Apple’s new flagship device shows what’s possible with the company’s laptop range, boasting plenty, and delivering lots, but do you really need all this power, is it as thin as they say it is, and should you be raiding the piggy bank right now?
Encased in aluminium and showing a similar design to the current and previous MacBook Pro models, at first glance it is hard to spot the differences - but there are quite a few. On the outside a lot of bulk has been shaved off the height of the device. It now measures 18mm thick compared to the non-Retina display version's 24.1mm height.
It’s also a touch smaller too in all dimensions and somehow Apple has lost 500g on the weight in the process - it now weights 2.02kg. And while it’s not as light as the MacBook Air, considering its size and power, it is still very impressive. Your shoulder and back will thank you for it in the long run.
The Apple MacBook Pro also has a new bevy of ports - additions that are long overdue, some would say - and it's good to see that there are now two Thunderbolt ports and two USB 3 ports. Apple has avoided the PC pratfall of having one USB 2 and one USB 3 socket, thank goodness!
Also, in an exciting first for Apple, excluding the Mac Mini, there's an HDMI output - essential now for flexible video work. You'll also find an SDXC card slot and, of course, a headphone jack.
Notably, and to save space, there is no Ethernet - although a USB adaptor is available. Also gone is FireWire and the power input has been tweaked, with a new MagSafe 2 port. That means you won’t be able to use your old MagSafe charger, unless you pay £9 for an adapter. While some will grumble, for us it isn’t really an issue, and if changing the power adapter allows Apple to achieve a generous size reduction, then great.
To keep the device cool and quiet Apple has introduced several vents on both sides - it also has two fans. You won’t notice in use, but we suspect the vents will be a haven for lint from your bag unless you get a case. Our advice: get a case.
Inside and the changes are subtle. Like the MacBook Air range, the separate power key has gone and is now found on the keyboard. Gone too is the logo - as with the iPad, Apple doesn’t feel the need to remind you that you are using one of its products. You just know.
The Retina display
The biggest shouting point about the MacBook Pro with Retina display is of course the Retina display. The thin screen dominates the proceedings here and is as crisp as you would expect.
You get a 15.4-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit display with IPS technology and a 2880 x 1800 resolution. That means 220 pixels per inch and, as you'd expect, it can produce millions of colours.
The laptop actually supports an array of resolutions: 2880 x 1800 pixels (Retina); scaled resolutions: 1920 x 1200, 1680 x 1050, 1280 x 800 and 1024 x 640 pixels, but in reality you will use just the one, the Retina.
What that means in practice is that instead of opting for a resolution that makes your desktop smaller, Apple has created a resolution that packs more pixels into the same space. More pixels mean a better picture, and while you might not notice it at first glance, your eyes soon become accustomed to it and enjoy it.
Controversially for some, the screen is glossy, however Apple says it’s 75 per cent better than the MacBook Pro without Retina display. We tested, and can confirm that it's better, but you'll still see reflections in bright conditions.
The power comes from within
It isn’t just the screen that is new here. In part to show off, and in part to power the screen, Apple has chucked all the latest toys inside the MacBook Pro with Retina display, so you’ve got something to boast about.
There are two different models with varying specs available and, of course, the ability to upgrade further. At the top of the pile is a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel i7 processor with turbo boost up to 3.7GHz. You can also opt to upgrade the memory to 16GB - over the standard 8GB - and even upgrade the hard drive from a 512GB SSD to a 768GB model.
Our review unit is the top of the range, but without further customisations. Inside we have the 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 8GB of 1600MHz memory and that monster 512GB flash drive. There's also Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4000 here, and discrete graphics courtesy of a Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory.
While upgrades are possible at the point of purchase, they aren’t available afterwards. For a device that is so much about the future, it is not very future proof. You won’t be able to upgrade the memory or the hard drive, nor replace the battery yourself. And we don't just mean it's a bit tricky, it's actually impossible. The only thing you might be able to do is upgrade the SSD. We can see why Apple has had to go down this route - it's all about size - but it's still a shame, not just from a servicing point of view, but also from an environmental one. In 3 years when technology has moved on, you won’t be able to upgrade this laptop to keep up.
Enjoying the screen
The screen really is as stunning as you would expect. The colours are bright, the detail crisp.
Even up close you will struggle to spot the gradients in fonts. But it isn’t really just about making your fonts look prettier, this is a laptop designed for photographers and videographers looking to work in the field and wanting the resolution to make work both easier and more accurate.
