The MacBook’s Retina Display: Pro Quality

One of the long-standing demands for Apple’s MacBook Air line has been for an IPS, Retina-density display for Apple’s light laptops. After introducing Retina-style displays on the MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone, and iMac, the Air was the last product without a Retina display. However at the same time the Air was also simultaneously Apple’s entry-level laptop and their ultra-portable laptop, so adding a Retina display to the Air has always faced the needs of balancing cost and technical considerations against consumer demand.

As it turns out the Air isn’t getting a Retina display (at least not this year), but Apple is going all-in on the more premium MacBook, Retina display, integrated cover glass, and all. From a cost perspective this isn’t all that surprising, but from a technical perspective it means Apple has needed to address the technical cost of going Retina.

Starting from the top, the MacBook ships with a 12” IPS Retina display. The display’s native resolution is an uncommon 2304 x 1440, which is essentially a 16:10 version of the more common 16:9 1440p. With Apple essentially going pro on the MacBook, I’m happy to see a 16:10 display in what’s now Apple’s smallest notebook, increasing the effective size of the display while giving it a more squared design that increases the amount of vertical real-estate versus what a 16:9 display would offer.

The MacBook’s display ends up being 64.72in^2 in size, roughly 13% larger than the MacBook Air 11”. This comes despite the fact that the MacBook occupies a smaller overall footprint than the MBA 11”, showcasing how Apple has been able to increase the screen size while bringing down the overall laptop size. Some of this is ultimately due to geometry from the different aspect ratio, but also Apple has been able to reduce the size of the bezel surrounding the panel, making the panel a larger percentage of the total lid. The MacBook still isn’t something that most people would qualify as an ultra-thin bezel, but coming from the relatively thick MacBook Air it’s quite the change.

Given the display’s native resolution of 2304 x 1440 contained in a 12” panel, this puts the pixel density of the display at 226 PPI, which is virtually identical to the 226 PPI rMBP13 and 220 PPI rMBP15, giving it same density as Apple’s other Retina laptops. Functionally speaking I’d argue that users are going to have their heads a bit closer to the 12” MacBook than they would a larger rMBP, so the effective density is likely still in the rMBP’s favor, but in terms of construction they’re all very similar.

Meanwhile Apple isn’t going into too much detail on the panel other than its size and driving technology (IPS), but they did tell us that the pixels in this panel were designed to have a wider aperture to allow more light out, helping to offset the higher power costs of lighting a Retina display. To that end Apple says that the MacBook’s display is 30% more energy efficient than any other Mac notebook at an equivalent brightness. At this point we’re still trying to identify the panel supplier, as Apple’s tools have not been very forthcoming. A Sharp IGZO panel would traditionally be a good choice for such a power-constrained device, but it’s entirely possible Apple is going with long-time partner LG as well.

Though regardless of the supplier and aperture improvements, as we’ll see in our battery life benchmarks Apple is clearly still having to devote quite a bit of power towards lighting this screen. Thankfully for Apple however just as with the rMBPs, iPhone, and iPad, this is a one-off cost that they don’t have to pay in future generations.

Moving on, as a Retina display Apple offers a range of scaled (virtual) resolutions, with the MacBook’s default resolution serving as a HiDPI version of 1280 x 800. The fact that the scaled resolution is not exactly one-quarter of the display’s physical resolution is an unusual first for an Apple device, but considering the size of the display and power requirements, not to mention the similar PPIs to the rMBPs, I suspect 1280 x 800 scaled on a 2304 x 1440 display was a tradeoff. In any case even without perfect 2:1 scaling Retina-enabled applications look great, and now nearly 3 years after started on Retina in the OS X ecosystem, the number of applications without Retina support are thankfully miniscule.

As far as desktop performance goes, we haven’t found any major problems for the MacBook’s Intel HD Graphics 5300 GPU. Even with Core M’s power limits it doesn’t show any issues holding 60fps at the default virtual resolution of 1280 x 800, though I would not suggest going any higher unless it’s necessary.

Finally, let’s take a look at the MacBook’s display by the numbers. From a design perspective Apple is shipping a pro-quality display, but does the out of the box performance match up with Apple’s high standards?

Display - Max Brightness

Display - Black Levels

Display - Contrast Ratio

Compared to our most recent MacBooks, the 2015 MacBook delivers contrast performance similar to the Retina MacBook Pros, which is not all that surprising given the shared pixel densities and use of IPS panels among all of these products. Somewhat surprisingly, even with the MacBook’s more limited battery capacity Apple allows the max brightness to go up to 346 nits, in-line with the better-fed rMBPs. At this max brightness setting the black levels work out to 0.33, identical to the 2012 rMBP13. Overall Apple’s black levels tend to be better than average but not fantastic, and the MacBook doesn’t change this.

Otherwise this puts the final contrast ratio at 1046. This is fairly common for HiDPI IPS displays, and though it isn’t chart-topping it’s again right in line with what other Apple laptops do.

Display - Grayscale Accuracy

Display - White Point

Moving on to accuracy measurements, the MacBook’s greyscale accuracy can’t quite touch the rMBPs, but otherwise at an error of just 2.34 it’s still among the best laptop displays. Even among great PC laptops, out of the box performance below 3 is exceptionally rare.

On the other hand the MacBook’s white point is not quite as good as we’d like to see, and not as good as what the rMBPs can do. The goal here is 6504; the MacBook hits 6828, reflecting the fact that it’s just a bit too red and just a bit too light on blue.

