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Although it is sensibly thinner, the new Macbook Pro feels very much like a regular Macbook Pro in physical terms

Apple tends to update its designs very infrequently, so a change like this new Macbook Pro is a bit of an event in the Apple world. This time, the new Macbook Pro introduces two main things: a thinner, slimmer, design and an extremely high-density display that reaches an unbelievable 2880×1800 pixels resolution.

Internally, the new Macbook Pro uses the latest Intel Processor code-named Ivy Bridge which brings incremental improvements in terms of performance and power consumption. Finally, an NVIDIA graphics processor based on the Kepler architecture powers the display operations and ensure nothing less than stellar graphics performance.

In this review, we will show you how it feels to use the new Macbook Pro with Retina display in the real world, for both Mac and Windows users. Let’s take a closer look.

Design (excellent)

The Macbook Pro with Retina display shows the first *major* change  in the overall Macbook Pro unibody design. The removal of the optical drive is the main factor behind the change, since it was the main thing preventing the Macbook Pro from being slimmed down.

Yet, despite the fact that Apple calls this new design a “radical change” from the previous design, after using it for the better part of the day, it does feel very much like a slightly “squished” version of my previous Macbook Pro 15. Believe me, it’s great to have lost about ⅓ of the thickness, and one pound of overall weight – but, this otherwise feels very much the same. This is a good thing.

macbook pro 15 retina 05 640x426On the sides, you can find a couple of Thunderbolt ports, and a couple of USB 3.0 ports. There is also one audio out, one HDMI port and one SD card slot. The HDMI port is very welcome because it’s actually pretty annoying to use a dongle to connect to a TV or a 1080p monitor. Unfortunately, you still need a dongle to use a VGA, DVI or Display port display. It’s not always a big deal, but let’s face it: it often happens that you don’t have those on you when you actually need them. HP, Lenovo and other “business” PC Makers have vowed to offer business users a dongle-free experience, and IT departments worldwide love that.

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Right: the 11″ Macbook Air

The same thing is true for the networking capabilities. WIFI-N comes with the laptop, but to access a high-speed, low-latency wired connection you will need a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter, which is sold separately ($29.99). Again, HP or Lenovo have built thin laptops with ingenious Ethernet connectors, but in this case, design considerations made it impossible to integrate such a connector in this computer. Too bad.

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The Macbook Pro 15 with Retina can take on Ultrabooks. Here, next to the Samsung Series 9, which remains 1.5lbs lighter

The cooling system has been improved from the previous model, and while the computer gets mildy warm, even while doing light tasks like typing this review (especially under BootCamp), it does not get as hot as my 2010 MBP 15”, so I’ll take this as a very good progress. More on this topic in the “performance” section.

The laptop is extremely rigid, which gives it a great feel of sturdiness, which is one of the hallmarks of the Macbook line of products. That said, the price for this excellent rigidity is the additional weight of the aluminum. Samsung is capable of producing a 15” laptop that weighs only 3lbs, which feels *much* lighter than the 4.5lbs of this computer. Morality: you can’t have it all, and the choice will be difficult.

If I had to sum it up, this design is basically a thinner Macbook Pro with a display on steroid. It’s more of an incremental update (externally) than Apple would like us to think. But it doesn’t really matter if it’s really “radical” or not – it’s not. The design is still excellent.

Retina Display (impressive)

Clearly, the star of the show is the new Retina display, so it’s only fair that it gets its own chapter. With a resolution of 2880×1800, the new Macbook Pro has more pixels than my 30” 2560×1600 display — but compressed into about one quarter of the surface. Technically impressive.

macbook pro 15 retina 17Obviously, this gives you an incredible pixel density, which creates an opportunity to have everything looking really sharp. I say “opportunity” because as you will see, some of this is dependent on the various applications that you will use. While I’m confident that in the intermediate term, all apps will support this resolution, in the short term, many will not – especially if you’re a Bootcamp user. Overall, I have to say that the extra crispness is amazing. If you have seen an iPad 3rd Generation, it feels jusy like that, but on a 15” screen. Pure eye-candy.

