Retina MacBook Pro: ‘Air’-inspired design still feels pro

Apple isn’t afraid to stir things up, making people to rethink how they use technology. In recent years, most of that kind of innovation has focused on the iPhone, iPad, and iOS. But the MacBook Pro with Retina display now directs attention back to the Mac. 

The Retina MacBook Pro is not only a groundbreaking release, combining stunning performance and portability in a 15-inch Mac laptop. This model will also force you to change the way you interact with a laptop. From overhauling how you view and work with content to how you deal with external devices and connections, Apple isn’t afraid to push its customers in new directions. The Retina MacBook Pro is certainly a more-than-gentle nudge.

The differences between Retina MacBook Pro (left) and the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro (right) are subtle, until you look at the two side-by-side.

Looking good: The Retina display

The marquee feature of this laptop is right in the name—the Retina display. The Retina display made its debut in the iPhone 4, followed by the third generation iPad. It’s finally made its way to a Mac. You can look at the Retina display as another step in the iOS-ification of the Mac, or you can see it as I do—another way to remind you that all of these products are part of one big happy Apple family. 

The Retina display’s numbers are mind-boggling: 2880 by 1800 pixels—that’s 220 pixels per inch—for a total of 5.18 million pixels on a 15.4-inch backlit screen. When the Retina MacBook Pro is set at its (Best) Retina setting, it’s spectacular—the detail in photos is great, and text is the crispest and cleanest it’s ever been. For the first few hours with the Retina MacBook Pro, I even found enjoyment in reading the text of system alerts. The Retina MacBook Pro helped rekindle my appreciation for the little details of Mac OS X that, over time, I’ve taken for granted. There were no dead pixels or light leakage on the two Retina MacBook Pros I looked at, and compared to my 17-inch MacBook Pro, colors were exceedingly vibrant.

With so many pixels, it’s easy to notice the amount of detail you can see in high-resolution photos. But it emphasizes the low quality of many website images. Fire up Safari and you can read an article displayed in finely rendered text, with images that now look jaggy. For anyone tuned to such nuances, it can be annoying, but don’t blame the laptop. It’s up to Web designers to start to optimize graphics for Retina displays. With the popularity of the iPhone and iPad, the addition of a Retina laptop, and the eventual adoption of high-resolution displays in non-Apple devices, it’s only a matter of time before the Web catches up.

Videos on the Retina MacBook Pro look excellent. To fit a 1080p video on MacBook Pro, the video is enlarged to fill the screen. Since these MacBook Pros already have more pixels on the screen than on a HDTV. I didn’t notice any ghosting, and the laptop’s video card seemed to have no problem handling the video.

The Retina MacBook Pro actually has two video cards—one integrated, one discrete. The integrated video card (which shares memory with the main memory, and is actually part of the CPU), is Intel’s HD Graphics 4000, which is used to help preserve battery life. The discrete video card (a separate component with its own memory) is Nvidia’s GeForce GT 650M, with 1GB of video memory. The system automatically switches processors based on the activity you’re performing, so you’re not sacrificing performance while, say, playing a game. You can turn off automatic graphics switching, which then sets the Retina MacBook Pro to always use the discrete video card. 

With 2880-by-1800 pixels on hand, you might assume that the list of available resolutions in the Displays system preference would be unbearably long—there are 19 resolution settings for my 17-inch MacBook Pro. But that is not the case. In its ongoing effort to ease choices, Apple revamped the Displays system preference for the Retina MacBook Pro. Displays offers only five choices on a scale, which makes it much easier to find a comfortable resolution setting.

In the Retina MacBook Pro (top), Apple uses the space that would usually be occupied by the SuperDrive (as shown on the 15-inch MacBook Pro, bottom) for a larger battery.

To the left of the scale are settings for Larger Text, to the right are settings for More Space, and in the middle is Best (Retina). If you really need to know the resolution numbers for each setting, they appear when you mouse over each setting. For example, the leftmost Larger Text setting “Looks like 1024 x 640” pixel resolution, while the rightmost More Space setting “Looks like 1920 x 1200.”

