Review: MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid-2012)

Apple brings Retina display to MacBook Pro (June 26th, 2012)

Apple has attempted to redefine the full power professional notebook with the next-generation MacBook Pro. In doing so it has delivered a notebook that is incredibly thin and light for the performance it offers. However, as is often the case with Apple products, certain design choices and feature exclusions have stirred up some controversy. So is the new MacBook Pro a notebook with compromises, or is it an uncompromising high performance notebook?

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $2199 as tested

The Good

  • Cutting-edge connectivity
  • Bleeding-edge display
  • Beautiful, thin minimalist design
  • Sturdy, seamless build quality
  • Blend of power and mobility

The Bad

  • Virtually non upgradeable after purchase
  • Many websites and apps are not currently optimized for the display
  • No optical drive
  • Adapters required for Firewire and Ethernet
  • Price premium for privilege

Apple has attempted to redefine the full power professional notebook with the next-generation MacBook Pro. In doing so it has delivered a notebook that is incredibly thin and light for the performance it offers. However, as is often the case with Apple products, certain design choices and feature exclusions have stirred up some controversy. So is the new MacBook Pro a notebook with compromises, or is it an uncompromising high performance notebook?

Hardware and design

Just when you thought you had seen all the possible notebook categories including desktop replacements, ultrabooks and netbooks, Apple's design team has managed to deliver another genre-bending product. Currently, there is no obvious Windows-based competitor to the next-generation MacBook Pro--and that would still be the case even if you removed the Retina Display from the equation. The 15-inch Samsung Series 9 might be slim and pack a relatively high-resolution display, but it does not offer full performance mobile processors or discrete graphics capabilities. It might have been targeted at what was the then-rumored 15-inch MacBook Air, which seems to have turned out to be the next-generation MacBook Pro with Retina display.



To keep things running cool given the reduced internal space offered by the slim .71-inch thin aluminum unibody, Apple has completely revamped the internal cooling system. This is most apparent on the external design of the notebook, which now includes three slits on each side that draw air in through the sides of the notebook. The air is then channelled across the motherboard, past the CPU and the discrete GPU and out through the rear courtesy of two fans. As has been highlighted by Apple, the fans have been redesigned with asymmetrical blades that spread the sound across multiple frequencies giving the impression that they run much quieter than they otherwise would.



However, it would be remiss to not mention just how critical the latest Intel Ivy Bridge 22nm 3D architecture is to what Apple has accomplished. The quad-core third-generation Core i7-3615QM can Turbo Boost to 3.4GHz, but draws 10 watts less power than the previous-generation Core i7 Sandy bridge processors, while managing to deliver between 10 to 20 percent better performance per clock cycle. The same can be said for Apple's inclusion of the latest NVIDIA GT 650M with Kepler 28nm architecture. Both chips offer a thermal design profile (TDP) that uses much less power and therefore also produces much less heat than previous designs. The combination of advances in CPU and GPU design go a long way to making this notebook possible.



Everything about the overall system architecture is fast and optimized in the new MacBook Pro as well. In its basic configuration, the Retina-equipped MacBook Pro's CPU is matched with 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3L RAM, while the GPU is paired to 1GB of fast DDR5 VRAM. To this is added the same sort of all-flash architecture that Apple also upgraded in the MacBook Air, which now offers sequential write speeds of 500MB/s. Apple offers users 256GB of flash storage in the entry model, although this can be configured up to 768GB. NAND-flash hard drives not only offer much faster speeds than spinning hard drives, they also consume significantly less power and use much less space. This has helped Apple pack in a huge 95Wh 8460mAh battery, enabling it to deliver up to seven hours of battery life with the display set at 50 percent brightness while wirelessly connected to the Internet. Battery life is also extended in low-demand GPU situations where Intel's integrated 4000 HD GPU kicks in.

Performance

So how does all of this state-of-the-art stack performance-wise? It is quick, no question. While it is not going to challenge the most highly specified PC desktop replacements or notebook gaming rigs, which can be priced similarly, it delivers more than enough performance for professional photographers, musicians and filmmakers on the go. Most importantly, it does so in a form factor that is incredibly light (4.46 pounds/2.06kg) and thin for the performance that it is capable of delivering. It also offers decent performance for casual gaming with titles including StarCraft II and Diablo III.



In the Cinebench R11.5 (64-bit) OpenGL test, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display produced a frame rate of 34.80fps, against 24.51 for the Mac mini with discrete Radeon HD 6630M and 18.04fps for the 2010 MacBook Pro with discrete GeForce 330M. This about matched its performance in StarCraft II with all visual settings on Ultra at the Retina displays 2880x1800 native resolution. We found the game to be very playable at this frame rate, while it offers similar, but slightly less, performance on the more-demanding Diablo III. However, it still has enough power to drive three external displays as well as the Retina display, demonstrating its potential for professionals. Although Kepler is NVIDIA's latest GPU architecture, it has so far only been deployed in midrange to upper midrange GPUs in NVIDIA's mobile lineup. It also needs to be remembered that outright GPU performance may be nullified somewhat by the fact that it now also has to drive four times as many pixels as a standard MacBook Pro.



