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On 2010’s MacBook Air: Screen Quality + Can It Finally Replace the Pro?

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Monday, November 1, 2010
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I’m going to begin this brief article by noting that I’m a huge fan of Apple’s laptops. I have absolutely loved my past PowerBooks, MacBooks, and MacBook Pros, praising Apple for the many things it has done right in this family, and have only felt it went off the tracks a couple of times—once with the initially crazy expensive MacBook Air, and later with the most recent plastic MacBook, which just struck me as way too easily scuffed up to be worth considering, even as a cheap notebook for kids.

So, having waited nearly two years for Apple to bring the MacBook Air’s price and performance to a place where I could consider buying in, I was really excited when it held the Back to the Mac event last month. And I’d love to be able to tell you that I’m completely enraptured with the brand new MacBook Air I’m typing on right now, but I have to be honest with you—I’m not. Apple has done so much right with this model that I want to be telling you to rush out and grab one right now. And honestly, if the 11.6” version strikes you as right-sized (and right-powered) for your personal needs, don’t hesitate. That version is amazingly small, fast enough for anything but serious pro video and publishing work, and full of all sorts of things people have been dreaming about in a little Mac for years: proper full glass trackpad, superior screen resolution, acceptable storage capacity, and decent connectivity—all without scalding your lap, or forcing you to cramp your hands on a small keyboard, and now starting at $999. That’s a lot of awesome in a little package, and Apple deserves to sell them by the millions if it can make enough to go around. I’ve been telling friends to check them out, and they keep going to the store, then walking out with new Macs.

The new 13” MacBook Air is a somewhat different story. It has some even more compelling features—better screen resolution, better CPU and storage options, SD card slot built-in, and more battery life. These things alone checked off enough on my list that I jumped right in and bought one, sight unseen. But since I actually took possession of my own Air, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that it’s just a slimmer and lighter 13” MacBook Pro, one with a fairly heavy price premium and some unexpected surprises, positive and negative. The positive ones include much zippier app loading, dramatically faster wakes from sleep, and overall performance that feels extremely Pro-like in the 2.13GHz/4GB model I purchased. These features make me feel inclined to keep the Air. But it turns out that there’s a fairly significant negative one that makes it very close to ineligible to be reliable for my personal needs.

It’s called color gamut, and it’s not something you’re going to notice if you’re testing an Air at an Apple Store or reading about it in most reviews—AnandTech had the only review I spotted that picked up on this. Unlike the latest MacBook Pros, which render photographs (and other graphics) with a wide range of colors, the Airs do a noticeably worse job, enough that subtle shades can turn into blotchy messes. I noticed it the first night I was using my new Air, and saw that pictures of my daughter’s fuzzy orange outfit were suddenly looking blurry, as if my camera had been blowing out all the detail. But the pictures were taken with a Canon 5D Mark II, and had looked great before… on my MacBook Pro.

This didn’t make any sense at first. The Air’s screen was supposed to have even better detail than the 13” MacBook Pro’s. And in some ways, including sheer resolution, bright whites, and dark blacks, it does. But as it turns out, the new screen’s smaller dots do a less impressive job representing wide ranges of colors than the Pro’s screen. Pictures seemed to be a little more blue, skintones a little less lifelike, and finely-shaded objects somewhat flatter. While otherwise praising the Air’s screen, Anandtech says that it displays just under 47% of Adobe’s RGB 1998 profile, versus slightly over 77% for the 13” MacBook Pro, far fewer colors. Normally, isolated spec differences like this don’t really matter too much to me—a product is the sum total of all of its features, not just one or two little stragglers—but this particular one strikes me as disproportionately important to people who want to use the new Air to edit or share photographs. If you can’t rely upon your screen to show you what your photos really look like, how can you properly edit them or even decide which ones are worthy of sharing?

Another point that really bears mention, having just made the switch from a 13” Pro to the 13” Air, is that even the newest, thinnest 13” model doesn’t really feel that much different from the current 13” Pro. It is certainly lighter, a major asset for people who don’t want something heavy in their backpacks, and so thin that you may initially feel uneasy slipping it under an arm and holding it there as you walk. Holding all other things equal, I’d take a lighter, smaller machine any day. But the Air is definitely a Mac. Apple didn’t want to compromise on the keyboard experience, screen size, or speakers on this one, so bravo to them for delivering all of those things within the same form factor, only slimmer. I haven’t once felt as if I needed to squint at the display, or cramp my hands to use the keyboard, or get some better headphones or speakers to use to hear the audio. Screen aside, the experience really isn’t diminished.

That said, there is actually a $600 price premium to build an Air up to the point where it nearly rivals the $1,199 13” Pro in performance—assuming you’re okay losing FireWire 800, the optical drive, some (actually, a fair bit of) battery life, Ethernet, and a little CPU power. Before I made the purchase, I felt that I was willing to lose all of those features and pay a premium to get the Air’s lighter profile, but now that I’ve made the switch and the screen is sort of iffy, I’m really not sure that going thinner was the best use of my money. The lower price point and smaller footprint of the 11” MacBook Air would probably have made its similarly compromised performance easier to accept than the 13” version’s.

