MacBook Pro with Retina display review (15-inch)

June 19, 2012

Though Apple quietly discontinued the 17-inch MacBook Pro last week, hardly a tear was shed. In fact, the company went out of its way to replace the ultra-premium tier with something even more covetous — namely, a 15-inch MacBook Pro with such a pixel-dense screen that the company put “Retina display” prominently in its name. Apple went even further, shrinking the body down to “as thin as Air” dimensions thanks to some clever industrial design and a few sacrifices along the way. And that’s without skimping on processing power — all of Apple’s 2012 models use Intel’s new Ivy Bridge chipset, and the 15-inch Pro models use Nvidia Kepler GPUs. The base model starts at 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with a GeForce GT 650M, 8GB RAM, and anywhere from 256GB to 768GB of flash storage.

It’s the new gold standard for Apple’s portable lineup, the new aspirational peak. But even starting a few hundred dollars less than the one-time behemoth 17-inch’s base price ($2,199 vs. $2,499), is it yet worth your attention? As we are wont to say, read on to find out.

Hardware/design

Screen notwithstanding, the most impressive feat is how small and light the MacBook Pro with Retina is. At .71 inches thick uniformly, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is just a hair taller than the .68-inch (at its thickest) MacBook Air — though in practice, we found the Air to stand actually a little taller on a table when side-to-side because of the shorter rubber feet on the bottom of the new generation Pro. Compared to the traditional 15-inch MacBook Pro, the Retina model is about 25 percent lighter (4.46 vs. 5.6 pounds) with about 37 percent less volumetric footprint. While most of that is due to the thickness, all dimensions have shrunk a hair — and that smaller bezel also means we lose “MacBook Pro” branding on the front (both of which we like).

It’ll feel a little bit better than the Pro models when carrying it around in a backpack, but to be clear this is more of a step down from the Pro than it is a step-up from the Air, which is still far and away lighter and more portable.

All the familiar MacBook Pro elements are here, including a full backlit chiclet keyboard, large multitouch trackpad, 720p FaceTime HD camera, and speaker grilles to the left and right. Apple boasts that this has the best speakers, and compared with our last-generation MacBook Pro, the sound is markedly fuller and more clear, especially the bass.

This Retina machine does borrow one tweak from the Air, in that the power button is a black chiclet key in the top right corner instead of the Pro’s dedicated silver circle outside of the keyboard inset. Otherwise both the keyboard and trackpad feel the same as the old Pro — which is a good thing, as those are still some of the best in the laptop industry. Both very clicky and responsive.

One last thing about the front, and this may seem weird: the front indentation you use for getting your finger under the lid to open the case is much less rough than past versions. As someone who often rests a thumb in that groove, this really does matter.

Besides the keyboard layout (not size), another design choice thankfully brought over from the Air is ports on both side of the machine. Whereas the traditional Pro crowds pretty much everything on the left edge, the Retina model splits up the USB 3.0 ports, one on each side. Also along the left we have two Thunderbolt ports (so much daisy chaining), a headphone jack, and the new MagSafe 2 adapter.

Think of it as a flatter version of the original T-shaped MagSafe that is, it’s worth noting, not compatible with previous MacBook laptops (and vice-versa). Apple sells a MagSafe-to-MagSafe 2 convertor that’ll let you use your old 85W brick, but as of this writing, there’s nothing to help original MagSafe-compatible MacBooks work with the new adaptors. And this won’t be unique to the now-flagship laptop — the 2012 MacBook Air also uses MagSafe 2, while the non-Retina MacBook Pro still uses the original. The aesthetic improvement is subtle, and debatable to an extent — there’s a debate in the office over this T connector versus the more recent 90-degree L connector with the cord going straight backwards — but we ultimately do prefer being able to unplug by pulling in any of the four directions.

On the right side of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, we’ve got the SDXC slot, a USB 3.0 port, and HDMI out — HDMI is a particularly useful addition, and it’s great for plugging both video and audio (remember to toggle via System Preferences > Sound) into a TV with just one cable. By default, we were mirroring our own display (which subsequently letterboxed the laptop screen into a 16:9 aspect ratio), but it can also work as an independent second display with its own color profile. As for that SDXC slot, Apple’s still having cards stick partially out of the machine, a design choice we’ve come to accept but would really rather have it hide more flush with with the frame.