When a second display is connected and set up to expand the desktop, the resolution listing appears, specifically for the external display. When I connected the Retina MacBook Pro to my 42-inch HDTV, it instantly recognized the display, and when I turned off mirroring, I was able to choose one of four resolutions for the HDTV, and set the Retina MacBook Pro to one of the five settings mentioned above.

I didn’t have a chance to install Windows on a Boot Camp partition, but Macworld Lab installs Parallels as part of the benchmark suite, and I ran Windows 7 full screen through the virtual machine. I was able to set Windows to 2880-by-1800, and I was able to use applications without a hitch. Our sister publication,PCWorld, is planning a deep look at running Windows on a Retina MacBook Pro, so look for that upcoming report.

The Retina display also supports in-plane switching (IPS), which helps with color reproduction and viewing angles. Apple states a 178-degree viewing angle, and I don’t dispute that. 
A longtime concern about Apple’s screens is the reflective glare. With the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple redesigned how the display is mounted. There’s no longer a glass cover, and that, thankfully, reduces the glare. Apple says glare has been reduced by 75 percent; While I can’t scientifically test that claim, I can say that the reduction is noticeable. I don’t have to work as hard to ignore the glare as I’ve had to on previous MacBook Pros.

Soon after Apple announced the Retina MacBook Pro, the company discontinued the 17-inch MacBook Pro. With its support for 1920 by 1200 resolution—the native resolution of the 17-inch MacBook Pro—the Retina MacBook Pro serves as the replacement for the 17-inch model. I’m a 17-inch MacBook Pro user, and I use it because I want as much screen space as possible. Can you get the same amount of space with the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro? Yes, though the trade-off is that everything on the 15-inch screen is smaller than on a 17-inch screen. It doesn’t bother me one bit—yet. As someone who’s reached his 40s, I’m experiencing the change in vision that you expect when you get older, so it’s possible that folks with aging eyes like mine will need to make adjustments.

What’s inside stays inside

Apple offers two models of the Retina MacBook Pro. The $2199 model has a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 6MB shared L3 cache, 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory, and 256GB of flash storage. (Most people call it an SSD or solid state drive, but Apple calls it flash storage.) The $2799 model has a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 6MB shared L3 cache, 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory, and 512GB of flash storage.

The Retina MacBook Pro processors are part of Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor technology, which are smaller and more power efficient than the previous generation of Sandy Bridge processors. Ivy Bridge processors are created using Intel’s 22nm (nanometer) 3D Tri-Gate process, while Sandy Bridge processors are32nm processors. Ivy Bridge also supports several features that promote power efficiency. Essentially, it promises improved performance from a chip that requires less power. 

The processors support Intel’s Hyper-Threading, which creates two virtual cores for each physical core present in the processor. With the quad-core Core i7 processor, Hyper-Threading creates eight virtual cores. Also, the processors have Turbo Boost, where the processing cores automatically boost its speed past the specified rate if it senses that it is running under the power and heat limits. The 2.3GHz processor in the $2199 model can boost its speed to 3.3GHz, while the 2.6GHz processor in the $2799 model goes up to 3.7GHz. 

Before WWDC 2012, rumors of a 15-inch MacBook Air ran through the mill. While the Retina MacBook Pro is part of Apple’s pro laptop line—and Apple representatives stressed during the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote that the Retina MacBook Pro is a pro machine—it has definitely taken some cues from its smaller, lighter sibling. One obvious cue is with the body design; it’s thinner and lighter than its 15-inch counterparts in the “regular” MacBook Pro line. (More on the design later.) But not so obvious are the RAM and flash storage implementations—which may turn some customers off. 

