review In February this year, Apple updated its flagship MacBook Pro line with faster processors and lower prices, including its top of the line model with its famed ‘Retina Display’ high resolution screen. But, with the influx of Windows 8-based laptops onto the market, does Apple’s premiere portable still stack up against the competition? Read on to find out.
If you’ve used one of Apple’s MacBook Pro or MacBook Air laptops over the past few years, you’re probably fairly familiar by now with the overall design of the machines, and the 15” MacBook Pro with Retina Display doesn’t break the mould in this aspect compared with the rest of Apple’s machines. It’s a MacBook, it’s a MacBook, it’s a MacBook. But, to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s no secret that Apple’s design ethos, where form is tightly integrated with function and both inspire each other, is one of the things which made Apple such a successful company, and we have to say we’ve really liked the MacBook design for quite a while now.
So what are the common features which make up an Apple MacBook?
The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up a MacBook Pro is its lovely aluminium case. It’s smooth to the touch, a little slippery if your hands are very dry but still quite grippy if they’re not, and normally sits at room temperature, although it will heat up slightly after extended contact with your hands. On the rear side of the lid sits Apple’s iconic logo, which will glow white when you open the lid and turn the machine on. Its underside is thankfully largely free of the stickers and other paraphenalia which can plague some other laptop manufacturers; it’s also just largely the same aluminium, but with four rubbery bumps to sit the laptop slightly off a desk’s surface. A series of small fan vents are unobtrusively set into the slightly sloped sides of the MacBook’s undercarriage, as well as under the lid.
When you open up the MacBook Pro’s screen, if the machine has some battery power, the real hero feature of this model — its high-resolution Retina Display — hits you and it’s hard to look at anything else as it completely steals the show. For those not familiar with the term, Apple uses the ‘Retina Display’ label to refer to displays on its products which have a high enough pixel density so that users are not able to discern individual pixels on a screen from a normal viewing distance.
The Retina Display on this model of the MacBook Pro is certainly lovely to look at. It’s bright, it’s very clear, it has lovely colours and it really grabs the attention of the user when it’s turned on, allowing the rest of the MacBook Pro’s quite minimalistic design to fade into the background.
But the rest of the laptop’s design is quite good as well. The laptop’s screen extends pretty close to the edge of its casing, with only a small black border of about a centimetre surrounding it. The full-sized keyboard is composed of Apple’s ‘chiclet’ style — black keys of soft plastic that are a delight on the hands, with the lettering in white stencils that will glow when in a dark room. On either side of the keyboard sits two generously sized speakers, while a substantial trackpad sits below it.
If you haven’t used a recent Apple MacBook, it may surprise you to know that the MacBook Pro now doesn’t come with an in-built DVD drive, although of course you can buy them separately from the company. Partly because of this welcome move (who uses optical media any more?), the 15” MacBook Pro with Retina Display is actually quite thin — it’s only 1.8cm thick. This is only 0.1cm thicker than the thickest part of Apple’s much lighter and more portable MacBook Air machines, although those taper towards the user to a thickness of just 0.3cm, while the MacBook Pro does not. However, the MacBook Pro still feels quite thin for such a powerful laptop.
In terms of its other dimensions, it’s 35.89cm wide and 24.71cm deep, and weighs about 2kg. The width and depth of the laptop are fine and mean that it sits very comfortably on your lap, but to be honest we actually find the MacBook Pro a little heavy to carry around at 2kg, probably owing a fair bit to its classy aluminium finish. Don’t get us wrong: We really like the aluminium body of the MacBook Pro. And the MacBook Air line is there for those who really need a lighter MacBook to carry everywhere. However, Apple has continually changed the game over the past few years for thin and light devices with its iPad line, and I think users are going to keep on demanding lighter but still powerful MacBook Pros.
On the left-hand side of the MacBook you get the input for its magnetic charger — which we currently like better than other chargers on the market, due to its simple click on or off approach, and you also get two Thunderbolt ports (allowing transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps, according to Apple), a USB 3 port (allowing speeds up to 5Gbps) and a headphone socket. On the right-hand side there’s an SDXC card slot, a HDMI out port and another USB 3 port.
