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 480x320 to 960x640. The iPad 3 did the same thing - the best-selling tablet jumped from 1024x768 to 2048x1536.
A Retina-enabled MacBook Pro follows the same trajectory. Previously, the 15-inch MacBook Pro shipped with a standard resolution of 1440x900. This new MacBook Pro, then, uses 2880x1800, 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.
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 1024x640", one higher, "Looks like 1280x800", the 'Best for Retina' default, "Looks like 1440x900", a fourth, which "Looks like 1680x1050", and 'More Space', which "Looks like 1920x1200".
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 2880x1800 up to the native resolution of the panel - they do a little scaling wizardry.
For the 1680x1050 and 1920x1200 modes, OS X actually renders the display at 3360x2100 and 3840x2400, 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.
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, 2880x1800, 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 1440x900, 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 2880x1800 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.
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.
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).
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.
The 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.
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).
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.
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.
Above the screen sits a 720p-capable webcam, along with an integrated microphone array and light sensor. I found the automatic screen brightness setting to be way too aggressive, with brightness changing if I so much as waved a hand too long in front of the sensor; fortunately, you can disable it with a couple of clicks.
Quality of both webcam and mics are respectable, but pale in comparison to the new speakers. Apple spent a fair amount of time talking about the re-engineered speakers in the new MacBook Pro, and for good reason: they sound great. Music, movies, Internet content, games - they all sounded outstanding. They lack a bit in the bass department, which isn't news to most laptop owners.
What is most surprising about the speakers is their ability to project without distortion. They can get unexpectedly loud, but whatever they broadcast remains crystal clear. It's a nice change.
The rMBP returns Apple's class-leading multitouch glass trackpad to the fore. Sitting front and center, the large device makes using a touchpad a breeze. This is the only trackpad I can use and not constantly feel regret that it's not a mouse. Some of that is due to the quality of the trackpad itself, but most of it has to do with the tight integration with OS X. Under Windows, the trackpad isn't nearly as nice to use.
This time around, the keyboard isn't quite as nice. It feels a lot like the keyboard from the MacBook Air lineup. The backlighting is nice and even, with variable settings, including an automatic one. Like the MBA, however, the travel distance is just a bit less than ideal; the older MacBook Pros moved a little more. Most importantly, however, is that the keyboard still features zero flex.
One other small point is the move of the power switch. Since the rMBP ships without an optical drive, just like the Airs, Apple pulled the eject button off of the keyboard and replaced with the power switch, just like the Airs.
Our Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display review unit has the following specifications:
The new rMBP features Intel's latest Ivy Bridge quad-core CPUs, an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M CPU, 8GB of DDR3L SDRAM, and a 256GB SSD. As a result, the performance really isn't any slouch - comparing it to older MacBooks, this new MacBook Pro manages to best even the high-end 17-inch MacBook Pro that was sold up until a few days before this one launched.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
This shows in the impressive 11023 score that this baseline rMBP scored in Geekbench, a common OS X benchmarking program. PCMark 7 scored 5223, and 3DMark 11 delivered 2427 in the Performance preset. wPrime finished in 8.197 seconds.
One area where Apple substantially improved performance over previous MacBook models was in the choice of solid state drive. This time around, the SSD scored blazing sequential read speeds of 455.8 MB/s and write speeds of 407.5 MB/s. Disk I/O doesn't look like it's going to be much of a problem in this batch.
3DMark 11 measures overall graphics card performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
Despite all of this, the new MacBook Pro is experiencing growing pains thanks to its headlining feature - that Retina Display. I mentioned earlier the supersampling Apple undertakes in order to deliver sharp, non-standard resolutions. It's important to remember that the GPU being used inside of the new MBP barely supports the current resolution - these hyperresolutions employed as part of Apple's supersampling effort have no scaling hardware (AnandTech has a tremendous piece about it). Between this and Apple's custom scaling routines, there are certain instances where the new MacBook Pro lets us down - rapid screen refreshes of complex content, like browsing rich webpages, can suffer.
PCMark 7 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
In fact, previous MacBook generations, and even running the MacBook in Windows, can deliver a smoother browsing experience than Safari does in OS X. Still, the superior rendering of text and images in Safari tends to make up for it, in my eyes. Reportedly, the issue has been largely corrected in OS X Mountain Lion, due out for release sometime next month. Parts of Safari have been rewritten to better take advantage of the graphics hardware in rendering to the display. We'll be sure to take a look back at this issue then.
CrystalDiskMark Storage Benchmark (higher numbers mean faster storage access):
The new MacBook Pro does excel at some heavy-duty tasks we threw at it. Over the last week, I've taken it on a business trip, edited HD video, loaded up a million RAW images simultaneously - you get the idea. The notebook handles it all with aplomb, barely spinning up the fans (more on that later).
Gaming was a surprisingly important part of Apple's discussion on the new rMBP - it's a concession that not only do professionals who game buy these laptops, but normal people do, too.
Unlike standard desktop activities, gaming is much harder on the system's hardware. The GPU has to render all sorts of geometries, and update all the pixels on the screen multiple times per second. As a result, all of that arcane high-res downsampling goes out the window when you start to play full-screened games. Games, instead, work just like they do on any other PC - some will support the native resolution, and those that don't will have a lower resolution scaled up to the rest of the screen.
