By the looks of it, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) is set to unveil a dramatically redesigned lineup of MacBook Pros next month at its Worldwide Developers Conference. The arguably biggest feature that will be a major selling point is the adoption of high-resolution "Retina Displays," which would eventually make their way throughout Apple's Mac families, much as they have with iPhones and iPads.
Adding fuel to the rumor fire, NPD DisplaySearch senior analyst Richard Shim recently told CNET these displays are already floating around in the supply chain. They're out there already, but they'll cost you a pretty penny.
How much do I owe you?
Shim says that 13.3-inch and 15.4-inch display panels are already available, which are the same sizes Apple uses in its notebooks. Those are relatively standard sizes in the industry, but he called Apple a likely suspect.
Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) had tried pushing for higher pixel densities before to no avail, although the software giant is looking to try again with Windows 8. Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC ) newest Ivy Bridge chips also play nicely with higher-resolution graphics, and these are practically guaranteed to be in Apple's 2012 Mac lineup.
According to Shim, Apple is leading the way with these displays:
What's clear is that Apple's pushing it. They're pushing panel makers to come out with higher resolution panels because they've created a market demand for it, starting with their phones, now going to their tablets. Now what we're seeing in the supply chain is that they're going to move that to their notebooks, and it's becoming a premium feature.
The cost differential between the current 15.4-inch display with 1,440 x 900 pixels and a higher-resolution one with 2,880 x 1,800 pixels is $92. For a 13.3-inch display, that difference narrows to $65.
Who's picking up the tab?
There's no surprise that panels of this quality will cost more, but the real question is who's going to foot the bill. Will Apple eat the difference and take a hit on gross margins or jack up the price and pass it along to consumers?
Apple has gotten particularly aggressive with pricing strategy in recent years and has started to absorb increases in component prices to maintain or grow market share. The third-generation iPad's Retina Display is estimated to cost $87, up from $57 in its predecessor. Despite the rumors heading into its unveiling that Apple would bump up the price by $80 to cover the difference, the iPad maker stood pat at its existing price points.
For the iPad, $30 may not sound like a lot, but that's more than a 50% increase in that one ingredient's cost. It also represents taking a 6% hit on gross margin when you compare that with the $499 entry-level price. For a metric that's frequently measured in hundredths of a percent, or basis points, that's 600 basis points. That adds up quickly when you're selling tens of millions of them.
Apple's gross margins have been trending higher meaningfully for years, so it has some to spare if it chooses to pick up the tab on these displays. Its gross margin of 47% is unheard of for a hardware seller, while fellow PC makers Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) sit in the low 20s.
It could. Should it?
It's worth mentioning that Apple currently offers a slightly higher-resolution option for its 15.4-inch notebook, increasing the resolution to 1,680 x 1,050 for an extra $100, so it certainly has data on whether buyers are willing to pay up for higher resolutions. If Apple knows that a good portion of people fork up for sharper displays, then it might make sense to bump the price.
The smart thing to do would be to eat the extra cost, keep the same price points, and let the added feature boost unit sales. Even if Apple takes a slight hit on Mac gross margins, the segment is far less important than iPhones and iPads, where Apple already enjoys juicier gross profits, while its overall gross margin would still remain the envy of the industry.
It could, and it should.
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