Frankly, overall the design of the MacBook Pro is still one of the best on the market, and this Retina Display model is probably the best example of the breed. When it comes to built quality, Apple is really second to none, and this whole machine feels like the very premium of the premium laptop models available. We are sure you will really like it.
The hero feature of the 15” MacBook with Retina Display is its screen. It’s a 15.4” LED-backlit IPS display, running at 2880 by 1800 — a virtually unprecedented resolution for a laptop. This gives this model a pixel density of 220 pixels per inch, which is a lot lower than you’ll find on the latest smartphones, but a lot higher than you’ll find on virtually any other laptop. The MacBook Pro can also do lesser resolutions.
The model we’ve been reviewing comes with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core processor, 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, and two graphics cards — an Intel HD Graphics 4000 (512MB model) and an NVIDIA Geforce GT 650M model with 1024MB of memory. The lesser Intel model is intended for most situations, while the NVIDIA beast comes into play when graphically intensive jobs (such as playing Half-Life 2, which we’ll get to later in this review) come into play. There are also several other CPU upgrade options which give the laptop a bit more grunt; although we expect most people won’t need them. Most applications these days tend to be limited only by the power of your graphics card; although those who work with video or music processing will want all the raw CPU power you can get. Similarly, the MacBook Pro’s RAM can be boosted to 16GB.
This is what Apple said in mid-February when it delivered a modest upgrade to its MacBook Pro line with retina display: “The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display now features a faster 2.4 GHz quad-core processor, and the top-of-the-line 15-inch notebook comes with a new 2.7 GHz quad-core processor and 16GB of memory.” The model we tested for this review was actually released in mid-2012, but it’s basically identical to the new models; just a little less powerful under the hood.
In terms of storage, the model we have came with a 256GB Apple-branded SSD drive (again, here there are upgrade options), and a little over 200GB of that was usable. The model we have came with a full suite of Apple applications pre-installed — Pages, iMovie, GarageBand etc. The camera above the screen is capable of shooting 720p video for videoconferencing sessions. Apple says the laptop’s battery will deliver up to 7 hours of “wireless web” use and up to 30 days of standby time. It’s a 95-watt-hour lithium-polymer model.
And of course you get all the other normal Apple stuff. Bluetooth, built-in microphones, support for the normal 802.11 Wi-Fi standards, etc. And the latest Mountain Lion version of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system comes pre-installed; the hard disk is by default partitioned in just one large chunk etc, as you would expect.
So is there anything missing? Yes, to our mind.
Firstly, for a laptop which is going to cost buyers at least $2,500, we’d really prefer to see a gigabit Ethernet port built-in. Sure, you can buy external connectors for the MacBook which will add this functionality, but we’re betting that very few users would see it as a waste of space to have Ethernet, and not just Wi-Fi, as an option for getting content onto the MacBook Pro. You just can’t transfer large video files around fast enough on Wi-Fi, and the MacBook Pro is, after all, aimed at professionals.
Secondly, there are still questions around Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt connectors can output video to almost any external source with the right Apple connector, but the MacBook Pro doesn’t actually come with any by default, and we have yet to see many external storage devices using the standard. In this, as in so many other cases, Apple appears to be attempting to push the envelope technically by stimulating users to adopt new standards which they actually may not want to adopt. If Apple is going to shackle users to Thunderbolt, we’d like to see a few free adapters thrown into the box — VGA, DVI etc. Apple used to do this; we’re not quite sure when or why it got out of the habit.
We find it hard to believe that most users will actually use the two Thunderbolt ports on the MacBook Pro; but even if Apple were to leave these two ports alone, we’d like to see more than just two USB ports on this machine. Three or four would be more appropriate, considering that many people use their MacBook Pros as desktop replacement devices.