Sharper image…

low hi res icons

This is what doubling the pixel density looks like. Things are sharper.

The first way to use the extra resolution is to increase the sharpness. Basically all the text, photos, windows and user interface elements are sized (relative to the screen dimensions) just like they would on a regular Macbook, but they look sharper. Videos and photos can be displayed with their full details, and believe me, you may be impressed if you haven’t seen high-resolution photos on such a display before — and you’ll get used to it, quick. For example, a full 1080p movie only takes 25% of the display surface.

If you can’t tell the difference, or don’t care for this, you don’t need a Retina display. Also, the image above is a dramatized version of what really happens as I wanted to make it easy enough to see the difference. Those icons should be about 2X smaller in reality, so the difference should not be as noticeable.

…or more desktop space

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You can make all the user interface big and sharp…

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… Or make things smaller to fit more windows and text.

The second way to use all these pixels is to create more Desktop space. If you do that, the icons, text and many user interface elements actually look smaller so you can fit more in there. This is particularly interesting for development (programming), photo or video editing and other tasks where you can either scale the text on-demand, or where there is no reading involved (just looking at graphs, or signals). Mac OS X does not have a DPI setting that would allow you remove all scaling to have tiny icons and text, but Windows 7 would let you do that.

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The color quality is excellent. Here, next to my Samsung Series 9 13″

The resolution is not the only thing that is worth looking at: the quality of the contrast, view angle are simply excellent. This is truly one of the best laptop display that I have seen for a very long time. Only the mobile HP workstations with IPS “Dreamcolor” displays can exceed this image quality (color, view angle, contrast).

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In a bright environment, the glossy surface can be harder to read

Apple has chosen to use a glossy display surface. While this typically makes the color “pop” and improve the sharpness in general (which is what Apple is selling here), this can also make the screen too shiny for an outdoor usage, or if there are strong lights behind/above you. In my experience, it’s not an issue most of the time (a few years ago, I had a MBP13 with the glossy display), but depending on where you work, that can be annoying.

Worth it?

Is the Retina display really worth the premium price? I’m having a difficult time putting a price on it. For my particular use, if I had the option of using a 1920×1080 display and save a substantial amount of money, I would probably prefer that. In reality, Macbook users don’t have that choice. Instead, you have to choose between the relatively low 1440×800 resolution of the regular Macbook Pro 15” (1680×1050 optionally) and the insane 2880×1800 of the new Macbook Pro. The choice is obvious – the budget is the real problem.

Here is my take: this display will be most useful to you if you do something that requires seeing the smallest details. Photography, graphic design, video editing would fit that bill. Reading text on a very sharp display is also a very nice thing to have, although I would not consider it to be as “critical” as the apps above. The new Macbook Pro does a great job at smoothing text. Finally, if you are a programmer and have an editor that allows scaling text on-the-fly (like MS Visual Studio does), having a higher resolution is most definitely a good way to expand your desktop space.

Running Windows 7 via BootCamp

Installation

boot camp mbp 15 retinaIt’s extremely easy to install Windows 7 via BootCamp, an Apple utility that handles the dual-boot between OSX and Windows 7. If you are curious, Windows XP and Windows 8 are not supported, although Windows 8 should get support sometime in the future. In fact, I believe that you don’t even have to use BootCamp these days, but I didn’t bother with the alternative.

In any case, the BootCamp Assistant will help you create a bootable USB drive, loaded with all the necessary drivers. You will need an .ISO file with Windows 7, and USB drive that will be formatted. I used a 2.5” USB-powered drive, but if your USB stick has enough capacity, it should work too. After a reboot, the Windows installation will start.

Retina display under Windows

mbp retina windows 180pct dpi 640After installing the graphics drivers, a reboot will put you into the maximum 2880×1800 resolution. While it is amazingly sharp, it is also amazingly not readable for most (if not all) people. Even with a 20/20 vision, I’m having a hard time working in this native resolution with such a small screen. I’ve uploaded some full-sized screenshots to our Ubergizmo Flickr account. Check them out.