Getting the new generation MBP down to a .71-inch frame also meant cutting some ports, so let’s run through what’s gone: Ethernet, Firewire, and an optical drive. Apple’s been pushing a disc-less existence for some time — the original Air dropped it in lieu of a USB-powered external drive (now listed as “for all Macs without optical drives”), OS X now allows for remote disc use via another computer, and the App Store conveniently serves both production-level apps and even entire OS X updates like Mountain Lion. As for the others, Apple is currently selling a Thunderbolt-to-Gigabit Ethernet adapter for $29.99 and at WWDC the company announced plans to release a similar dongle for FireWire 800.

Oh, and before we forget, the one-button battery indicator on the front left edge of Pro models? Gone. Sad for those that liked using it to check the charge mid-game or while the laptop was in a bag, inconsequential to everyone else.

Retina display

We’ll forgive you if this is the first part of the review you jumped to. After all, the Retina display is now Apple’s single unified design choice across nearly all its screens (iPhone, iPad, and now MacBook — still no iMac, although at 21.5 and 27 inches, there are probably some technical limitations to still work out there).

By the numbers

The new MacBook Pro with Retina display boasts a 15.4-inch, 2880 x 1800 display. Its 5.18 million pixels is quadruple the resolution of last-generation’s baseline 1440 x 900 MacBook Pro, and even a huge leap over the previous “high-res” option at 1680 x 1050.

It’s an important number to remember when we compare it to the non-Retina MacBook Pros: the aforementioned last-gen 15.4-inch screens had between 1.3 and 1.76 megapixels, while the 17-inch had a 2.3-megapixel screen (1920 x 1200) despite its extra physical real estate. Pixel density for the Retina display is around 220ppi. For perspective, the Sony Vaio Z’s 13.1-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) screen is about 168ppi. It doesn’t quite match the density of the 9.7-inch new iPad (263ppi) or 3.5-inch iPhone 4 / 4S (326ppi), but as Apple likes to say, you’re probably holding your laptop a bit farther away, so it still falls under the range of “Retina” status, meaning your eyes can’t discern individual pixels. It’s close to impossible, and after hours of squinting at a Safari page, we gave up. Take, for example, TextEdit: since icons go up to 1024 x 1024, you can now read what’s actually scribbled on the paper in the icon. Stay foolish, squinter.

The other number worth mentioning here is the touted 178-degree viewing angle, which which means you can see the screen from basically anywhere unless you’re staring at the edge. While we haven’t measured it, qualitatively we were incredibly impressed by how clear text was at very extreme horizontal and vertical viewing angles, although glare became an issue well before then.

Web browser

As of this writing, Safari is the only one of the big four browsers (the others being Chrome, Firefox, and Opera) to support Retina text — and the difference is striking. It’s at once a compliment to the improved hardware and a reason for early adopters to hesitate on purchasing. Side-by-side, the same text is noticeably more pixelated for non-Safari browsers. (Thankfully, Google Docs looks great — but again, only in Safari.) We expect these issue to be fixed in future app updates (more on that later). What concerns us more, however, is the web itself.

Just like with the third-generation iPad, if you’re surfing the web with the new MacBook Pro, you may notice just how low-quality a lot of the images are. The exception is Apple.com, which actually loads a different top image when you’re using Safari — an 1860×1242 “hero_2x.jpg” vs. the 930×621 “hero.jpg” for any other browser on the new MacBook Pro. It’s actually the same image that shows up when using the new iPad with Retina display, but that’s not default behavior — the Retina-enhanced Google.com logo, for example, shows up in the new iPad’s browser but not in the new generation MacBook Pro’s Safari. And then there’s the Apple Store itself — that logo is not Retina-optimized, nor are the product thumbnails. Images without sharp edges or text shouldn’t generally be a bother, but outside of scaling text, it’s going to be awhile before the rest of the web’s assets catch up.

Apps

Apple’s own software — including professional apps like Aperture and Final Cut Pro X as well as the iLife suite — have already been optimized for the new Retina display. Full-screen Aperture, in fact, is just stunning — the details you can see on each picture has impressed everyone we’ve shown. Same goes for iPhoto and Preview. The Retina-optimized Final Cut Pro X also benefits by being able to show a full 1080p video while still leaving room for all controls.

