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Revamped MacBook Pro line delivers top-notch display quality
Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
What a difference six months makes. Back in January, we wrote about the suitability of the screens in several notebooks for editing photos in the field. At that time, Apple's MacBook Pro 15 inch was pegged as being acceptable for this purpose, but barely: hue accuracy trailed the other portables we looked at, while the display's glass front meant it was a battle to keep reflections at bay.

Fast forward to today and the overall MacBook Pro story is quite different: not only does the recently-revamped MacBook Pro 15 inch now ship with a superb colour-accurate display, but the new MacBook Pro 13 inch does too. Plus, the third member of Apple's MacBook Pro trio - the 17 inch - has both a great laptop display and the option of ordering it in a much-needed antiglare version.

Taken together, the current MacBook Pro lineup offers the best displays for photographers we've ever seen from Apple, with a potential solution for the remaining bugaboo - display glossiness - coming a bit later this year.

Three Amigos: Mid-2009 MacBook Pro 15 inch, early-2009 MacBook Pro 17 inch with antiglare display, mid-2009 MacBook Pro 13 inch. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The MacBook Pro transformation

When Apple reworked two of its three aluminum unibody laptop models last month, it took the final step in a transformation that began when the MacBook Pro 17 inch hit the streets back in February. The goal was to complete the unification of key features across the entire line, so that whether you purchase a 13 inch, 15 inch or 17 inch MacBook Pro from Apple, you're getting a built-in long-life battery, FireWire 800, the identical keyboard and trackpad, the same unibody case design with a nearly identical port layout and so on.

Port Side: The MacBook Pro 13 inch (top), MacBook Pro 15 inch (middle) MacBook Pro 17 inch with antiglare display (bottom). Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Plus, by switching to a different LED-backlit LCD panel in the 13 and 15 inch models, our testing shows that no matter which of the three MacBook Pro models you select, you'll be buying a display that delivers better colour accuracy than any Apple laptop we've ever profiled since we first began doing so in earnest back in 2001.

What follows is an analysis of the screens in the current crop of MacBook Pros, done in a manner similar to previous display reports. We looked at a total of 86 pictures, gathered over time to evaluate computer displays. The photos themselves are a mix of black and white and colour, some with muted shades and some that are richly saturated, some that are moody and some that are high key. Several of the photos are in three different colour spaces: sRGB, Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB.

In all cases the displays were profiled with a monitor profiling package consisting of a colorimeter or spectrophotometer for screen measurements and software to create the profile. The profiling tools we used are described at the end of the article. The key point to remember for now is that we did all evaluations with a display profile loaded that produced the best result.

Our primary reference monitor was an Eizo ColorEdge CE240W, a colour-accurate desktop monitor that has been an essential part of our photo viewing, editing and printing workflow for some time. We also looked at how the MacBook Pro displays stack up against the the Lenovo ThinkPad W700, a gargantuan 17 inch notebook that makes up for its heft by incorporating a sweet colour-accurate display (when ordered with its 400nit screen option) and a host of other slick features for photographers, including an optional screen calibrator built into the palmrest.

Beauty and the Beast: MacBook Pro 17 inch with antiglare display and Lenovo ThinkPad W700. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The displays in the current MacBook Pro 13, 15 and 17 inch models are also remarkably similar to each other. So much so that a description of the display in one applies about equally to the other two. Whether viewing colour or black and white photos, straight on or from an angle, the three laptops' screens couldn't be more alike. We note some slight differences ahead, but they're just that: slight. Here's what we've observed.

Colour accuracy Moderate hue inaccuracy has been the primary colour shortcoming of the displays in the MacBook Pro line since it was first introduced several years ago. Whether the backlight was CCFL or LED, and regardless of the screen size, every one we've tested previously has shown hue errors. Especially in reds, oranges and yellows.

This trait is effectively eliminated now. Problem hues, such as caucasian skin tones, orange jerseys, sunsets and the like, are rendered properly or nearly so. In fact, hue, saturation and brightness is pretty darn close to the mark, regardless of the shade; the only colour quirk worth noting is slight oversaturation of reds. Colour accuracy overall is about on par with the ThinkPad W700.

There's not much else to say: colour accuracy in the three MacBook Pro displays is as right as we've seen in a laptop display, equal to or better than some midrange desktop displays and not that far off the level of colour correctness found in a premium desktop display. Our ColorEdge CE240W, for example, shows slightly better gradation in very dark colours and noticeably better gradation in highlights. Overall, though, Apple has chosen LCD panels that, when profiled with a good profiling package, deliver excellent colour accuracy for a computer that you can easily carry with you. Apple is not the first computer maker to accomplish this, but the fact they've done so in all three MacBook Pro models is impressive.

