Review: MacBook Pro impresses, Retina MacBook Pro dazzles

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is blazing fast, but the all-new Retina MacBook Pro is unsurpassed

Introduced in 2006, redesigned with a unibody aluminum chassis in 2009, and upgraded to quad-core CPUs in 2011, Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro has long been a go-to notebook for professionals of all stripes. Available since June, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro -- updated with Intel's latest Ivy Bridge CPUs, 1,600MHz memory, enhanced graphics, and at last, USB 3.0 -- is back on the leading edge, while its completely reengineered sibling, the MacBook Pro with Retina display, defines a new edge entirely.

The latest crown jewel of Apple's pro notebook lineup is completely new: from the ultra-high-resolution display (the highest ever on a notebook), to the MacBook Air-inspired slim chassis, all the way down to the standard, stunningly fast solid-state drive (SSD) flash storage.

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Don't let the slender case and lower weight fool you. The Retina MacBook Pro is a pro notebook through and through, squeezing the Ivy Bridge-fueled performance of the 15-inch MacBook Pro into a 4.5-pound package measuring just 0.71 inch thick. You can tell from the name that the display is literally nothing like you've ever seen, but the whole machine is an engineering marvel. The Retina MacBook Pro pushes the notebook two years into the future, and there's no early adopter tax in the price. It costs less than a comparable bundle of upgrades to 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple topped off the June upgrade to its pro notebook lineup with the July release of OS X Mountain Lion (version 10.8). I tested the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, the Retina MacBook Pro, and Mountain Lion to see how they measure up to the demanding requirements of technical and creative professionals. I used the latest tools from Adobe, Apple, Quark, Parallels, and open source, drawing media and code from large commercial projects. If you're the kind of person whose daily work pushes notebooks to the limits of performance and durability, this review is for you.

Common ground: Ivy Bridge to Mountain Lion I work-tested the base 2.3GHz configurations of 15-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina display. They're priced at $1,799 and $2,199 respectively before you add configure-to-order options. Apple's step-up models and à la carte options let you select the CPU speed, disk type (magnetic or SSD) and capacity, and RAM.

Several key new features are common to all 15-inch MacBook Pro models, with and without Retina display. The heart of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is a new Intel quad-core, Core i7 mobile CPU. This updated microarchitecture, code-named Ivy Bridge, is an engineering increment to the Sandy Bridge CPU that originally brought quad-core to the MacBook Pro. Intel designed Ivy Bridge to be a drop-in replacement for Sandy Bridge; notebook makers can use the new chip without changing anything else.

That's not how Apple rolls. Apple's deft exploitation of Ivy Bridge is pivotal to making all models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro a worthwhile upgrade for application performance alone. Even users of Core i7 Mac or PC notebooks will feel the upgrade, but if you're currently using a notebook or desktop with 1,066MHz RAM, Apple's new MacBook Pro will plain blow you away. Apple's updated pro notebook platform runs markedly faster from iron to app.

Ivy Bridge's updated memory controller allowed Apple to kick the speed limit on the MacBook Pro's RAM from 1,333MHz to 1,600MHz. Because every hardware subsystem -- CPU, I/O, storage, graphics -- is dependent on RAM, a jump in memory speed opens up performance headroom for the whole system. It's up to engineers to optimize the rest of the platform to put those additional quarter-billion memory transfers per second to best use. Intel and Apple have done a yeoman's job of it for the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Faster memory makes a huge difference. In benchmarks, the 2.3GHz Ivy Bridge CPU looks faster than prior architectures at the same clock speed because it can complete each worst-case load/compute/store cycle in less time. Mountain Lion uses memory as cache for local and shared files, and the faster memory makes the second and subsequent reading of many files, particularly second-time app launches, markedly quicker. The 64-bit OS, application frameworks, and apps themselves make heavy use of memory-mapped file I/O and shared memory. If you use a virtualization engine like Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, or Oracle VirtualBox to run Windows, Linux, or OS X side by side with Mountain Lion, your guest VM's performance is largely dependent on memory speed.

Ivy Bridge also debuts a major reworking of the low-power IGP (integrated graphics processor), dubbed Intel HD Graphics 4000. For the first time, I tip my hat to an Intel IGP. It still uses main memory as video RAM, but Intel loaded HD Graphics 4000 with more cache to reduce round trips to memory. Better yet, Ivy Bridge's big level-3 cache (6MB in the tested 2.3GHz CPU) is now shared with the IGP. When the CPU needs to move data to the IGP, it can often make that trip without leaving the chip. That adds up to faster 2D graphics, smoother video playback, and more responsive GUIs while running on battery power.

