Why the MacBook Air didn't get a Retina display

A MacBook Air with a Retina display seems like a no-brainer. Not so, says a display analyst.

A lower-cost MacBook Air-class Retina display with resolution like the one on 15-inch MacBook Pro may be doable late this year, according to an analyst.
A lower-cost MacBook Air-class Retina display with resolution like the one on 15-inch MacBook Pro may be doable late this year, according to an analyst. Apple

Love that battery life in the new MacBook Air? Well, that's one reason Apple didn't go Retina this time around, according to an analyst.

The iPhone, the iPad, and the MacBook Pro all have Retina displays, why not the MacBook Air? Power consumption is probably the most important factor, according to Sweta Dash, senior director of display research & strategy at IHS.

"Apple almost doubled the battery life [with the new MacBook Air]. You can't do that with a Retina display" in an ultrathin laptop like the Air, she said.

Not at the moment at least. Dash said Sharp was recently showing an 11.6-inch Retina-class screen at a display conference but that volume production won't happen for a while yet. One Retina-class panel Sharp has disclosed sports a resolution of 2,560x1,440, according to Dash. That's roughly twice the pixel density of the 1,366x768 display in the current 11.6-inch MBA.

To achieve that kind of resolution without running down the battery too quickly, the Japanese company is using a technology called IGZO.

"[This technology] has the potential to bring high-resolution displays with low power consumption to the industry. Sharp is the first one doing it. LG, Samsung are trying to do it," she said.

But because the technology is still being perfected it will take time to bring production costs down, she said. And that's important for Apple, she said. Costs need to come down enough so Apple could use the display in a MacBook Air-class product without jacking up the price too much.

And remember: though Apple squeezed a Retina display into the 9.7-inch iPad, it had to bump up the thickness, weight, and battery size to do this. For larger displays, all of these factors become even more of a challenge.

So, when could Apple potentially bring out a MacBook Air-like laptop with a Retina display that won't impact battery life too much or break the bank? Sharp is scheduled to start production in June. But because high-volume (low-cost) production won't necessarily happen right away, Dash estimates that late this year maybe the earliest this could happen.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.


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