Apple's Retina display technology has finally crossed over from the iOS world and made its way onto a Mac. I spent a few days with Apple's latest and greatest portable computer and explored all of the new features. Read on for my full review.
When you first see the new 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display you won't initially notice a huge cosmetic difference between it and previous 15" models. It is slightly slimmer and the screen bezel itself is distinctive, but the familiar silver aluminum unibody design is still there along with the standard chiclet keyboard and the machined speaker grills.
|SDXC card reader, HDMI port, and another USB 3.0 port|
|The new MagSafe 2 connector|
|The cooling system intake vents are cleverly hidden under the side edges|
|The cooling system output vents stretch along the entire hinge edge|
|The new power button placement|
What's new inside
Inside the 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display is your choice of three quad-core Intel Ivy Bridge i7 processors (2.3GHz, 2.6GHz, or 2.7GHz). All models come standard with solid-state drives in sizes ranging from 256GB all the way up to 768GB. Your RAM choices are either 8GB or 16GB.
Of course the star of the show is the Retina display panel which comes in at a whopping 2880x1800 resolution. Driving the display on all models is the NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of DDR5 memory. When you aren't needing the rendering power of the discrete graphics chipset the system switches to the new Intel Graphics 4000 HD integrated graphics set for better power management.
The 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display is offered in two default setups. The first comes with a 2.3GHz processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid-state drive and sells for $2,199. The second setup bumps the processor up to 2.6GHz and the drive up to 512GB and sells for a wallet-hurting $2,799. The RAM on either setup can be increased to 16GB for an extra $200 through a build-to-order option. Additionally, on the higher end model you can increase the drive size to 768GB for a steep $500 additional and can bump the processor up to 2.7GHz for $250.
There's no arguing that all configurations of this system are expensive, but if you were to max out the system with the 2.7GHz processor, 16GB of RAM, and the 768GB drive you are looking at a sky-high $3,749.
The kicker with these configuration options is that the system has no user upgradable parts. The solid-state drive is an Apple proprietary design and the RAM is actually soldered into the system. You can't go back later and decide you want more storage space or more RAM. Whatever you buy on Day One is what you're stuck with.
The Retina display
So what's the deal with the new Retina display? In order to understand how the Retina screen behaves on the new MacBook Pro we need to review what Apple does when it implements the Retina technology on a device.
Essentially, when a Retina display rolls out to a device (such as the iPhone 4 and the third-generation iPad) Apple doubles both the number of horizontal pixels and the number of vertical pixels while leaving the physical display the same size. Normally this would result in four times as much usable space on the screen, but then of course all of the user interface elements would be four times smaller and harder to see. To compensate for this Apple creates high resolution versions of all of the user interface elements, icons, etc. Basically each element is recreated at four times its original size so that when it's displayed on the Retina display it appears the same size as it did on the non-Retina panel. The difference being that everything appears much sharper since there are really four times as many pixels at work.
|The screen at the default 1440x900 view|
The flip side of this setup is that any programs that have not been optimized to use the Retina display will actually be automatically upscaled by the system (in order to prevent them from appearing very small). This results in many programs and graphics appearing a bit grainy or fuzzy, similar to what you see when you switch back to non-HD channels on your HD TV. Each original pixel from the non-optimized program is being upscaled to take up four pixels on the Retina display.
|The screen in 1680x1050 mode|
In use the system is a speed demon, which is to be expected when you are running the latest processors coupled with high speed RAM and a solid-state drive. The addition of the USB 3.0 ports really makes file transfers from external hard drives scream. Pretty much all tasks are faster than before on this new system. It is safe to say, as usual with Apple, that the system is very well engineered to the point where even the parts that are hidden inside are a work of art in the way that they are precisely designed and manufactured. With that said, the really distinct difference compared to earlier models is of course the Retina screen.
I'll just come right out and say it, I'm not sold on the new Retina screen on this system. Yes I love the the Retina displays on the iPhone and iPad, but that's because I have never used an iPhone or iPad that had more usable screen. The difference between the MacBook Pro Retina display and the Retina displays of the iPhone and iPad is that this same size screen, 15", has already been offered, and is still offered, by Apple on the MacBook Pro at higher "usable" resolutions.
