More Retina Macs

My previous post described why Apple might very well launch an 11.88” Retina MacBook Air this year with a 2732 x 1536 display.

Apple is obviously planning other Retina Macs. Are there any other economies of scale in its display supply chain that Apple could leverage to bring about these products?

Yes.

First, some background. Anand Shimpi did an excellent job detailing the current hardware barriers to Single Stream Transport (SST) 60 Hz 4K monitors in his recent Mac Pro review. In short, Apple is waiting for future displays that include the necessary input controllers capable of refreshing SST 4K at 60 Hz before it enables Retina scaling modes for these monitors in OS X. Only then will Apple deliver a 4K Thunderbolt Display.

Additionally, it is extremely unlikely that the new Mac Pro’s GPUs are capable of driving SST 4K at 60 Hz, and the 2013 Retina MacBook Pros do not have the necessary driver support in OS X. An Apple 4K Thunderbolt Display and its associated Retina scaling modes might thus only be compatible with future Macs.

What about the display technology itself?

The current iMacs and Thunderbolt Displays feature 16:9 panels. For Apple, Retina resolutions require pixel quadrupling, and standard 3840 x 2160 4K is quadruple the pixel count of 1080p. Testing this resolution at 27” yields an interesting result:
 

  • 4K 3840 x 2160 iMac/Thunderbolt Display at 27” = 163 PPI, the same pixel density as the non-Retina iPhones and iPad mini.


We won’t see 8K Mac hardware for a very long time, but an obvious possible non-OLED follow-up is:
 

  • 8K 7680 x 4320 iMac/Thunderbolt Display at 27” = 326 PPI, the same pixel density as the Retina iPhones and iPad mini.


I agree with Marco Arment that Apple will eventually release 27” 4K iMacs and Thunderbolt Displays. I have no idea when these displays will come out, but at least some volume of the required controllers are shipping in the first half of this year.

The possibility of sharing display technology with the original iPad mini lends further credence to the likelihood of Apple shipping 3840 x 2160 monitors using 27” displays. Their arrival by the end of the year certainly seems plausible.

An 11.88” Retina MacBook Air

Taiwan’s United Daily News first published rumor of a 7.85” 1024 x 768 iPad in October of 2011. Andy Faust lent credence to the story with a convincing argument the following March. Apple eventually announced the 7.9” iPad mini in October to little surprise.

Similarly, rumors surfaced last October of a 12” Retina MacBook Air; DisplaySearch appears to have been the original source. Generally credible analyst Ming-Chi Kuo also voiced support for the 12” Retina MacBook Air theory.

Most rumors are false, but it doesn’t hurt to consider this somewhat specific claim.

The original speculated resolution of 2304 x 1440 made little sense. What resolution would a 12” Retina MacBook Air feature instead? The 11.6” MacBook Air currently comes with a 1366 x 768 panel. Pixel quadrupling this resolution would represent the easiest path towards a Retina MacBook Air in terms of meeting performance and power constraints, yielding a 2732 x 1536 display.

What size would this panel be? Assuming that the rumor of an approximately 12” Retina MacBook Air has some veracity, why not something close to it?

It turns out that an ~11.88” Retina MacBook Air with a 2732 x 1536 resolution happens to have the exact same pixel density as the 9.7” 2048 x 1536 Retina iPads: ~264 PPI. It would make sense for Apple to take advantage of the same display technology it has been utilizing for the 9.7” iPads by cutting their panels to this larger size. I suspect a new 11.88” Air would be a redesign of the 11.6” model with smaller screen bezels.

It is surely expensive to source Retina panels for Macs, since their shipment volumes are far less than those for iOS devices. Apple would likely leverage any cost savings it possibly could to reach entry-level pricing. By utilizing its existing iPad display manufacturing and gradually replacing both MacBook Air models with just one Retina model, Apple would save a lot of money. OS X’s Retina scaling modes would also partially offset the lack of a 13.3” display option.

Recall that Apple made the discrete GPU-less 13.3” Retina MacBook Pro thinner last year, but not the 15.4” model. These facts would match up nicely with a three-tier laptop segmentation strategy. Eventually, Apple would sell only three Retina MacBooks ranging from thinnest to thickest, stratified by price and screen size: 11.9”, 13.3”, and 15.4”.

For all these reasons, I think it would make a great deal of sense for Apple to ship an 11.88” Retina MacBook Air with a 2732 x 1536 resolution later this year. It would be marketed as the 11.9” or 12” Air and run Intel’s Broadwell processors.

This new model would certainly represent one step towards John Siracusa’s goal for Apple to “introduce more, better Retina Macs” in 2014.

 

Update

User shurcooL on Hacker News pointed out that the 2013 13.3" Retina MacBook Pro only caught up to the 15.4" Retina model when Apple made it thinner. (Both are now 0.71" thick.)

To clarify, this is what I meant by a "three-tier" segmentation:

11.9" Retina MacBook Air, possibly slightly thicker than the current Airs
13.3" Retina MacBook Pro
15.4" Retina MacBook Pro

I imagine the old MacBook Air design would stick around for a while at entry-level pricing.