If you've been waiting for USB 3.0 to hit the Mac, your wait is over. All 15-inch MacBook Pro models have two USB 3.0 ports. Thunderbolt remains king of external I/O at 10Gbps, fast enough to keep up with the speediest external RAID (among other things). USB 3.0's top speed of 5Gbps, coupled with new high-speed transfer modes, trounces USB 2.0 and opens the MacBook Pro to a whole universe of fast, affordable external storage options. USB 3.0 is, of course, backward compatible with existing USB 2.0 and USB 1.1 peripherals. It's time to upgrade those FireWire enclosures.

Mountain Lion drivers required Mountain Lion has built-in drivers for standards-compliant USB storage, audio, Webcam, and MIDI peripherals, along with human interface devices such as keyboards, mice, and joysticks. The bundled iLife suite -- GarageBand, iMovie, and iPhoto -- augments the OS with support for a broad range of still and video cameras, with frequent updates pushed out through the Mac App Store. If a peripheral requires a device driver (kernel extension in Mac parlance), make sure it's 64-bit and specifically rated compatible with Mountain Lion; 32-bit kernel extensions that worked in Lion are no longer supported.

Apple has returned to Nvidia to supply 15-inch MacBook Pro's standard discrete graphics processing unit (GPU). All models feature Nvidia's GeForce GT 650M with either 512MB or 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 (Graphics Double Data Rate v5) video memory. By default, the Nvidia GPU automatically takes over for Ivy Bridge's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 whenever you launch an application that requires hardware-accelerated 2D or 3D graphics, and the GPU stays active until you exit all of the apps that need it. The GPU also kicks in when you connect an external display. Apple supplies GPU device drivers for OS X and Windows (the latter for use with Boot Camp). If your Mac application requires Nvidia's proprietary CUDA GPU computing interface, you'll need to download the latest CUDA driver from Nvidia's site.

Standard hardware features carried over from late 2011 models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro include a full-size backlit keyboard, 15.4-inch glossy LED backlit display, Apple headset-compatible headphone jack with optical digital audio output, Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort, FaceTime HD 720p Webcam, glass multitouch trackpad, multistream 802.11n Wi-Fi, SDXC memory card slot, and stereo speakers.

Everything you've read in this section is standard equipment no matter which 15-inch MacBook Pro you buy. From there, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook Pro take quite different paths. The first gives you last year's model, only faster: same chassis, same storage, same external ports, and the same aftermarket internal upgrade options as before. There are no surprises and no need to adjust -- just a healthy adrenaline kick to a simply great pro notebook with no rise in price.

If you feel like an adventure, if you're curious about what you could accomplish with the world's most advanced notebook, you should meet the new flagship of Apple's pro notebook lineup: MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Retina MacBook Pro: What trade-offs? The 2.3GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display fetches a $400 premium over its non-Retina counterpart. You couldn't blame the average buyer for thinking that's a lot to pay for a skinny case and a fancy screen. It's also natural for longtime MacBook Pro users to look at Retina MacBook Pro in terms of the long-standard features it drops: SuperDrive (DVD burner), gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, user-upgradable memory, audio input, cross-model-compatible MagSafe charger, and the option to choose magnetic or solid-state disk. It also removes the sleep and battery-level LEDs.

In truth, the $2,199 2.3GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display is probably the best deal Apple has going. In addition to the 2,880-by-1,800 display, the base config includes 8GB of RAM, 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory, the thinner and lighter chassis, a higher-capacity battery, and best of all, Apple's next-generation 256GB SSD. You can't come close to building a comparable machine from the $1,799 15-inch MacBook Pro plus $400 in upgrades from Apple or third-party suppliers.

The components Apple trimmed to make the Retina MacBook Pro fit in its new case, without compromising performance, are well chosen. Instead of carrying everything with you, you get to choose the peripherals you need. Instead of upgrading inside the case, make use of Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 to expand externally.

The value of the trade-offs became obvious after alternating between carrying 15-inch MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook Pro for a few weeks. Apple's redesigned notebook fits so much better in my hand that I take it everywhere, more like a tablet than a desktop-replacement-class notebook. The multistream 802.11n Wi-Fi lets me connect to late-model base stations at up to 450Mbps.

When you land at a desk, Retina MacBook Pro turns out to have more connectivity options, not fewer. Apple offers a $29 gigabit Ethernet adapter that plugs into a Thunderbolt port. A second Thunderbolt port has been added to Retina MacBook Pro so that using Ethernet doesn't tie up your connection to a high-resolution display or external Thunderbolt RAID. To make it easy to connect to HD monitors, Apple added an HDMI output on the right side of the chassis. You don't need an adapter; the HDMI port carries multichannel digital audio as well.

