Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Product categories come and go, grow and wither, revolutionize the world and then slowly fade into a state of cold, quiet, everlasting obsolescence. It happens all the time, sometimes over the course of just a year or two (see: netbooks) and, while companies have made billions by establishing truly new categories, rarely has anybody rocked the world by splitting the difference between two very closely aligned ones.

That's exactly what Apple is trying to do here. The company's MacBook Pro line is one of the most respected in the industry for those who need an ostensibly professional laptop. Meanwhile, the MacBook Air is among the best (if not conclusively the best) thin-and-light laptops on the market. Now, a new player enters the fray: the MacBook Pro with Retina display. It cleanly slides in between these two top-shelf products, while trying to be simultaneously serious and fast, yet slim and light. Is this, then, a laptop that's all things to all people, the "best Mac ever" as it was called repeatedly in the keynote? Or, is it more of a compromised, misguided attempt at demanding too much from one product? Let's find out.

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Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review (mid 2012)

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Apple

MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012)

Pros

  • Beautiful Retina display
  • Thinner and lighter than previous Pros
  • World-class performance
  • Improved battery life

Cons

  • Expensive
  • MagSafe 2 connector requires an adapter
Summary

The MacBook Pro with Retina display is a top-shelf laptop with a world-class display. It isn't cheap, but it's worth it.

Hardware

When physically placed between the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 15-inch Pro, it's clear that this new guy (who, for now, is simply called "MacBook Pro with Retina display") leans far toward the latter when it comes to design. With both closed, at a quick glance you would almost not notice there's anything different between this new Pro and the also-new-but-yet-old one. Still, it doesn't take long to spot the thinness -- or the lack of the slot-loading optical drive on the right.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

That thickness measures in at 0.71 inches (1.8cm) while the width is 14.13 inches (35.89cm) and the depth is 9.73 inches (24.71cm). Those figures compare quite favorably to the old 15-incher (at 0.95 inches thick) and it's very nearly as thin as the Air, which is 0.68 inches at its thickest. Weight? A healthy 4.46 pounds (2.02kg). That's just over a pound less than the full-sized MacBook Pro and about 1.5 pounds more than the 13-inch Air.

The new Pro feels considerably heavier than the Air and not that much lighter than the old Pro.

That may sound like an even split between the two sister models, but in reality the new Pro feels considerably heavier than the Air and not that much lighter than the old Pro. That said, much of this depends on where you're coming from. If you're an Air user, carrying this around is going to feel burdensome. However, if your regular daily driver is a current 15-inch Pro (or, heaven forbid, a 17-incher), the new Pro could feel like a refreshing reduction in curb weight. And, with even more resolution and performance than the outgoing 17 inch model, we think this new model makes for a more than compelling alternative.

In exchange for your pack getting a little lighter, you're not being asked to give up all that much. Yes, the optical drive is the most obvious omission, the only physical media you'll be supporting here is the SD slot located conveniently on the right. The lack of ROM support helps this new model be as thin as it is -- and provides room for the extra batteries needed to keep that Retina display brightly and brilliantly backlit.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Also gone is the Ethernet port, replaced by a Thunderbolt adapter that is not included with the laptop. (It'll cost you $29.99.) Likewise, the FireWire 800 port has been removed, replaced by a separate Thunderbolt adapter. Leaving all those things behind will be difficult, but stay strong, road warrior, because the new Pro is there to help, supporting your love of modern standards with two USB 3.0 ports and two Thunderbolt ports. (Interestingly, Apple chose not to make the USB ports blue, as they're both 3.0 and, therefore, there was no need to differentiate.) Inside is an 802.11n radio providing some of the fastest wireless connectivity available, but there's no option for 3G/LTE broadband. Those who want to roam past the confines of a hotspot will have to bring their own modems.

