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Sunday
Jun172012

Review: MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla

Apple’s had no shortage of revolutionary notebooks through the years. Some of the more memorable successes and true game changers have included the Titanium PowerBook G4 in 2001, the MacBook Air in 2008 and the current pinnacle of Apple design, engineering and innovation, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

Overview



More than just a bold statement of Apple’s expertise and capability as hardware maker, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display represents all the ultimate technologies available today in one single and revolutionary notebook.  

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is available through the Apple Online Store (www.apple.ca), Apple’s retail stores and Apple Authorized Resellers. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is available with a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.3 GHz, 8GB of memory and 256GB of flash storage starting at $2,229 (CAN); and with a 2.6 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.6 GHz, 8GB of memory and 512GB of flash storage starting at $2,829 (CAN). Configure-to-order options include faster quad-core processors up to 2.7 GHz, up to 16GB of memory and flash storage up to 768GB.

The new MacBook Pro is created to be so far ahead of the curve that it isn’t possible for competition to match it feature for feature and at that price point. The fact that it can run both Mac OS and Windows really makes it one of the more compelling performance-focused notebooks in the market today on any platform.

While most PC Ultrabook manufacturers are stumbling to copy 2010’s MacBook Air reference design (with varying degrees of success), the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a creation only Apple can source, fund, create, price and support. It integrates a number of features and refinements that originated in the MacBook Air as well as the iPad and iPhone.

This is the supercar of notebooks, a true performance machine designed for professionals who want the most powerful yet portable machine available and who are willing to pay the premium. Users who want the updated specs but who aren't keen on the Retina Display's price tag still have a variety of 15-inch MacBook Pros with refreshed processors, graphics and standard hard drives to choose from.

Updates galore



There is nothing incremental about popping in full-sized quad core Intel i7 processors into a wispy-thin case, or applying Retina Display technology on the largest panel (yet) as well as transitioning to an all-flash and almost-no moving parts architecture.

Apple is usually very stubborn about the ports it supports but it smartly acquiesced and added not one, but two fast USB 3.0 ports to share the I/O duties with the dual Thunderbolt ports. Then there’s the HDMI-out port, again a first for an Apple notebook and a feature that users will welcome.

As much as Apple has added, it has also shed. The Ethernet port no longer fits in the thin profile so it has been removed as has the  DVDRW optical drive and FireWire 800 is now completely gone.


All of the above can be added on by way of adaptors and add-ons but these cost extra. The MagSafe charging port has also undergone a change and is larger (and no longer compatible) with the older models but Apple has provided an optional adapter for those who want to use their old chargers with the newer MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs. Personally, I prefer the previous version of the MagSafe adapter, it wasn't as easy to dislodge as this one.

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is also one of the least user-repairable models we’ve seen. Check out iFixit’s teardown and you will see that cracking one open is not for the fainthearted. RAM has been soldered into place (so choose wisely as the RAM you get is the RAM you will have for the life of the machine) and the SSD drives are upgradeable but require a lot of work to get to. The batteries are now glued into the Aluminum chassis so only Certified Apple technicians should mess with this machine, ever.

Aside from using proprietary pentalobe Torx screws, many of the components are glued together rather than screwed into place. This makes it much more difficult to open and repair.

As a former Mac technician who has worked on various notebooks, up to last year’s MacBook Air models, I wouldn’t dare try to get into this new MacBook Pro.

Power for the Pros



Filmmakers, video editors, photographers, animators, designers and folks like myself who do a variety of design, development and content work will gravitate towards the new MacBook Pro with Retina display. 13-inch MacBook Air users who may want something larger and vastly more powerful may also see the MBP with Retina Display as a next step up.

As with anything that is in the cutting edge of technology and design, the MBP with Retina Display is expected to be in short supply for the first few weeks.

It will also only run specific Apple apps in full resolution at least until third party developers can upgrade, test and make these compatible. This means if the apps you rely and depend on aren’t in the list, you will need to make some adjustments

As someone who used a 15-inch MacBook Pro for years to design websites, manage blogs, edit videos, photos and multitask like mad, I can attest that the 15.4-inch screen and form factor really is the sweet spot.


But when the MacBook Air started sporting faster processors and better battery life (plus could be had for hundreds of dollars less),  the idea of  a “pro” notebooks was challenged.

There was a point where the MacBook Air’s all flash (with SSD drives) architecture made it faster than the MacBook Pro and the only reason to use one of these  13, 15.4 or 17 inch notebooks was hard drive and screen space and incremental leaps in performance.

The MacBook Air quickly replaced the low end MacBook and after a while was given better processors and more capabilities and they were also sexier alternatives to the bigger, heavier MacBook Pros.

The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display takes all the great innovation from the MacBook Air line yet retains all the aspects of what makes Apple’s MacBook Pro the best in creative and professional portables and raises the bar in so many ways.

User Experience



While using my Retina MacBook Pro  open on the couch or on my desk, it feels and looks just like my old 15-inch MacBook Pro. Same great keyboard and glass trackpad, same roomy case and the screen size is just superb.

It is only when you lift it and feel how light it is or when you look at the thin profile that you realize how impressive this notebook’s design really is. When you place the Retina MBP next to a regular MBP, it becomes evident how much has been reduced in terms of size and weight.

Apple has trimmed and shaved around the MacBook Pro’s iconic unibody frame. They’ve reduced layers in the glass covering the display (while reducing glare by 75 per cent) and they’ve rooted out almost all the moving parts save for the hinge and likely the two asymmetrical fans that creatively cool the top of the line Intel processors.

