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iCreate Flashback: MacBook Pro with Retina display [2012]

10 years of iCreate: The latest addition to Apple's MacBook lineup blew us away in our featured review from issue 110 last year

The final entry into our week of nostalgia is the recent MacBook Pro with Retina display. Last year, in issue 110, we saw the first Retina Mac, and with a high price point and performance that was put under pressure by the pixel count, we found that old Apple truism was right once again – the first version of any new hardware is usually flawed.

retina 1Price: From £1,799/$2,199

System Specifications • 2.3GHz quad-core i7 • 8GB RAM • 256GB, 512GB or 768GB SSD

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When Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, unveiled the new MacBook Pro with Retina display at WWDC in June, Apple pulled out all the stops. The theatrics were back on par with Apple’s earlier days as the brand-new model rose from underneath the stage on a plinth and rotated on its own accord to show off the new model’s stellar form factor. Schiller, a usually reserved speaker, was visibly excited by the prospect of such a thin device, comparing its height to that of his own finger. Even the animated reveal of the device on the big screen (unveiled from underneath a black cloth) harked back to some of the more magical ‘Steve Notes’ where devices like the original iPhone, first MacBook Air, or even the original Macintosh were launched in spectacular style.

In short, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is a big deal. It’s the first major update to Apple’s notebook line-up since 2008 and the first machine running OS X to include the quite stunning Retina display that has propelled the iPhone and iPad to dizzying heights of fame and success. With the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, Apple is undoubtedly hoping for a repeat performance.

The new MacBook Pro with Retina display might well keep the long-standing aluminium and glass combination that Jony Ive and company know and love, but by dropping the optical drive, Apple has put its top-end notebook on a diet, slimmed it down to just 0.71 inches thick and added its most impressive display yet. Throw in an entirely flash-based memory architecture and some impressive engineering to make it all fit inside an incredibly svelte chassis and you’ve got a Mac that turns heads. Without a doubt, the latest iteration of the MacBook Pro is the update that Apple aficionados have been crying out for.

On paper, the MacBook Pro with Retina display certainly looks impressive. Lighter than the current 13-inch MacBook Pro, with more pixels in its display than an HD TV and customisable with up to an impressive 768GB of flash-based storage, it certainly seems to be a force to be reckoned with. Apple’s innovation comes at a cost though, with a £1,799/$2,199 starting price, the MacBook Pro with Retina display will certainly have potential buyers questioning whether it’s really worth parting with so much cash for a device that’s likely to see an update within the next few years.

We’ve been test driving the MacBook Pro with Retina display for some time now, scratching behind the surface of what is, arguably, Apple’s best-ever Mac, and finding out just how well it performs in a real creative environment. Looks and specs might well be impressive, but the true test of any new product to come out of Cupertino is the experience you share with it, from the moment you take it out of the box to the moment you shut it down after a day’s use. Want to know how it got on and, ultimately, if it’s worth the money? You’ll have to read on to find out.

The Retina display

Apple is the first to admit that first impressions are key – that’s why hours are spent perfecting packaging, training its specialists and tweaking interfaces. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is no exception to this rule and nothing is more striking on first glance than the display itself. When you first fire up OS X you’re immediately struck by how incredibly sharp things look, Apple has crammed just over five million pixels into the 15-inch screen, and it really shows. Every icon is beautiful, even when enlarged or zoomed in and, like the new iPad, text renders flawlessly.

If you’re not already familiar with the workings of Retina displays thanks to the new iPad and iPhone 4, the premise of it is fairly simple. Every screen has a number of pixels per inch of screen real estate and, when the density is increased, there’s eventually so many pixels packed into such a small space they become invisible to the human eye. In the case of the new MacBook Pro, that’s 220 pixels per inch. In real terms, it’s an engineering triumph to cram so much into such a small space, but it comes at a cost. The new Retina display is definitely partly responsible for this machine’s high starting price and, if you’re thinking of taking the plunge and making a purchase, it’s certainly worth considering whether you want to fork out extra for what is unquestionably an impressive visual experience.

MacBook Pro with retina display
The Retina display looks stunning when you get up close and personal – click the image to see a larger view

If you’re a filmmaker or photographer, you’ll instantly notice the benefits of the Retina display – colours seem far more ‘true’ to real life, and the ultra-sharp and incredibly detailed display means that mistakes in shots and artefacts in photos are easily noticed and fixed. That said, the Retina display isn’t just there to benefit the professionals – it makes for a significant improvement on day-to-day use too. Everything from reading emails to composing music in GarageBand is crystal clear and markedly different from older, non-Retina displays.