In recent years, many “reviews” have come to merely cheerlead whatever Apple spotlights in a given product—basically just reiterating the company’s press releases—rather than actually performing analyses of other features that may have changed, or trying to determine how a given Mac will fit or miss common use models. One of these common use models is instantly obvious: after the Back to the Mac event, lots of people started to ask the “can the Air replace my MacBook Pro” question, which before October was easily answered “no” for most people. Yet that question continued to percolate even after all of the Air reviews came out, mostly because so few publications bothered to dive deeper than whatever the simplest benchmarks, ruler measurements, and abbreviated periods of use were able to reveal. Everyone’s trying to be first with an instant review these days, and that’s really hurting people who are considering spending $1000 and up on what almost anyone would consider to be a major purchase.

Having sunk my own cash into the new Air, my personal suggestion is this: if you’re the sort of “pro” who does photographic work or needs accurate colors on your portable monitor, the new MacBook Air probably isn’t for you. Similarly, if getting the most for your money is important, you may or may not be surprised to find that the “Pro”—which by all rights should be more expensive for better performance—delivers a lot more at every price point where it competes with the Air. But the new Airs, particularly the 11” models, are more compelling than they ever were before. The Air is still a weaker younger brother to the MacBook Pro family, but given the new price points and features, it’s going to be extremely popular anyway, and quite possibly Apple’s runaway Mac hit of the holidays.

« On 2010’s MacBook Air, Part 2: 11” Air Is (For Us) The Much Smarter Pick

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Comments

1

Nice review….

Often though, I see a lot of reviews comparing this to a pro machine. I don’t think it is but definitely has the capabilities. Is it better? No, but can it perform some “pro” tasks? Heck yes.

Amazingly thin machine with enough power to get the average user and some pros, through a workday or weekend.

Posted by Mikee.Nu on November 2, 2010 at 11:40 AM (PDT)

2

I think it really depends on what one defines as “pro.” My personal take is that it won’t totally work as a MacBook Pro replacement for photo pros needing color accuracy for in-the-field editing, but for other purposes, sure. Also, as a postscript to this story, I’ve replaced the 13” Air with an 11” model, and plan to provide some update on it in the near future.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on November 2, 2010 at 1:43 PM (PDT)

3

One thing that I think you are forgetting as you compare the price is you were using the price of a MacBook Pro 13 with a standard hard drive instead of an SSD version. When you do that, the MBP 13 is $200 more expensive than the MBA 2010 for the “apples to apples” set up.

An SSD is a major performance benefit.

Posted by Jason McCay on November 4, 2010 at 8:26 PM (PDT)

4

Not forgotten, just not overemphasized. While the SSD is of legitimate benefit, its overall contribution to the value of the 2.13 Air was taken into account when describing it as roughly peer to the 13” Pro in performance. Omitting the speed increases it offers, the Air would be noticeably behind the base model Pro. The reliability issue (while of great interest to me) is not yet settled for SSDs of the type Apple is using, and to the extent that there is a loss in SSD performance that only becomes obvious after people have been using it for a while, that’s another offset. All things being equal, the SSD would be my personal pick based on the limited information that’s available, but primarily for assumed benefits rather than proven ones.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on November 5, 2010 at 5:51 AM (PDT)

5

A very thoughtful review. On the other hand, I wonder how worse (or better) is the 11.6 inch screen compared to its bigger siblings the Pro or the 13 inch Ar.

Posted by Salaryman Ryan on November 15, 2010 at 8:01 AM (PDT)

6

I sold both my iPad and 13-inch MacBook Pro and bought a new MacBook Air. The iPad just can’t do what I need and I do not lose any performance or functionality with the Air. Indeed, the MBA seems a bit snappier. Yup, it’s a tad more expensive, but the size and weight savings, along with the zippier overall feel, are enough to justify the price in my opinion.

Posted by Allan on November 26, 2010 at 8:03 AM (PDT)

7

Jeremy,

I just got my new MBA last night and was heavily disappointed with the display quality and colors. It’s like going back 10 years to the old PC laptop displays.

I think teat apple has no excuse for using such hardware quality and kinda feel deceived.

What struck me further was the small amount of mentioning I found while googling for this issue. May this be a specific problem of a faulty batch? Do you guys think apple might issue a color profile that can improve this a little?

Posted by Shai W. on December 11, 2010 at 2:21 PM (PDT)

8

I have the 13’ MBA and could not be happier.  The color gamut is not a major issue for me and probably not for most people.  It’s still a far better screen than most PC laptops although that isn’t saying much.  The size and light weight mean this laptop goes everywhere with me.  I basically don’t use my iPad anymore and I was a very heavy iPad user.  I don’t care at all about the optical drive or ethernet port. I can’t remember the last time I used either one on a laptop.  I would have preferred USB 3.0 though and i don’t think there are any good reasons for not having it. I can’t go back to a non SSD drive thats for sure.