There's the now-standard single headphone jack on the left side and the soon-to-be-standard MagSafe 2 connector. This new connector is a few millimeters shorter than the old one and a few millimeters wider. Apple says this is needed because of the laptop's thinner profile and, indeed, the new Airs also make the change to MagSafe 2. But, since the old Airs got by just fine with the slightly chubbier connector, and since there's still plenty of room for the relatively massive USB ports, we're just not seeing the need for a redesign right now.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Where the last design will grab and hold the end of whatever USB cable you pointed its way, the new MagSafe wants nothing to do with them.
Whatever the reason, all those scratched-up, white, plastic power bricks you've accumulated over the years won't work here -- at least, not without a $10 adapter. That's a bummer, but there is some good news: the new MagSafe is no longer the same size as a USB port. Where the last design would grab and hold the end of whatever USB cable you pointed its way, the new MagSafe wants nothing to do with them. That, at least, is some true progress.

Settled between all these ports and interconnects is the keyboard, which hasn't really changed from the current Pro. That's a good thing. Apple has shown itself extremely proficient in crafting fine, island-style keyboards on its portable machines, and neither that layout nor feel has changed with the new Pro. Well-weighted and nicely spaced keys make for a great typing experience -- even in the dark, thanks to the backlighting.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

On either side of the keyboard are the speakers, said to be louder and more effective than those in the previous Pro. We didn't notice a huge change here, but they're certainly more than capable of turning your hotel room into an impromptu dance party -- albeit one without too much bass. Beneath it all lies the glass trackpad, which feels just like it always has: really good. MacBooks have the best touch experience in the business, hands down, and this latest one is no different.

Display

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Sure, it's a quarter thinner and lighter than before, but the real story with this new laptop has nothing to do with external dimensions and everything to do with internal density. Pixel density, to be specific, a figure measured at 220 ppi. That's far lower than the 326 ppi the iPhone 4 delivered when it introduced the world to Retina and, indeed, the 264 ppi rating on the new iPad.

The new display is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

But, held at the appropriate distance, this new panel is said to meet the mystical requirement to be labeled "Retina" and, while that threshold for pixel-invisibility seems to be slinking lower, we're not here to be cynics. We just know one thing: the new display is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Text is incredibly sharp and clear, 1080p video is amazing and images, of course, look great -- when they're of a high enough resolution to do this 2880 x 1800 panel justice.

Curiously, you can't actually select that resolution in the OS any longer. Where on other Macs you can explicitly select what display resolution you'd like to use (optionally going lower than the native resolution of the panel), here we have a slider with five positions ranging from "larger text" to "more space." In the middle sits "best" which presents apps, icons and text in roughly the same size as you'd find them on a non-Retina display -- rendered in a higher resolution. It's perhaps more friendly for novice users, but remember: this is a laptop with the word "Pro" in the name.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Let's not ignore the fact that this new display has much more to offer than just additional pixels. Viewing angles are expanded compared to Apple's other high-end displays, so the annoying drop in contrast that happens from odd vantage points is all but abolished. Contrast, too, is boosted and, interestingly, glare reduced. Yes, this is still a glossy display and no, there still isn't an option for matte glass. But, Apple promises a reduction in glare here from previous Pros.

Indeed, this laptop does have less glare than the thicker Pros, but it's no better than the current Air, which already takes advantage of the new, reflection-reducing construction. You might, then, want to turn off that lamp behind you.

Performance and battery life

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display mid2012 review

We tested both the base 2.3GHz and higher-spec 2.6GHz quad-core Ivy Bridge CPUs that are on offer (there's an even faster 2.7GHz build-to-order model for another $250), and neither disappointed. In fact, you'd have to be a seriously jaded desktop user to want more oomph from your on-the-go machine. The new MacBook Pro handled absolutely everything we could throw at it and did so with aplomb. General productivity tools fly and more... intensive things run impressively well.

The SSD delivered write speeds hovering around 390MB/s and read speeds topping out at 440MB/s. That's properly fast.

We ran all the major benchmarks and saw some big, big numbers. For the 2.6GHz model, Geekbench gave us an average of 11,591 -- that crushes the 9,647 we scored with the last MacBook Pro, which is itself far from sluggish. The new 2.3GHz model wasn't far behind with a score of 11,082. Xbench was similarly close: 486 for the higher-spec'd model, and 457 for the lower. Finally, the SSD delivered write speeds hovering around 390MB/s and reads topping out at 440MB/s. That's properly fast.

MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.6GHz Core i7) MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.3GHz Core i7) MacBook Pro (early 2011, 2.2GHz Core i7) MacBook Pro (early 2010, 2.66GHz Core i7)
Geekbench 11,591 11,082 9,647 5,395
Xbench 486 457 340 228
Battery Life 7:49 9:22 7:27 5:18

Paired with those quad-core chips is 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M Kepler unit with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. Also on tap is integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, the hotter of the two GPUs toggle on when the situation demands. To create such a scenario, we installed one of the hottest games of the moment, Diablo III, and cranked it up to full resolution and full graphical details. We did, however, make one exception: anti-aliasing. When you're running at 2880 x 1800, there's no real need.

We were quite happily surprised to see the frame rate hovering between 25 and 30 fps as we explored a few towns and crawled a few dungeons -- perfectly playable at an obscene resolution. Turning it down to something a little more reasonable, 2048 x 1280, netted 40 to 45 fps and running at a relatively mundane 1280 x 800 delivered frame rates over 70. This, then, is a quite passable gaming machine.

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Still, it only took a few minutes of hacking and slashing to get the bottom of this unit warm, and then noticeably hot. That, of course, caused the redesigned fan system to pop on, which draws in air from a pair of vents on the left and right sides of the bottom of the chassis and blows it out through the hinge. It's been optimized to create a less obnoxious sort of whirring noise. Indeed it's a subtle and unobtrusive white kind of sound, but it's definitely not silent. In fact, the fan doesn't sound particularly different than that on the current MacBook Air, though a few decibels less obtrusive. Still, you'll always know when your system is really cranking.

Despite all that performance, we were still impressed by the battery life. In our standard rundown test, which involves looping a video with WiFi on and the display set at a fixed brightness, we netted an impressive seven hours and 49 minutes on the 2.6GHz model. The 2.3GHz model lasted an average of nine hours and 22 minutes -- a runtime so long we at first thought it was a fluke. After repeated runs, though, we kept turning up similar results.

Software

Right now, the new MacBook Pro is running Lion, but buy yours now, and you'll find a free upgrade to Mountain Lion in your inbox. We already know quite a bit about Mountain Lion, which is, as of this writing, about a month away from launch. But what we didn't know was the high-resolution support needed for these Retina displays. As of now, that support is sadly far from pervasive.

Right now, seemingly every third-party app on the Mac looks terrible.

The primary Apple apps -- Safari, Mail, the address book, etc. -- have all been tweaked to make use of all these wonderful pixels. Sadly, little else has. While we got assurances that third-party apps like Adobe Photoshop and AutoCAD are in the process of being refined, right now, seemingly every third-party app on the Mac looks terrible.

Yes, terrible. Unlike a PC, where getting a higher-res display just means tinier buttons to click on, here OS X is actively scaling things up so that they maintain their size. This means that non-optimized apps, which would otherwise be displayed as tiny things, instead are displayed in their normal physical dimensions with blurry, muddy edges. You do have some control over this scaling, with five separate grades to choose from, but none will make these classic apps look truly good. At least, not until their developers release the updates they're no doubt frantically working on at this very moment.

Take Google Chrome, for example. You might forgive the buttons and UI elements for being ugly, but even the text rendered on webpages is blurry and distorted. It's bad enough that you won't want to use Google's browser until it's updated, which will surely leave some cynics wondering if indeed this isn't a ploy to get folks to spend a little more quality time with Safari. Good thing Safari's about ready for its own update.

Configuration options

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

The Retina display MBP starts at a lofty $2,199. For the money, you'll get a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, seven-hour battery and dual graphics -- Intel's integrated HD 4000 and NVIDIA's Kepler-based GeForce GT650M, paired with 1GB of video memory. Of course, the three-year Apple Care Warranty is sold separately, for $349.

If money is no object, you can select the highest-tier model for $2,799. Though this has the same battery, graphics and 8GB of RAM, it steps up to a 2.6GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, and doubles the storage capacity to 512GB. Not impressed? You can upgrade further to a 2.7GHz CPU for $250 or select 16GB of RAM, to the tune of $200. You can also max out with a 768GB SSD, provided you're willing to part with an additional $500. For those keeping track at home, that brings the outside cost to $4,098, the extended warranty included.