All Intel Mac applications will run on the Retina MacBook Pro, but some will exhibit scaling artifacts until they're updated. For example, compare Chrome 20, at left, with native Safari, at right.

Display at scale In case you missed it, the Retina MacBook Pro is designed to operate with two external displays at up to 2,560-by-1,600 each in addition to the internal 2,880-by-1,800 screen. That's a ton of screen real estate and a common desktop setup for creative pros and developers. Apple's own 27-inch Thunderbolt Display ($999, not tested) doubles as a full docking station with built-in gigabit Ethernet, speakers, FaceTime HD, and FireWire 800 all from a single Thunderbolt connection. Apple has promised an 800-megabit FireWire adapter for Thunderbolt, but it hasn't appeared yet.

I have no ambivalence about dropping SuperDrive. It's been a long time since I've needed to burn a DVD on a plane. Thumb drives and SD cards cover my sneakernet and video needs. Externally powered DVD burners are much faster than SuperDrive, and Apple's USB-powered SuperDrive is skinny and practically weightless.

The only component I truly miss, the only one that isn't cheap to replace, is the digital (optical) audio input. I receive and record digital audio content in many formats, from many devices and on all kinds of media. Instead of using utilities to encode, transcode, and split tracks, I cheat by playing the original content and capturing the digital audio stream. The Retina MacBook Pro still outputs optical digital audio along with a line/headphone-level analog signal.

The Retina redesign obviates the need for an external microphone with remarkable built-in mics. Apple combines a pair of sensors with some nifty signal processing to separate speech from background noise. You can participate in a FaceTime or Skype call without leaning into your computer, using a headset microphone, or raising your voice. In fact, you can lower your voice for courtesy or privacy and still be clearly understood. This makes a world of difference for Mountain Lion's new voice dictation feature. I work in some noisy environments that make phone calls difficult. With the new microphones in the Retina MacBook Pro, I can dictate in a conversational tone.

The sensitivity of the microphones borders on spy gear. They're great for recording notes and interviews or making calls with multiple people in the room, but you still need a professional mic if you're recording a high-bit-rate podcast or other commercial audio.

Finally, the Retina MacBook Pro uses a pair of cooling fans with an unusual twist: Instead of the typical whistle that rises in pitch as the fans speed up, all you hear is moving air. Even at its loudest, it blends in with typical office sounds and doesn't leave your ears ringing.

Retina display: A higher high-res At 2,880 by 1,800, the Retina MacBook Pro has the highest resolution of any notebook. That's quadruple the pixel count of Apple's standard 15.4-inch display (1,440 by 900), and it bests even Apple's 27-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 Thunderbolt display. You can view a 5-megapixel photograph, or a 5-megapixel swath of a much larger image, with no loss of detail. The Retina MacBook Pro is also Apple's first 15.4-inch notebook capable of displaying 1080p HD video without subjecting it to lossy downsampling.

As a whole, the Retina display is breathtaking. Deep blacks and rich colors complement the crisp detail added by the heightened pixel density. Areas of solid color fill in beautifully without seeming viewed through a screen door.

Retina isn't just about photos and video. It does wonders for text. It's easy to forget how beautiful type is. The simulated subpixels created by antialiasing smooth out curves and diagonals on typical displays, but at the cost of destroying the very shapes that make fonts interesting. Everyday body type, like what you're reading right now, turns into art on Retina.

Final Cut Pro X was among the first Mac apps updated for Retina display. The preview displays full-resolution 1080p HD without crowding out the UI.

The Retina MacBook Pro's LCD panel doesn't sit behind a layer of glass like other 15-inch MacBook Pros. Here, the exterior glass is the front of the panel. The Retina MacBook Pro's screen is treated with a coating that Apple claims cuts down on reflections by 75 percent. I prefer the high gloss of the MacBook Pro's mirrorlike glass, but I know not everyone feels that way. The Retina MacBook Pro's treatment splits the difference between gloss and matte.

The in-plane switching LCD technology used in the Retina MacBook Pro makes it viewable from practically any angle. There is a slight falloff of brightness when not viewed head-on, but text is still sharp. It's not always easy to lay out a desk so that a notebook's screen is perfectly parallel with your face. Now the built-in display is always useful in a multiscreen configuration, even if you can't plant your notebook front and center.

Solid-state storage standard The only permanent storage the MacBook Pro with Retina display supports is SSD (solid-state disk). These devices store information in flash memory, but unlike SD cards and thumb drives, SSD uses sophisticated embedded electronics to mimic a traditional spinning hard disk. The wins with SSD are lower power consumption, reduced heat, zero noise, and best of all, speed.

