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MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Posted on Friday, June 29th, 2012

Dave!And so Apple has made me poor.

Again.

Except not really. Yes, their new MacBook Pro with Retina Display has put me in debt, but it's also replacing my aging and busted MacBook Pro which I use constantly for my work. And replacing it beautifully. It is without question the most remarkable laptop... most remarkable computer... I have ever seen or had the privilege to use...

Retina Mac Book Pro by Apple

And while the "Retina Display" alone would make this machine a quantum leap beyond any other portable, Apple didn't stop there. They have adopted many of the same features which make their beautiful MacBook Air line so revolutionary. It's the crossroads of power and portability, and hands-down the ultimate laptop for graphics work like I do every day.

Except it's gonna cost ya. The cutting edge always does.

I'm going to run through all the specific features in an extended entry, but the bottom line is that the minimum baseline configuration for this machine costs $2,199. For work like I do, you really need the next step up, which runs $2,799. But I felt I needed something stronger, so I customized a machine that has the faster 2.7/3.7GHz CPU (+$250) and a maxed-out 16GB of RAM (+$200), which totaled a whopping $3,249. I stuck with the 512GB Flash Storage (Solid State Drive) because it was enough for me (it's bigger than the 320GB hard drive in my old MacBook Pro!) and I couldn't justify the additional $500 to bump that up to 768GB.

Now, when I look at that $3,249 price tag, a part of me wants to start screaming. But this isn't a toy that I use to just read email and surf the web... it's a critical work tool which I use to make a living every day. For me at least, it's a bargain. And every time I sit down to use it, I know exactly where that money went. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a boon to my productivity and a pleasure to use. I love it passionately, and can't imagine going back to a "regular" laptop.

If you want to know why, all my notes are in an extended entry...

Retina Display

  • Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Every "professional" review raved about Apple's new Retina Display on the MacBook. But the "average joe" reviews were less generous. Sure it was a nice display... great even... but it's not quite the jaw-dropping improvement they expected. And yet for anybody who does any kind of graphics work on their MacBook Pro, it is beyond jaw-dropping. It is such a huge game-changer for people in my line of work that it is bordering on a miracle. And let me show you why...
  • First of all, the Retina Display resolution on my new MacBook is delivering 2880 x 1800 pixels... more than double the size of the 1280 by 800 pixels on my old MacBook. This means that apps which have been optimized for the Retina Display can display over four times the amount of information on the screen at a time. Here's "actual size" (pixel to pixel) image on my OLD MacBook...
       
    No Retina Display Graphic

    Here's "actual size" (pixel to pixel) image on my NEW MacBook...
       
    Retina Disaplay Graphic

    No wonder Apple discontinued the 17-inch MacBook... this smaller laptop has a "bigger" screen than it ever did. And thanks to all those extra pixels, I see more. This makes working on large photos and projects much, much more accurate and efficient. Once Photoshop and Illustrator are optimized for Retina, I will be a very happy camper indeed (until then, my machine pixel-doubles the non-Retina-enhanced apps, giving me an effective 1440 x 900 pixel display when I use them).
  • Second of all, that massive resolution makes what I am looking at super sharp. So I'm not just seeing more I'm seeing better. The best way to illustrate this is with a screen capture from a piece of Apple's website. Through some coding magic, Retina Display Macs are served super-high-resoultion images. Below I've captured the same piece both on my NEW Mac (left) and OLD Mac (right... scaled to size for comparison)...
       
    Retina Zebras

    Pretty incredible. And hugely beneficial not just for graphics work, but for anybody who reads text. It's like reading from a book instead of a computer screen for me now...
       
    Retina vs. Regular

    Though you really have to see the way text renders on a Retina Display in person, because nothing can really prepare you for how beautiful and readable it is, even at small sizes.
  • "Lush" is probably the word I'd best use to describe the visuals. The colors are rich and dense... the contrast amazing with really good black levels. Easily the most beautiful display I've ever seen.
  • I thought that Apple was jerking my chain when they claimed that the Retina Display glass screen had considerable less glare than their previous models, but it's a genuine improvement. So much so that it "feels" like the ultimate compromise between matte and gloss. Apple totally nailed the sweet spot here, and it's very difficult going back the the high glare mess that I loathe so much on my old MacBook and new iMac. It's even harder going back to my old OLD MacBook with the low-contrast matte display I used to love so much.
  • One thing I've done that I've never done before is increase the size of my cursors slightly...
       