Posted by Darwin on January 26, 2011 at 7:03 AM (PDT)

9

I’ve had my 13” MBA for a week now. I am going to return it because of display quality. Have to work with this thing 6-8 hours a day doing office and productivity stuff. After a few days my eyes hurt like hell in the evenings. Reasons: very high screen resolution = incredibly small fonts (too small to be staring at it for 8 hours straight) + bad colors.

I could not believe it, so I went back to my old MacBook 13” early with 1280x800. Much better colors and best: no more headaches in the evening.

I really love the form factor of the MBA, but I still want to be able to see in 10 years…

Posted by Karsten on February 12, 2011 at 10:24 PM (PDT)

10

I have a 15” MBP and 13” MBA and I can definitely say that while the MBP offers a wider gamut of colors (especially with red tones), the MBA offers better contrast ratios - black text on a white background is strikingly intense on an MBA.  Also max white level is higher on the MBA which is important if you work outside on a sunny afternoon.

One other detail is that the air is “half-glossy” compared to the MBP, which makes it usable in a wider variety of lighting conditions

Posted by Terry on March 17, 2011 at 9:40 AM (PDT)

11

Absolutely right on about the display!

I didn’t really notice it in the Store, but now that I’m home I’m also very disappointed with the display quality.

Initially I thought that some setting was wrong but as it turns out this is ‘as good as it gets.’:-((

I’m reasonably happy with my 13’’ MBA, it’s slow, bland colours, no optical drive etc, but it’s also a light computer. I would give it a poor 6 out of 10, especially for that high price.

Posted by Lars on March 28, 2011 at 5:24 AM (PDT)

12

For those informed, this is a fact of many of Apple’s Macbooks. The display pixels are 6 bits per channel, not 8 as they’re “supposed to be”, or more accurately, as basically any respectable manufacturer produces.

Three years ago, Mac owners filed a class action lawsuit on account of this “defect” (search google for “MacBook owners file class action suit over displays”).

I’ve always found it deeply ironic that a brand this much enjoying a following of graphical designers shoves crap LCDs with seriously inferior color and detail reproduction down their throats and they mostly just eat it with a smile on their faces, none the wiser.

Anyone familiar with bit math will know that 6 bits per channel will only be able to represent 25% the number of unique colors as 8 bits can, and that the resulting 18-bit color palette will only show 256 thousand colors as opposed to a regular 24 bit palette’s 16 million colors.

In other words: A proper display produces 64 times as many colors as the displays on most Macbooks do. Or, in even more devastating words: The 18-bit LCD produces only barely 1.6% the number of colors that a normal 24-bit LCD does.

This is why you’re seeing the details of your (very cute) kid’s clothes being washed out - dithering is applied to simulate the missing colors. Obviously, such dithering has side effects, and people notice it.

That said, of course maths and numbers are one thing - perceived reality another. The fact of the matter is that these LCDs aren’t only bad - they’re good in other respects. As you point out, they have a high nit number, i.e. they’re very bright, and they manage to be that without sacrificing black levels. In more regular terms: the contrast ratio is excellent. The panel is also an IPS one which offers excellent viewing at wide angles and dramatically reduces erratic color shifts at the edges of the screen when you’re not viewing at an optimal angle.

I discovered all of this while reading up on getting Kubuntu to run on this thing as I really like the Air, but not so much OS X. People were reporting “obscene graphics corruption” which wasn’t really corruption, it’s just that the NVIDIA driver doesn’t do dithering by default, and without it, it does look bad. REALLY bad.

I still kinda want one, though, even with the 1.6% color palette as I’m not a designer. I do take photographs with my SLR and wouldn’t mind being able to use Lightroom properly, so…

Here’s me hoping for a Sandy Bridge version in June with backlit keyboard and 24-bit LCD! smile

Posted by Daniel Smedegaard Buus on May 17, 2011 at 7:27 AM (PDT)

13

Jeremy,

Great post, thanks for sharing.

I got the 13 Air on Thursday (2 days ago) with the thought of migrating down my MBP 13 to the wife.

Well, I had to tell her that I was “still evaluating” the Air because I quickly realized there were issues with the screen, both with color and resolution.

While higher resolutions are generally a good thing, I think there’s a optimal resolution for a given screen size and it’s been exceeded, if only slightly, on the MBA.

I remember once a couple of years ago playing with one of those mini-notebooks over a weekend and returning it due to headaches and eye strain.

Well, that’s back!

Right now I have the browser window magnified to avoid that. (but of course everything except the text looks like crap)

Now, the colors. You nailed it. It’s “off” and leaning too far towards cool blue for me. I’ve played with the color profiles and can’t get it more natural too save my life. Looks like the MAC engineers got it as close as possible with this screen’s natural white point.

I shoot a Canon 5D. You can’t fool any real photography people with this screen!

So, crap! I may be sending it back. Probably will, these are BIGGIES!

Posted by Rob McCance on August 13, 2011 at 7:11 AM (PDT)

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