Apple has also removed the little divot from its MacBooks which used to let buys be able to lock their machines to their desks with security cables such as Kensington produces. And, somewhat unbelievably, there is also no audio-in line to the MacBook Pro — that’s right, the headphone socket is not a combination in/out jack, although it does do optical audio out these days. We’d like to see either the combo port return or a dedicated audio in port back on the MacBook Pro. Honestly, sometimes it seems like Apple removes features from its products just because it feels like it.
Are these quibbles? Well, it depends. In a personal home environment, probably most of the issues we’ve raised here about the MacBook Pro’s features aren’t such a big deal. However, for work, these can be issues. The fact is that Apple’s flagship MacBook Pro now no longer has an audio in jack, which significantly depreciates its attractiveness for one of its core markets — multimedia developers. You can get external sockets and such to solve the issue, but its an unnecessary annoyance.
Similarly, we can’t see any reason why Apple would leave off the Kensington lock feature or Ethernet port, minimise USB ports to two or not include VGA or DVI adapters with the MacBook Pro. These are small items which enough people care about that we think Apple should care about them too. These features are also missing on the 11″ MacBook Air which your writer uses personally as a machine out of the office, and I can assure you that at times the lack of a Kensington lock, extra USB ports or Ethernet has become a serious inconvenience.
However, buying Apple has always been about compromise. With every revised generation of its products, Apple tends to force its users down certain paths. If you buy Apple products regularly you probably already know and accept this by now. The fantastic build quality and stellar software/hardware integration is usually enough to win over those concerned about missing small features, and it’s more or less the same with the 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display. This machine still has almost all of the features anyone could want.
One last issue we need to discuss here: Touchscreens.
Right now, the Delimiter labs is also playing host to one of Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon machines. We’ve reviewed this model before, and we really like it; it’s one of the only really solid alternatives to Apple’s MacBook Air. However, we’ve gotten it back in because it now has a new feature — a touchscreen, to go with its new Windows 8 default install. Now, sure, Mac OS X doesn’t support touch, but many people will install Windows 8 on their MacBooks using Boot Camp, and some people even use Windows full-time on their MacBooks, due to the solid combination of Microsoft’s more widely used operating system and Apple’s excellent hardware.
So should the MacBook Pro come with a touchscreen built in?
Obviously Apple isn’t going to think so — Steve Jobs famously quipped at one stage that laptops with touchscreens would give people arm strain, and until Mac OS X gets a radical overhaul and supports touch — if it ever does — Apple will never ship a MacBook with a touchscreen feature. In fact, we suspect this won’t happen until Apple manages, as Microsoft is trying to with Windows 8, to integrate its mobile and traditional PC offerings so that a tablet can function as a laptop with some hardware additions and so on. And there is no doubt that this is a while away.
However, I have heard repeated comments from many people recently that the fact that Windows 8 laptops all have touchscreens now, coupled with the ubiquity of touchscreen tablets and smartphones, means that they have started to feel as though they can touch every screen in their lives — TV screens, traditional PC monitors and so on. In this context, it is beginning to feel weird when you see a screen which you’re not able to interact with via touch.
Personally, I know that Apple won’t implement touch into its MacBook line until the software’s ready. However, I can’t help but see the lack of a touchscreen on the company’s MacBooks as a negative, given that every Windows laptop I am reviewing now features touch. I want to touch the MacBook Pro’s screen for quick access to some things, and I’m disappointed when nothing happens. This may turn out to be a bigger factor for MacBooks in future than Apple realises right now. You probably won’t realise what I’m talking about here until you start interacting with Windows 8 machines yourself and realise how convenient touch can sometimes be.
There are, in general, probably half a dozen main areas of the MacBook Pro’s performance which you want to know about. Firstly, is it worth shelling out extra for a Retina Display? Secondly, what’s the battery life like? What about general system performance and user interface responsiveness? And, of course, there’s also the issue of applications such as games.