The Cinebench CPU score highlights the sheer processing power of the new MacBook Pro. It really is a very fast processor and will get through rendering tasks with the full ability. Similarly, in the GeekBench 2.3.3 (32-bit) test, the MacBook Pro blew the socks off our old 15-inch MacBook Pro with a dual-core 2.5GHz Core i5 from 2010, as well as the current Mac mini with a dual-core Core i5. It scored 11058 on the test, against scores of 4794 for the older MacBook Pro and 6526 for the Mac mini. The new MacBook Pro is even more powerful than our fully optioned iMac from 2009 that was fitted with a first-generation quad-core Core i7 clocked at 2.93GHz, which scored 8588 on the same test--the iMac was then even more powerful than the entry Mac Pro at the time.



Display

While Apple's use of the marketing term "Retina display" might annoy some people, it is a very focused way of highlighting what is a genuine selling point of its devices that employ super-high-resolution displays. Apple led the way with the iPhone 4, introduced less than three years ago, and then brought the high-resolution technology to the third-generation iPad earlier this year. While some phone makers have now caught up to or passed the pixel density in the iPhone, there is no tablet or notebook on the market than can touch the new iPad or the new MacBook Pro with Retina display for overall image sharpness and clarity. With a resolution of 2880x1800, the notebook packs 5.1 million pixels into its 15.4-inch display. Apple has also reduced the glare by 75 percent while offering contrast that is 29 percent higher than a standard MacBook Pro display. It is also uses IPS technology and offers horizontal and vertical viewing angles of 178 degrees. While the colors appear natural and well saturated, the color gamut of the display is about on par with standard MacBook Pro display and does not offer an improvement in this area (hence Apple's silence on the matter).



Beyond this though, the design work that makes the screen so thin (and unrepairable) has been described by iFixit as an "engineering marvel." At just 7mm thin at its thickest point and 3mm at its thinnest, it is hard to believe that Apple managed to also cram in the necessary backlighting to make it work. It is of course part of the way in which Apple has managed to trim weight off the notebook. Other benefits of the display design also include the removal of an additional layer of glass (which is how it managed to reduce the glare) as well as giving the appearance that the text and images are much closer, as indeed they are. If the display is damaged, it will be a case of having to replace the entire assembly.



Technical details aside, the new display really is amazing to behold. Text appears razor sharp, while editing images in Aperture or iPhoto is photo-realistic in the truest sense. Image and film editors, as well as graphic designers, have never had the ability to edit the smallest details of images when on the go as they do now. So not only does the new Retina display making reading much more enjoyable and easy, it will also improve the ability for users to get their job done better. Users are also offered the option to change the display settings to create additional space on their desktop, although all involve some sort of scaling for legibility. Apple does not currently offer users the ability to view the display in its native 2880x1800 resolution icons and text would be simply too small to be of any practical use.



On the downside, there are very few websites or apps that are optimized to make the most of the Retina display at the moment. As the new iPad is selling millions of units, there has been plenty of motivation for developers to get on board and update their apps--this will be less the case with the new MacBook Pro. It goes without saying that that OS X looks stunning on the Retina display, as do the updated apps including Aperture and Final Cut Pro. Other major apps in line for a Retina update include Adobe Photoshop and Autodesk AutoCAD, while Apple has also updated iMovie and iPhoto. However, it will be some time before we see websites catch up as the balance between image quality and the speed of page loading will remain the priority there. Other apps will get there eventually, but it will take time.



Connectivity

Apple has opted to drop all legacy ports on the new MacBook Pro with Retina display. For users who still need Firewire or Gigabit Ethernet support, Apple is making an adapter available for each of the connections - the Gigabit adapter is available now, while the FireWire adapter won't be available until sometime in July. In their place are two Thunderbolt ports (10 Gbps), while the new Pro also offers up two USB 3.0 ports (5 Gbps) that are backwards-compatible with USB 2.0.



For users who don't already have a Thunderbolt display and still use legacy FireWire peripherals and Gigabit Ethernet, Apple has just given another reason to upgrade. For those who aren't aware, the Thunderbolt display allows you to hook up your MacBook to the display via a single Thunderbolt cable. On the rear of the display, it incorporates another Thunderbolt input as well as a FireWire 800 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port and three USB 2.0 ports, allowing a user to plug in all their peripherals to the rear of the display rather than routing multiple cables to the MacBook itself.