    Retina Cursor Size

    This makes it easier to find with the higher-resolution screen. Unfortunately, apps without Retina optimization end up with cursors that are a little chunky, but they're perfectly useable.
  • You have the option of forcing Retina-enhanced apps to open in "low resolution" (pixel-doubled) but I can't fathom why you'd want to...
       
    Retina 32 Bit Low Res Option

    What's confusing is that this option is there in the Get Info box even if the app hasn't been optimized for Retina... so you can't use it as a gauge to see if the app is optimized or not. Bummer.
  • I have run into no negatives at all. The display is flawlessly perfect in every way I can discern.

Design & Features

  • The machine feels considerably thinner and lighter than my old one. Like, a quarter-inch thinner and a full pound lighter. Not in the same league as the MacBook Air with that lovely taper to a thin edge and feather-weight, but it's a marked improvement. Despite the change, it actually feels a lot more solid than my previous model (probably because it had a battery door cut into its single-piece aluminum case and the new one doesn't). Given my frequent travel, every little bit helps...
       
       
    Retina MacBook Thickness

    Not an Air, but compared to what I had, it might as well be.
  • The keyboard is... different. The spacing is the same as my old one, but the keys are smaller. This hasn't affected my typing negatively, but it "feels" different. Not better or worse, but different.
  • Like the MacBook Airs, Apple has jettisoned all the older, clunky technology to get a thinner package. The biggest change? No CD/DVD ROM drive. This is not a big deal for me because, other than installing what few apps I use that don't come digitally, I can't tell you the last time I've used mine on the old machine. I ditched Blu-Ray/DVD for movies and CDs for music and buy everything from the iTunes Store. If you live outside the USA, this is probably not so easy, as I think Apple is still working on licensing for digital content, but in this country it's just not a big deal for me. I, for one, am thrilled not to be lugging around a CD/DVD I never use, and only have the stuff that matters...
       
    Retina MacBook Ports

    RIGHT SIDE: SD memory card slot, HDMI port, USB 3.0 port. LEFT SIDE: MagSafe 2 power, Thunderbolt video/data (x2), USB 3.0, headphone port.
  • The more difficult thing to let go of has been an Ethernet port. Yes, I rarely, rarely use it since the advent of WiFi but, for times where I need to download huge files from a local network or the internet, I prefer the speed of gigabit Ethernet over pokey wireless...
       
    Retina 9 Hour Wait for an Update!