But like the transition from iPad 2 to new iPad, third-party developers still need to update their apps to work in the new, more pixel-dense environment — and as we alluded to earlier, it’s the text-based apps that suffer the most.

A few other apps have this text issue (Kindle and Nook being two of the more aggravating examples), but we don’t want to dwell too much on this. As with the new iPad, we suspect app developers will be fairly quick to upgrade their apps to support the new Retina standard. Some of the notable pain points for now include Kindle, Nook, and the entire Microsoft Office Suite — all the text looks jagged and pixelated in a very grating way. Sparrow has a very intriguing mix of good and bad text — the body text of each email is using Retina-optimized text, while the column view of email subject lines and all iconography is still pixelated. And Photoshop’s toolbar is definitely in need of higher-res iconography.

Again, like the new iPad, this is something we expect will be fixed over time as developers update to the new environment — and text-based apps like iA Writer already look gorgeous.

Display settings

Apple has streamlined the Display settings menu in system preference. Gone is a numerical list of resolutions. Instead we have two radio buttons — “Best for Retina display,” which is default and provides no further tweaking, and “Scaled.” There are five levels of scale, with Retina in the middle. You can opt for larger text that “looks like 1024 x 640” but screencaps at 2048 x 1280 (i.e. quadruple the resolution) or for more space that “looks like 1920 x 1200” with an image that screencaps to 3840 x 2400. At either of those extremes, the Retina text still looks better than its non-Retina counterparts, so it’s really more of a personal preference than it is a way to try and make older apps look better.

Performance

Of course, pushing more pixels on a screen requires more processing power. For this review, we have a two machines: a higher-end 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 8GB RAM, and 512GB flash storage, and the base model starts with a 2.3GHz quad-core i7 processor, 8GB RAM, and 256GB flash storage. Both are very impressive in their own right. Both also have an Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics card as well as the more powerful Nvidia GeForce GT 650M GPU with 1GB dedicated GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching. The 650M is part of Nvidia’s 28nm Kepler series that was just announced this past March, and it’s the most bang-for-the-power-consumption you’ll find in Nvidia’s arsenal.

We’ll talk about gaming performance more later in the review, but we ran Geekbench’s 32-bit and 64-bit tests to get a gauge for performance. Comparatively, Geekbench notes that the best previous-generation MacBook score was around 10,760 for the 17-inch model with a 2.5GHz Core i7 processor, so there’s definitely a marked improvement in performance from the new Ivy Bridge chipset.

So here’s another way Apple kept the machine so thin: the only storage option is flash, and the RAM is now soldered to the logic board. For $200 at the time of purchase, you can upgrade the RAM to 16GB. And while you’re at it, feel free to boost the CPU to 2.7GHz and the flash storage to 768GB, all-in-all adding $950 to the price. As for the flash storage, start time is fast, within a second of the fastest ultrabooks we’ve seen — 17 seconds on average, from off to login screen.

The laptop runs OS X Lion, but Apple is offering a free update to Mountain Lion when it comes out next month.

Like we said, that processing power needs to drive a screen much bigger than anything else out there, so when pushed to the task, how does it fare? Apple itself highlighted Diablo 3 in its WWDC unveiling, so let’s start there. We ran two tests: one with Diablo 3 at max resolution but nominal detail settings, and one where we pushed the game’s eye candy to the max.

This isn’t the highest-specced Retina MacBook Pro, but with a 2.6GHz Core i7 and 8GB RAM we were able to enjoy a full 2880 x 1800 experience, and compared to the standard MacBook Pro’s 1440 x 900 (or 1680 x 1050), it’s a vastly improved visual experience.

But that isn’t all that matters with gaming performance. At full resolution and maxed out settings (shadows, physics, etc.), we jumped between 15 and 20 frames per second — just barely playable at most times, but on higher difficulties that’ll prove aggravating. If you want to keep all the settings on max, jumping down to 1680 x 1050 (same as standard MacBook Pro) gave us a consistent 30FPS and is still very playable. But let’s be honest, if you’re buying this laptop, you’re wanting to push the upper limit of resolution more than anything.

