MacBook Pro: 15-inch Retina screen is revolutionary

Apple's top-end laptop makes a big leap with new display technology

As the old saying goes: Seeing is believing.

Having used Apple's newest 15-in. MacBook Pro -- the slimmed-down version with the super-high-resolution Retina display -- for several days now, I'm a believer.

The now-top-end MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,199, represents a serious leap forward in screen technology. Words don't really do the 2880-x-1800-pixel screen justice, but let me try. It's stunning, amazing, unparalleled, hyper-sharp, crystal clear, film-like, bright, saturated, radical and mind-blowing.

If you've seen an iPhone's 3.5-in. screen in the last two years or the new iPad's 9.7-in. one, you have a good idea of what the MacBook Pro screen looks like. Only it's much, much larger. That makes this more than an evolutionary laptop update; it's a revolutionary change.

Oh, and the rest of the hardware is nothing to sneeze at either, given that there's no hard drive -- the storage is a flash-based solid-state drive (SSD) -- and the processor is the latest Intel Core i7 processor. The combination makes for an extremely fast laptop.

Think of it this way: If a 17-in. MacBook Pro (now discontinued) mated with a MacBook Air, this would be the offspring, offering up the best of its parents' abilities and the blow-your-eyes-away Retina display.

The MacBook Pro line-up

The $2,199 Retina model comes with a healthy 8GB of RAM (which you can double for another $200); a 256GB SSD; the aforementioned Core i7 chip running at 2.3GHz; an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip for day-to-day graphics needs and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics chip with 1GB of video RAM for more intense uses like video work and gaming (or running three external monitors). It also offers two high-speed Thunderbolt ports; two USB 2.0/3.0 ports, one on each side; an SDXC card slot and an HDMI port, which makes it easy to connect to your home entertainment system.

There's a catch, though. If you need more than 256GB of storage, you'll have to buy the pricier $2,799 MacBook Pro, which also offers a faster 2.6GHz i7 chip. That particular model, the same one Apple provided for this review, has 512GB of SSD storage. You can bump the processor to 2.7GHz for $250 (not necessary, in my book) and/or increase the storage to a 768GB SSD for $500 (really stretching the budget). And if you just won the lottery, you can check the option list for 16GB of RAM and spend another $200.

Cost out the door for the ultimate MacBook Pro? A mere $3,749.

For the more budget-conscious, the "basic" model should more than serve your needs, as long as you're judicious about how many movies, music files, photos and documents you need to keep on hand at any given moment. (I've been using a 17-in. MacBook Pro with a 256GB SSD for a couple of years now and still have room left.) This is where being able to store files in the cloud, whether through Apple's iCloud sync-and-storage service or a third-party operation, comes in handy.

If you liked the old, chunkier 15-in. MacBook Pro and just want a faster processor and more storage options, the 2.3GHz Core i7 version goes for $1,799, and the 2.6GHz model sells for $2,199. More importantly, on those models you can still upgrade the storage and RAM yourself. (More about this expandability issue below.)

But if I were about to spend $2,199 and had to choose between the two MacBook Pros -- one with Retina display, one without -- I'd figure out a way to make the Retina version work. It's lighter, thinner, and it has that stunning screen.

The Retina display

In case you're wondering, a 2880-x-1800-pixel screen has more than 5 million pixels. That's more than you're looking at on the 27-in. iMac or even a high-end HDTV -- and when you pack those pixels into a 15-in. display, you get a level of sharpness and seriously rich color saturation heretofore unseen.

As soon as this MacBook Pro arrived, a co-worker called up photos from a recent trip to Greece. We both marveled at how good they looked, particularly given the subtle vibrancy of the colors. The same is true when viewing high-definition videos. Video looks as luscious as film. And text is impossibly sharp in text documents.

Best of all, you have a choice of resolutions, depending on how strong your eyes are and how big or small you want on-screen elements to look. The standard resolution out of the box is 1440-x-900 pixels, the same as other 15-in. MacBook Pros. But apps that haven't been updated to take advantage of the new technology can look a little pixelated at that resolution, especially with text.