There’s innovation at every turn. Like the new minimalist vent design on the sides as well as the huge battery array that can churn out a claimed 7 hours of battery for web surfing.

It’s hard to believe that something so thin and portable (at 4 lbs and a 0.71 inches thin) can outperform recent iMacs and possibly some of the big, bad MacBook Pros who still rely on spindle based hard drives and slower components.

It is about precision

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is about precision. It is the culmination of Apple’s single-minded approach to making the very best and the result of their strict approach to ecosystem.

How else could you create a pro notebook deriving inspiration from an iPhone (Retina Display), a MacBook Air (thin and light enclosures, SSD, Instant On) and then manage to get the most performance out of Intel’s premium processor (our unit has the  2.6GHz quad core processor capable of up to 3.6GHz performance with the Turbo Boost feature).

Apple says that with this MacBook Pro one can simultaneously edit four streams of uncompressed 8-bit 1080p HD Video in Final Cut Pro or import thousands of RAW photos into Aperture at five times the speed of standard MacBook Pros. You can also bump up the specs even further and add up to 768GB of SSD storage.

For time critical creative work like editing digital video for a film, this speed increase can save tens of thousands of dollars in the long term. The idea that these portable systems can replace pro desktops in terms of output also changes the game for smaller production houses and independent artists who can now work almost anywhere and still achieve high quality output in less time.

I have yet to flex the MacBook Pro’s video editing muscle but will do so in a few weeks when I’ve captured video and photos from  a family vacation.

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display does get toasty. I sometimes do my best work on my bed, propped up with pillows and balancing my notebooks on my leg and find that it sometimes got uncomfortably hot, specially when playing back video. This is not unlike my old 15-inch MacBook Pro except the Retina MacBook is a lot quieter.

Retina Display



Inspired by the display of the iPhone 4 and the recent iPad,  the MacBook Pro with Retina Display features a 15.4-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit display with IPS technology; 2880-by-1800 resolution at 220 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors.

What this means is that it has 5 million pixels, 3 million more than a 1080P HDTV and the pixels are so densely packed (four times more than non Retina Display Macs) that individual pixels are invisible to the naked eye.

For professional users, for whom the MacBook Retina was designed, this means a larger canvas to work with and an even bigger picture overall.  Apple has also reduced the glare on the glass display by 70 per cent while trimming it’s thickness.


For HD video editors using Final Cut or Adobe Premiere, it means they can see the full resolution video they are editing in the small windows while having all their controls and sliders available.

As new as it is, there are quite a few apps that take advantage of the Retina Display right now which will be a consideration for the pros who are thinking of upgrading. The first application I install on any new device I use is the Google Chrome browser because it has all my bookmarks.

Chrome was fuzzy and very hard to read on the Retina Display and although once I transferred my bookmarks to Safari and used that, everything became much clearer.

If you buy a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, the only apps guaranteed to work  today with that display are Apple’s Mail, Calendar, Address Book, Safari, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, Aperture and Final Cut Pro.

This also means more time to use and get used to Apple’s native apps, a good way to keep customers tied into the ecosystem since the experience will be so much better. iWork 09 still isn’t offered in Retina Display but that should, hopefully happen soon.

Chrome, like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office and all other apps are certain to offer free Retina-capable upgrades or push out new versions but that might take time as well. So, right now I have to write articles using Google Docs on Safari to make the most out of the Retina Display’s high resolution.

So, right now, users of Aperture and Final Cut Pro can enjoy the benefits that the Retina Display offers and it makes sense for them to jump in and get one of these MacBook Pros, specially if they have been waiting for the new processors.

Other users, whose work revolves around other apps that run just fine on their current machines,  might want to wait and find out if and when those apps will work with the display before jumping in.

Just consider if you want one of these, that the Retina Display MacBook Pros have a 3-4 week wait period on orders right now. You will find limited numbers in Apple Retail Stores though.

To fully test the Retina Display, I queued up some 4K YouTube videos. 4K is the next  generation video standard that shows 4096 x 3072 resolution videos which is almost four times that of HDTV’s 1080p standard.

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display can accommodate this high resolution and while it takes time for these videos to load, the experience is quite remarkable. The cinematic quality and level of detail, colour accuracy and all the tones are simply vibrant.

Moving back to my non-retina daily driver notebook is when I feel the difference the most. Everything feels slightly washed out and dull, specially videos and high quality photos.



Conclusion

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the best notebook Apple has ever created and for the professional user, it represents a revolution in portable performance. With updated I/0 such as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, the best available Ivy Bridge Intel processors, SSD storage and up to 16GB of onboard RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics processor powering the Retina Display, nothing else comes quite close.

Yes, cutting edge technology comes at a price, $2,229 to be exact, but still less than previous generation’s flagship 17-inch MacBook Pro and substantially less than a Mac Pro desktop. Yet, this MacBook Pro is one of the most future proof notebooks in the market today. That is, if you are willing to look forward and not back.

That said, there are some issues. The new MagSafe adaptor, now redesigned to suit the thinner profile, doesn't clamp down as hard as previous versions and is easily dislodged. There's no longer any visual battery indicator (outside of the the battery icon on the screen). 

An awesome amalgam of Apple’s great innovation, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is also a promising preview of the future,  when the all-flash architecture and the Retina Display will slowly cascade down the line of products. This is also the notebook that will put a lot of distance between Apple and its competition in the pro segment.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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