As for the more slow-paced Civilization V, if you can read the small-but-very-legible text, playing max resolution is great. On the other end of the spectrum, the twitch-puzzle-shooter Portal 2 recommended a much smaller 1280 x 800 resolution for smooth 60FPS — but so long as we didn’t try to tweak the Advanced Video effects (which all but grinds the game to a halt), with 2880 x 1800 the game would still be consistently in the 50FPS range with only the occasional minor stutters. And Blizzard’s other tentpole series, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, clocks in at around 23FPS with full resolution and “extreme” settings — it drops during big battles, though. You can hit 60FPS by either dropping settings to “low” (keeping full resolution) or by dropping resolution to 1680 x 1050 (keeping “extreme” settings).

Battery life, noise, and heat

The MacBook Pro with Retina display has a built-in 95-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery — the biggest in Apple’s portable lineup (the runner-up is 15-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro with 77.5Wh). Despite the larger battery, Apple estimates 7 hours of wireless web use — same as all other 2012 MacBooks, except for the 11-inch Air — and 30 days standby time.

Using our own battery test, which visits a series of web sites and loads images with brightness set at 65 percent, the 2.3GHz system lasted five hours and eight minutes. It’s good for a laptop this powerful but only about average for Apple’s lineup.

As for the heat and fan volume, per a suggestion from Marco Arment (Instapaper creator and friend of The Verge), we ran CPUTest for 12 minutes to see just how loud and hot we could get the machine. There’s good news and bad news: while the fan was surprisingly quiet — even in an apartment with closed windows and some light traffic and rain outside, I could barely hear it — the heat was in the ballpark of what we’d expect from our personal 2011 MacBook Pro. Which is to say, hot — particularly the metal rim around the ‘U’ key, which is about where the processor rests internally. It’s hard to touch for more than a few seconds.

Price and configuration

Over the last week since Apple first announced the MacBook Pro with Retina display, we’ve gotten one question more than anything else: is this worth the $400 premium? The standard MacBook Pro has a $1,799 base price, while the Retina model starts at $2,199. At its WWDC 2012 unveiling, Apple itself touted the laptop as its flagship.

In terms of specs alone, what it really comes down to is your desire to go solid-state over the cheaper HDD option. Trying to match processor, RAM, and storage, the standard MacBook Pro comes out to be at least $200 more than its Retina counterpart. Conversely, opting for a 1TB HDD will save you $500.

None of that, of course, takes into account the fact that you’re getting a screen with four times the resolution in a smaller, lighter form factor — losing a disc drive and Ethernet port in the process. Personally, we’re smitten with solid-state storage, so choosing the Retina over the Pro makes a lot of sense to us.

Wrap-up

Regardless of your feelings towards Apple generally or the new generation MacBook Pro with Retina display specifically, it’s more or less a certainty that laptops all over are about to make a strong push for high-resolution displays. And that’s good for everyone involved — not only does it drive a hardware industry forward, but hopefully it pushes software developers, too. The more high-resolution screens on the market, the more websites and applications that will be optimized for it.

But back to this particular machine: should you buy the new MacBook Pro with Retina display over the standard Pro? Like we said above, it really comes down to whether or not you value solid-state storage over traditional HDD or the value of a higher-resolution display. For us, it’s the Retina display for sure — the only way we’d recommend a standard 15-inch Pro right now is if you have a strict sub-$1,800 budget or really value the extra HDD storage space or DVDs.

Looking to the future, it’s clear the standard MacBook Pro is nearing the end. The company has historically had no romantic inclination towards what it views are legacy components. OS 9, FireWire 400 and 800, disc drives, HDD, and the original MagSafe have all fallen under (or are falling under) Cupertino’s “scorched earth” philosophy, increasingly marginalized until they’re stricken from the lineup altogether. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is already a decent value in its first generation — for an Apple computer, anyhow — and as with the MacBook Air, we expect later generations will become more compelling in price.

If you’re in the market for a premium OS X laptop right now, it’s hard not to recommend the new MacBook Pro with Retina display. If, however, power isn’t your ultimate goal, may we suggest shaving a few pounds and specs for the MacBook Air. As for everything in between, those non-Retina “standard” MacBook Pros, well... the writing’s on the wall. And of course, it doesn’t hurt to be even a little bit patient and wait for more apps to push Retina-optimized updates — if you get the MacBook Pro with Retina display now, you’ll be waiting on the world to change.

Got questions about the MacBook Pro with Retina display? Come ask us in the forums!

This article was originally published on theverge.com - MacBook Pro with Retina display review (15-inch)

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