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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  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    "I’m going to start where I left off in our introduction, which was the concept of the laptop/tablet crossover. The idea of laptops and tablets crossing over is no longer merely an idea, but now it is reality"

    Yea. Back here, we call those "Netbooks". But "crossover" sounds cooler.
    Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    You don't know what a netbook is. They were cheap devices with low quality screens and poor build quality. Try reading the review you are commenting on. Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    OK, so it's a better quality netbook. Got it :P Reply
  • vFunct - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Sorta like how a laptop is a higher quality netbook.

    Or, how a computer is a higher-quality calculator.
    Reply
  • PEJUman - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Maybe in 2012 laptop is higher quality netbook. I am starting to feel that Anandtech is getting too 'careful' with the OEMs. M9 is bad, call it that. this Macbook fits squarely in the netbook term from functionality standpoint, despite the price premium for the fit and finish. No need to redefine a new 'crossover' term just to keep Apple marketing managers happy.

    Right now, chromebook and other ultraportables (such as this one) with the relatively slow core M are the de-facto sucessor to netbook. Single usb port also a netbook typical compromise. It not convertible nor it has a touchscreen, so.. NETBOOK.

    Tech evolves, therefore performance expectation should evolve with it. the core M is barely faster than a 2012 intel i3-3217U on geekbench. It is the lowest performance tier of Intel big core family.

    Anandtech used to be unbiased, I think they finally started the slow descent towards 'marketing for OEM'. I understand where this is coming from, and I am willing to pay for anandtech subscription if that what it takes to restore the one place a techie can get an unbiased, deep dive into new techs.

    Purch should differentiate Tom's & Anand by using Tom's for their mainstream, 'marketing compatible portal' while turning Anand into a subscription based portal, with reviews selection based on customer votes, each one completely unbiased, purely technical, pull-no-punches style.
    Reply
  • ws3 - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Something like the transformer book is a modern day netbook: atom processor, $300 price, questionable build quality --- all the traits of a netbook. Reply
  • BittenRottenApple - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Yet another fine addition to the long list of "Terrible Products Apple Makes to Gouge Money out of People".

    The new MacBook is a testament to Apple's collapsing technical acumen. They eliminate all ports except for one outdated USB port? This craven stupidity should send the last adherents running. But running to what? Windows isn't even a viable option anymore, since it now is the most widespread commercial NSA gathering tool available, closely followed by Android, iOS and OS X.

    It's a sad day for people who need real computers. Jony Ive is a pompous, clueless hack who should be fired for introducing crippling regressions like this one.

    Look at this POS: One USB port, which will require an adapter to do anything. So if you're going to require an adapter anyway, why not make that one port a modern one: Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt can carry USB, video, Ethernet, external storage... ALL AT ONCE. And it can be daisy-chained, which is hugely important when the computer has ONLY ONE PORT. So WTF is Apple doing making its sole port USB?

    And again, are you kidding me? One tiny USB connector? Now every sorry user of this pos has to find a thunderbolt to USB C, a USB C to USB to HDMI, a USB to USB 3.0 period, a USB C to USB connector for apple’s time machine and also manage to don't short circuit all that with the AC/DC to USB C connectors, seriously ? Worth 200$ new pile of hairy connectors for the brand new gold macbook air, and that is called a revolution nowadays? No ********** way, the Dell XPS 13 is way superior, period.

    By the way, they're perpetrating USB Type C connectors. Thunderbolt is a much-needed step to a modern I/O standard. USB is an outdated, abused standard that was designed for keyboards, mice, and modems. It's not suitable for external storage, video, or anything else requiring bulk data transfer with minimal CPU overhead. USB C is a regression, a major step BACKWARD.

    $1599.99----Less than $550.00 worth of hardware = ~$1000 premium to use OS X instead of windows. (Honestly the most expensive component of this computer is probably the screen.)
    Anyone with real work to do will not even be able to buy this thing. My friend’s last Air was neat in that it was small and lasted all day, but it was so under-powered, it was frustrating. I can only imagine how limited this machine will be.

    Who cares about price, weight and size, when this product is crippled by a hopelessly defective design? You can't hook up a power adapter and external storage at the same time. You can't hook up an external display and external storage. Hell, you can't even plug in a thumb drive!

    This product is the most asinine piece of shit Apple has produced, and that includes the (thankfully) short-lived Shuffle that could only be controlled by a gimped Morse code.

    $700 less gets you the new Dell XPS 13 which will eat the Mac's lunch.

    If you need to do a lot of processor intensive work, than you would not even go near this thing. It would be useless to you. If you need to crunch spreadsheets or are heavy in corporate analysis, this computer would also be useless to you.