Disappointingly, you can't add the higher-capacity SSD to the lower-spec CPU. And, since the storage is proprietary, swapping in your own will not be a particularly easy task. If you want more than 256GB of storage, you'll just have to step up to the 2.6GHz model.

The competition

DNP Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

You say you're looking for a laptop with a 15-inch screen, top-notch build quality and a pinch-thin frame? Fortunately for those of you who feel paralyzed by choice, that criteria whittles down your options to two notebooks, tops. The only other contender we can think of is the 15-inch Samsung Series 9, which starts at a more palatable $1,500. At 3.5 pounds and 0.58 inches deep, it's barely thicker than the 13-inch version, which is saying a lot, since that's one of the thinnest Ultrabooks in its own right.

The 15-inch Series 9 is far skinnier and lighter than the MacBook Pro, then, but it matches the MBP in build quality, thanks to a rock-solid unibody aluminum chassis and some funky aquamarine keyboard backlights. Ultimately, too, both deserve to be handled with kid gloves: whichever machine you choose, you'll find the smooth metal finish is quite vulnerable to scratches and greasy fingerprint smudges.

It's with the display that the MacBook Pro starts to justify its higher starting price. On its own, the Series 9's matte, 400-nit 1600 x 900 panel is still worlds better than what you'll find on most laptops. Certainly, it's a triumph for Ultrabooks, which tend to get saddled with subpar displays, even on higher-end machines. Still, the Series 9's SuperBright Plus screen can't compete with the MBP's tightly woven pixels and wide, wide viewing angles. On the inside, too, the new MacBook Pro offers potentially better specs, with options for twice the RAM and a more spacious 768GB solid-state drive. It's also offered with multiple Core i7 processor options, whereas the Series 9 is only available with Core i5, and with integrated graphics only.

These unflattering comparisons aside, the 15-inch Series 9 is still one of our favorite Windows machines -- heck, one of our favorite laptops, even. It remains a sterling choice for Windows fans, or anyone who's willing to spend $1,500 on a notebook, but not $2,200-plus. The two are also well matched when it comes to battery life: the difference in runtime is only about 20 minutes. Even so, if the Retina display MBP is aimed at people who demand the very best, it sweeps at least two key categories: specs and display quality.

If it's discrete graphics you're really after, we also recommend checking out the HP Envy 15, which starts at $1,350 (not counting promotions) and can be configured with Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 CPUs, a 1GB Radeon HD 7750 GPU, up to 16GB of RAM and either an SSD or spinning hard drive (storage options max out at 300GB and 1TB, respectively). Here, too, you'll find a better display than most laptops have to offer, though the IPS-quality Radiance panel has noted color calibration issues, and the 1080p resolution is still no match for the Retina display.

Wrap-up

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review mid 2012

Is this the best Mac ever? You can't ignore the Air as an amazing piece of machinery, especially with the new, higher-powered Ivy Bridge processors and faster SSDs tucked inside its wedge profile. But, this new Pro is on another level of performance. With a quad-core processor and up to 16GB of RAM it's a proper beast -- a proper beast that you can throw in your messenger bag and carry around all day without spending all night complaining about an aching back.

That said, this is not exactly a small machine, heavy enough that those happy Air users who've been feeling tempted might want to take a swing by their closest Apple Store and lift one themselves. It's expensive, too. If you want a machine with enough storage to keep up with all that processing and gaming power you'll be looking at a price of $2,800 -- and that assumes you can resist all the upgrades.

So, then, is this a laptop that's creating its own new product category? Not exactly. This is a laptop that stands poised to kill an existing one, one that Apple has dominated. The new Pro is good enough to make the old Pro (even the updated version) look and feel obsolete. It pushes and redefines the category, raising the bar higher than even its brethren can jump. If you can afford the premium and aren't set on a 13-inch model there's no reason to buy any Pro other than this Pro.

Zach Honig and Dana Wollman contributed to this review.

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Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review (mid 2012)