    Nine hours for a software update?!? Yikes. Time to upgrade my ancient WiFi router (all newer MacBooks fully support 802.11n for maximum speed, assuming you have a 802.11n router to connect to, which I don't yet for some reason).
  • Losing the Ethernet port isn't the end of the world. But losing the FireWire port is painful. Mostly because I trusted Apple when they released the technology, only to end up getting burned... not once, but twice. First they dumped FireWire 400 and I had to upgrade all my peripherals to FireWire 800 (with its shitty shallow plug that fell out too easily). That lasted about fifteen minutes, and now I have to upgrade again to Apple's latest tech... Thunderbolt (you get two ports). It's a pretty remarkable technology that has a tiny plug and can handle both video and data but, still... how long will this one last, and do I dare trust Apple again?
  • If you just can't let go of these legacy ports, you can get an Ethernet and FireWire 800 port adapter ($29.99 each). I am going to get the FireWire one so I can use all my external drives, but it's not available just yet.
  • You get two speedy USB 3.0 ports with this MacBook. But they're on opposite sides of the machine! This makes using external portable drives difficult, because many of them require a special cord that uses two USB ports... one for data and the other for extra power Better make sure any external non-powered USB 3.0 drive you buy only needs one port!
  • You do get two things I didn't have before and just love... 1) An HDMI port so I can plug into a television with zero hassle... and 2) An SD memory card slot so I don't need an adapter to download photos off my camera (sweet!).
  • A technology that Apple has which is just genius is their "MagSafe" power adapter. It clicks into place with magnets so if you accidentally trip over the cord, it just pops out without pulling your laptop off the table. This has saved my ass more times than I can count, and I love it. But the plug was too tall to use with the thinner MacBook Pro with Retina profile, so Apple now has "MagSafe 2." It's thinner (nice!) but the magnet also feels less powerful so it pops out a little too easy for my tastes. Still, it's a tradeoff I have no problem making, and still works very well. I bought a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 adapter to use those extra power supplies I bought for my old Mac. It's a little clunky, but it works, and I appreciate not having to buy new ones.
  • Bluetooth is version 4, which is nice for data transfers over the short-range wireless (assuming your device is also v4 compliant).
  • One thing most people traditionally overlook when buying a laptop is sound quality. This is changing, as PC manufacturers are rushing to add terrific speakers in association with companies like Bose and Beats Audio. Since this new laptop is so thin, I was expecint crappier speakers than I had in my old machine. But I was wrong. Really wrong. The sound quality is just frickin' mind-bogglingly awesome. Crisp, clear, and quite a bit better than what I used to have. Even at full-volume, I am very pleased with the sound. Something new on the audio-in front: dual microphones. I'm assuming that this is for some kind of noise-canceling feature for eventual integration of Siri into the Mac OS.
  • And speaking of noise... one thing that Apple touted pretty loudly in their introduction was the ventilation/cooling/fan technology in this new laptop. Well, it would seem that this isn't hyperbole, because I find this machine runs a bit cooler than my old one (from a "feel" standpoint... I haven't taken actual temperatures). It also runs quite a bit quieter thanks to the new fans which are designed to scramble the whine of the blades. If I am really pushing the laptop and the fans go full-speed, you still hear them, but the sound isn't as annoying, which is something. When added to the lack of a hard drive whirring, the silence is oh so sweet.
  • As with most all Apple products now-a-days, you get a FaceTime camera. This one is a step up from my old one, capable of nice 720p video, and more than adequate for video chatting.
  • I paid for extra RAM and got 16GB of it, which makes for really fast and smooth running of any software. But even the base configuration of 8GB is pretty generous over the max 4GB in my old MacBook. A WORD OF WARNING: The RAM is soldered to the motherboard, so what you buy when you configure your machine is what you're probably stuck with.
  • The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is currently shipping with MacOS X "Lion"... but you get a free upgrade to "Mountain Lion" when it is released next month. Of course you also get the standard assortment of excellent Apple apps such as Safari web browser, Mail for email, iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, etc. I won't go over the many, many, many benefits I find in running a Mac over Windows, but suffice to say that the superior "Mac Experience" is taken to a new level on really good hardware like this new laptop.

Storage

  • Storage on the MacBook Retina is served up not by a hard disk but instead via a solid state drive (SSD), otherwise known as a "flash drive." It's all chips. No moving parts. This makes for a speedy computer. Very speedy. And more energy efficient too. And blissfully silent. But the best part? There's no more hard drive "thunk" when you move a running MacBook now. Oh how I hate the "thunk" of the shock-resistant drive heads doing an emergency park!
  • But back to that "speed" thing... I'm not joking. It's easily noticeable. Particularly with programs like Photoshop that have to access a disk cache. It's especially noticeable when booting the MacBook or waking it from sleep (in just seconds! Seconds!!). Or starting an app. Or anything you do, really. I have an SSD as the main drive on my iMac as well, and could never go back to clunky, slow hard drives for a boot drive because I love them so much.
  • The problem? SSD drives are considerably more expensive for considerably less storage space. The price is worth it when you consider how much productivity you'll gain from the speed boost. But the smaller storage space? Well, that's not really a problem for me now-a-days...
  • Since I have internet most everywhere I end up using my laptop, I keep a bare minimum of music on my computer anymore. Just some Depeche Mode and Matt & Kim in case I don't have internet and can't access my music in iCloud's "iTunes Match" service (or, more likely, iTunes Match is down for some reason). This has freed up a lot of space I no longer have to make room for.
  • Likewise, all my television, movies, and videos are on my iPad, which is where I prefer to watch them anyway. Hopefully Apple will eventually allow internet streaming to iTunes just like Apple TV has, so I could watch my purchases on my MacBook if I ever wanted to without taking up storage space. I still think it's incredibly stupid that streaming isn't allowed when unlimited re-downloads are allowed, which means its probably a studio problem (as usual).
  • As I mentioned, I stuck with the 512GB storage because the $500 to go up to 768GB was too much money for something I really didn't need. What takes up the most space on my computers are photos, but Aperture (the photo catalog software I use) allows me to store the original huge RAW files offline to save space (and give me nice JPEG proxies so I can still have them with me, but at a much smaller file size). So... I'm okay with my decision. Apparently the SSD is replaceable, so I can always go bigger in the future as prices drop... if somebody makes an upgrade (which is likely).

