Apple MacBook Professional’s Liquid Retina XDR Show Overview

After looking at the performance of Apple's M1 Pro SoC, which powers the new MacBook Pro 16, and beyond the laptop itself, there's another interesting component in this laptop that is worth a look and that is the mini-LED -120 Hz display. So today we're going to take a closer look at what Apple is doing with their brand new screen.

As you know we have a lot of experience testing and reviewing displays, but we mostly deal with gaming monitors rather than laptop displays so this will be a little different. We're going to go through some tests and give our opinion on how good this display is as we look at many, many displays every year.

There are two versions of the new MacBook Pro and we have the 16-inch version, although the display on the 14-inch model is very similar, only smaller and with a different resolution. Apple calls this particular display a "Liquid Retina XDR Display", which is typical of Apple marketing. If I translate this into what Apple actually means, you get a high resolution, locally dimmable mini LED LCD with full array and true HDR functionality.

If we dig deeper into the specs, the 16.2-inch panel has a resolution of 3456 x 2234, which continues Apple's tradition of using non-standard resolutions across their product lineup. Apple doesn't disclose the exact technology used here, but it is an LCD panel that appears to be IPS-like in design. The backlight has 10,000 mini LEDs for an impressive zone density at this size, which enables a contrast ratio of 1,000,000: 1 and a peak brightness of up to 1,600 nits in HDR mode on paper.

In terms of refresh rate, Apple is offering up to 120Hz with adaptive sync, which has been renamed "ProMotion," although this type of functionality has been available in other laptops and displays for many years. The combination of it all is a first, however, and the only competitors to this type of panel are the latest wave of 4K OLED panels seen in some high-end Windows laptops.

A big topic of conversation was of course the notch in the display. Apple claims this was necessary in order to decrease the bezel size and increase the viewing area while keeping the webcam on top, although I'm not so sure if that's true. The notch is absolutely massive in relation to the size of the camera and sensors and looks kind of ridiculous. I mean, that could have been smaller for sure? But at least I'm glad Apple didn't put the webcam under the display.

I don't want to go into too much of the notch as it's not that big of a deal in practice with the laptop. Let's take a look at how the Liquid Retina XDR display actually fares, and I'll start with some color performance results here as I think these are most relevant to a designer-focused display like this one. I'll get to the response performance later.

Color performance

Color space: Apple MacBook Pro 16 XDR Display – D65-P3

The display of the MacBook Pro is a wide gamut display with 99% coverage of the DCI-P3 color space. This is an excellent result for any creator looking to produce content in this gamut. This also means perfect sRGB coverage. So if you're designing web content, creating SDR video, or working with wide color space HDR video, Apple has the tools for you.

Unfortunately, performance outside of these color gamuts isn't great, especially the lack of Adobe RGB coverage that is relevant to photography. Since we completely cover P3, we get over 90% Adobe RGB coverage, but it lacks the upper range of greens that set Adobe RGB apart from other color spaces, making this laptop unsuitable for this type of work. Apple also knows this because they don't provide an Adobe RGB color profile while using different P3 and Rec. 709 profiles.

Color space: Apple MacBook Pro 16 XDR display – Adobe RGB

Where the MacBook Pro's display is typical of a modern “Creator” laptop in terms of color space, most top-end laptop displays have really good sRGB and P3 coverage. Where it falls a little short is the Adobe RGB coverage, and a competing display like the Samsung OLED that you get in devices like the Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED offers a wider color space with full Adobe RGB coverage. That's not to say the MacBook Pro's color gamut is bad or anything, it's just not as wide or as versatile as I've seen it be.

Factory calibration

What the display is extremely impressive about is the color calibration, and this is greatly aided by the fact that macOS does much better color management than Windows. The various color profiles included by default work in far more apps in macOS than Windows, and this is an area where Windows needs a little overhaul.

If we look at the options in the MacBook Pro's Display Settings, you'll find a slew of options, including Apple Display and Apple XDR Display presets, as well as a decent set of creator-focused modes for color bezels like BT.709, sRGB, and P3 . Apple also offers True Tone and Night Shift features, which some people might find useful but ultimately degrade color accuracy. I turned off True Tone for testing.