In the Retina MacBook Pro, the RAM is part of the motherboard; there are no slots and RAM sticks, and you have to decide at the time of purchase if you want to upgrade from the standard 8GB to 16GB. You can’t upgrade the RAM after purchase. The situation is similar for the flash storage; it’s not permanently attached, like the MacBook Air, but it’s not considered a user-upgradeable part. Companies such asOWC offer flash storage upgrade kits for the MacBook Air, and chances are you’ll see similar kits for the Retina MacBook Pro, but you’ll possibly void your warranty if you use them, and Apple won’t support such aftermarket hardware. 

If your idea of a “pro” machine allows you to upgrade or customize some of its parts (like the Mac Pro, Apple’s most customizable computer), then the Retina MacBook Pro will be a disappointment. However, that message has been on the wall, starting with the unibody Macs introduced in 2008, and reinforced with the 2010 MacBook Air—you can even look to the iPhone and iPad. Apple did not change the design of the regular 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro, so you still have the ability to upgrade RAM and storage later on in the life of those machines. 

Upgrading to 16GB of memory adds $200 to the price of either Retina model. Unfortunately, the $2199 model does not have an option to upgrade the 256GB of flash storage. The $2499 model has a 768GB flash storage upgrade for an additional $500.

Faster connections: USB 3.0, Thunderbolt

On one side of the Retina MacBook Pro, you’ll find a MagSafe 2 connector for power, two Thunderbolt ports, a USB 3.0 port, and a headphone jack. On the other side, there’s another USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, and a SDXC card slot.

USB 3.0 has long been on PCs, and it’s finally—finally!—made its way on to the Mac. With the widespread availability of USB 3.0 storage devices, Mac users will now be able to tap into the speed benefits of USB 3.0. The USB ports are compatible with USB 2.0, so you can still use USB 2.0 devices, though you won’t see an additional speed boost.

Thunderbolt is the high-speed connector here. Thunderbolt’s specification states data throughput of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) per channel, though the actual speed depends on the connected Thunderbolt device. 

Thunderbolt is also used to connect displays such as Apple’s Thunderbolt Display ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) or a Mini DisplayPort display like Apple’s 27-inch LED Cinema Display ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ). The Retina MacBook Pro can drive two external displays; you can connect a pair of Thunderbolt Displays, or a Thunderbolt Display and a Cinema Display, or even a display connected through the Thunderbolt port and a display connected to HDMI. With two displays connected, the laptop’s display is still available to use. 

Missing features

What’s missing? Ethernet—the Retina MacBook Pro comes with 802.11n, and Apple sells a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter for $29. (You could perhaps use a USB to Ethernet adapter, though I haven’t tried one.) There’s no FireWire 800, which I think is a bigger issue than the lack of Ethernet, since FireWire devices are still common with Mac users. Apple will probably sell a lot of its new Thunderbolt to FireWire 800 adapters when they become available—it’s too bad it’s not an included accessory. There’s no Kensington lock slot either, so you’ll need to find another way to secure the Retina MacBook Pro to a desk. 
Also missing is a SuperDrive, to no surprise. In my own personal use, I use the SuperDrive only to make backup copies of the DVD movies my kids get as presents, maybe five or six discs per year. I can’t remember the last time I burned data to an optical disc; too many times I’ve had a backup DVD that went bad, and I have USB flash drives I can use for times I can’t transfer a file over the network or the Internet. If you need a SuperDrive, you’ll have to get an external drive, such as Apple’s $79 USB SuperDrive. 

A not-so-obvious missing feature is an ExpressCard/34 slot, which was only available on the recently discontinued 17-inch MacBook Pro. The Retina MacBook Pro has no ExpressCard slot, so you’ll have to find other ways to get the functionality you’re used to having with an ExpressCard. For example, 3G connectivity: You can use a USB 3G modem, or you can use tethering on your iPhone. 

The Retina MacBook Pro uses a MagSafe 2 connector, the same kind that is used on the MacBook Air. The regular MacBook Pros continue to use the older MagSafe connector, and MagSafe 2 and MagSafe are not the same size. You can’t plug in a MagSafe 2 adapter into a MagSafe plug, and vice versa. If you want to use a MagSafe adapter with the Retina MacBook Pro, you’ll need a $10 MagSafe to MagSafe 2 Converter. There is no MagSafe 2 to MagSafe converter. 