Performance

  • Apple made the switch to Intel's new quad-core "Ivy Bridge" chips which have a very high performance to low power consumption ratio, so everything you do on the latest round of MacBook Pros feels snappy. Processor-intensive apps run really well... about the same as my desktop iMac(!).
  • The NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics processor is really speedy when I need it to be, and games run like a dream on it... even with resolution set to "high" and all the bells and whistles turned on. Editing video, which really tasks the GPU, doesn't bog things down much, which is a big change from my old MacBook. 3D modeling is really responsive. Apparently there's also Intel video onboard that is utilized when you're not doing intensive work because is uses less power.
  • The RAM is now really fast 1600MHz DDR3L. This makes Photoshop a very happy camper, as everything renders considerably faster.
  • As mentioned above, moving to "flash drive" storage provides a speed boost that's almost unreal for disk-related tasks. Aperture screams (which is hyperbole for saying that it's useable now).

Battery

  • It's incredibly disconcerting to glance up at my battery level, see it's at 60%, then click to find out I still have 4 hours and 10 minutes time remaining. Even with a brand new battery in my old MacBook that's fully charged, I was only getting 4 hours total with light use. With the new MacBook, if I'm just surfing the internet and checking email, I can get the advertised 7 hours (more like 7-1/2!) from a full charge. But I push the laptop pretty hard when I'm working, and end up getting just 5-1/2 hours. Still, considering how thin and light the package, this is pretty amazing.
  • I have mixed feelings on a "non-user-replaceable" battery. On one hand, I'd like to be able to take care of it myself and not have to pay a big replacement fee when it starts going bad. On the other hand, battery technology is pretty amazing now, and I fully expect to get a good long life out of what I've got. And I like the idea that Apple would dispose of the old battery responsibly. And I like that the custom glued battery allows for such a thinner laptop. And I like that no space was wasted making the batter removable so Apple could stuff in the most battery power possible. And I like that my case is seamless because it doesn't have a battery compartment door. And I like that I really do get such an amazing amount of time out of a charge. Oh... I guess I'm really not having mixed feelings after all. The benefits FAR outweigh the negatives.

Setup

  • Apple's great Setup Assistant makes starting out with a new Mac really easy. It can even transfer all your settings from an older Mac, but I never do this, preferring to start fresh.
  • Thanks to a majority of my configuration settings syncing with iCloud, setting up any new Apple device for me is pretty painless. Except... unlike Apple's previous syncing service, MobileMe, the iCloud service has NO KEYCHAIN SYNCING! This is outrageously stupid and inconvenient, meaning that I have to re-enter all my passwords and web forms and shit. This is a critical piece of the syncing puzzle and I just don't get why Apple went backwards here.
  • Has Adobe ever... EVER had an installer that doesn't suck ass? Here's my sixth attempt at getting Photoshop CS6 downloaded and installed from their "Creative Cloud"...
       
    PShop Install Fail

    FAIL! Eventually I gave up and downloaded the trial software, which installed fine. It was also recognized by the Creative Cloud App Manager, so it is recognized as "registered"... thankfully. What a load of horse shit. How badly does Adobe hate their customers that they can't make a functional, working installer?

Wrap-Up PROS

  • The future of laptops, today.
  • Beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, comfortable design.
  • Ditches legacy crap like the CD/DVD drive and DVI port that I rarely use, removing unwanted volume and weight.
  • Incredibly powerful with unmatched performance and speed.
  • Quiet and relatively cool with long battery life.
  • Stunning, miraculous, amazing display with astoundingly sharp graphics and incredible color/contrast that is capable of displaying a huge amount of information.
  • Worth the price if you do graphics work.

Wrap-Up CONS

  • Expensive. Really expensive.
  • FireWire and Ethernet are gone, requiring clunky adapters if you need them.
  • Upgrading/replacing the hardware (RAM/Battery/SSD) is difficult and/or impossible.

And that's all she wrote... at least for now after a half-week's use. Ultimately (if you couldn't tell) I am positively thrilled with my MacBook Pro with Retina Display. It is easily one of the best purchases I've ever made... even if the name is quite a mouthful. If you don't do any intensive graphic works and require gobs of storage that only a traditional hard drive can provide, then it's probably not the machine for you, and one of the refreshed "regular" MacBook Pro models will do you fine. But if you want the ultimate portable Mac with the best display and best performance for doing real-world work efficiently and with maximum productivity, there really isn't any choice... this is your new machine.