Going grey Black and white photo rendering isn't quite as stellar as colour, though it's still very good. Slight colour casts are present throughout the midtone to shadow range of all three MacBook Pro displays, similar to the ThinkPad W700 and almost all other better laptop displays we've profiled previously. Of the three MacBook Pros, the 13 and 17 inch are slightly more neutral than the 15 inch, but only slightly. The most neutral and cast-free laptop we've seen, one that excels at black and white, is the discontinued IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60 and its 1400 x 1050 pixel FlexView display. The new MacBook Pros are a notch behind that, and two notches behind our reference Eizo, but still completely acceptable.

Evenness of illumination Display evenness, both brightness and colour, is excellent for laptops; from centre to edge, all three are superior to the ThinkPad W700 in this way. Lenovo's photo flagship utilizes twin CCFL backlights, and this type of illumination can't compete with LEDs in evenness across the screen area. Of the three units we tested, the MacBook Pro 13 inch is the most even, followed closely by the MacBook Pro 17 inch and then the MacBook Pro 15 inch.

Viewing angle The new MacBook Pros impose the same straight-on viewing requirements as practically any laptop we've ever used. Otherwise, you won't enjoy the fine colour accuracy and other attributes described so far.

Comparing the older MacBook Pro 15 inch with the current one, for example, there are both improvements and differences. The strong yellow shift that would occur when looking at the previous model from an extreme side angle is gone, but a variety of other image shifts occur to offset that. And, the way the newer model changes brightness and colour when the screen is tilted back and forth makes it easier now to find the display's viewing angle sweet spot, but you still need to find the sweet spot each time you plan to edit pictures.

With all three current MacBook Pros, there's still no getting around the necessity of looking square at the centre of the display if you want to get the best from it.

Gloss And then there's the G word. The glossiness of the all-glass front of the MacBook Pro 13 and 15 inch models is an impediment to viewing the fine LCD panels that lurk underneath. That's because of the distracting and sometimes downright irritating reflections that can result. The MacBook Pro 17 inch is available in both glossy and extra-cost antiglare versions, but when Apple rolled out the MacBook Pro 13 inch and revamped MacBook Pro 15 inch, they didn't also introduce an antiglare option for the new models.

How much of a problem this will be is dependent on where you use your laptop and how much reflections raise your blood pressure. For us, they're a deal-stopper on both desktop and laptop displays that we intend to use for regular photo work. Simply put, gloss sucks.

If you read our last laptop display article, you might be sensing an uptick in our dislike for display glossiness. Apple is to blame:
  • First, by offering the MacBook Pro 17 inch with an antiglare display that is the mattest of the matte. Some matte displays are a touch too shiny, but the 17 inch antiglare is as wonderfully non-reflective as it gets.

  • Second, by placing juicy new LCD panels in the MacBook Pro 13 and 15 inch, and then covering them with an impossibly reflective glass front.
The rollovers below illustrate this. The first photo is of the glossy MacBook Pro 15 inch, carefully positioned to prevent reflections. Hold your cursor over the photo for a moment and you'll see how its mirror-like surface responds when a nearby window is uncovered. Yes, it's really that reflective.

Mirror Mirror: Roll your cursor over the photo to see how the MacBook Pro 15 inch's all-glass front shows the reflection of a nearby window (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Next up is the optional antiglare display of the MacBook Pro 17 inch. Roll your cursor over the photo and you'll see how it handles the same window reflection. The before/after difference is subtle, so if you don't notice it at first, try moving your cursor away from and then back over the photo several times.

Matte Book: Roll your cursor over the photo to see how the MacBook Pro 17 inch antiglare display shows the reflection of the same nearby window (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

If you think you'll find the glossiness of the MacBook Pro 13 and 15 inch as bothersome as we do, but are otherwise enticed by these machines' set of features - including their excellent colour accuracy for a laptop - then TechRestore may soon have a fix. Shannon Jean, President of the California-based computer repair outfit, indicates they're one to two months away from offering a matte display replacement service for the new models, much as they've done for various earlier Apple laptops.

The service is comprised of removing the glass front and the glossy surface LCD panel underneath it, then installing a matte surface LCD panel and a custom black bezel (rather than glass covering the entire display area). Jean says the panel that goes in has the exact specifications of the panel that comes out, except for the surface finish.

This should translate into the same excellent color accuracy after profiling, though Jean notes that his company has not sought to verify this. He has offered to send a unit to test, once they're ready to roll out the service for the current MacBook Pro 13 and 15 inch models. As soon as we have one of the modified laptops in-house we'll evaluate it and publish the results. Needless to say, we're stoked about the possibility of keeping all the colour goodness of the two newest MacBook Pros while getting rid of the glare.

Matte display replacement for earlier unibody MacBook 13 inch and MacBook Pro 15 inch models is US$199 + shipping. TechRestore has not set a price for performing this service on the current MacBook Pro 13 and 15 inch but, says Jean, the cost is likely to be in the same ballpark.

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