Fortunately, some apps let you zoom-in. For example, I’m typing this in Google Docs with Chrome, and I can scale the content, but Google Docs has limitations about how much things can scale before they break. Microsoft Word is much better in that respect.

By default, Windows will set the global scaling (dot-per-inch or DPI settings) to 150%. It’s not bad, but I felt more comfortable with 180% for general use. Things work quite well, and pretty much everything look good. In my case, the only trouble that I had was with Google Chrome, which showed blurry fonts. Google “somewhat” fixed this on Mac OS already, so the update can’t be too far behind for windows. As of todfay 6/15, the experimental Chrome “Canari” has not been updated yet.

If you want to change DPI settings often, Mac OS X handles this much better than Windows. It is true that traditionally, people don’t really touch that stuff, but with this Retina Display, I suspect that this may change. Worse: Windows 7 requires you to log out in order to apply the change – yuck. Anyway, it’s not a killer for now, but this can become tiring if you do it often.

No GPU switching in Windows = lower battery life

Finally, make sure to check the Battery life chapter below as Apple has unfortunately never provided a set of Windows drivers that were as power-efficient as the Mac OS X ones (surprised?). The end result is that despite having a huge battery capacity, running under Windows with Apple laptops is typically not better than with non-Apple laptops (About 5h to 5.5hrs in the standard depletion tests, and 6.5h if you dim the display).

That’s too bad because Apple would probably sell (a lot) more hardware if the power-savings functionality in those Apple Windows drivers were working. Come on Apple, if Mac OS X is “the world’s most advanced OS”, why cripple the Windows drivers? You guys can do better than that, and I’m sure that someone internally is arguing for it so please listen to that person.

System performance

The new Macbook Pro with Retina display is expensive and uses the latest tech, so we would expect it to perform very well. In this section, I’m going to dig into various aspects of hardware performance. I did it using Windows benchmarks because they tend to be much better. Be assured that Mac OS X usage should reflect the same performance characteristics.

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The new Macbook Pro with Retina display easily wins the PCMark Vantage productivity test, thanks to its faster processor (CPU). Most of the time, the winner gets to the top because of a fast hard drive, but in this case, a $1000 Dell XPS13 had a noticeably faster SSD than the expensive Macbook Pro 15 with Retina display. Keep in mind that Apple (and anyone else) may also use different vendors and SSD models, so your luck may vary.

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The graphics performance is really where things hit Turbo mode. With the GeForce GT 650M based on NVIDIA’s latest Kepler architecture introduced with the GeForce GTX 680, the Macbook Pro 15 with Retina *obliterates* every other laptop that we tested, by far. As a consequence, this is the most potent gaming-capable laptop that we’ve had in our hands for a while, especially if you take into account the weight and overall size. Of course, huge “Gaming Laptops” can bring higher “absolute performance” at the expense of portability, and design.

The powerful graphics processor (GPU) should have no problem powering 2D design applications like Photoshop, or applications that take advantage of NVIDIA’s general computing capabilities via OpenCL, an open-source compute library.

Note that there is also an Intel HD 4000 GPU in the processor itself. This one supposedly takes over when there’s not much for the NVIDIA chip to do, thus saving battery life. For Windows users, I haven’t been able to determine for sure if NVIDIA’s Optimus automatic switching works, or not. Update: I now know for sure that Optimus does not work in Bootcamp.

In terms of number crunching, this Macbook Pro does bring some improvements, thanks to Intel’s new Ivy Bridge, and it has no problem ranking high among the recent laptops that we had in the office, as the GeekBench score shows.

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Temperature: the new Macbook Pro with Retina display is fast, but it can also get really hot. Most of the time, the computer can get a bit “warm” when doing light computing tasks like web browsing. Interestingly, 1080p video playback is considered to be light computing as well because much of the work is done by a co-processor. However, when I was running the Just Cause 2 game, the computer got *really* hot to the point that it would be very uncomfortable on bare skin.

Some sites use video compression to heat up the computer, but this is the wrong way of doing it. Video compression only heats-up the CPU at best. Video games will heat-up both the CPU and the GPU, the two biggest thermal generator in the computer.