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Categories: Apple Stuff 2012Click To It: Permalink
   

Comments

  1. Alexander says:

    Excellent review! Glad you like your Retina Pro!

    As retina displays become more widely available, it’s obvious a few years down the road every laptop will have one. In the interim, I see Apple creating two lines: the Retina Pro line (which will sell for a premium), and the regular Pros to keep costs down (and get people hooked into the Apple ecosystem). Since I just bought my Air a few months ago, I’m in no hurry to upgrade, but my mext machine (whether it be an Air or a Pro) will have a retina display once it all shakes out and the software manufacturers get their lines up to speed.

    I had to make a few compromises when I moved from my old MPB to the Air. My 2011 Air is maxed out at 4GB RAM and 256GB flash; I almost wish I’d waited an extra sex months so I could’ve gotten 8GB RAM and 512 flash…oh well.

  2. Awesome review. I was looking to buy a new MBP but ultimately decided to wait. Mind you this was before the retina MBP was announced. Very tempting but instead I just breathed a little more life into my 3 year old 15″ MBP, new 750GB hard drive, increased RAM to 8GB. Made all the difference. Should keep it chugging along for another year or so.

  3. ssp says:

    Hmmm, I’m jealous!

    Any comments on how well third party applications do with the high resolution display? Can Adobe’s software use the extra resolution?

    [You may want to fix the line claiming there are 16_megs_ or RAM…]

    • Dave2 says:

      D’OH!! That’s what I get for writing a review at 1:00am! Funny… I remember when 16MB of ram was a huge deal. I’m old. 🙂

      As for third party apps…
      “Once Photoshop and Illustrator are optimized for Retina, I will be a very happy camper indeed (until then, my machine pixel-doubles the non-Retina-enhanced apps, giving me an effective 1440 x 900 pixel display when I use them).”

      To which I should probably add that non-Retina-optimized apps do work just fine… even with them being scaled up to the lower 1440 x 900 pixel-doubled virtual resolution. That’s still more screen real estate than I had with my old MacBook. The only foible is that the super-resolution of the Retina Display reveals just how jaggy and low res that non-optimized apps are. On a non-Retina screen you can’t tell, but now it’s kind of ugly! But, to get back to your question, no… until 3rd party upgrades their GUI elements and enable a “Retina Port” in their display window, they can’t take advantage of the new 220ppi density. The only way you could force them to would be to set your screen density super-high… but then everything is so small you can barely see it. Apparently Adobe is working on it, and Photoshop is getting Retina-optimized “later this year.”

  4. James Bow says:

    Dave,

    Thanks for the review. I enjoyed it, even though I’ll never be getting this — it’s completely out of my league. I am happy with the 2011 Air, though. For my line of work, I don’t need top speed (though the Air runs the CS6 programs just fine for me), and the weight is a big, big plus.

    Hope all is well with you!

  5. the muskrat says:

    Great review…thanks for taking the time to write this! Obviously, I don’t need one of these, but it’s nice to know about it for when it’s time for me to upgrade in a few years.

  6. Sarah says:

    I love my Macbook Pro, granted it’s not the new one. Vahid is thoroughly jealous. The new one looks amazing, if I needed a computer for work reasons I would definitely want that one.

  7. Lisa says:

    Thanks for the great review! I may be able to eek a little more time out of my MacBook before buying, which will give me time to save for one of these beauties. Hopefully by then Adobe will have optimized for the retina display!

  8. martymankins says:

    A very well written review (and one that I was looking forward to once you spilled the beans about you getting a MBP Retina on twitter).

    I think my MBP is very similar to your older one (I have the late 2008 model w/ the ExpressCard slot – 2.66Ghz 15″ – I got it refurb in August 2009). Mine is most likely in much better shape than yours (i don’t travel as much and expose it to TSA abuse nearly as often). I’ve been toying with doing an SSD upgrade to make mine faster (it’s so very slow these days) which will help extend the life of it another year or so. But also, have been looking at getting a 13″ MBA for travel and using this MBP as a pseudo desktop (leaving it at home attached to a large 23″ LED with a bluetooth keyboard).

    The need for Firewire 800 is important to me, which means my next upgrade, I would need one of the $29.99 dongles. I could live without ethernet (I rarely use it anymore except for large file transfers over a network)

    As for the Adobe CS6 update to support Retina, I await your comparison once it’s out. I’m really liking the Creative Cloud suite so far.

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