For instance, you can still today purchase the non-Retina 15" MacBook Pro with a 1680x1050 display. This non-Retina display actually gives you more working space compared to the 1440x900 space that you get with the Retina model. Personally I would rather have more working space even if I don't get the increased clarity of the Retina-level graphics. It can be argued that on the Retina model you can always switch the graphics mode to provide the same 1680x1050 working area, or an even larger 1920x1200 working area, but doing this, in Apple's own words, "may affect performance". Further, if you just set the Retina display to a non-Retina resolution you are pretty much wasting the more expensive display.
The screen is definitely nice, but I honestly don't see a compelling reason to choose it over a non-Retina display that gives you more working space, especially given the high cost and the non-existent upgrade options. To top it off the Retina display only comes in the glossy variety similar to the MacBook Air without the option for an anti-glare version. Reflections are everywhere unless you are sitting in a dark room.
The 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display is undoubtably an incredible system, both in performance and engineering. Apple has delivered another stellar product that is currently unmatched by its competitors. However, in its current form this system simply does not offer enough bang for the buck. To compound this Apple simultaneously rolled out a fully updated non-Retina display model, which offers almost identical specs (plus a few items that aren't even options on the Retina model) for hundreds of dollars less.
As a comparison let's look at the non-Retina 15" model with the same 2.6GHz processor found in the high end Retina model. It comes with the same 8GB of RAM but it can be easily user upgraded in the future to 16GB. It comes with USB 3.0 ports, and a Thunderbolt port but also includes a Firewire 800 port, an Ethernet port, and a DVD drive. You can build it to order with the high resolution 1680x1050 anti-glare display and a 7800RPM 750GB hard drive for $2,349. Compared to the Retina display model with the same processor and same RAM you save $450 over the Retina's $2,799 price tag. The lower priced non-Retina model gets you a better usable resolution (1680x1050 vs 1440x900) and gets you more storage space (750GB vs. 512GB), albeit the Retina model's solid-state drive is much more responsive.
To break it down, you pay $450 more for sharper graphics but a smaller working area on the screen and a faster, yet smaller, drive. In the process you lose the ability to upgrade the RAM, change the drive, connect Firewire devices, or use wired network connections. You also must accept the glossy screen with all of its reflections shining back on you.
I feel as though this system is designed to look svelte sitting on a glass desk or rotating in a TV advertisement, but the reality is that Apple has made the system thinner for really no purpose other than to make it thinner. It's not extremely thin or light like the MacBook Air, and it really isn't that much lighter or easier to carry than the non-Retina MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, this unnecessary thinness is the reason that many of the extra ports and the optical drive have been dropped from the Retina model, and also why the common components such as the storage drive and RAM are not upgradeable. I would have preferred for Apple to keep the same form factor, use standard drives and RAM, and just fill any leftover unused space with bigger batteries.
SUMMARY: 15" MACBOOK PRO WITH RETINA DISPLAY
- Incredible speed from new processors and solid-state drives
- Beautiful Retina display
- USB 3.0 finally makes it to the Mac
- Sleek profile
- Extremely high price, even for Apple
- Retina display provides less working area than is available on traditional non-Retina 15" MacBook Pro
- Existing applications have to be updated (possibly at a cost to the user) in order to be optimized for the Retina display
- No way to switch the interface to use the true 2880x1800 resolution
- No way to upgrade either RAM or storage - Once you buy the system you are stuck with what it comes with
- No Firewire port
- No Ethernet port
- No DVD drive (the actual drive may not be used by many people, but at the least it provides a space to mount a second storage drive instead of the DVD drive)
- If you don't care about the Retina display Apple sells a very similar system for less money that offers more expansion options
VERDICT: I realize that this is the first of a new breed of computers from Apple, so the high prices are to be expected, but right now the high price is not justified when you can get what is arguably a better, more future-proof system for $450 less. It doesn't help that this better system comes from Apple as well and sits right next to the Retina equipped model in the store. The display is nice, but it's not that nice. I'm sure Apple has plans to convert all their systems to Retina displays in the future. Hopefully as the technology becomes more common Apple will begin to offer Retina displays that at least match their non-Retina display counterparts in usable space. Right now on the 15" MacBook Pro this would mean that the Retina display would have to handle 3360x2100 (in order to offer the same usable space as the existing 1680x1050 non-Retina model). At its current 1440x900 usable space limit the way Apple has implemented the Retina display on the 15" MacBook Pro just doesn't impress me.
BOTTOM LINE: NOT RECOMMENDED