My old Macbook Pro behaved like this as well, this is not really “news” for this line of product. Overall, I found this Macbook to heat a little less for web browsing than the 2010 model did. Again, this is progress.

Perceived performance

Of course, the “perceived” performance is even more important than the raw synthetic numbers. The Macbook Pro 15 with Retina performed just as I expected in general, and exceeded my expectations in graphics performance. Macbook Air users can only “envy” this kind of graphics performance, so every Mac users should take this into consideration.

Performance relative to price/weight

Raw performance is one thing, but it should clearly not be the only metric. It’s not very hard to build a fast computer that is heavy and expensive. It is also easy to build a thin and light one which is slow. That’s why we like looking at performance via prisms, like the performance in relation to the price and weight.

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For its weight, the Macbook Pro 15″ with Retina display does pack some punch

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As you can see, the Macbook Pro 15 with Retina does pack a lot of punch, relative to its 4.5lbs weight, for both general processing performance, and particularly for graphics performance. Just like it was the case for the new iPad, the increase in resolution forced Apple to go “nuclear” on the graphics performance, and if you care about that – this is pretty much heaven.

Now, if you look at the relative cost, you can see that the additional CPU performance is pretty much what you pay for, and computers like the Vaio S 15” would provide you more “bang for the buck” in that area. But again, the increase in graphics power is more than worth the additional price. Each Megapixel/Sec (in Just Cause 2) only costs $17, while on the Samsung 90X3A it costs $113 – or nearly 7X more.

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With this kind of average compute performance for the dollar, “overpriced” is the wrong adjective to use. In fact, it’s no more “overpriced” than the low-end Acer S3.

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The cost for graphics performance is ridiculously low, thanks to NVIDIA’s Kepler Architecture

With that in mind I would say that I don’t buy the argument from those who say that the Macbook Pro w/Retina is “overpriced”. I think that it would be more accurate to say that it may be “overkill” for folks who don’t need all that power. The good news is that there are plenty of choices on the market.

Battery Life

On paper, the theoretical battery life of the new Macbook Pro has not changed much when compared to the previous models: 6-7hrs, which means that you can do very light tasks like typing text/email for that long (actually it can go to 8hrs in a standard depletion test where the computer does little or nothing). If you run Windows, 5.5hrs of battery life is probably the maximum that you can get, and 6.5hrs can be obtained by dimming the display down to 20%. More information below.

To maintain this level of battery life, Apple had to increase the battery capacity by more than 20%. The Intel Ivy Bridge chip has been independently confirmed to be a little more power-efficient then previous models, so it’s fair to assume that the Retina Display is the main thing that consumes more power than previous Macbook Pros.

1080p MP4 movie playback: you can watch HD movies continuously for about 4 hours, with each hour taking away about 25% of the battery’s life. That’s a little higher than with other computers, but this remains in the “normal” range these days.

Gaming is probably the most taxing activity that you can do. With a modern 3D game, the battery can be depleted by 50% or more in one hour.

If you close your laptop, you will lose very few battery capacity overnight (<2%) on Mac OS X, but in Windows 7, about 6% will go away. Read the paragraph below.

Windows/Linux users (beware!): it is important to note that while Mac OS X switches the GPU OFF to save power, that feature has not been enabled in BootCamp. 1/the computer is always slightly warmer is Windows, so this would indicate that something big is turned on. Secondly, Apple has never used any graphics switching in previous BootCamp revisions.

To be clear, every other PC maker handles dynamic GPU switching in Windows, but this is not the case here. Unfortunately, the PC maker itself needs to work on this, so NVIDIA cannot “go Rambo” on this one and implement it without the manufacturer’s consent. Trying to install other NVIDIA drivers won’t help.

In my previous Macbook Pro 15 review (2010 model), I already had noticed those issues, so this is not new, although it got better with the Macbook Air 2010, and the Macbook Air 2012 does not have an external GPU so this solves that problem. At least, the display brightness and the keyboard back-light seem to behave now. As I see it, this looks like a deliberate move to cripple the battery life under Windows, and Apple has never responded to our inquiries about this topic.

