Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display Review (2012)

by J.R. Nelson Reads (493,840)
Editor's Rating
7.57

TG Ratings Breakdown

    • Software & Support
    • 10
    • Upgrade Capabilities
    • 3
    • Usability
    • 9
    • Design
    • 10
    • Performance
    • 6
    • Features
    • 8
    • Price/Value Rating
    • 7
    • Total Score:
    • 7.57
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

Overview

  • Pros

    • Screen, screen, screen!
    • Thin
    • Strong performance
    • Excellent speakers
  • Cons

    • Very expensive for performance level
    • Increased costs for repair and battery replacement
    • Few applications ready for Retina at this time
    • Performance issues with some browsing

Quick Take

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a bit of the past and a bit of the future, wrapped up into one tasty, toasty present. Brilliant screen meets refined design.


Overview

The next-generation MacBook Pro with Retina Display – it’s a mouthful of a name. Apple’s latest notebook represents the culmination of a number of trends from one of the industry’s most visible players – from unibody aluminum construction to soldered-in components; from solid-state storage to the much-vaunted Retina Display.

Apple clearly has a vision for where they want to take portable computing, and while impressive, it has its drawbacks, too. Let’s jump into things by taking a look at the MacBook Pro’s most talked about feature: its stunningly high resolution display.

Apple started the trend of ultra-high resolution screens with the iPhone 4, back in 2010. The iPhone 4′s display doubled each dimension of pixels over its predecessor from 480×320 to 960×640. The iPad 3 did the same thing – the best-selling tablet jumped from 1024×768 to 2048×1536.

Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina DisplayA Retina-enabled MacBook Pro follows the same trajectory. Previously, the 15-inch MacBook Pro shipped with a standard resolution of 1440×900. This new MacBook Pro, then, uses 2880×1800, which equals a more than 5 Megapixel image. In terms of sharpness, it figures out to almost 221 pixels per inch. This compares to 315ppi for the iPhone, and 264ppi for the iPad.

So why are they still called Retina I mean, “retina screens” are just a marketing concept, but there exists real science behind the nomenclature.

It has to do with how your eye works, and how you use your specific device. You hold a phone closer than a tablet, and you’ll probably hold a tablet closer to you than you would your laptop. So despite the MacBook Pro employing a lower pixel density than its more mobile counterparts, it still gets to lay claim to the Retina Display name.

If you’re handy with math, you can figure out that your HDTV is probably pretty close to Retina quality, in terms of your ability to distinguish between individual pixels, now.


The screen – oh my god, the screen

While the sharpness plays a role in how good the screen looks – and the new MacBook Pro’s screen looks better than any other notebook that has ever existed, bar none – so does the panel technology. I want to make that clear – if display quality is paramount to you, for whatever reason, this is the only laptop you should remotely be considering. It’s simply that good. Apple uses IPS screens in their next-gen MBP, just like in the iPhone and iPad. It’s a welcome step up from the screens they’ve used in the past; as TN panels, they suffered from color distortions and poor viewing angles.

*Note – see the comments at the end of the article for a couple of notes on color accuracy.

These new screens fix all of that.

You might hope that with such a high resolution display, we’ve finally entered the era of resolution independence. Regrettably, it’s not quite the case. As a result, Apple has been forced to hack together a way to make balance the sharpness of the display and the usability of the UI. Mind you, “hack together” makes it sound worse than it is; as these solutions go, it is really quite elegant, and quite a bit better than simply changing the DPI settings in Windows.

When you boot the MacBook Pro up for the first time and dive into the resolution settings, you’ll be confronted with a new settings pane. Apple forces you to choose between two options: one is balanced by default for the Retina Display (“Best for Retina display”), while the others let you choose between five different resolution settings(“Scaled”).

