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Retina MacBook screens: Already here -- and pricey

So-called "Retina Displays" in Apple's notebooks are already in the supply channel, and bring an increase in cost, experts say. What's unclear is if consumers will pay more for the improvement.

A pixelated MacBook screen.

Apple is said to be on the verge of rolling out new high-resolution displays for its computers that, up until now, have only been available on its iPhones and iPads. And those panels are already in the supply chain, an analyst told CNET.

The feature, which could cost nearly $100 more than Apple currently spends, would make photos, applications, and text look sharper and clearer on Apple's computers. The company pulled the same trick on its iPhones and iPods, and more recently on the iPad. Computers have been the one holdout, but that's changing.

NPD DisplaySearch Senior Analyst Richard Shim says that super high-resolution 13.3-inch and 15.4-inch panels that Apple would be a prime candidate to use are already available from suppliers.

"We're seeing it at 15.4 (inches)," Shim said in an interview yesterday. "You can get it."

The change is the latest in a trend of increasing resolutions on portable gadgets. Last month, for instance, 1,366 by 768 pixel screens became more popular than the long-dominant 1,024 by 768 pixel screens, according to Web analytics company StatCounter. The extra resolution lets users have more windows open on screen, but it can also be used to make things look clearer and sharper.

"On typical Windows systems, there was a push for higher densities back when Vista was first coming out, but nothing really came of it," Shim said. "On monitors, it's been sort of an OS limitation where if you don't need it, there's obviously no reason to support it, and it adds cost because the yields are harder to maintain."

Shim says the iPhone and recent third-generation iPad changed that.

"What's clear is that Apple's pushing it. They're pushing panel makers to come out with higher resolution panels because they've created a market demand for it, starting with their phones, now going to their tablets," Shim said. "Now what we're seeing in the supply chain is that they're going to move that to their notebooks, and it's becoming a premium feature."

That premium will cost Apple, Shim says. According to his estimates, adding a Retina-quality panel in Apple's 15-inch MacBook pro would cost Apple about $160 versus the $68 the company spends on its current models. It's $134 for such a panel on the 13.3-inch model, compared to the $69 Apple pays right now.

Those screens would have the following specifications, Shim offered:

  • 15.4-inch: 2,880 by 1,800 resolution. That's 220 pixels per inch (PPI). By comparison, the current 15.4-inch MacBook Pro has a 1,440 by 900 pixel display and a PPI of 110.
  • 13.3-inch: 2,560 by 1,600 resolution with a PPI of 227. By comparison, the current 13.3-inch MacBook Air is 1,440 by 900 pixels, and has PPI of 127.

"The most likely suspect to use that would be Apple at that panel size and resolution," Shim said, who added that he cannot confirm that Apple is the only device maker in the supply chain receiving these displays.

Price differences
What's unclear is if consumers will end up paying more for the improvements. When Apple made the jump to Retina Displays in its iOS devices, the cost of the device stayed the same. The scale was a bit smaller though. For instance, according to a bill of materials from IHS iSuppli, the price of the third-generation iPad's display was $87 versus the iPad 2's $57, just a $30 difference.

As it stands, Apple already offers one such screen resolution upgrade on the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but customers need to pay for it. For $100 more, users can go from the 1440 by 900 pixel display to one that's 1,680 by 1,050 pixels, or a 36 percent increase in the number of pixels.

"The 1.680-by-1,050 display gives you more pixels -- which is especially useful when you're working with HD content in pro applications, like Final Cut Studio -- because you get a sharper image and more screen space to work with," Apple says it in its promotional text.

Therein lies an important difference. If Apple bumps up the resolutions on these displays and keeps them the same size, it has to treat pixels differently using a a special mode called HiDPI. The feature understands that there are more pixels, but that the scale of the display is the same. Apple added the feature to its OS X 10.7 software last year, but it isn't readily available to users. Some third-party software, including the recently-updated Air Display app for iOS have unlocked it so that users can try it out on their third-generation iPad.

Higher pixel density displays make text appear sharper, as seen here on the iPad.
Higher pixel density displays make text appear sharper, as seen here on the iPad. Apple

New display tech
One recent breakthrough that primes larger monitors for even higher resolutions is indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO), a material that uses smaller transistors and circuit elements, allowing more light through. The end result is a thinner, more power efficient display--both things that are particularly important as pixels get stuck closer together.

Until recently, IGZO was not being produced in large quantities, but that's changed. Last month, for instance, Sharp said it has converted one of its plants to create IGZO panels. "Sharp will encourage the application of its new high-resolution LCD panels to high-definition notebook PCs and LCD monitors--which are both expected to grow in demand--as well as to mobile devices," the company said in a press release.

Shim did not specify whether Sharp or its IGZO panels was one of the suppliers. Other candidates include Samsung and LG Display, according to sources familiar with supplier activity.

One thing that's clear is that the IGZO technology wasn't ready in time for the most recent iPad, so Apple fell back on existing silicon technology. As CNET has written about before, that ended up costing the device in weight and thickness, with an increase in the number of LEDs needed to light up the display, as well as the size of the battery to power it. These same issues are important considerations for Apple's notebooks too.

The question remains what the benefit is for increasing pixel counts on the displays on notebooks. On many levels, the difference is purely aesthetic, and as Shim offers up--it ain't cheap. When adding a Retina Display to the iPhone 4 and third-generation iPad, for instance, those extra pixels simply made text, images, and apps look sharper. The big thing it gave Apple was something competitors didn't have yet, which is hard to put a price on.