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 ~11.9” 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 11.9” 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 11.9” 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.
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.
Since writing this post, I have come to a better understanding of the display supply chain. Ensuring quality supply is actually much more important than any potential cost savings. Sharing proven display technology across products is often necessary because of the difficulties of sourcing high quality panels in great volumes. These challenges have led to Apple's famous display struggles in recent years.