Unlike traditional screens, there aren’t any resolution numbers here. At least, not at first. Inside of the ‘Scaled’ option, you get to choose between five different display orientations. Larger text, which Apple says “Looks like 1024×640″, one higher, “Looks like 1280×800″, the ‘Best for Retina’ default, “Looks like 1440×900″, a fourth, which “Looks like 1680×1050″, and ‘More Space’, which “Looks like 1920×1200″.

A warning pops up beneath any non-default resolution that “Using a scaled resolution may reduce performance.” This is because Apple doesn’t simply scale any resolution beneath 2880×1800 up to the native resolution of the panel – they do a little scaling wizardry.

For the 1680×1050 and 1920×1200 modes, OS X actually renders the display at 3360×2100 and 3840×2400, respectively. They do this in order to supersample the ultra-high (9.21MP!) resolution and maximize the clarity of the non-native resolution. Clear it is, too; it’s probably the clearest screen we’ve seen for an LCD displaying non-native imagery.

Retina vs. non-retina

Applications that are “Retina-aware”, however, get to employ even more trickery! If you’re mucking about in software such as Aperture, iMovie, Final Cut Pro X, or most other Apple applications (Adobe has promised Photoshop updates, but they’ve not yet been released), the UI elements get doubled, but the media – photos, videos, etc. – get displayed on a 1:1 basis. If you’re editing, for example, a 3000:2000 image in Aperture, you’d get to see the entire image displayed on screen, while the UI remains clearly visible. It’s a neat sort of hybrid resolution that lets crafty developers really take advantage of super pixel dense displays.

Software that isn’t Retina-aware, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Anything that isn’t rendered on screen by some sort of OS API looks fuzzy. That means that any web browsing, unless you use the included Safari browser, isn’t going to look so hot. A lot of legacy applications, unless updated, will look similarly.

Compare this, meanwhile, with how things are handled in Microsoft’s Windows OS. When you install Windows via Apple’s Boot Camp software, then install the Boot Camp drivers, Apple makes a few modifications for you. The DPI is changed, for example, making fonts and some UI elements look larger than normal – it’s a pretty clunky result.

You do have a lot more freedom to set how you want things displayed, however, including the ability to push the screen to its native, 2880×1800, eye-searing max. Seriously. Eye-searing. It’s sort of interesting, in an academic sense, to run the OS at that resolution, but it’s pretty uncomfortable. Windows doesn’t by default allow you to pick a pixel-quartered resolution of 1440×900, either, which is puzzling. Unless you really need to stay in Windows, you should probably avoid it; unlike prior Intel-based Macs, OS X just plain looks better.

The real exception to this is Metro. The Start Screen and Metro applications look gorgeous at the full 2880×1800 display, with things rendered at human-readable sizes. Everything just looks pretty. Still, Metro isn’t supremely useful on the desktop quite just yet, but that’s a story for another day.

Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina DisplayApple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina Display

Viewing angles Solid – you can lay the display flat against a table and not experience the color shift and distortion you find on other screens. Backlighting was similarly commendable, with zero noticeable light bleeds – everything is really quite surprisingly uniform.

According to our measurements, the average static contrast ratio was roughly 945:1, which is quite good for a mobile display. Parts of the screen ranged from 827:1 to 1048:1, but on the whole, the differences are completely unnoticeable to the naked eye.

One of the specifications picked up by a lot of tech blogs and papers after the WWDC announcement was the fact that the new MacBook Pro with Retina (abbreviated herein as rMBP for brevity) featured a “less glossy” screen. It’s true – the display is less glossy. That’s because Apple finally managed to rid themselves of that ridiculous extra panel of glass in front of the LCD.

Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina DisplayApple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina Display

I have never been a fan of pushing screens in that direction, since it adds a frustrating amount of extra gloss, shine and reflection, not to mention thickness and weight. In this respect, the rMBP is very similar to the MacBook Airs. The new panel has glass bonded directly to the screen. It’s still glossy, but it’s actually usable at angles, unlike some MacBooks in the recent past (glare monsters).