Misc

macbook pro 15 retina 04 640x426Keyboard / trackpad: the keyboard and trackpad are very good, and for those who have already used a Macbook Pro, it feels just the same as before. The key travel may have been reduced by a tiny bit, but that’s about it. As it stands, Lenovo still makes the best keyboards in my opinion (especially since the Lenovo X1), and recently, Dell has done quite well with its XPS13 ultrabook. That said, this keyboard is very good, and the trackpad remains the best in the industry.

MagSafe 2 power connector: with the new Macbook Pro with Retina, Apple has introduced a new MagSafe connector, which makes this laptop incompatible with previous Macbook chargers. That’s a pity because if you are a regular Apple customer, you may appreciate the fact that you could use older chargers in different locations or as backups. The reason isn’t really obvious, and note that we’re back to the T-style connector, versus the previous L-style one. If you don’t have a bunch of older chargers, you should not really care about this.

Webcam: [test in progress...]

Not user-upgradable, hard to maintain: Many Apple fan sites and other “loyal” supporters in the media forgot to mention an important question that we have received time and time again: the Flash storage is not easily replaceable and the computer is very hard to service. Experts like iFixit have demonstrated this, and this is very important to realize that whatever you want in this computer should be purchased *at order time*.

No anti-theft Kensington port: This is the port with which you “attach” your laptop to a secure anchor. There’s none of that here so, don’t forget to keep a close eye on your laptop.

No 1080p version: It would be very very nice if Apple had a 1080p version of this computer at a lower price, or as a (downgrade) option. I don’t think that this will happen, but the sales of this particular unit will probably decide that.

New to the Mac? Read this

Experienced Mac users know what they are getting (or staying) into. But there is also a group of users who are thinking of switching from another platform, and for some, this may be their first Macbook laptop ever. That’s great, but there are a few things that you should be careful with this:

Your usage and your apps are what matters most: this may sound obvious, but don’t assume that all the software that you are accustomed to using on another OS will magically work, or even exist. The typical example are “switchers” who find out that Microsoft Office doesn’t really work like it does on PC. Others find that select apps are missing, or that games are not available like they are on PC.

Obviously, that’s why it is possible to run Windows with BootCamp, but you need to buy the Windows license, which is another $100 or so. Once you have established that you can do your things with Mac OS X, life should be pretty good, and it’s mainly a matter of budget.

Conclusion (excellent, expensive)

macbook pro 15 retina 02 640x426The Macbook Pro 15 with Retina display is an excellent and expensive laptop, there’s no denying that. But it is also very unique and I’m very curious to see what the competition will come up with in the next few months, and at what price. Now the real question is: is it for you?

If you’re in the camp of those who say that it is “overpriced” or “too expensive”, I would say that our benchmarks show that “overpriced” is the wrong word, but “expensive” is indeed true. That said, there are plenty of other options out there, including some from Apple and from various PC manufacturers like Asus, Dell or Samsung, so what’s the big deal if you find this one too expensive – just vote with your wallet.

If you are still hesitating, it all comes down to the new display and new form factor: how much are you really willing to pay for the thinner design and super-dense display? If you’re in it for the weight, there are much lighter alternatives like the Samsung Series 9 15” which weighs close to 3 lbs (vs. 4.5lbs for the MBP Retina).

For those interested by the high resolution, bear in mind that on Mac OS X, it provides much sharper graphics, rather than extra desktop space. With Windows 7, you can actually go nuts and have a 1:1 pixel ratio – which makes everything mostly unreadable (I tried…), but that’s really up to you.

The conclusion is: price aside, it’s great. If you want it and can afford it, go for it.

I hope that this review was helpful to you. Like it, share it and spread the word. If you have questions, or if there is something that I have overlooked, please drop a comment, and I will try to address it as soon as I can.

Filed in Computers >Featured >Reviews . Tags: Apple Review, Laptop Reviews, laptops and Macbook Pro.
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