Firstly, I have no qualms about recommending that all those who can afford to do so pony up and shell out the additional $500 or so that it’ll cost you to get a MacBook Pro with a Retina Display. The quality of this laptop’s screen is second to none that we’ve seen, and we can’t recommend it enough. Going back to a non-Retina Display screen after using this model is a chore, and we strongly suspect that eventually all of Apple’s units will have Retina Displays. For good reason: They just look great and make a difference in everyday use.
Battery life on the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is pretty good, but you likely won’t get through a full day of use without a charge unless you’re only using low-intensity apps in a light manner. Apple’s estimate of seven hours is reasonable, but in practice you’ll probably do a little less if you’re actually working. And when you’re gaming, or doing an intensive task such as processing video, expect to chunk through the battery fairly fast, as this is fundamentally quite a powerful laptop. The good news is that this model retains its stored juice very well if it’s asleep — we left it alone for the better part of a week and came back to find the battery barely touched.
In terms of overall system performance, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is just great. Its SSD drive, solid amount of RAM and powerful processor make it a cut above most other Macs we’ve tried, and we’re itching to get an SSD drive into our next iMac. The use of an SSD drive in MacBooks really does speed them up substantially, and we highly recommend it.
To test gaming performance, we installed Steam and booted up Valve’s Half-Life 2 (Episode 2). We used this as an introductory level testbed as it’s got a native Mac OS X edition which we already own through Steam, and as it was released in 2007 it’s not too ancient. The MacBook Pro handled this with no problems at all with all the graphics on max — although when we pushed the resolution up to the max 2800 by 1800, there were a few little jaggy bits here and there. The bad news is that as soon as we loaded even this game with moderate graphical demands, the MacBook Pro’s fans lit up like a hurricane and it started to get quite hot. Plus, the battery instantly started draining at a rapid clip.
The conclusion we can take from this introductory experiment is that the MacBook Pro with Retina Display definitely can deal with modern games. It it can take Half-Life 2 Episode 2 with no problems, you’ll be able to play most things on the market at an OK clip, although you may have to make some trade-offs with respect to resolution or graphical detail. However, expect to have to plug into the power point when you do so, and also expect to use headphones, because although the MacBook Pro’s speakers are quite decent, its fans get quite loud when gaming. In essence: You can definitely game on this machine, but it’s not fundamentally a gaming machine, if you know what we mean ;)
What would we like to see Apple improve when it comes to the MacBook Pro’s performance? Well, for starters we’d like to see a better camera for videoconferencing. The MacBook Pro’s ‘720p’ model does the job, but we live in an age of affordable but awesome cameras on smartphones — why can’t some of this quality come to videoconferencing on MacBooks?
Plus, anything which Apple can do with respect to battery life on the MacBook Pro will be welcomed. Lenovo has recently introduced a new feature on its ThinkPad X1 which lets users rapidly charge 80 percent of its battery life in 35 minutes — useful if the user is in a meeting for half an hour and has access to a wallpoint for only that time. We’d like to see this same kind of technology come to Apple’s MacBooks as well. Basically, anything that can help the MacBook Pro’s already solid battery life get a lot better and charge faster will be very much welcomed.
There’s no doubt that the 15” MacBook Pro with Retina Display isn’t the perfect laptop. Now that iPads and MacBook Airs are so popular, it feels a little heavy, it could do with a couple more USB ports, and Apple has removed some features over time, such as audio in and gigabit Ethernet, which, frankly, we’d like the company to put back in.
Having said that, however, this laptop is probably the best high-end general purpose laptop available on the market today. It’s got solid battery life for its class, it’s got all of the inputs most people will ever use, and it’s got powerful guts which just got stronger courtesy of Apple’s February 2013 update. Of course, there are quite a few laptops out there which have these features. But what those laptops don’t have is the superlative high-resolution display which the MacBook Pro with Retina Display has, and which will change your view of how good laptop displays can be forever. Coupled with Apple’s trademark build quality, this makes this model top of the class.
If you need a 15” laptop which is going to last you a few years and will give you great general performance over that period, buy the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. We highly recommend it — and you definitely won’t regret shelling out a little extra for its vastly improved screen.
Image credit: Apple