Slimmer body

At first glance, the Retina MacBook Pro looks a lot like the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro and the aluminum body design is essentially the same. The major difference is the thickness. With the lid closed, the Retina MacBook Pro measures 0.71 inches, while the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro is nearly an inch tall. The thin profile of the Retina MacBook Pro aids portability, but it also helps alleviate the discomfort you might have (as I do) with the edge of the laptop cutting into your wrist as you type. The angle isn’t as steep as it is with the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it’s not like the tapered edge on the MacBook Air. It seems that Apple decided not to create a tapered edge in order to maximize the amount of battery inside.

The Retina MacBook Pro weighs 4.46 pounds, which is nearly a pound lighter than the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro, and more than 2 pounds lighter than the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Lighter is better—that’s a given—but what’s impressive about the Retina MacBook Pro’s weight is that its 4.46 pounds feels evenly distributed. Of course, it’s a bit heavier toward the screen, but it’s also not too light in the area around the trackpad, so if you carry the laptop while it’s open (admit it, you’ve done that more times that you’d like anyone to know), the laptop won’t suddenly tip over.

A minor cosmetic note: One thing you’ll notice with the open Retina MacBook Pro is that the MacBook Pro logo is no longer at the bottom of the screen. It’s on the bottom of the laptop. Apple got rid of the cover glass for the display, and the logo was part of the cover glass. Apple decided to not put the logo on the bezel of the display.

Two other changes: The power button replaces the optical drive eject button on the keyboard, and there’s no longer a battery life indicator on the hardware.

Apple says that low frequency audio is played through these vents, while mids and highs are heard through the speaker grills next to the keyboard.

Benchmarks: How does it compare?

To gauge the performance of the two new Retina MacBook Pro models, Macworld Lab tested the $2199 and $2799 models using Speedmark 7, our benchmark suite of real-world applications and tasks. 
Impressively, the 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro isn’t just the fastest laptop we’ve tested, it’s the fastest Mac we’ve tested, posting a remarkable 330 Speedmark 7 score. The 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro isn’t far behind, with a score of 319. The previous fastest laptop was a Late 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro Core i7 2.4GHz, and the fastest desktop Mac we’ve tested was a Mid 2010 BTO 27-inch 2.93GHz Core i7 iMac with an SSD. 

Compared to the fastest new 15-inch regular MacBook Pro with a 2.6GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 5400-rpm 750GB hard drive, the 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is 38 percent faster, and the 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is 33 percent faster.

If you look at the scores for last year’s MacBook Pros, the new 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is a whopping 51 percent faster. The comparison with the new 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is just as impressive; it’s 46 percent faster.

It’s the flash storage that gives the Retina MacBook Pros a serious boost. Compared to the new regular MacBook Pros, the Retina laptops see serious gains in disk-based activities, such as in our Duplicate 2GB Folder test, Zip 4GB Folder test, and Unzip 4GB File test. In other tests where the storage device comes into play (Import iMovie Archive, Aperture Import, iPhoto Import), the Retina laptops held an advantage.

In other tests that aren’t so disk dependent and more CPU focused, the Retina laptops and the new regular MacBook Pros were within range of each other, such as in our HandBrake Encode test, Pages Import test, MathematicaMark, and the Cinebench CPU test.

The one test where the new regular MacBook Pros clearly pulled away from the Retina laptops is in our Portal 2 frame rate test. The regular 2.6GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro was 9 percent faster than its Retina counterpart with the same processor. The regular 2.3GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro was 4 percent faster than the 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro, but it was 17 percent faster that 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro. Even though the Retina laptops and the regular MacBook Pros have the same graphics hardware (the regular 2.3 GHz MacBook Pro’s GeForce GT 650M has 512MB of memory, versus 1GB in the other three laptop), the Retina displays have so many more pixels to push that it can affect the frame rate in games.