What’s more, the new display is significantly thinner than previous models thanks to the glass and aluminium chassis being fused together. This lack of a secondary pane of glass also means the screen is noticeably less reflective than its predecessors. We tested this out against a mid-2011 13-inch MacBook Pro in direct sunlight and the MacBook Pro with Retina display was far more usable. It’s not quite the matte display that creative professionals have been crying out for, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The differences in colours are also striking. On the new MacBook Pro, there’s a pleasant increase in contrast. Blacks appear deeper, brighter colours appear richer and everything just ‘pops’ a little more. Apple’s IPS (in-plane switching) comes into play here, ensuring those deep colours stay consistent no matter what angle you view the screen from – great for sharing videos and watching movies with friends.

Unfortunately, the MacBook Pro with Retina display’s greatest asset also happens to be the biggest hindrance to the OS X experience. Apple would have known about this huge increase in resolution with enough time to push out Retina-ready updates to all of its apps, but third-party developers were left in the dark until launch day and are now desperately playing catch up. The result is a desktop that’s plagued by pixilated, blurry or, at worst, unusable apps that are yet to get with the resolution revolution. We’re sure this will change in the not-so-distant future, but right now it’s a serious issue.

Once every third-party app developer has played catch up, however, you’ll find yourself wondering how you ever lived without the super-crisp look of the Retina display. Working with images is a pleasure and we can only imagine games will be more immersive than ever before. Even watching movies is an improved experience. In short, everything you do on your Mac will look that little bit better thanks to the Retina display and, if you’re prepared to put in the extra investment, there’s no denying it’ll be worth it.

Hardware and design

The stellar Retina display might be the most obvious improvement to Apple’s latest notebook, but it’s not until you go hands-on with the new MacBook Pro that you realise there’s far more to this new model than meets the eye.

On the outside, Apple has put the new MacBook Pro with Retina display on a diet, ditching the increasingly unused optical drive, redesigning the interior (more on this later) and overhauling the display. The result is a professional notebook that weighs in at 4.46 pounds and 0.71 inches thick. On paper that’s impressive in itself, but in real life the benefits are obvious. If you’ve owned the previous 15-inch MacBook Pros, you’ll instantly appreciate the lighter and thinner form factor – it’s a lot easier to carry around, easy to pick up, yet it still feels solid.

Oddly, the new Pro feels heavier than it looks. It only just beats lugging around a 13-inch MacBook Pro in your bag. Don’t expect it to feel like a feather and you won’t be disappointed, however.

anno 2Ditching the SuperDrive also yields a few more benefits than a thinner form factor. It means there’s room to shift a few ports around and add some useful new members to the MacBook Pro’s I/O family. Whereas the left side of its predecessors was exclusively reserved for connections, the new MacBook Pro now has ports on both sides of its shell. On the left you’ve got a redesigned MagSafe 2 for charging, two Thunderbolt ports, a USB 3.0 connection and the standard headphones/digital audio out. On the opposite side, there’s an SDXC card slot, a HDMI output and a further USB 3.0 port. By splitting the I/O across both sides of the MacBook Pro, Apple has solved the age-old issue of plugging in large peripherals or chunky USB thumb drives. It’s an obvious solution, but if you’ve ever fallen foul of having to deal with far too many USB devices plugged into your MacBook Pro, you’ll know how useful this will be.

Physicality aside, the I/O improvements themselves make a whole world of difference to your computing experience. Apple appears to have caved in to customer demand by adding a HDMI port to the new MacBook Pro. Connecting your MacBook Pro to your HD TV or monitor to show off your favourite films, photos or home movies to friends and family is now a whole lot easier. In a similar vein, USB 3.0 (which Steve Jobs famously said wouldn’t take off) is also a hugely welcome addition, given the sheer number of peripherals that are now touting the new standard. It’s important to note that these are also backwards compatible to USB 2.0, meaning you’ll have no problem plugging in older hard drives containing your backups or photos from way back when.

On the inside, Apple has pulled out all the stops in order to really squeeze the most from the power-to-size ratio of this machine. The battery is larger than ever, taking up around half of the internal space, resulting in an impressive seven hours of battery time (tested browsing the web on a Wi-Fi network).

In real terms, this means you’ll have no issues ditching your charger for the day and relying on battery power alone to power you through your creative endeavours. The MacBook Pro with Retina display also boasts an entirely flash-based memory architecture, meaning you’ll get SSD speeds when copying your files, launching apps and booting up your machine. The new MacBook Pro works as fast as you do, whether you’re composing an email or cutting together your latest HD home movie. In other words, it’s the speed of the iPad and MacBook Air in a professional working environment, and that alone makes it worth the asking price.

If you’ve owned a MacBook Pro before, you’ll know its biggest Achilles heel is its inability to stay cool and quiet under pressure. If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time in Adobe Photoshop or Final Cut Pro X you’ll be all too familiar with the sound of your Mac’s fans kicking in and the room temperature increasing a few degrees. In an office environment this might be acceptable, but when you’re working on the move, it can be incredibly distracting to both yourself and others around you.