Standard color performance: grayscale, saturation and ColorChecker

If you look at the standard Apple display profile, the default performance is pretty good. Viewing sRGB content in this mode will likely enable color management in the app you are using to display the content correctly and accurately, rather than oversaturating it to the screen's full P3 color space. If we look at saturation sweeps, for example, we find an excellent deltaE performance and also good results in the ColorChecker, especially with skin tones that are crucial for the correct setting.

Grayscale performance was solid too, my laptop didn't quite get a color temperature of 6500K but got close, and sRGB gamma was shown as a flat 2.2 instead of using the sRGB feature, but these issues are minor and the overall performance was very solid.

For this reason, you should probably just leave your MacBook in Apple Display Mode for everyday use, as it is accurate enough for sRGB content and you can also benefit from wide colored bezels if needed. Performance in Apple Display XDR mode is similar for SDR content too, so this is an option if you want to use HDR at times as well.

sRGB mode: grayscale, saturation and ColorChecker

If you want even better color accuracy, the included profiles from Apple might be for you. The built-in sRGB mode, for example, is even better at displaying sRGB content, with an accuracy equivalent to a full calibration.

I suspect the reason this mode is better than the standard mode is because it is tailored specifically to display sRGB content rather than the more general standard mode which is designed to be used in multiple scenarios. Color management is difficult, and creating specific modes for each color space is generally the best approach. So it's great that Apple did this for you.

Rec. 709 mode: grayscale, saturation and ColorChecker

I tried a couple of other modes as well, here is BT.709 mode which is perfect for mastering SDR video content. The accuracy is great, not quite as good as sRGB mode but still great for content creation with the confidence that it's correct. Apple also does a good job with the DCI-P3 mode when you need to create video content in this color space, nail the greenish white point, and deliver decent gamma, except for one flaw in the low gamma range.

DCI-P3 mode: Saturation and ColorChecker

These modes have one disadvantage and that is the locked brightness. Technically, each of these color specifications now provides a brightness level for mastering: sRGB is 80 nits, DCI-P3 is 48 nits and Rec. 709 is 100 nits – and the MacBook Pro does it right.

However, this limits the usefulness of these modes for viewing content where mastering brightness is less relevant and your environmental conditions are more important. I would love to see a brightness override switch so each of these modes are still useful for mastering but also provide the best accuracy when viewing other content. This would improve the versatility of the display and allow you to fine-tune the accuracy beyond the already very good standard mode.

Brightness and contrast

In the regular Apple display mode for displaying SDR content, I measured the peak brightness at around 520 nits, with a variable black level. Oddly enough, the MacBook Pro seems to change its black level limit in SDR mode depending on ambient light conditions, even with True Tone turned off. In a lighted room, the black level was limited to 0.02 nits, which gives a contrast ratio of around 26,000: 1.

Brightness in SDR mode (sRGB)

However, when testing in a dark room, as we normally test it, the black level was cut in half to around 0.01 nits, which increased the contrast ratio to almost 50,000: 1. This could be consistently replicated by covering or exposing the camera and sensors in the notch. I honestly have no idea why Apple should control the display this way. All in all, this is a pretty minor change so it must be beneficial for something, but we have no idea about it.

In any case, the mini-LED backlight is always active, even with SDR content, in order to improve the contrast ratio in SDR scenes. There are so many zones here that you are unlikely to see much blooming in practice, I found it negligible for SDR usage even in tricky desktop apps with hard edges between light and dark areas. The dimming algorithm is well optimized to avoid this situation and there are simply more than enough zones to avoid persistent problems. That kind of attention to detail I would love to see more in the standalone monitor space, along with, of course, higher zone numbers.

HDR performance

In HDR mode, the brightness is extremely impressive. There is not much difference between continuous and peak brightness, so there is no automatic brightness limiter that activates after a short time to dim the screen in intensely bright scenes. The brightness is up to 1670 nits with small window sizes and over 1500 nits with 50% before it drops to around 1150 nits for a continuously white full-screen window. That's impressive, although it comes with a corresponding increase in power consumption, so it's not advisable to run the display on battery power over 1000 nits all the time.

