Reduced Reflectance of Retina Display MacBook Pro

When Apple announced the Retina display MacBook Pro, they made a number of claims about its improvements. One of those claims had to do with reduced reflectance, and involved not adding an extra sheet of glass across the entire display screen as in previous MacBook designs. Photographers immediately picked up on this statement, and the greatest complaint against Apple’s glossy screens is the difficulties that reflections cause. A matte surface, which was available on older models, did not eliminate this reflectance, but it spread it around, so that it was not sharp-edges and distracting. Instead of seeing the view out the window is full detail, with a matte screen you just see a big smear of light on the screen, reducing the contrast range in that area.


The photo below shows a previous generation of 15 ” Unibody MacBook Pro (hereafter just “Unibody”) and the Retina Display MacBook Pro (hereafter Retina). As you can see, reflections in both screens are still sharp, and not smeared as with a matte screen. On the other hand, there is definitely a lot less reflection in the Retina screen on the left. There is also a double glazed artifact on the Unibody screen, from the extra layer of glass, which causes a second ghost image offset from the main image. This photo was shot in a dimly lit image editing studio; I’ll leave it to you to decide if this reduction in reflectance is sufficient to allow you to move to a gloss screen; but as someone moving from a Unibody MacBook Pro with a gloss screen already, this is all good from my perspective.

Retina Versus Unibody Reflectance

It is quite difficult to quantify this type of reflectance, which is why I led off with a photo. I took many measurements, with differing types of sensors, to attempt to capture this characteristic. The table below lists a small number of them. I will describe the items in detail, to let you determine for yourself which measurements may be meaningful.

Let me start off my noting that to a display colorimeter, as to the eye, a screen with the backlit turned off looks darker than one with the display turned on, and displaying a full screen black field. With a Spyder4, the Retina screen measured 0.001 candelas/meter squared, versus .375 c/m2 in these two states. However, a 45/0 reflective measurement device, in this case SpyderPrint, a lit screen consistently reads darker. I’m going to propose that the nature of the light limiting valves in the screen may be responsible, as no other factors leap to mind. But the variations based on the Off/On nature of a black screen tend to be relatively small, so my conclusions below will not be affected by them.

Is a 45/0 device (where light is emitted at 45 degree angles, and measurement taken at  a zero degree angle, meaning perpendicular to the screen) appropriate for measuring the type of reflectance in question? Probably not, but as no other tool was available, I felt it worthwhile to make the attempt, and see what differences existed using this method.

Measurement Data from Retina Display and others

First we measure a number of black standards. The black trap in the SpyderCube is very black indeed, with an L-star value of .008. A glossy black calibration tile jumps up to 5.1, while the matte black face of a SpyderCube is 12.85, and the matte black patch in a SpyderCheckr is 15.85. All of these are as expected.

A couple of matte finish desktop displays are then measured, including  a high end Eizo. The Eizo scores lower than the Apple Cinema Display, but I suspect that is due to its dimmer max brightness, rather than some other characteristic of the screen.

Now onto the target devices: the Unibody MBP is a bit less reflective than the matte screens, even though its as bright as the Cinema Display. And the Retina display shows only half the reflected light at both on and off conditions of the Unibody model.

Setting the measuring device back half an inch to allow for ambient light to be introduced into the measuring area produced even  lower values with the Unibody MBP, and amazingly black results with the Retina display.

Attempts to create light leakage into the measuring device by placing a bright fluorescent proofing lamp so that its long U shaped bulb was in contact with the edge of the screen, and sloped back behind the SpyderPrint unit, thus producing ambient light at all reasonable angles, did not increase the Offset values.

So, of all these values, which ones have merit? Perhaps none, but the Unibody to Retina black measurements do reflect what the eye sees, in terms of a notably lower reflectance on the Retina display than the Unibody display.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: Return to Blog’s Main Page

Published by cdtobie

This blog covers a range of issues of interest to photographers and those involved in the digital photographic workflow, digital tools and platforms, and fine art output.

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