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.

USB Type-C: Charging Power, Display, & Data All in One The MacBook’s SSD: NVMe & an Apple Developed SSD Controller?
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  • tpoccu - Friday, April 17, 2015 - link

    Did you write something similar about the original MacBook Air, you know the one that cost about 3 times as much as this, also had only USB, video out (micro-DVI if memory serves which nothing else ever used), and a headphone jack, and had atrocious performance compared to its contemporaries? The same MacBook Air that only one redesign later would go on to become the defacto standard for how mainstream laptops are built now. I suppose it is easier to rant without any use for foresight. Reply
  • Schickenipple - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    Seriously, BittenRottenApple: You need to get laid.

    All companies will do whatever they can to sell whatever they can because they want to make money and people will continue to buy their stuff. If being 'informed' means that consumers will turn into you and start spouting useless crap on technology forums for hours at a time, then they would probably rather pay a lot of money for a new OS X device and have some fun. Even if it is just a sweet-looking netbook. Grow up and quit wasting your energy on this stuff.

    Also: Change your username to something less troll-like and cliché. We all knew exactly how your comment would read before even reading it.
    Reply
  • karpodiem - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    I laughed through reading some of this, but agreed with much of it than I disagreed with.

    Spot on
    Reply
  • star-affinity - Friday, April 24, 2015 - link

    ”They eliminate all ports except for one outdated USB port?”

    How is it outdated? USB 3.1 barely just hit the market.

    ”Other operating systems can be installed on just about any computer you can slap together, whereas OSX is specifically and deliberately designed to be non-functional on ANYTHING that isn’t made by apple.”

    Not true – OS X works very well on my Hackintosh with very few modifications.

    I wouldn't get this MacBook, but the recently updated 13" MacBook Pro looks quite nice in my book. I think OS X is worth a lot. There's less hassle with it overall (compared to Windows) and I can work much more switfly using it (less actions/steps needed for most common tasks). I say this working at an IT department at an office where there's computers running both Windows and OS X.

    You don't have to like Apple or their products, but I don't thinks your criticism (or should I say rant) is very balanced.
    Reply
  • sunnohh - Saturday, April 25, 2015 - link

    Computers last 2 years for most Apple users 3 tops. Source former Apple certified repair tech. 1300 isn't that much money. And as a dedicated PC gamer with a Titan rig 24 USB ports; gigs of ram and inches of monitor; this MacBook seems like a great little second machine. I prefer portability in a laptop to power and as a somewhat fancy individual there are literally zero times I would ever need a port on a laptop other than power, which with an 8 hr battery can be discretely done from home. Some people have grown up jobs and need shiny Apple products and Mercedes cars to fit in at work.

    I am an extremely informed PC builder yet I choose Apple products because they are astonishingly high performing elegant bits of jewelry/PC. Ever compare the hinges on a MacBook to a Lenovo or asus? Good Christ. Apple sound quality? 100% better then the next best PC or android bar none. And I've tried everything and seen every measurement not even close. Color quality check.

    Sure it's a cult but it's reasonably priced for the quality, especially compared to a Benz. And the best part of Apple ownership is I can have Apple pie and windows and it's ok. Seriously it's fucking awesome.
    Reply
  • vista980622 - Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - link

    There are some valid points there, and as a semi-professional video editor + graphics designer, I definitely know I'm not its' target audience. The new MacBook is designed for people who use computer differently than we do, and I'm glad a lot of my friends and people around me love the tiny laptop that is beautiful and light. Reply
  • vista980622 - Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - link

    And I do enjoy the XPS 13 :) Reply
  • farhanshaikh74 - Sunday, May 24, 2015 - link

    I was die hard apple fan from so many years and used to propagate apple products to such an extent that I am called Late Steve Job's best marketing guy in my hospital!
    However over last three years as Apple has stopped producing simple MacBook pro which are upgradeable (like mid 2012 MacBook pro) with DVD drive, I am feeling their vision of "design should include how things work" philosophy is losing its sheen.
    Now they are selling only MacBook Retina, no non-retina laptops!, No laptops with DVD drive!! No laptops with 8GB RAM with normal Hard disk Drive which is upgradeable!!!
    They are forcing us to buy ONLY Retian, with a fixed Flash drive which is meagre 126Gb or 256 GB, and those which come with 500 GB are exorbitantly costly.
    They are forcing us to use iCloud for storage, without realising that in many parts of the world accessibility to WiFi and iCloud.
    I am serious restricted by fixed 256GB Flash drive on my late 2013 Retina MacBook pro as I bought this expensive laptop, but struggling for space and the Flashdrive is not upgradeable!!
    From last one week I am seriously considering Apple products and going back to Windows.
    The design team in Apple is ignorant to a large population, who loves apple products and have moderate budget, they are busy catering only to high end products at premium price.
    If this continues, they will find very few people using iOS in future and Apple will die its own death.
    This is serious, as a die hard fan of Apple like me is writing such a comment!
    Reply
  • Stimpak_Addict - Tuesday, June 09, 2015 - link

    Check out Thunderbolt 3. It seems like they made this form factor to accommodate it once it's finalized (and hopefully they'll include at least 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports with the next iteration). Reply
  • jdw1992 - Sunday, June 14, 2015 - link

    I have to point out a serious area you lack on knowledge. You berate USB as being outdated compared to thunderbolt. If you were speaking of anything but USB C you would be correct. However, and I do not know why Apple did not point this out, USB C and thunderbolt are now one and the same. Intel announced that the standard known as Thunderbolt is now part of the USB C standard. In other words, Apple is the first to land the next generation of peripheral ports, the most versatile and fast one to date. Reply

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