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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  • pliablemoosethebanned - Sunday, June 21, 2015 - link

    Ryan, great article, I just got a MacBook, my use case (trading stock options at work during my lunch and breaks) is perfect for this laptop, I commute on the subway and via electric skateboard, and weight savings is important.

    I tried to use my iPad and find a touch screen is pretty miserable to choose options, same goes for a phone, tried the best Chromebook and the keys started falling off in the first week. (Toshiba Chromebook 2 with the 1080 screen), loved the screen, but the rest of the hardware just didn't cut it. $1K for a Pixel is just a bit too much for a Chromebook, but it was tempting, would have been a sale for Google had they included LTE.

    This is day one with the MacBook, hope it stands up.
    Reply
  • cyrenaichedon - Friday, August 07, 2015 - link

    "if not for the fact that Apple took the time to point this out in their reviewer’s guide"

    Yeah, the numbers look impressive but in reality, it feels like your typing on a flat surface.
    Reply
  • hot kiwi - Wednesday, November 25, 2015 - link

    So, I have bought this expensive piece of equipment, having been an apple fan since a decade and all equipment at home from iPhones to the Time capsule and and and from Apple.
    Well, because of this notebook it is my last Apple product. this MacBook is a waste of money and a nuisance. i arrive at work and have forgotten to take my 30 $ separate adapter with me, so cant not upload my presentation to a USB stick. I wanted to put a large spreadsheet from the computer to a USB drive, but the computer was almost empty on charge, so could not download and charge at the same time. the keyboard is purely experimental and you make type after types due to its minimal action.
    Mark my words: Apple made a huge mistake with this product that gave away all the functionality for a minimal weight gain.
    Now that Samsung and Microsoft have more than caught up, it is time to make the switch.
    never Apple again after this failure.
    Reply
  • cinaski33 - Sunday, June 19, 2016 - link

    When you buy something you usually pay attention at what you really need. Apple doesn't just the new macbook, but also the macbook pro, that has everything you need for every use and connection.
    There's no Dell Xps or other good product that can fit your needs if you need something else. Apple has always been forward, and every other company tried (sometime better, sometime worser) to copy.
    If anyone had problem and complained about port lack or cpu power (that works fine anyway like other thin notebook thank to the OS X system) it's just for wrong choice.
    I have my 13 inches 2015 macbook pro Retina with 16gb ram and 512 hd, payed 1400€, and it kills the Lenovo X250 or the Dell XPS.
    So do yourself a present.
    Think before buying.
    Reply

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