Also built into the next-generation MacBook Pro is an SDXC card slot to be found on the right-hand side of the device, where you will also find an HDMI port--a first for an Apple notebook, following availability on the Apple TV and the Mac mini. There is also support for digital/analog audio line out, while it also uses the latest Bluetooth 4.0 standard in common with the new iPad.



Perhaps the only area where Apple has not upped the game from a connectivity perspective is in wireless options. Although it uses 802.11n, routers with support for the next-generation wireless standard 802.11ac are just starting to hit the market. We suspect that the latest-generation MacBook may be upgradeable to the new wireless standard sometime in the future. Overall, though, the inclusion of two Thunderbolt ports and two USB 3.0 ports offers power users a tremendous amount of flexibility now and into the future.

For this review, we migrated Mac to Mac over Thunderbolt for the first time. To do this, we simply launched the Migration utility on the MacBook Pro and restarted our Mac mini while holding down the "command" and "T" keys, which put it into target disk mode. While a more traditional migration over FireWire or Gigabit Ethernet might have taken several hours, our Mac mini (which was also fitted with a 256GB SSD) managed the entire migration in an astonishing 24 minutes. This included all documents, files, settings and apps that totalled around 220GB.



Keyboard, trackpad, MagSafe 2

We have no complaints with the backlit keyboard. While some might consider it slightly on the shallow side, it is certainly very comfortable to type on and is also noticeably very quiet. By comparison, Apple's wireless desktop keyboard has a longer throw, but is also significantly noisier by comparison. Business people should be able to have no problem typing on a commercial flight, sitting next to someone with their new MacBook Pro without fear of annoying them. The larger palm rest area offered by the 15-inch notebook also makes it more comfortable to type on, as does its thinner profile--on the standard MacBook Pro, the extra height can cause some discomfort when typing on a flat surface because of the squared-off leading edge.



Apple's large glass trackpad continues to be a joy to use. Given our experience with even the most recent multitouch trackpads on Windows notebooks, there is still no comparison with how good Apple's implementation is. It is highly responsive to user input and can be utilized to significantly boost workflow on Mac OS X with its wide range of multitouch gestures. Swiping with two fingers left or right will move you between pages in Safari. Swiping left or right with three fingers lets you switch between full screen apps. Mission Control is launched by swiping up with three fingers, while swiping down with three fingers triggers app Expose. Pinching with your thumb and three fingers will trigger Launchpad, the iPad-like app browser, while spreading with your thumb and three fingers will show the desktop.



One of the new features that we are yet to be convinced of is Apple's new MagSafe 2 adapter. We did not have any gripes with the original MagSafe adapter, which was a huge improvement over the original power plug that made it easy for a connected MacBook to be pulled off a desk or out of someone's hands if someone tripped over the power cord or got it hooked on something while transporting it. Apple says that, because of the thinner profile of the next-generation design, engineers needed to tweak the Magsafe connection. While its magnet holds in place the power supply in most instances with decent grip, sitting with the notebook on your lap while it is charging can result in the Magsafe 2 adapter being dislodged too easily with any upwards or downwards pressure.


Wrap-up


If you're waiting for Apple to release a MacBook Air with Retina display, it could be a longer wait than most anticipate. There is a reason that the MacBook Pro with Retina display is shaped like it is. Apple likely couldn't have delivered this notebook with a tapered design for at least a couple of reasons, the most critical being the size of the battery needed to power the Retina display. It's no accident that the battery stuffed inside this MacBook is the biggest yet. Even with the additional battery size, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display delivers only the same battery life as the standard MacBook Pro because the display is so densely packed with pixels that it needs a strip of 48 LED backlights to push light through the LCD panel.

The next notebook rumoured to be inline for a Retina upgrade is the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which the rumor mill says will arrive around October. In the meantime, if you want to get your hands on a MacBook with a Retina display, your only option is the 15-inch variant. This means that it is not for everybody, as tempting as the Retina display may be. It is easily the most portable full-power notebook on the market, though it is still fairly large. While 4.46 pounds is also relatively light for a notebook this size, it does not compare with the 11- or 13-inch MacBook Air for overall portability. When you factor in the cost as well, it clearly remains targeted at creative professionals or other power-users who need the extra processing power that come with Intel's and NVIDIA's latest silicon.

For its target audience, it's hard to think of any notebook that can be recommended over the next-generation MacBook Pro. Its system architecture and connectivity are cutting edge and offer the very best performance that is currently available--it is anti-obsolescence. The way this has then been crafted into a notebook only 0.71-inches thin just makes it all the more remarkable. The Retina display is the icing on the cake. As beautiful and sophisticated as the design of a notebook might be, the display is the one thing that you are really engaged with the whole time you are using the device. Here, Apple has taken users into another sphere of computing pleasure that no other manufacturer can claim to come close to. There is simply no more forward-looking notebook on the market; the new MacBook Pro with Retina display is the best notebook that Apple has made to date.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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