New MacBooks and iPads are coming with some game-changing next-gen screen tech

Mini-LED looks to be the future of high-end screens, and it looks like Apple is getting in early with this new tech

Apple MacBook Pro
(Image credit: Apple)

If you thought the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro were impressive, the new versions coming in 2021 look set to be even more mind-blowing. Two bigger M1 MacBook Pros are supposedly on the way, and in addition to Apple’s super-speedy silicon they’ll have have a display that’s new to Macs: Mini-LED. 

Mini-LED can deliver contrast, brightness and colour reproduction that's near-OLED quality without any of OLED’s downsides, and it’ll be in two new 2021 M1 MacBook Pros as well as in the 2021 iPad Pro.

The news comes from the well-connected DigiTimes, which names the multiple Taiwanese suppliers who expect to be making the panels as well as Apple’s production and launch plans.

Why Mini-LED matters

The news isn’t a surprise: Apple’s intention to use Mini-LED has been an open secret for some time, because Mini-LED is a big upgrade over existing display technology. Compared to existing iPad and MacBook displays it delivers better colour, better brightness and contrast and better localised dimming. It might even mean new kinds of Mac.

The LED in LED displays refers to the backlight, which consists of LEDs placed either along the edges or at various points behind the pixels. Those LEDs illuminate the pixels, and the more of them you have the more control over your display you have. Unfortunately normal LEDs are pretty big, so there’s a limit to how many you can use. For example, Apple’s Pro Display XDR display has 576 LEDs. 

As you’d expect from the name, Mini-LEDs are much smaller: about 200 microns (0.2mm) compared to around 1,000 microns for a standard LED. That means you can pack many more Mini-LEDs into the same size of display. In the same way that putting more pixels into a display increases the level of detail, putting more LEDs into the backlight gives you more potential brightness, and more precise control over the backlight’s different zones, meaning it's easier to have a light area close to a black area without the blacklight bleeding from one to the other.

It means the screens will be able to handle HDR properly – we've seen a Mini-LED screen in action in the MSI Creator 17, and it's pretty incredible stuff. The effect is very similar to OLED, but LEDs don’t suffer from the same ageing and burn-in that makes them not idea for computer displays. 

Mini-LED displays are also very power-efficient, and they’re thinner than other display technologies: according to Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, that means they’ll enable Apple to make even thinner and lighter products.

Apple Pro XDR display

Apple's Pro XDR Display is so impressive because it has 500+ LEDs, which is can do because it's a big, big display. Make the LEDs 5x smaller and you can have as many LEDs in a smaller display, with the same impressive effect.

(Image credit: Apple)

Which Macs are getting Mini-LED displays?

The 2021 iPad Pro will be first out of the gate with Mini-LED: according to Ming-Chi Kuo it’ll enter production in the final quarter of 2020 and launch in the first half of 2021. Two new M1 MacBook Pros will follow shortly afterwards: a 14-inch MacBook Pro and a 16-inch MacBook Pro. 

We're also expecting those to have the next generation of M1 chip, which will likely raise performance even further – rumours suggest an 'M1X' chip would have 12 cores (8 high-performance cores and four low-power cores) and more graphics power, plus higher memory options.

At the risk of sounding like something from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy here, it sounds like the first M1 MacBooks are merely the second best laptop of all time: the models coming after them are sounding spectacular already.

Carrie Marshall
Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written thirteen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote another seven books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (havrmusic.com).