The main issue you'll have to contend with is that some of your favourite apps won’t yet support the new resolution.
Adobe, for example, is working on updating its many bits of software, but they aren’t available yet. Google’s Chrome browser looks horrid, but the company has already started work on a new version and the Chrome Canary browser (an unstable version of Chrome for developers) is already supporting the Retina display, so it will only be a matter of time.
In the meantime, Apple’s core suite of apps has Retina support. Besides Mail and Safari, Apple has updated iPhoto and Aperture for photo fans, and after all, they are the ones to benefit the most.
In our review we used a wide range of apps from Aperture to Skype, to Mail, to iWriter and lots in-between.
On the performance front we had no issues running what we wanted to run. In a demo from Apple when we picked up the device we witnessed the MacBook Pro running four full uncompressed 1080p streams at the same time in Final Cut Pro X live editing as they went. We also saw nine compressed streams running simultaneously.
In our own tests we downloaded the new Retina display version of TimeScapes. It is the first commercially available 4K video and the photographer behind it, Tom Lowe, has released a 2880 x 1800 resolution version for owners of the new MacBook Pro to show off with.
Running that file - it's a 5.48GB for a 48-minute video - through QuickTime Player and then doing our usual work with other apps including editing a 1080p video in iMovie caused no problems.
The combination of fast processor, fast graphics support, the SSD drive, and the memory means you're not going to struggle with anything, no matter how demanding you are.
In all our tests, the Pro ran fairly quietly - certainly quieter than the office MacBook Air, but in some cases it was still noticeable. That main thing is, it doesn’t sound like a toilet hand-dryer. It does, however, still run hot after extended use.
All this power can take a toll on the battery life. Surfing the web or doing minimal tasks and you’ll be fine. We’ve been getting just over 5 hours of battery life in our tests using Wi-Fi to surf the web, write this article, and do basic chores.
Start to push it and, as you would expect, you'll gobble up the battery life pretty quickly. Running TimeScapes on repeat with full-screen brightness and testing iMovie, and other apps at the same time forces that battery performance down to just under two and a half hours, but that’s pushing it to the extreme.
Windows 8 on the Retina display
While some will be puzzled as to why you would want to run Windows 8 on a shiny new Mac there are people who will. At the moment that's not as easy as it is on other Apple machines because of driver support. Apple hasn’t as yet updated the Bootcamp drivers for the new MacBook Pro and Nvidia doesn't currently offer a downloadable GeForce GT 650M driver for either Windows 7 or Windows 8.
Windows 7 won't expose any resolutions higher than 1600 x 1200 without an actual Nvidia driver. Windows 8, on the other hand, will allow you to use the full 2880 x 1800 panel resolution. That said, while it is possible, it makes text is so small you wouldn’t want to. Even Apple don’t let you go above 1920 x 1200.
So, it's possible, but you aren’t going to get any real benefit over what you can achieve on any other systems.
The MacBook Pro with Retina display is comparable to Apple’s MacBook Air from 2008. Apple uses this to show what it can achieve, and what is in store for the future. There is no doubting that within a couple of years the screen technology seen here will be the de facto screen technology on the entire MacBook range.
Where Apple is different from other manufacturers is that it has taken its dreams and turned them into a product we can buy. If other firms tried this, they'd show it off at trade shows behind a bit of Perspex but would never risk trying to sell it. And this is where the wealth of Apple comes in. It can afford to take risks and in so doing, give us a product that pushes boundaries. That said, the time we've spent with it tells us that it's more than just a gimmick, it's a genuine tool for people who use laptops day-in, day-out.
This power and beauty comes at a cost. The cheapest option is £1,800 - a premium of £300 on the Retina display-free 15-inch MacBook Pro. We would argue that it is actually great value for the money. You're getting a flagship product that your colleagues will be jealous of, and a screen that’ll you’ll want to keep looking at again and again.
However for most the idea of lugging around a 15-inch laptop will be too much for most. It might be thinner, it might be lighter, but it is still a big beast to take out and about.
If you already use a 15-inch MacBook Pro and it’s starting to look sad or underpowered then this is the model to go for. For the 13-inch crowd, bite your tongue and wait. Come Christmas, we suspect your prayers will be answered.
Once again, Apple has developed a machine that's both beautifully designed, technologically advanced and expensive enough to be considered only by those who have to have the best of the best. We love it though, and so will you.