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2012 MacBook Pro with Retina Display Review

The New MacBook Pro With Retina Display is Looking Good

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2012 MacBook Pro Retina Review

The MacBook Pro with Retina display

Courtesy of Apple

The MacBook Pro with Retina display (please, Apple; how about a shorter product name?) is considered by many to be a whole new take on what a notebook can be.

Starting with a gorgeous Retina display to catch our eye and fulfill our dreams, the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is actually a whirlwind of technology triumphs that make it perhaps the most sought-after Mac in a generation.

But is it really all that and a cup of tea? We're going to take a look at this marvel and find out.

15.4-inch Retina Display

Let's start with the obvious and most stunning aspect of the new MacBook Pro: the Retina display. At 15.4 inches and 2880x1800 pixels, that's 5.1 million pixels or 220 pixels per inch. Apple calls this a "retina" display because at normal viewing distance, the average human eye is unable to discern individual pixels. The result blows away anything we've ever seen in a display, let alone a display that you can pick up and take with you

The level of detail is amazing. Text is sharp, and actually fun to read. High-resolution photos practically pop off the screen. But there's a downside to the Retina display: it's just too good.

If you're like most Mac users, your daily tasks involve mostly mundane things, such as browsing web sites. Although Apple includes a version of Safari that can work with the high-resolution Retina display, most web sites don't use high-resolution images, mainly because they take too long to load. The 72-dpi images used for most web graphics looks a bit jagged, and can actually put you off browsing many web sites. On the plus side, Safari renders text in delightfully crisp resolution.

The image problem will continue until application and web site developers hop on board the Retina wagon. In the meantime, loading some web pages will remind you of the day you brought home your first HDTV, and were stuck watching standard def content. (Even now, many channels don't offer HD versions.)

Apple attempts to help ease the pain by providing an image-doubling technique to upscale the images. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is configured to display at 1440x900 pixels. This resolution is listed as Best (Retina), and although at first it may seem odd that a 2880x1800 display is using a scaled resolution, in practice, it's the perfect setting. Apple uses this resolution to pixel-double any images or text that aren't optimized for Retina. This allows the Mac to assign four pixels to each pixel in an image. The result is precise scaling of images without having to perform complex calculations in software. Photos and other graphics that are optimized for the Retina display can use the full resolution to produce truly breathtaking images.

Specifications

Apple offers two off-the-shelf models of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, plus a build-to-order model. All models use the same Retina display and body, but have slightly different processor and storage configurations.

$2199 MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • 2.3 GHz Intel Quad-Core i7 processor (Turbo boost up to 3.3 GHz)

  • 256 GB SSD (Solid State Drive)

$2799 MacBook Pro with Retina display

  • 2.6 GHz Intel Quad-Core i7 processor (Turbo boost up to 3.6 GHz)

  • 512 GB SSD (Solid State Drive)

Build-to-order models can add:

  • 2.6 GHz Intel Quad-Core i7 processor (Turbo boost up to 3.7 GHz)

  • 768 GB SSD (Solid State Drive)

All models include the following:

  • 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3L RAM (upgradeable at time of order to 16 GB)

  • Intel HD Graphics 4000 + NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M

  • 720p FaceTime camera

  • Two Thunderbolt ports

  • Two USB 3.0 ports

  • HDMI port

  • Headphone port

  • SDXC card slot

  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi

  • Bluetooth 4.0

  • Stereo speakers

  • Dual microphones

  • Keyboard and trackpad.

  • MagSafe 2 power adapter

Compare specifications against the standard 2012 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Performance and Connectivity

The MacBook Pro with Retina display can be the fastest Mac notebook, depending on the configuration you choose. The fastest MacBook Pro, based simply on processing power, is the 13-inch model, which is available with a 2.9 GHz Quad-Core i7 processor.

But even though the 13-inch model can be configured with a faster processor, it doesn't equate to real-world performance. In that case, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is able (once again, depending on configuration) to outshine the other MacBook Pro models. What makes it faster is its Flash-based storage system; it also uses larger cache RAM than the 13-inch models.

Speaking of RAM and storage, the MacBook Pro with Retina display has what many will consider a huge shortcoming: there are no customer-serviceable parts. You can't upgrade the RAM, because it's soldered directly to the motherboard. Likewise, the SSD uses a new connector style that prevents most users from being able to upgrade storage. It's likely that third-party suppliers will at some point offer a storage upgrade, but not if Apple keeps changing the connector design each time it comes out with a new model.