So far, finding a game that can actually detect and run at the MacBook Pro's native resolution is difficult. Blizzard, with Diablo III, were a launch partner with Apple, and that title already supports it. Results are mixed: it looks great, or at least as good as Diablo III can look, but you're not going to get a constant 30+ FPS when running with details up at 2880x1800. Knocking the resolution down a peg or two provides a silky smooth experience, however, and at just over 15 inches, the loss in quality is almost unnoticeable.
World of Warcraft can also run at the native Retina resolution, and this game, at least, doesn't even stress the system. You can likely expect 60 FPS even when running at native res. The results Not too bad, according to WoW fans.
Apple claims that you can expect about seven hours of battery life in the new machine in average use. What's average use according to Apple That's difficult to say, but for the most part, the company has been exceptionally reasonable in terms of predicting battery life for their various mobile devices.
In light use, with the backlight at 50% (it can be pretty bright, so in many cases you won't even need to use that much), you can expect to exceed Apple's 7-hour running time. We scored 7 hours, 39 minutes of use in our battery tests - which are relatively light and, it's worth noting, do not engage the discrete GPU.
Any application that does will cause your battery life to plummet by comparison - and this is one reason why running the system in Windows will eat up your time away from an outlet. There doesn't seem to be any support for GPU switching in that OS, meaning that the GT 650M is running constantly. At best, expect to cut off at least two hours of battery life, probably more.
Since the new laptop is so much thinner than the previous model, the cooling system had to be completely redesigned in order to compensate for the same-ish thermals in a smaller case. New vents have been sliced into the bottom sides of the notebook - these complement the traditional MacBook vents around the plastic hinge cover.
In redesigning the MacBook Pro, not even the fan was left untouched. Apple says that they pushed the blades on the cooling fan around so that their spacing was asymmetrical. The irregular spacing between the blades was introduced in order to split the fan noise up into several different frequencies, as opposed to stacking them all together.
The new fan design is quiet. In a quiet room, you'll be able to make out some noise, but in most cases, the notebook is unnoticeably quiet. As you ramp up the workload, the fans respond. Under heavy load, they're definitely audible. It isn't until you go back to using another computer that you realize how much different the fan noise is. The MacBook Pro isn't some magically quiet notebook, (at least under heavy loads) but it does a good approximation thereof.
Traditionally, Apple's laptops have run on the hot side. That's really something of an understatement - they can get positively toasty, and in this respect, the rMBP isn't very different. I loaded up all four physical CPU cores and let the system run for five minutes straight before taking the temperatures.
Under all circumstances, the trackpad remained cool at just 77 Fahrenheit. The keyboard heats things up, with temperatures ranging from 86F in the lower-left corner, to 107F in the upper middle area. The worst offender, unsurprisingly, was the metal strip in between the keyboard, where hot air can escape the vents. Here, we saw temperatures rise up to 118F, which is pretty uncomfortable.
I understand that this review may seem overly effusive - but it's hard to deny that the MacBook Pro with Retina Display provides a superlative experience for that specific set of users who require what this machine provides.
The screen is nothing short of groundbreaking. Like they did with tablets and ultraportables, Apple has made super high resolution displays work, and it makes me happy - because it means that we'll be seeing more and similar display from lower-priced competitors such as ASUS and Acer, and, eventually HP and Dell.
Considering the technology packed inside, the rMBP is incredibly thin. It's reasonably light, too, at 4.46 pounds. Battery life is impressive, within the confines of this technology envelope and size range; otherwise there have been other machines that meet and exceed it.
In order to help make the leap into the next great computing trend, Apple made a number of design concessions that don't sit well with a lot of users. Soldering the RAM to the computer, in such a professional machine, seems...wrong, somehow. Flash storage is really nice, but 256GB won't be enough for a lot of people; since upgrades must be purchased from Apple at the time of order, more than a few people will be stuck between not having enough space and not being able to afford more. Similarly, there are no FireWire or Gigabit Ethernet ports on this machine, and instead you'll be forced to buy an adapter at another thirty bucks or so. The Gig-E adapter has been well reviewed, but it stings, having to shell out still more money in order to recreate previous functionality.
The optical drive is another such victim of this process, but that loss shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who follows technology trends. Most Ultrabooks, including the MacBook Air, don't offer optical drives, and they've been met with reasonable success thus far.
There is an unspoken rule among computer users that while Apple makes generally high-quality products, you should always avoid the first generation, since that's when all the problems will crop up. The Retina MacBook Pro has its share - there are reports of image retention problems (our review unit did not exhibit this at all), and we discussed the performance issues earlier.
No computer is perfect, and this notebook is sufficiently outstanding to overlook some of its growing pains. Should you buy one? Our official recommendation is yes, absolutely, but wait until the computers are shipping with OS X Mountain Lion. There are supply issues at the moment, so if you wait until August, you'll probably be able to just waltz in and pick one up.
Additionally, I would almost say that purchasing the extra two years of AppleCare is almost a requirement for this machine - and that adds on an additional $349 to the asking price. It's expensive, but speaking with one Apple employee who mentioned how much higher parts and labor costs are going to be with this machine, well, you get the idea.
If you like the idea of the MBP but want something smaller, check out the 11- and 13-inch MacBooks Air. You'll lose out on that incredible display, but the 11-inch Air is so small and light that it's pretty much never a bad choice. You might also check out ASUS' Zen Prime, which is pushing 1080p panels into 11.6- and 13.3-inch laptops.
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. What more do you need?