Impressively thin

I know it seems overboard, but I really can’t speak highly enough about the display on this computer. This is the measure by which future displays will be judged.

Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina DisplayThe rest of the rMBP’s design is still impressive, if subdued. It looks mostly like its predecessor, save for the fact that it’s about a quarter of an inch thinner. Coming in at 0.71 inches, the new MacBook Pro is just three hundredths of an inch thicker than the MacBook Air line – of course, the rMBP doesn’t follow the same wedge-shaped design; it runs straight in all directions, apart from some tapering at the edge.

It all adds up to an impressively thin profile. There are definitely thinner notebooks on the market, but none that can match the same feature set. Similarly, the new rMBP weighs 4.46 pounds – not the lightest we’ve seen for a 15-inch notebook, but still impressive. Users used to an old MBP will appreciate the weight reduction, while those jumping ship from a MacBook Air may find it a bit clunky in comparison.

As a whole, the build quality is impressive; the machine feels like a solid block of aluminum. There’s little to no give anywhere on the computer, and the hinges are stiff without being exasperating. Fun note: thanks to the engineering upgrades to the screen, there wasn’t an easy way for Apple to blaze their logo all over the bottom of the bezel, and so it got stuck on the underside of the machine. The pure minimalism of the design is impressive, as a result.

Ports and features

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a full two Thunderbolt ports. This underused high-speed interconnect is looking to come into its own over the next year, as we’ve seen a number of companies prepping compatible products for release (let’s hope they actually make it to market).

Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina DisplayApple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina Display

These can serve as mini-DisplayPort ports, too, with no special adapter required, save for converting mini-DP to DP. They’re located on the left side of the notebook. An HDMI port on the right, the first on an Apple portable, means that you can hook up three external displays. The built-in screen makes it four. I have a USB 3.0 – HDMI adapter sitting here, but haven’t tried it yet; five displays would be weirdly impressive. The MagSafe adapter has been shrunk down to fit into the smaller chassis; Apple replaced the “L” style connector to the previous “T” style one.

While the “T” style adapter had issues with fraying, it looks like Apple addressed that by sheathing the connector in the same aluminum as the rest of the notebook.

Speaking of USB, Apple has finally made the jump from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0. It has taken them an unforgivably long time to make the switch, which was delayed until Intel added support natively into their Ivy Bridge chipsets. There’s one USB port on either side. A headphone jack on the left and SD card slot on the right round out the port selection.

There is no optical drive on this notebook. It’s part of the way that Apple saved both thickness and weight, and given the trends, unlikely to be missed by most people. OS X still supports the ability to use the optical drive on another networked computer, however, so between that and cheap USB drives, you should be good to go if you really need to read discs.

Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with Retina Display
Image courtesy of iFixit

The expansion issue is probably Apple’s most controversial decision. That is to say, the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display can’t be upgraded. Period. The RAM is soldered down, the CPU is soldered down. The GPU is on-board. The SSD features a proprietary shape and port (though at least it isn’t soldered down, too). Even the battery, which lost easy swappability with the advent of the unibody MacBook construction, is glued directly to the chassis.

OWC and other companies will probably come up with a compatible third-party SSD, just like they did with the Air. That does little to change the static nature of the rest of the machine – you’d better decide up front how much memory you’re going to need.

Fortunately, 8GB of RAM is the default shipping option – which it should be, at that price – and for most people, that’s going to be more than enough. Despite what many enthusiasts think, most people never bother upgrading the memory on their laptops, and RAM, past the first weeks of ownership, rarely out and out fails.

What is most regrettable about this new design is the battery. Since Apple glues the battery straight onto the body of the machine, getting the battery replaced means that the entire top portion of the machine will need to be replaced. That brings extra cost, which gets passed directly onto the consumer – in this case, it’ll be a $199 fee, or $70 more than the other portables. Even though heavy use should see three or more years out of the battery before noticeable degradation sets in, it’s an annoying principle.


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