The battery isn't user-replaceable; it's glued into the unibody case. And finally, Apple discourages users from even opening up the case by using pentalobe screws.

All of this is why the folks at iFixit called the Retina version of the MacBook Pro the least repairable laptop they have ever taken apart, and by inference, the least upgradable.

Benchmarks

I wasn't able to run any benchmarks on the MacBook Pro with Retina display, but luckily, my favorite benchmark app, Geekbench, has already listed the results of both the 2.3 GHz and 2.6 GHz versions. The numbers range from a Geekbench score of 12018 for the 2.3 GHz versions to 13038 for the 2.6 GHz processor. To put that in perspective, this little portable Mac can outperform the now retired 2011 17-inch MacBook Pro, and do it with the best display you've probably ever seen.

Connections

Apple finally decided that USB 3.0 was mainstream enough to install on the new line of Mac notebooks. I expect we will see USB 3 showing up on all new Macs going forward. For the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple has included two USB 3 ports, one on each side of the Mac. The ports are compatible with both USB 3 and USB 2, so you shouldn't have any problems using your older USB 2 devices.

The same can't be said for FireWire, which has been expunged. But don't worry if you have FireWire-based external devices. Apple included two Thunderbolt ports, and a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire 800 adapter is available for $29.00. I think Apple should have included the adapter in the package, but the cost is low enough that I'm not going to complain too loudly.

You may also notice the lack of an Ethernet port. Apple must feel that most notebook users are using wireless connections, and it's difficult to dispute that. If you need a wired connection, Apple is offering a solution similar to the one it's offering FireWire users: a Thunderbolt-to-Gigabit Ethernet adapter, also $29.00.

The other ports are an HDMI, for connecting an external monitor or TV; an SDXC card slot; and a new MagSafe 2 power port. When Apple redesigned the Retina MacBook Pro case, it lopped off enough height that the old MagSafe connector no longer fit; a new, slimmer MagSafe 2 adorns this Mac.

Battery

The battery is a custom-designed 95-watt-hour lithium-polymer unit that is glued to the unibody case and provides up to 7 hours of performance. Apple says that 7 hours is for a typical wireless Internet connection and using Safari for general browsing. I suspect that actual battery run-time will be lower, especially when doing anything beyond "typical" usage, which isn't all that typical. I use my current MacBook Pro for a lot more than just web browsing. Nevertheless, the Retina MacBook Pro has the largest battery that Apple has ever shoehorned into a notebook. That power is needed for all those extra pixels in the Retina display. I think I can live with slightly shorter battery run-time in favor of the beauty of the display.

Missing in Action

When Apple chose a smaller form factor for the Retina MacBook Pro, it had to give up something. The most obvious missing item is an optical drive. I don't think this is a big deal for most users, except for DIYers who like to pull the optical drive out of their MacBook Pros and use the space for an additional drive instead.

Other missing items include the aforementioned FireWire 800 and wired Gigabit Ethernet ports, plus the ExpressCard slot in the now retired 17-inch Macbook Pro.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display Wrap-Up

You can't get around one obvious fact: This is simply the best-looking MacBook Pro Apple has ever made. And I don't mean its physical appearance; I'm talking about the display itself. It's a beauty, for sure.

But Apple wanted to do more than just push the display envelope. It wanted this Mac to be a tour de force in manufacturing and engineering. It succeeded, but at a cost.

In exchange for a thinner, lighter Mac, Apple made the inner workings out of bounds to any type of upgrade. That means you have to make your choices at the time of purchase, and hope you don't outgrow them in what you expect to be the useable lifetime of your new Mac. That may be why many sources recommend maxing out RAM to 16 GB, and upping the SSD size as much as you can afford.

I agree about upping the RAM, but I wouldn't bother spending the money on larger storage. If I need storage later, the USB 3 or Thunderbolt ports are capable of providing enough speed for most storage bandwidth needs. Pros, clearly the target audience for this rig, would meet most of their storage needs externally anyway. They're also less likely than other users to do their own upgrades and repairs, so the lack of upgradeability probably won't be an issue.

I really like to have the option to upgrade RAM, as well as perform other upgrades and repairs, so the beauty of the Retina display isn't enough to tempt me. But that's just me. For many mobile Mac users, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is a winner.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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