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MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Review Revue

Bandying about superlatives ranging from “groundbreaking” to “jaw-dropping,” early reviewers of the recently released MacBook Pro with Retina Display (see “New MacBook Pro Features Retina Display, Flash Memory,” 11 June 2012) seem to have avoided the comedown that many experience after a showy Apple introduction, and are quite smitten overall with this update to an Apple classic. This praise is forthcoming despite the fact that many aspects of the new MacBook Pro — from the high-resolution Retina display to use of flash memory storage to quicken the overall user experience — are far more evolutionary than revolutionary (see “Incremental Change Wins Apple Big Gains,” 29 March 2012, for Glenn Fleishman’s treatise on the relative modesty of most Apple hardware upgrades).

Here at TidBITS, the only staff member who received a review unit was Jeff Carlson. Unfortunately, he was beholden to one of his other gigs (a little rag called the Seattle Times) for a hands-on review, so let’s swing around the Internet to see what he and some other reviewers are saying.

On the subject of the new MacBook Pro’s centerpiece feature — the 15.4-inch Retina display with a resolution of 2880 by 1800 pixels — Roman Loyola at Macworld writes that photo details and text were amazingly crisp when he set the MacBook Pro to its Best (Retina) resolution setting. But he also found himself giddy over reading 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.”

The one downside of having so many pixels (5.184 million, to be exact, at 220 pixels per inch) is that software not optimized for the Retina display (such as Adobe InDesign and Twitter, two examples offered by reviewers) will render images and text poorly. But for MG Siegler at TechCrunch, the biggest problem with the Retina display is the lackluster rendering of text and images in Web browsers — not just those that haven’t yet been updated for the display (such as Google Chrome, which has Retina support under development) but also in the Retina-optimized Safari. He writes:

“If you want examples of apps that look brilliant with the retina display, try any of Apple’s (iPhoto, iMovie, etc). Or visit from Safari. Otherwise, things are fairly bleak at the moment. And the reality is that depending on how graphic-heavy the app/site is, it’s going to be a lot of work for developers to make the upgrades.”

Speaking of selecting the Retina setting for optimized viewing on this pixel-packed display, Tim Stevens at Engadget complains that there isn’t a way to choose an explicit numerical resolution setting. Instead, the Display preference pane presents you with a five-position slider that ranges from Larger Text on one end of the spectrum to More Space on the other, with Best (Retina) sitting in the middle. “It’s perhaps more friendly for novice users,” he writes, “but remember: this is a laptop with the word ‘Pro’ in the name.” (And if you don’t believe that, consider that it can run four displays at their native resolutions.)

In his Seattle Times review, Jeff Carlson is certainly impressed by the screen’s resolution and notes that it’s “still glossy, but not as reflective as the standard MacBook Pro screen, which is a big improvement.”

However, the Retina display isn’t the standout feature of the new MacBook Pro for Jeff, due largely to the fact that he works most of the time tethered to an external monitor at his desk. Rather, it’s the breakneck speed of the machine. Thanks to the combination of the 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7 processor in his review unit and the solid-state drive, Jeff was able to open Adobe InDesign in just 3 seconds (compared to 25 seconds on his 2-year-old MacBook Pro).

For those looking to be more mobile, Engadget performed its battery rundown test and got 7 hours, 49 minutes with the 2.6 GHz Core i7 model and 9 hours, 22 minutes for the 2.3 GHz Core i7 version — which compares favorably to the 7 hours of battery life claimed by Apple. However, Katherine Boehret at All Things D put the MacBook Pro through her “standard battery test,” which seems to stress the laptop more than your typical user by maxing out screen brightness, turning off all power-saving features, playing an endless loop of music, and keeping both Wi-Fi and email retrieval on. Boehret averaged just over 4 hours of battery life from this test (performed twice), though she believes the MacBook Pro would be more likely to see over 5 hours of battery life under less stressed conditions.

Mark Spoonauer at Laptop Magazine found that the new asymmetrically spaced fans on the Retina MacBook Pro definitely help keep the noise level down while the laptop is handling processor-intensive tasks (such as editing HD video). However, the heat levels coming out from the keyboard were “well above what we consider uncomfortable” at 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees C); the touchpad and the bottom of the laptop were cooler.

From a gaming perspective, Ross Miller at The Verge tested Diablo 3 on the new MacBook Pro with a 2.6 GHz Core i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM, running the game at maximum resolution and pushing “the game’s eye candy to the max” (shadows, special effects, etc.). He found that the game “jumped between 15 and 20 frames per second — just barely playable at most times,” but that bringing the resolution down to 1680 by 1050 (the resolution of the standard MacBook Pro) helped provide a consistent 30 frames per second for better playability.

Be sure to check out The Verge’s typically gorgeous and fast-paced video review of the Retina MacBook Pro, where Miller’s summary echoes many of the other reviewers’ sentiments:

“The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display really is kind of the culmination of everything Apple has learned in the MacBook field. Granted, of course, it is the most expensive MacBook Pro out there, one of the most expensive laptops out there. But, if budget’s not an issue, this is the best laptop you can buy right now.”


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Comments about MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Review Revue
(Comments are closed.)

Kenoli Oleari  2012-06-26 00:56
There are some serious drawbacks in the way this machine is constructed. These includes new construction practices that prevent internal upgrades, make repairs difficult or impossible without replacing major components and make it hard to recycle. These issues are discussed on the ifixit web site, here:

This represents a shift towards the black box construction of the iPhone, iPad and iPhone, which helps decrease size and weight but sacrifices repairability and versatility.

These shifts along with the shift toward a more iPad-like user experience seems to cater to non-technical consumers, while abandoning experienced users who wish to modify, repair and hack their machines. In addition, because components are fused in a number of places, the value of recyclable materials is lost as the fusing interferes with recycle-ability.

Seems like more "dumbing down" in the service of "flash."
I don't think I agree with the "dumbing down" statement and the idea that the more closed-box approach caters only to non-savvy consumers.

I think the closed-box approach might rather be a consequence of the shift in the way we use computers. If you buy a notebook that has been built to your specifications and then use it for two to three years before you exchange it with the next model, you're using your notebook much like most people would use their iPad. Now sure such a notebook is not as repair-friendly as you might like, but OTOH if you have AppleCare you could care less about fixing it yourself.

I'm not saying building a MBP like an iPad is a good idea, but it's definitely not "un-pro". A pro who wants the latest tech will upgrade frequently. Give him build-to-order and an extended repair warranty and his computer is as pro as necessary.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-26 09:52
While I'm somewhat troubled by the trend on a philosophical level, it bothers me less than other trends, since it seems to me that the goals of small form factor and ease of repairability are at odds. Stunts like the pentalobe screws are just unnecessary, but I can easily see how making a machine easily repairable would be hard to reconcile with shaving off every unnecessary millimeter and gram.
One thing that your review does not mention, the issue that is my biggest complaint about this computer is the lack of an optical drive. Having to carry around an external drive does not make the total more portable IMHO. I use the optical drive in my (old) MacBook Pro often enough to make this a significant drawback. The millimeters needed to include such a drive are simply not significant for me.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-27 09:57
Absolutely true, Bill, and if you use the optical drive a lot, this MacBook probably isn't for you, just like the MacBook Air. I suspect this didn't stand out in the reviews that Agen was rounding up because it's a rather obvious omission that's clear in the specs, rather than something where hands-on experience would reveal something non-obvious or subjective.