    This is the kind of computer that Apple sells a lot of. This computer is largely useless for anything other than email and facebook. It cannot store many files, it cannot process much information, and it has one external port. There is nothing wrong with using this computer for casual tasks, but it is CERTAINLY not a productivity machine.

    It is what it is. A status symbol/statement. Or some other statement. A statement that you just bought a $400 netbook with a $900 case so you can show off in front of your hipster friends.

    I hate to stick to Apple only facts here, but Apple said that the Air is 24% thicker than this new Macbook. That does NOT mean that the new Macbook is 24% thinner than the Air, it means that it is ~20% thinner than the Air. They clearly phrased it that way to make it sound more impressive and hence dupe the consumer, aka stupid isheep.

    So, it's an iPad plus with a keyboard and an over expensive dongle so you can do everything a Dell can do, at twice the price while looking posh.
    And here I thought technology was about function over form. I get it, functional art; art I can do things my phone does, but in a space that anyone can see me doing it, stylishly. Crippled and non standard in-house branded "business" software does great, can't do anything really artistic on it except maybe GarageBand or stock filter photo edits to my innumerable selfies, but it's got that partially eaten fruit on the back that screams "money I'm too stupid to keep or invest wisely."

    Take my money!
    I wouldn't hold my breath.

    This is apple's marketing strategy: mind-numbing markup on dirt-cheap, mediocre laptops. They throw together a cheap little laptop, pretty it up with silver or gold paint, and ride the wave of ignorance, outrageous markup, and marketing that they've been using as a business model for many, many years now. The only thing Apple has ever made that's less worthless than all the other crap their conspirators like Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd excrete all day and night by taking advantage of child labour are iOS and OS X which, besides being notoriously crippled and constrained walled gardens, aren’t even worth the hassle unless you also dumped thousands of dollars into other apple products.

    Many apple owners I’ve encountered never stop trying to belittle and demean others because they don’t have a Macbook or an iPhone and then try to act like their overpriced apple products are overall better when they are certainly not, by any standard.

    Luxury cars, while still worthless crash grabs, usually offer some quality and features that are actually somewhat superior to cheaper competing brands and models.
    Macbooks such as this start already expensive as hell with little performance to warrant such outrageous costs. Apple isn’t the luxury car of anything. It’s the luxury car DESIGN with a 4-cylinder under the hood and a tape-deck in the sound system, all with the price tag of "luxury". They sell laptops made cheap in china, using child labour and the same hardware you can find in SO many other laptops, slap their OS on it, put it in a thin case, and then markup the price by 300% to 600%. These are the facts. This laptop in question is nowhere NEAR worth that kind of money. I mean, laptops in general are overpriced, but apple has made their entire business model out of extreme markups backed by clever marketing with little actual technological superiority of any kind. Every single apple product on the market can be outperformed in every way by comparable products. Apple computers can be outperformed by computers that are FAR FAR cheaper while relying on older tech. The only thing that apple has that nobody else does is OSX and iOS, their operating systems. These are mediocre operating systems, but they are literally designed to be limited on anything it determines to be "non-apple hardware". 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. It’s nothing but a cash-grab.

    Apple is indeed playing run-of-the-mill capitalism, they try to capitalize on the ignorance of the average consumer with marketing campaigns designed to make you assume you're getting your money's worth.

    There are millions of consumers who are on the fence, who are actually interested in buying something that's worth the money they spend. Those people deserve factual information and do not deserve to be exploited for their ignorance on the topic. So excuse me if I have a problem with it. College students especially, who don’t have a lot to spend in the first place, are being taken advantage of in every area of their life. Buying a computer should be one less area of exploitation. This is why I have a problem with apple and with many other companies and services that attempt to capitalize on ignorance.

    Years down the road when the batteries in this model are dead and you have to keep it plugged in just to use then you'll have no way to plug in a flash drive or an external hard drive. I don't care how sexy it looks: sometimes and more often than not less means a serious lack of functionality.

    We can only hope that consumers send this piece of diabolic garbage to oblivion, as they did the idiotic iPod Shuffle that could only be controlled with Morse code over a proprietary headphone wire.
    Reply
  • Notwist - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    You literally just typed a small novel spewing a bunch of claims without citing anything to support your arguments, or outright fabricating stuff. It's the absolute definition of a poorly written, complete waste of time. Please take your rants elsewhere, Anandtech readers, last I checked, enjoy discussing tech, not spouting conspiracy theories and raving like lunatics. Reply
  • superflex - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    I thought it was quite good.
    You sound like a butthurt iFanboi
    Reply
  • star-affinity - Friday, April 24, 2015 - link

    I thought it was bad and not nuanced at all. Things aren't that black and white. Reality comer in many shades.

    People have the right to have an *informed* opinion. The long post above is unfortunately based mostly on ignorance.
    Reply

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