when putting together big articles like this one, I find myself missing the rMBP quite a bit. I guess that's why the rMBP has Pro in the name.

LCD Analysis - White

LCD Analysis - Black

LCD Analysis - Contrast

My review sample featured a Samsung panel (LSN133BT01A02), although I’m sure the usual panel lottery is in full effect this generation as it has been in the past. Brightness and contrast are both comparable to what we had last generation (my Samsung panel this year was a bit better than last year's). The brightness/contrast results are very comparable to Acer's 1080p S7, just to show you how far Ultrabooks have come.

I ran the 2013 MBA through Chris Heinonen’s new display workflow using CalMAN to give you an idea of color accuracy vs. the rMBP:



CalMAN Display Comparison
  Apple iPad (3rd gen) Apple iPhone 5 13-inch rMBP (uncalibrated) 13-inch 2013 MBA (uncalibrated) Google Chromebook Pixel
Grayscale 200 nits Avg dE2000 3.7333 3.564 1.7825 3.348 7.132
CCT Avg (K) 6857K 6925K 6632K 6809K 6442K
Saturation Sweep Avg dE2000 3.193 3.591 2.1663 5.3608 7.0927
GMB Colorchecker Avg dE2000 3.0698 4.747 2.4521 3.9883 5.7664

The 13-inch MacBook Air isn’t bad, but Apple’s Retina Display is just better.

Real World 802.11ac Performance Under OS X Final Words
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  • malcolmcraft - Thursday, October 09, 2014 - link

    MacBook Air is absolutely fantastic! It is also interesting that it's the highest rated laptop among consumers (see http://www.consumertop.com/best-laptop-guide/)... I would not trade mine for anything. Reply
  • darwinosx - Monday, July 08, 2013 - link

    If you read the review you are commenting on you would know its not a terrible display. Reply
  • Subyman - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    Did you even read Anand's article? He explains why. Reply
  • sigmatau - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    Yes, apparently it is good to have a long battery life so you can be able to stare at a horrible display for as long as possible. I'd rather have that display in a $400 laptop. Actually, not even at that price point. Reply
  • designerfx - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    exactly. I laugh when people look at GPU performance when they forget that it's at 1366x768. You can get better (and AMD does) in IGP. Reply
  • josef195 - Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - link

    I laugh when people complain about good GPU performance at 1366x768 when it's actually 1440x900 Reply
  • jmmx - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    hardly a horrible display! Have you ever seen one? Not only are they very fine - though admittedly not as high resolution as others, but according to one monitor expert - only Apple displays have a consistency and an out-of-the-box color setting that is very close to professionally calibrated. Reply
  • sigmatau - Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - link

    OK, I will say that Apple offers some of the best displays, but the best 1366x768 display is still terrible even on a 13" display. Not sure why Apple didn't go with a 1080p display with haswell since any increase battery waste from the display should be more than mitigated by the increased efficiency of the CPU/GPU. It's not like anyone does any serious gaming on these laptops so a higher resolution display will not be affected there either. Reply
  • KitsuneKnight - Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - link

    The display is 1440x900 on the 13", not 1366x768 (that's the 11"). It's also one of the damn nicest displays I've ever had the pleasure of using (even the viewing angles doesn't bother me, maybe because it's the only laptop I've used with a decent henge).

    Personally, I'd opt for a 12 hour battery life over a retina-class display. Ideally, I'd have both, but it'll be quite a while before that becomes a possibility in any machine like the Air.
    Reply
  • ThreeDee912 - Monday, June 24, 2013 - link

    I'm not sure if it's the same panel, but the 2010 and 2011 reviews tested the LCD, and the panels had some of the best contrast ratios and black/white levels out of any TN panels at the time. It's no IPS, but they're still pretty darn good compared to everything else. While it would be nice if Apple made the panels IPS, I think the current panel resolution is fine.

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/3991/apples-2010-mac...
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4528/the-2011-macboo...

    Also, I'm not sure why some people want to run an unscaled UI on super high-res panels, especially on laptops of this size. Yes, some smartphones have higher resolutions screens, but they scale things up so it's easier to read. Just stuffing in a high-res panel for the heck of it isn't the way to do things.
    Reply

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