Since I love, love, love higher resolutions, I immediately switched to the highest available: 1920-x-1200 pixels, the same as on my 17-in. MacBook Pro. At that resolution, everything looks sharp, whether the app has been updated or not. Yes, menu bars and screen icons get a little smaller, but the trade-off is worth it.

You can also drop the resolution to 1024 x 768 pixels, or 1280 x 800, which could be useful for someone with impaired vision, since doing so makes everything on the screen larger. All of the resolution options are detailed in the Displays preference pane; pick the one you want and the change takes about a second, no logging out or restarting required.

One resolution not readily available, ironically enough, is 2880 x 1800. It can be done, if you want to download a third-party utility and run it. (Switching back to an Apple-supported resolution is as easy as opening the Display preferences pane and choosing one of the options there.) But on-screen icons and text are awfully small at that resolution.

Although Apple markets this screen as a Retina display -- its term for a screen where your eye can't discern individual pixels -- the pixels-per-inch (ppi) count is actually lower than the screens on the iPhone and the new iPad. The MacBook Pro Retina display offers 220ppi; the iPad, which was unveiled in March, delivers 264ppi; and the iPhone packs those pixels in the tightest, with 326ppi. Since you tend to view a laptop or tablet from further away than the iPhone, the difference isn't noticeable.

The new display also shows less glare than before, which is important if you're outdoors or in an office with bright overhead lights or sunny windows.

Other changes

One thing that's missing: the optical drive. Ever since Apple unveiled the first MacBook Air in 2008 sans a built-in drive, it seemed natural that the company would eventually follow suit with its other laptops. I'm surprised Apple waited this long. So don't be surprised if other MacBook Pros are similarly downsized over the next year or two, shedding not only the drive, but the weight. This particular model weighs less than 4.5 pounds and is noticeably thinner than past models.

New 15-in. MacBook Pro on top of discontinued 17-in. MacBook Pro

The 15-in. MacBook Pro (top) is noticeably thinner than the now-discontinued 17-in. version. It is also now the top-end MacBook Pro in the line-up.

(If you're someone who burns CDs and DVDs, you can get an external drive for $79 that connects via USB. You can also opt for a non-Retina-display MacBook Pro, which got a speed bump in the latest update, but retains the optical drive and weighs in at 5.6 pounds.)

In fact, by dumping the optical drive, Apple was apple to make the MacBook Pro just 0.71 inches thick -- about the same as the MacBook Air at its widest point. The lighter weight is obvious as soon as you pick it up; it's like picking up an Air, though it doesn't taper at the front edge like the Air. With the lid closed, it looks like an earlier 15-in. MacBook Pro that's been run over by a steamroller.

Surprisingly, the keyboard (lighted, as before) feels firmer than those on earlier models, and the brushed aluminum chassis feels even more solid.

Other changes -- some obvious, others less so -- include:

  • Two Thunderbolt ports, which effectively replace the now-discarded FireWire 800 port and the Ethernet port; adapters are supposed to be available this month if you have older FireWire peripherals or need to use an Ethernet cable.

  • A new and thinner MagSafe 2 magnetic power port (which means, of course, that older cords won't work with this one).

  • A non-user-replaceable 95 watt-hour battery that Apple says should hold a charge for seven hours. If you look at the internal photo of the MacBook Pro posted by Apple (see below), you can see how much space the battery takes up. I didn't get seven hours on battery power when testing this model. Doing a combination of light word processing and Web surfing over Wi-Fi, I got just under five hours before needing a charge (though I did have the brightness all the way up). Your mileage will vary.

  • A relocated power button -- it's now part of the keyboard where the no-longer-needed eject key used to be -- and a tweaked bottom chassis, which now incorporates numerous slots for better ventilation and cooling.