HDR: brightness vs. window size

The contrast behavior is also different with HDR than with SDR. When viewing HDR content, the mini-LED backlight will temporarily turn off completely to display black, which provides an effectively infinite contrast ratio. This is the best case performance you will see. Under trickier conditions, like a checkerboard test or measuring light and dark areas close together, I measured a contrast ratio of a little over 50,000: 1. This is exactly where you want performance for HDR content, contrast ratios of 50,000: 1 in the worst case, and up to 1,000,000: 1 or more in other situations. Apple complies with all of the performance recommendations I've heard from talking to HDR, calibration, and mastering experts.

That performance basically kills every other LCD-based monitor I've looked at before, too. On the standalone monitor side, it is virtually unknown right now that LCD zones are higher than a few thousand. This limits the worst-case contrast in the Samsung Odyssey Neo G9 with 2,000 zones with VA technology to around 12,000: 1 or in the chessboard test to only 4,000: 1.

Apple's decision to use 5-10 times the number of zones greatly improves the achievable contrast ratio in difficult situations and I would say this number of zones – and the density of zones – is the least of what makes for the best HDR experience with an LCD is required blackboard. Even Apple's own ridiculously overpriced Pro Display XDR isn't comparable, as it has a poor 576-zone backlight and was criticized for poor blooming when compared to professional HDR mastering displays when it was launched. Aside from its small size, the MacBook Pro's display is far better suited to producing HDR content.

When actually viewing HDR content, the level of blooming is quite low, even in difficult conditions like Christmas lights or star fields. It's not entirely free from bloom, however, and the halo-like glow effect can be visible under certain conditions if that's what you are looking for.

So from one perspective it's certainly one of the best LCD-based HDR experiences I've ever seen, but on the other hand, it's not a self-lit panel like an OLED that is completely blooming free and in some situations always OLED still delivers better HDR. Of course, OLEDs also have other drawbacks such as lower brightness and the risk of burn-in, so I can understand why Apple would choose LCD instead. However, aside from that one complaint, the HDR experience is excellent, especially for a laptop.

Movement performance

Unfortunately, there's one major drawback to the Liquid Retina XDR display used on the new MacBook Pros and that is motion performance. While it's nice to see Apple increased the refresh rate to 120Hz compared to the 60Hz it used previously, the display used here doesn't have the adequate response time to keep up with that 120Hz refresh rate. The panel is actually very, very slow, which is a disappointment.

I was hoping to use the standard charts we use for monitor ratings to provide a full breakdown of motion performance … until I discovered my answer testing tool wasn't working on macOS and even made a chart of all these features manually with reasonable accuracy transitions would have taken a full day.

Show rise time (0 to 255)

With a transition from all black to all white, gamma corrected according to our current testing methodology, the MacBook Pro's display is exceptionally slow, taking almost 100 ms to complete this spike. Even if we apply exceptionally generous tolerances and measure only 60% of the total transition time, the transition still takes 39 ms, which is one of the worst results I have ever measured.

This is exacerbated by the use of a combination of IPS-like LCD technology and an always-on mini-LED backlight, noting that both the LCD layer and the mini-LED must be changed to completely transition.

Show fall time (0 to 255)

Fortunately, the fall times for the full transition aren't that terrible, although at over 15 ms they are still relatively poor despite our very generous 20% tolerance. The actual transition time is closer to 35 msec, less than half the rise time, but much slower than most other LCDs on the market. The best laptop-grade OLED panels can perform these transitions in less than 2 ms under the same test conditions, making them an order of magnitude faster.

I tested a few more transitions of varying degrees and normally the MacBook Pro would drop between 20 and 40 ms, although luckily there is no noticeable overshoot. If you look at the UFO test results, you can see the product of those terrible response times: a significant blur trail behind moving objects. Even though the panel feels a bit slippery since it has a moderate refresh rate of 120Hz, the actual clarity on the move is terrible and this detracts from the usefulness of the higher refresh rate.