Display - Saturation Accuracy

Meanwhile the MacBook’s color saturation accuracy is nothing short of amazing. Here it beats even the rMBPs, not to mention easily surpassing the MBAs and their TN displays. Even though it’s a bit too red, the MacBook is close enough for great out of the box performance.

Display - Gamut Accuracy

Similar to saturation accuracy, gamut accuracy is well in the MacBook’s favor. Once again even the rMBP we have on file is well behind, never mind the MBAs.

Display - GMB Accuracy

Finally, the GMB color checker results continue to be well in the MacBook’s favor. The error of 1.97 is once more better than any other Mac we have tested, and overall a great place to be at, especially for out of the box performance. Overall this reiterates the fact that while the MacBook may not be classified as a Pro, it without a doubt packs a Pro display.

With post calibration it’s almost certain we could get the errors on the MacBook down to below 1.0. But with such great out of the box performance it’s difficult to complain. Other than for color-critical work, this is a near-perfect reproduction of the sRGB color space.

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  • hot kiwi - Wednesday, November 25, 2015 - link

    Do not agree, it is based on facts. I have after a few months had enough of the slowness, horrible new style keyboard and the one connector technology that forced me to buy 5 adapters, so I have one everywhere. Hopeless.
    El capitan is my last Apple software since 10 years Apple. Looking forward to Windows on a decent and not overpriced machine.
    Reply
  • iOSecure - Monday, November 30, 2015 - link

    Yeah right, you came back to post here? you dont own it, nice try Reply
  • Embar - Saturday, March 11, 2017 - link

    You must love your dongles then. Homeboy has a point: I buy a work machine to do work. If I have to add shit for it to be useful, then it's an inferior tool. I shouldn't have to pray that an industry standard exists in my devices, nor should I have to concern myself with the quandary that Apple likes to provide their tightly budgeted customers who just need to be able to do their work (over the hard disk space that is not expandable). I want to be able to expand my innards like my 2010 MBP when I had 2 fucking HDDs and it was sublime. And everything could plug into it! Compare to today when I have to have Tony Stark's wallet to get out of the store. That's not my cuppa. If you have a flash drive lying around it should be usable in your machine without you having to run to the ATM to shell out for fucking DONGLES. And don't get me started on the missing touch screens, bro. That shit's been peeving me since 2008. If Apple listened to someone other than Señor Ive, I'd have the machine I want. Back when Apple nixed the floppy drive (1998) I was okay because CDs were a viable improvement/workaround. I even thought that the NEXT cube was great with the MO drive. But a $900 bump to add a 1TB SSD is 'Nutrageous'. It's Apple's way of saying "You're not invited to my party". Bad karma, dude. Reply
  • vy747 - Tuesday, May 05, 2015 - link

    Im not sure what is more annoying, apple fanboys or apple haters. I think the latter. Reply
  • gw74 - Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - link

    google "polemic" Reply
  • r3loaded - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    K. Reply
  • docderwood - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    Happy with mine. Wanted something slightly more powerful than an Ipad with a keyboard.

    I used to be a Windows/Linux/build your own PC person. Then I had kids/life got busy. Now the entire family is on Ical etc etc etc and changing back to Windows would result in a lot of headaches and time for the head of IT (ME). My time is my most valuable commodity.

    It's not a desktop replacement. It's for emails/word processing/web surfing. I've got a desktop, it's for all the other stuff.

    As much as I hate Apple sometimes (Their continued half assed product introductions and complete lack of clarity piss me off and their general neglect of OS X are real issues) it hasn't reached the point that I'm ready to jettison the apple ecosystem YET.

    It seems people get angry when they introduce s machine that doesn't meet their needs. This meets mine perfectly. Sorry they missed the mark for you this time. Glad Dell did. Isn't the free market great?
    Reply
  • russdust55 - Tuesday, November 17, 2015 - link

    I am happy with my Macbook too. I am a bluntly simple user of basic 'office productivity' apps, plus social fluff. I might be the ideal customer for the new Macbook because I upgraded from a 4.5 year old 11" Macbook Air. Compared to the older Air, the new Macbook is faster, lighter, smaller (but with a larger RETINA screen), and gets better battery life. Love the trackpad, and am ambivalent on the keyboard. I got the faster CPU which geek-benches similar to a 1-2 year old Air. Which is fine with me. Did it cost too much? Yup. Do I regret it? No.

    The new Macbook is the vanguard of what will replace the Macbook Air line. Like the Air, the first model of which was slow, overpriced, if sexy to look at. the new Macbook will get faster and cheaper in time. Apple will (my opinion) drop the Air line in a few years time, when the Retina Macbook will have gotten a bit faster and can be sold at prices more like the Air.
    Reply
  • 8steve8 - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    no one gets this product, it's a great 2nd or 3rd computer to bring to coffee shops, or to throw in your bag just in case you want to do some computing.... there aren't many 2.0 LB laptops to choose from, and this has the best keyboard/trackpad/screen combination...

    Sure it's slow, but think of what they say about cameras, the best one is the one that you brought with you... this is the kind of computer you can just always have with you and it won't feel like a burden.
    Reply
  • barleyguy - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    $1500 is a lot of money for a 2nd or 3rd computer to take to a coffee shop. A $400 dockable tablet fits that use case a lot better IMO. Reply

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