The Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Retina Display) is the laptop you want if you care about performance, thinness, and the screen. It’s not the vaunted “15-inch MacBook Air” that was rumored prior to 2012’s WWDC—it’s better, thanks to an up-to-date components, super-thin chassis, and impressive battery life. This “next-generation” MacBook Pro hasn’t just caught up to the thin and powerful Windows laptops and ultrabooks on the market; it has surpassed them to become the high-end choice for media professionals, enthusiasts, and general Mac fans alike. As such, the MacBook Pro is our new Editors’ Choice for high-end desktop replacement laptop PCs.
Design and Features
The MacBook Pro 15-inch (Retina Display) carries the same Jony Ive–design DNA as previous systems—it’s all aluminum unibody chassis, glass, and black plastic for the keyboard. In fact, it still looks like a MacBook Pro, which is good news, because the cachet of the Apple ID is part of the reason people go nuts for the company’s products. It even feels similar to previous models in your hand, though it’s noticeably thinner and lighter (4.46 pounds versus 5.6 pounds); if you’ve held a 13-inch MacBook Air, you’re not too far off.
The 15.4-inch screen now looks more seamless, if that’s possible. The bezel around it is black, but unlike on the MacBook Air it’s of a piece with the screen glass. The screen electronics are built into the glass, which helps the laptop’s thin profile. Apple mentioned that the screen is less prone to glare than was the case with previous MacBooks, but the glare is still visible when you’re viewing a black background and if you’re really picky. If you want a matte-finish screen, for now you’ll have to go with the updated MacBook Pro with Ivy Bridge.
The Retina display itself is glorious. The resolution is 2,880 by 1,800, which sounds like a lot, but text is scaled so it doesn’t look too small. Instead of making the letters smaller like on the iPhone 4 or 4S (to see this effect, use one to visit a non-mobile-optomized Website), Apple kept the font sizes consistent with what you’d expect in the real world and just made them smoother. In contrast, text on a MacBook Air looks smooth from your seat, but the individual letters are still jaggy close up. Text on the new MacBook Pro looks smooth from both far away and close up, as if it were laser printed on paper.
The real magic is when you view photos (and high-res video). You can view images straight from your camera and they will look more like printed images than electronic ones. Look at a geometric form, like a picket fence in front of a yellow wall, and the lines look smooth, not jaggy. Likewise, a 1,920-by-1,080 HD video takes up a relatively small portion of the screen at full resolution, leaving the video editor with lots of space for timelines, toolbars, and other interface items. It’s almost like having a dual 20-inch-screen setup in a 15-inch diagonal space. When playing back 1080p video full screen, the improved IPS display exhibits rich colors, deep blacks, and a generally pleasant viewing experience. It really is like having a large-screen HDTV you can rest on your lap.
If there’s any drawback to the Retina display, it’s that all of your existing Mac applications will have to be updated for it (kind of like what happened with the iPhone 4/4S and latest iPad). Apple-sourced apps like Safari, Final Cut Pro, and Aperture look terrific, but non-optimized apps like Google Chrome will show upscaled and jaggy fonts. It’s a problem that’s likely to go away as more developers update their programs, but it’s an annoyance right now.
The power button has moved to the upper right of the keyboard proper, like it is on the MacBook Air. The island-style keyboard has the same feel as the MacBook Air; key travel feels shallower than the previous MacBook Pro. The function keys match those of the MacBook Air, which may be a hang-up for people with older-generation MacBook Pros, particularly ones made before the advent of Mission Control and the Launchpad in Mac OS X Lion. The backlighting is everything we expect from a MacBook, clearly visible in a darkened room. After several straight hours of playing back video during our battery rundown test the bottom of the system was still cool to the touch, demonstrating the new chassis’ cooling capabilties.
There is a full-size HDMI port on the side of the laptop. The new MagSafe 2 port is wider yet shorter than the previous style, so you’ll need an adapter for existing LED Cinema and Apple Thunderbolt Displays, as well as older power adapters. (Newly purchased Thunderbolt Displays will come with the MagSafe 2 adapter.) The USB 3.0 ports aren’t colored blue like they are on some Windows PCs, but because there aren’t any USB 2.0 ports on this MacBook Pro, you won’t need color coding to tell the difference.
Copying a 1.22GB test folder from a USB 3.0 drive took 21 seconds, which is half the time we needed to copy the same folder using a USB 2.0 drive on the previous MacBook Pro. Speedier drives using the Thunderbolt interface are likely to be even faster. Two Thunderbolt ports are a boon for the video editor: You can connect up to 14 devices, seven devices per port. The system can also support at least two Thunderbolt Displays for more screen real estate. An SDXC slot and a headphone audio jack with headset support round out the ports.