A few words about speed

Not long ago, every computer manufacturer (and owner) used processor speed for bragging rights about who had the fastest hardware. But with the advent of multi-core chips, outright GHz measurements have faded as an absolute benchmark. Don't get me wrong; new owners still run tests to see how new processors compare to their predecessors. But processing speed is only part of the equation, and as dual-core processors have given way to quad-core chips -- chips that can now offer virtual cores and hyperthreading -- apples-to-apples comparisons are even more nuanced.

In particular, the move to flash memory for storage has had a major impact on how fast modern computers are. This is certainly true of the new MacBook Pro.

To get an idea for how this laptop stacks up, I used two different benchmarking apps, one to stress the 2.6GHz processor, the other to test the read/write speeds of the 512GB SSD. Both yielded noteworthy numbers, especially the SSD.

Using Geekbench to test the Core i7 processor, I found that the MacBook Pro turned out a score of 12030. That score represents several benchmarks rolled into one: processor integer and floating point performance, as well as memory and memory bandwidth. (For comparison purposes, my 2011 MacBook Pro has a Core i7 running at 2.2GHz and returned a score of 10128.)

I was even more impressed with the performance of the flash storage. Using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, I tested the I/O speeds of the on-board SSD, which is connected directly to the MacBook Pro's motherboard. Since it doesn't face any kind of SATA bottleneck, the read/write speeds I saw were almost double those of a typical consumer SSD. Where consumer drives tend to produce I/O speeds of 200 to 250MBps, this MacBook Pro delivered a write speed of 400MBps and a read speed of 448MBps.

That explains the fast boot-up time (nine seconds from start-up chime to desktop) and the virtually instant wake-from-sleep when you lift the MacBook Pro lid. (Again, for comparison purposes, the aftermarket Intel SSD in my own MacBook Pro could do no better than read speeds of 280MBps and write speeds of 163MBps.)

Expandability concerns and buying advice

Shortly after Apple unveiled the Retina MacBook Pro, hardware repair firm iFixit pronounced it the "least repairable" laptop ever. Ouch. The reason: This model can't be upgraded. You can't add a new hard drive or even boost the RAM once you buy it. Apple used non-standard screws and even glue to put it together, meaning companies like iFixit or users are dependent on Apple to fix anything that goes wrong.

Apple clearly wants owners to view their laptops not as a starting point for future upgrades, but as an intact appliance -- albeit a stylish and powerful one -- that needs no improvement. In the same way you don't open up a new DVD player and start tweaking the internal hardware, you can't do that with your new laptop.

Many buyers won't care; but for the geekier set, this could be a showstopper. Heck, I added the SSD in my own 17-in. MacBook Pro and doubled the RAM to 8GB. However, concerns about upgrades wouldn't stop me from buying this new laptop any more than it would stop me from getting an iPad or iPhone.

It's certainly a paradigm shift, and Mac fans have already protested loudly on various message boards. My advice: Get used to the change. Apple seems to be moving in this direction and will almost certainly do the same thing with its other laptops.

With that in mind, you'll need to be extra cautious when choosing your hardware. If you think you'll need more than 256GB of storage -- the only amount offered in the $2,199 model -- you'll need to consider the pricier MacBook Pro. Think you'll want 16GB of RAM in a couple of years? Better get it now when you order (though I expect 8GB is more than enough for the foreseeable future).

So should you buy this laptop? If you're interested in embracing the future of display technology, then yes. Apple has taken a giant leap forward with the Retina display -- and it's your only option if you want 1920-x-1200-pixel resolution. (The 17-in. model is no more.)

However, if you're a hardware-upgrade fan, then no. You'll likely be happier with a non-Retina MacBook Pro. But even that is likely to be simply a holding maneuver, given the direction Apple is taking.

The good news? You have time to decide. The Retina MacBook Pros sold out so quickly that there's currently a three- to four-week shipping delay. That alone indicates just how popular this model is likely to be.

Ken Mingis is Managing Editor, News at Computerworld and also oversees the site's Macintosh Knowledge Center. His e-mail address is kmingis@computerworld.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmingis or subscribe to Ken's RSS feeds:

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