Macworld is in the process of testing the four standard configurations of the new regular MacBook Pros. We’ll have a detailed review coming soon.

Heat and noise
I don’t have lab-produced test results, but I’ll give my subjective observations. The Retina MacBook Pro, while running the Diablo III installer, warmed up, but not enough to make me uncomfortable while it rested in my lap. The heat was from the center of the bottom of the laptop, and it didn’t seem to radiate beyond that. The fans did not kick in.

After Diablo III finished its installation, I ran the game. I was able to select 2880-by-1800 in the game’s settings, and during gameplay, the fans are definitely running and noticeable. The laptop heated up immediately, in the forward part of the bottom, underneath the keyboard where the GPU and CPU are located, and it heated up enough for me to move the laptop to a desk.

I watched several YouTube videos and iTunes movie trailers, all streaming 1080p or 720p over the Internet. The laptop got a bit warmer than when I installed Diablo III, but not hot enough for me to need to move the laptop off my lap. I wasn’t able to trigger the fans while doing this, and the videos ran smoothly.

I also used Handbrake to convert a movie file for my iPhone—the Retina MacBook Pro doesn’t have an optical drive and I didn’t try ripping a DVD or CD using an external drive. The file conversion took less than 5 minutes, during which time the fans did not run, and the laptop did not noticeably heat up.

Battery life

The Retina display is power-hungry; you need a lot of juice to move all those pixels. The Retina MacBook Pro’s built-in battery is rated at 95-watt hours. By comparison, the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro is rated at 77.5-watt hours. The Retina MacBook Pro has a much bigger battery.

However, Apple rates the battery life of all its 15-inch MacBook Pros at 7 hours of what the company calls “wireless web” use. When Macworld Lab tests battery life, we use a more rigorous test. We loop a movie file in full screen mode in QuickTime Pro until the battery is drained. This drains the battery faster than general use that involves Web access.

Both Retina laptops lasted about five hours in our test. Even with their larger batteries, they didn’t last as long as the regular 15-inch MacBook Pros, which lasted several minutes longer. The previous generation of 15-inch MacBook Pros actually outlasted the new models by a significant margin.

The new definition of “pro”

Apple’s idea of “pro”—at least for laptops—doesn’t involve customizable hardware, which means a few hardcore users are at a crossroads. You can still buy the regular MacBook Pro, open it up, and have your way with it, but I’m guessing it won’t be too long before that design too follows the 17-inch MacBook Pro into discontinued status.

So, what is Apple’s idea of a “pro” laptop? For now, it’s the Retina MacBook Pro, which is philosophically very close to the MacBook Air. Obviously, it’s light, it’s smaller than before, but the missing features force you to adjust, as with the MacBook Air. The “pro” aspect, in this case, refers to the performance; the general CPU speed matches the regular MacBook Pro (when you factor in the flash storage, the Retina MacBook Pro blazes past the regular laptops), so no performance compromises are made, and the performance is several notches past the MacBook Air.

Buying advice

With the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple once again proves it is a company that refuses to sit still and get comfortable. It redefined the ultraportable laptop with the MacBook Air, and has now altered the concept of the “pro” laptop. Going lighter and smaller was expected, given how Apple does things, but the change in feature set will have current MacBook Pro owners reexamining their needs.

One thing to consider: Customers actually have more laptop choices now than than they’ve had since the demise of the MacBook. There are three different types to choose from: the MacBook Air, the regular MacBook Pro, and the Retina MacBook Pro. It’s a good variety that ranges in price from $999 to $2799, not including BTO options.

The Retina MacBook Pro, however, is the future of Apple’s laptop line—and it’s a bright, shinning symbol of excellence. The Retina display is something to be marveled at, and the lightweight, smaller design addresses the demand for our devices to be even more portable. You’ll have to make a few adjustments, but fortunately, you don’t have to sacrifice performance. The Retina MacBook Pro is quite a remarkable laptop.

Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.

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