I've been unimpressed with the performance of consumer-grade SSD, so I was skeptical about trading a high-capacity hard disk for a smaller solid-state drive. Apple claims its new SSD technology is twice as fast as its previous implementation. After using it, I'm not only impressed, I'm a convert. This is how a notebook is supposed to work. I doubt I'd buy SSD as an upgrade -- it's still pricey -- but by making it standard in the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple provides a painless transition.

The performance of Apple's new SSD is astonishing. In my tests, Apple's SSD sustained write speeds of more than 300MBps, with bursts of up to 410MBps. Read and write speeds were almost identical. File copy tests worked out to about 160MBps. For comparison, a Mac Pro running the same tests with a single 7,200RPM SATA drive had a write speed of 80MBps to 120MBps and a copy speed of 34MBps to 50MBps.

I assumed the lower capacity of SSD would be an impediment -- not so. Given a choice between a terabyte of spinning disk or 250GB of Apple's new SSD, I'd opt for the smaller, faster storage. I found I had plenty of room for all of the projects I'm working on, plus Final Cut Pro X and Photoshop scratch files and a Windows virtual disk.

I took a cue from Apple about traveling light. I relied on Time Machine instead of indulging my usual habit of never deleting anything.

I made no effort to allow for the purported shortcomings of SSD. Apple targets the Retina MacBook Pro at creative professionals. Creative workflows are loaded with writes and deletes; ditto for technical workflows that involve virtual machines and databases. Logically, I know the "right" way to use an SSD would be to avoid overwrites by keeping plenty of free space and bunching my file deletions together. My interest in maintaining SSD-friendly habits waned about a week into my tests. That's how long it took me to stop thinking about the technology and just take advantage of it to get my work done faster.

MacBook Pro or MacBook Pro? Coming into this evaluation, I considered Apple's traditional 15-inch MacBook Pro to be a near-perfect design. Colleagues and I have relied on it for years and never considered it dated or in need of fixing. During those testing periods when I relied solely on "ordinary" MacBook Pro, I found it to be noticeably and measurably faster than previous models. Apple has played faster RAM into faster overall operation, even with a spinning hard drive. If you're coming to the new 15-inch MacBook Pro after a couple of years on a dual-core platform, you'll simply be amazed that any notebook can run this fast.

I expected to be impressed by the Retina MacBook Pro, but I thought the story was the display. Don't get me wrong: The 15.4-inch Retina display is amazing, and I'm delighted to see Apple driving high-density displays and scalable user interface principles and frameworks from mobile to Mac. This is an innovation-enabling technology, the kind of hardware that will change the way people think about user interfaces.

It also marks a milestone in accessibility. For visually impaired users (my personal cause), the Retina display is built-in adaptive technology. It makes devices usable by the millions of people who aren't yet ready for braille or VoiceOver, but who can't use a standard LCD. If you know someone like this, show them zoom (interactive UI magnification) on the Retina MacBook Pro.

For those of us with normal vision, one of the hidden benefits of the Retina MacBook Pro is its ability to mimic, with very good quality, the resolutions of Apple's other notebook displays. It will even match the 1,920-by-1,200 layout of my former favorite pro notebook, the now-defunct 17-inch MacBook Pro. If what you want from lots of pixels is more UI real estate, the Retina display will give it to you, and yes, it's perfectly usable. If you want to see every last dot, you can crank most OpenGL games up to the native 2,880 by 1,800. Note that I didn't say you could play them like that.

I don't have room here to give the Retina display its proper due. It is worth your effort to see it in person and investigate on your own. If you're a Mac application developer, I recommend watching the three WWDC 2012 sessions on creating apps and Web content for OS X high-resolution displays.

If the Retina MacBook Pro didn't have the Retina display, I'd still see it as this era's template for the professional notebook. It overturns the conventions that notebooks can be either fast or portable, and that displays can be either compact or readable.

The classic 15-inch MacBook Pro has too great a following for Apple to risk declaring it obsolete, and I wouldn't say it has run its course. However, Apple's heavier notebook is not more powerful, more capable, better built, or a better value than its thinner sibling with the Retina display. We don't have to wonder what the future "MacBook Pro killer" will be. It's the Retina MacBook Pro.

This article, "Review: MacBook Pro impresses, Retina MacBook Pro dazzles," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in computer hardware and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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2 Comments

Roy

1

Great review, read the whole thing. I especially like your part at the end where you talk about the macbook pro killer, had to laugh.

SM Hoffmann

2

I was looking at the MacBook Pro w/Retina Display & was ready to buyit until I discovered that it doesn't have a digital (optical) audio input. I have a large LP inventory that I've been importing into my iTunes Library.

Would it still be possible for me to continue this importing with the MacBook Pro w/Retina display?? If so, what would I need to do to use my MBP w/Retina display for the importing?

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