One thing you won’t find on the new MacBook Pro is a DVD SuperDrive: The optical drive has been eliminated to benefit the new profile, which is 0.71 inch (18mm) at the thickest point (meeting the spec for 13.3-inch or smaller ultrabooks, and slimmer than the 21mm requirement for 14-inch or larger ultrabooks). The MacBook Pro is the same height as both (11- and 13-inch) MacBook Air models at their thickest points, an impressive feat. The slim profile prevents Apple from using Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports (they simply won’t fit); if you need either, you’ll need to buy adapter cables (at $29 each). Using a Thunderbolt Display is also an option, as it has built-in FireWire 800 and Ethernet. On the plus side, the MacBook Pro includes 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi with 2.4GHz and 5GHz support, as well as Bluetooth 4.0, so you’ll be able to connect to almost any hotspot or wireless audio device.
The system comes with Mac OS X Lion 10.7.4, so you’ll get all the same iLife apps and familiar Mac OS interface. Systems purchased now will be eligible for a free upgrade to Mac OS X Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8 in all but name) when it is released in a month or so. Mountain Lion will introduce iMessage, Notification Center, Power Nap, AirPlay, and lots of other iOS-like features to the MacBook Pro and other Macs.
The MacBook Pro’s 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3615QM (Ivy Bridge) processor comes with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000. The laptop features Kepler-based Nvidia GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics for speedier 3D and media processing when you need it. The system also has 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 memory and 256GB of flash storage. All these components work together to make sure the MacBook Pro is fast. Testing in Mac OS X, the results were quick: a score of 6.18 on CineBench R11.5, and times of 1 minute 33 seconds rendering our video in Handbrake and 3:42 completing our test script in Adobe Photoshop CS5. This is similar to the previous Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Late 2011) ($1,799 direct, 4 stars) (which scored 5.08 in Cinebench, 1:30 in Handbrake, and 3:39 in CS5) and significantly better than the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Late 2011) ($2,199 direct, 4 stars) (which scored 5.07 in Cinebench, 1:53 in Handbrake, and 3:58 in CS5), which isn’t surprising: Remember that the new MacBook Pro, with its Retina Display, needs to push out a lot more pixels than the previous models with their 1,440-by-900-resolution displays. That said, both this and the last-generation MacBook Pro laptops are fast for this category.
Booting the system was quick: It was ready in a few seconds, as opposed to a hard drive–based machine that can take up to a minute to boot. Waking from sleep was instantaneous, and sleep will have positive improvements when Mac OS X Mountain Lion is released. Mountain Lion includes Power Nap, which continues to update your social networks, iCloud, and email over your Wi-Fi network while the system sleeps. We have to wait for Apple to release Boot Camp drivers for its system before we run our other Windows-based benchmark tests for comparison. Stay tuned for those results.
The new MacBook Pro is purported to be able to stay asleep for up to 30 days and not lose your work. When we tested the previous-generation MacBook Air, we found that its sleep claims were accurate, so we don’t doubt them for the MacBook Pro. Apple’s predictions of “up to seven hours” of battery life (on a wireless Web test with the non-replaceable 95Wh lithium-polymer battery) were spot on: We checked the MacBook Pro with our ten-hour video rundown test with the backlight set to 50 percent and Wi-Fi and keyboard backlight both activated, and we managed an impressive 6 hours 53 minutes.
The big problem with trying to compare this MacBook Pro to other systems is that there really isn’t anything else like it in either the Mac or Windows worlds. Its Retina display, two Thunderbolt ports, and thinner construction help the MacBook Pro earn its price premium over the older MacBook Pro with optical drive (which itself is now available with Ivy Bridge). Ultrabook and ultraportable systems like the Samsung Series 9 15-inch (NP900X4B-A02US) ($1,499 list, 4 stars), HP Envy 14 Spectre ($1,399.99 list, 4 stars), and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s ($1,495 list, 4 stars) all do slim with somewhat large screens, thin chassis, and speedy SSDs, but are left in the dust with slower processors, no discrete graphics, and much lower-resolution screens; even with their optional upgrades, they can’t reach the MacBook Pro’s feature set.
Thanks to its Retina display, the new MacBook Pro is also way ahead of the current crop of laptops, and likely to stay there for some time. You need to go with a big, bulky laptop like the latest 17-inch HP Envy 17 (2012) to get a laptop with a 1,920-by-1,080 display . (Speaking of which, the 17-inch MacBook Pro has been discontinued.) The new MacBook Pro has a higher-resolution screen (2,880 by 1,800 versus 1,920 by 1,200), even though it is physically smaller than the 17-inch MacBook Pro; on the other hand, it’s much more portable. Thanks to its new display, flash memory, up-to-date graphics and processor, and ultra-thin construction, the new MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display outperforms, outclasses, and outlasts the Samsung Series 7 (NP700Z5A-S03), and roars in (like a Lion) to be our new Editors’ Choice for high-end desktop replacement laptops.