Achieving Retina

To make the MacBook Pro’s Retina Display a reality Apple had to work with panel vendors to build the panels it wanted at a reasonable cost, as well as deliver the software necessary to support insanely high resolutions. There was another problem Apple faced in making the rMBP a reality: the display pipeline of the GPUs Apple wanted to use didn't officially support scaling to the resolution Apple demanded of them. Let me explain.

All modern GPUs have fixed function scaling hardware that is used to efficiently scale between resolutions. A scaler either in your GPU or in your display panel is what lets you run non-native resolutions at full screen on your LCD (e.g. running 1680 x 1050 on a 1920 x 1080 panel). None of the GPUs used in the Retina Display MacBook Pro officially support fixed-function scaling of 3840 x 2400 or 3360 x 2100 to 2880 x 1800 however. Modern day GPUs are tested against 2560 x 1440 and 2560 x 1600, but not this particular 5MP resolution. Even 4K resolution support isn’t widespread among what’s available today. Rather than wait for updated hardware and/or validation, Apple took matters into its own hands and built its own GPU accelerated scaling routines for these higher resolutions. Fixed function hardware is almost always more efficient from a performance and power standpoint, which is why there’s some additional performance loss in these scaled resolution modes. 

What’s even crazier is Apple wasn’t pleased with the difference in baseline filtering quality between the Intel HD 4000 and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M GPUs. As the Retina Display MacBook Pro would have to regularly switch between GPUs, Apple wanted to ensure a consistently good experience regardless of which GPU was active. There are a lot of filtering operations at work when doing all of this resolution scaling, so rather than compromise user experience Apple simply wrote its own default filtering routines. Since you want your upscale and downscale quality to be identical, Apple had to roll its own implementation on both. Apple’s obsessive attention to detail really made it possible to pull all of this off. It’s just insane to think about.

The Software Side of Retina: Making it All Work Driving the Retina Display: A Performance Discussion


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  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, June 26, 2012 - link

    Haven't been interested in anything Apple since the Lisa, but I'm actually tempted to get one of these - which is saying a lot because I'm not a fan of the company at all.

    One thing for sure; I'm sure not interested in buying a different laptop made by someone else with a lousy display! You want my business, I suggest you at least follow Apple's lead here.

    I couldn't agree with Anand more on the state of quality of monitors in general - and the fact that you can buy a (Korean) 2560x1440 monitor now for $300, including shipping from S. Korea, tells the story on affordability there.

  • orthorim - Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - link

    Compared to this review, all the others out there are more or less a variation of "ohhhh... shiny!".

    Thanks for this fantastic in-depth article, AnandTech!
  • darwiniandude - Friday, June 29, 2012 - link

    Still waiting for mine to arrive, although I've used the rMBP a fair bit in the mean time.

    Not sure why 1/3rd of the comments are about a Sony Z series, and couldn't see mention of real word battery life tests?

    Regardless, 1st gen rMBP is an awesome product, and just like with the 1st MacBook Air, this model will look terrible compared to its 2nd or 3rd gen. Can't wait.
  • danrhiggins - Saturday, June 30, 2012 - link

    I have been trying to talk myself into buying the MBR for two weeks now to replace my 2011 17" MBP (to which I added SSD) because the 17" is just a bit too large/heavy to carry around. I use the 17" mostly for my photography hobby.

    The problem is that my main computer is a 13" Macbook air and I jumped on the new 2012 MBA - which I love. So after reading your article I took my 2012 MBA down to the Apple store and put it alongside the MBR on display. Then I brought up and created a couple of matching "virtual" desktops all in full screen mode. (I used MS Excel and one of the included templates for one of the windows as that would be mostly the same on both machines.)

    Then I scrolled up and down and swiped from left to right on both machines at the same time. I wanted to see if any of the issues described here manifested themselves in this admittedly crude comparison. I tried different resolutions on the MBR. (I would not be interested in the "Best for Retina" as I would be looking for more screen real estate.) I also tried it with graphics switching turned on and off.

    Where scrolling on the MBA was very smooth, be it up/down scrolling in Safari or in Excel or side to side scrolling between desktops, the MBR was noticeably jittery in comparison. It reminded me of when my HD cable signal has a bit of interference and can't quite keep up.

    To those coming from older MBP's this may not be an issue. But having grown accustomed to the much smoother operation (IMHO) of the MBA the MBA wins. For now. Yes, they are different machines with different goals. But I don't need the extra I/O ports (1 Thunderbolt and 2 USB 3 is enough given that I use BT keyboard and trackpad) and a Thunderbolt display as a "docking station".

    I look forward to the day that the MBR will have the smooth graphics of the MBA and have addressed any other issues. Then I will get one to replace my 17" MBP. Maybe Mountain Lion and a firmware upgrade or two will clean this up. Or maybe not until the next generation or two. Then the hardware and the software (including 3rd party) will catch up.

    Thanks again for your review. I was going to buy one today. They had what I needed at the Apple Store. But because of your review I did this test and I'm glad I did. Now I'll wait. And there will be one more available for all of those anxious to upgrade.
  • marraco - Sunday, July 01, 2012 - link

    The retina display is a waste with that crappy Intel video. Reply
  • Fingalterre - Sunday, July 01, 2012 - link

    I have the Z from 2010. It is still as faster or as fast with its graphics and i620 processor as the latest Air or 13" Pro to which it is directly comparable. What the Z lacks is the multitouch ability and the scalability of the Air or Retina Pro. What I am left with is a computer whose graphics are too small to read and a mousepad too small to scroll with easily. Also, after using Windows and Lion, I think Windows 7 is just not as user friendly as OS X. The form factor of the Air and Retina Pro are also a joy when you travel, which I do much. The Mac App store, though limited compared to the IOS, also is something Sony just doesn't have.

    I have been a Windows user for 20 years after Apple lost me with their limited selection and miscues. I still have my reservations about their corporate culture, but right now, they are producing superior products, a well thought out support network, and works of beauty of art, which distinguish them from all other OEMs. Dell once did this--my wife kept her Dell 5150 laptop for 7 years, only to trade it in for a 17 in XPS which didn't work and which was not well supported,, and then to a Mac Book Air in 2010, which has met her every need (as a high end IT security person). My Retina Pro arrives on July 20 and my Z is going to Ebay to pay for it.
  • negativeions - Monday, July 02, 2012 - link

    What is the point in retina? Who cares. I mean it's ok, but the scaling is so utterly stupid it's beyond belief. Why in God's name don't Apple just program proper resolution independence into OSX... Then you could have any bloody user space you want with any resolution. Reply
  • Steelbom - Monday, July 02, 2012 - link

    What's the point? It looks fantastic. And why is the scaling stupid? It's a pretty great way to handle it. Reply
  • gunny2k6 - Tuesday, July 03, 2012 - link
    check the EUROCOM Panther 3.0

    talk about apple making high end partts in laptops i call BS ... this compnay and many others like Clevo and Lenovo before they bourght IBM's pc hardware side ... have been putting high end things in laptops since the BLOODY Pentium 4 Northwood !!!!

    THEY ALL BEEN DOING IT FOR YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! before apple moved to intel !

    yes not for everyone as there big heavy and expensive what jobs did was bring those peoples ides to the masses !! when they moved to Intel .... they kept the high price tag from the PowerPC to the cheaper to make Intel based system and then used that spare cash for R&D to make the above ideas work for the masses !!
  • gunny2k6 - Tuesday, July 03, 2012 - link

    for got to say let me guess a years time we will see apple do something like this and all the praise will go to Apple for "inventing it " Reply

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