Blur Busters UFO Test

Right next to the MacBook Pro we have the Aero 15 OLED panel, which has half the refresh rate at just 60 Hz, but has massively faster response times. You'll see here that although the MacBook Pro's display is twice as fast at refresh rate, the extremely slow responsiveness limits the clarity of motion to more of a 60Hz monitor or worse. The amount of smear is insane and I'm not sure how a modern LCD got that slow. Apple really should have experimented with some kind of overdrive.

Now all Apple fans are sitting here annoyed that I criticize the display because of the movement performance, because the MacBook Pro is not a gaming laptop. And you're right, it's not a gaming laptop. But movement performance is relevant beyond gaming, it affects things as fundamental as scrolling through websites or even watching videos. Fast moving video content like sports is affected by slow transition times, and scrolling through text can reveal really bad ghost trails, especially with white text on a black background. But really anything on this display that moves, especially things that move quickly, can quickly become a blur fix.

What we learned

There's no doubt that the MacBook Pro's Liquid Retina XDR display is great for content creation. It has perfect coverage of the P3 color space and an excellent factory calibration, with special attention paid to several color specifications for the mastering.

Apple offers many different profiles, all above average to great in terms of accuracy, and this should provide reassurance that when this display is used in any of these color spaces everything will look right as it should. Here, too, macOS helps thanks to better color management than Windows.

The Liquid Retina XDR display has impressive HDR specs and performance. A mini LED backlight zone number of 10,000 is the star of the show in this regard, which significantly reduces blooming compared to other LCD-based HDR monitors and offers exceptionally high brightness. The level of performance is good enough for both enthusiast-level mastering and HDR playback, making the MacBook Pro a great device for video editing on the go, when overall performance is considered too.

Aside from a few quibbles, the display's biggest downside is its motion performance. This display is exceptionally slow, even for an LCD, despite having a refresh rate of 120 Hz. This affects areas such as surfing the Internet and working with text while scrolling through content. Blur trails can be visible in a variety of use cases, not just gaming. It's not bad enough to negate the benefits you'll get elsewhere, but Apple has to put a lot of work into optimizing the panel transition speed. I also find the lack of HDMI 2.1 on the MacBook Pro a bit puzzling, HDMI 2.0 for external monitors (in addition to Thunderbolt) is a bit annoying.

Now comes the ultimate question: is this the best laptop display ever, as Apple claims? That depends on your perspective. Obviously, if you're buying a high-performance gaming laptop then no, but the MacBook Pro is clearly not and is not intended for gamers either. But when we put that aside and ask about the best display for content creation and productivity, we believe Apple can claim that throne.

The only real competition right now is OLED panels, which have their own strengths and weaknesses. There are some other mini LED laptop options on the Windows side, like the screen you get in the Acer Predator Helios 500, but this display only has 512 zones, not the 10,000 that are offered here. So it's a battle between the MacBook and the OLEDs that you see in products like the Gigabyte Aero 15 OLED.

The reasons for getting an OLED display over this LCD would be in relation to the self-illuminated pure HDR experience without blooming, significantly faster response times for better movement clarity and a wider color space that enables precise work in the Adobe RGB color space as well as P3 and Rec. 709. However, the disadvantages are also significant, including a 60 Hz refresh rate limit on current 4K offerings, the risk of permanent burn-in, and significantly lower brightness. Actual implementations we've seen also lack the calibration that Apple offers.

All in all, I'd rather use the Liquid Retina XDR in the new MacBook Pro than an OLED, especially for color-accurate content creation, and the HDR experience is close enough to OLED that I can forgive very little blooming on the occasion. I wouldn't say Apple is miles ahead with this screen, but it is definitely very impressive and it deserves to be called the best display for production work.

Purchase abbreviation
  • Apple MacBook Pro 14 on Amazon
  • Apple MacBook Pro 16 on Amazon
  • Apple MacBook Air M1 on Amazon
  • GeForce RTX 3060 Laptops on Amazon
  • Ryzen 9 5900HX Laptops on Amazon

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