Fortunately, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display sports a completely redesigned set of fans and an airflow system that not only makes things cooler, but a lot quieter too.

The fans themselves feature asymmetrically spaced blades, which lead to them producing less sound via a greater number of frequencies, as opposed to a louder sound on a single frequency. It’s quite technical, but the result is that putting the new MacBook Pro under some pressure results in a fan sound that’s more akin to a quiet ‘whooshing’ rather than the more familiar sound of a computer fan battling with a hot CPU. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s certainly noticeable and much less likely to disturb you if you’re the kind of person who likes to work late into the night or in a café or bar.

anno 1
We take a look at the insides of the Retina MacBook Pro – click the image for a larger view

So, what does all of this cutting-edge technology mean for you the owner? Turn over and find out exactly what it’s like to work and play with Apple’s latest and greatest Mac.

One more thing…

After putting the new MacBook Pro through its paces, we can safely say that this is a true professional machine. When Apple dropped the polycarbonate MacBook from its line-up, it left consumers with two choices – go for the MacBook Air and sacrifice some processing power or splash out on the MacBook Pro for an optical drive and a few more I/O options. The result is that the MacBook Pro, a model traditionally reserved for creative professionals, became the go-to machine for almost every Apple aficionado.

When you start using the MacBook Pro with Retina display, it immediately feels like it’s worth the money to upgrade; everything from the svelte form factor, the upgraded selection of I/O and the breathtaking Retina display sets it out from its predecessors and feels like the obvious choice of machine if you are a creative professional.

Despite that, the new MacBook Pro shares more design choices with the MacBook Air than ever before, making this MacBook Pro far more portable than the previous 15-inch model. You’ll have no qualms about taking it with you on your next family holiday, using it on your daily commute or bringing it to bed when you need to work late into the night.

The real fun, however, is in its truly brilliant performance. All in all, it took us 17 seconds to boot up our new MacBook Pro with Retina display from complete shut down to OS X springing vibrantly to life. That means you’ll never be left waiting around if you need to complete a project in a hurry or want to quickly show friends your latest holiday snaps.

To say the MacBook Pro with Retina display handles multiple applications and tasks well would be an understatement. We were able to freely switch between applying effects to video clips in FCPX, adjusting images in Aperture and composing emails without any lag or sense of struggle, and that’s a real plus if you’re thinking of upgrading from a much older machine.

retina 2Even when the machine is working at its hardest and the fans kick in to keep things cool, they’re hardly intrusive, making it ideal for working in public places. Even when FCPX was rendering 1080p HD video, the new MacBook Pro stayed almost silent, whereas our comparison machine, an early-2011 13-inch MacBook Pro (specced up with an SSD), immediately started to make a lot of noise as it spat out some hot air. In other words, if you need your Mac to perform, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is worth every penny.

That said, it’s not all about professional use. Whether you’re a world-class photographer or a home user, if you want a truly stunning Mac to work with, you needn’t go any further than this machine.

It might be early days for the apps on it (there’s still some vital improvements that need to be made to popular third-party applications like Twitter), but we’re sure that will come in time. When they do, you’ll be working on what is undoubtedly the best display on any computer. Sharing photos with friends and family becomes far more detailed, watching movies is more immersive and even performing everyday tasks like writing letters in Pages or sorting your media in iTunes becomes a pleasure thanks to razor-sharp images and crystal clear text.

We’d go as far as to say that the Retina display alone makes this Apple’s best-ever Mac, and that’s not even taking into account the performance and I/O upgrades that come along with it.

For all of its positives, there are a few shortcomings with this machine that are worth noting. For a start, this Mac cannot be upgraded once it has left the factory, so you’ll need to think long and hard about the specs you want before you make any purchases. The purchase itself isn’t exactly easy on the wallet either, with the starting price sitting well above the £1,000/$2,000 bracket. It’s definitely another reason to seriously consider the competition (which we’ve detailed on the left).

Once you’ve got over the initial decision-making, the benefits are obvious, and everything that has been mentioned throughout the course of the last few pages comes into fruition. By making a machine that’s ultra-portable, lightning- fast, crystal clear and able to connect to more devices than ever before, Apple has built something almost invisible.

You forget you’re looking at an LCD display when text is so clear and images are so rich; you forget that there’s a processor or an SSD involved when video renders so quickly; and you forget that you’re carrying around one of the most expensive pieces of technology you’ll ever own when it’s so thin and light. The MacBook Pro with Retina display is Apple’s greatest triumph, not because of its spec sheet, but because it has achieved what Apple set out to do from day one – allow you to forget that you’re using a machine and simply get creative.

Buy now?

Pros: This MacBook truly redefines the Pro category

Cons: Price. Non-Retina apps need updates to shine

Orange 4 Stars


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