Macbook Pro Retina Review – Should you buy?

There is only one Macbook Pro to consider getting this season and it’s the Retina Version. The question is if you need to. I’ve had enough time to exploit some real flaws of Apple’s new water cooler hit but make no mistake that I do believe that this is the best Mac ever. Now, let’s see if you need it.

The Macbook Pro Retina (MBPr) is a powerful machine loaded with the best combination of power and mobility. The base 2.3 ghz Ivy Bridge CPU is a beast capable of netting a Geekbench 64-bit score of 12,061 in my test and for some perspective there is not a desktop iMac on the list that scores higher. The Kepler nVidia GT 650m is clocked higher and has more memory than the new non-retina models that help it display that 5 megapixel or 2880 x 1900 screen. It’s also capable of driving 4 external monitors via 2 thunderbolt, 1 hdmi (a first for Apple) and it’s own. Newer games can run at the full resolution though expect frame rates to hover around 20fps at medium settings. I’ve loaded up Modern Warfare and Borderlands and this machine barely breaks a sweat at my old Macbook Pro’s resolution of 1440 x 900. It uses ram that’s twice as fast as previous models and the Samsung SSD (with probably to best/most stable controller for a Macbook) is also twice as fast as the Toshiba SSD Apple installed on my last Macbook Pro. The bottom line is this one of the most powerful computers period, consumer desktops included.

Do you need that power? To be honest, up until I started editing video in Final Cut, my last Macbook Pro was more computer than I needed. Any Macbook with a Core Series Intel chip and 4gb of ram will easily handle word processing, Photoshop, Aperture, and 1080p streaming. If the Macbook has a solid state drive like my old MBP then the system as a whole will feel lightening quick and iPad like with instant wake from sleep and a sub 18 second boot time. My move was going to be, and the one I would recommend if you have a similar workload, getting a Core Series Macbook Air.

Do you need to render HD videos longer that 5 minutes or pixel rich RAW images? When I began doing just that my 2010 Core i7 Macbook Pro would take nearly an hour to export a 10 minute video clip and the machine got hot as it was also pushing a 27 inch Cinema Display. It lagged even more if I wanted to stream Netflix while I waited for the video to finish. My machine was a first generation i7 with a dual core chip. All Macbook Airs at this point have dual core cpus, so expect similar export times and the eventual need for a Pro model. You can also eliminate the 13 inch version of the Macbook Pro as that’s a dual core as well. Ultimately, if you edit videos you’re looking at the 15 inch Macbook Pro that sport quad-core cpus.

Click here for my Macbook Showdown Video.

Did you know that the Macbook Pro Retina is the cheapest 15 inch Macbook Pro you can buy new? Let’s give this a walk through with the base models. SSD’s are the future of all computer storage so now or later you’ll have one. Besides that it’s the single greatest upgrade you can do for your computer. Plus 4gb ram is pushing it and becomes a bottle neck if you edit videos and large file photos. So a conservative 256gb SSD and 8gb ram upgrade from Apple will cost you $450 added to the $1799 base price, which come standard on the base model Retina version. So for $2399 you get a machine that’s slower (MBPr nVidia GPU is clocked 275 ghz higher with 512 mb more memory) and doesn’t have the Retina Display. Suddenly, that $2199 price tag for the Macbook Pro Retina looks more than reasonable, it looks good. Now you do lose the superdrive, gigabit ethernet, firewire 800 and future expandability/repairability (iFixit rates it 7/10 MBP and 1/10 MBPr, higher the better) but you do gain a sleeker design that runs significantly cooler. You can also buy an external super drive for $79 and a thunderbolt-to-ethernet adapter for $29, still putting you below a similar specced non-Retina MBP.

Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Haswell, Broadwell, and beyond. Sandy was a tick. a huge step forward for mobile computing basically doubling what was capable before as the first quad-core CPU to fit inside a Mac 15 inches or larger. Ivy is a tock, which takes Sandy and gives it a die shrink making it more power efficient. Intel has mapped out this tick tock sequence well into the future so we know a few things. We know the ticks are the major updates, the one that changes the game. We know Haswell is the next tick. We know Apple and Steve Jobs had been pushing Intel to get Intel into mobile GPUs, even threatening to run it’s own ARM processor at the Macbook Level. The Ivy Bridge CPU and it’s integrated GPU are still joined as two separate islands on one board. Haswell looks to have significantly increase internal graphics performance while residing on the same “island” as the CPU. This leaves extra space for a larger battery. Speaking of, battery life is the significant leap that makes Haswell the next “tick.” We’re talking 24 hour battery life, 10 days connected standby time, and general iPad-like charging is an after thought. Intel’s recent demo showed the Haswell chip running of the illumination from a single light bulb. It dispenses more power than what’s needed for it to run. If you have anything prior to Sandy Bridge, then upgrade away, this Ivy Bridge Macbook Pro Retina is going to be an unbelievably powerful machine to you. If you do have a Sandy Bridge then you might as well wait for the next release as they get more powerful, run for much longer without a charge and run without all the quirks of this year’s model.

On one hand, I’m indecisive; but on the other, I’m not.  Rehab is for quitters. The best Mac ever made has a lot of problems. The Retina display is the much ballyhooed feature of the this “next generation” Macbook. Why does Apple give it this nick name? Why aren’t they available across the board of Macbook Products? Well, Apple new it was going to be costly and they knew the IPS panels themselves are hard to make. It’s also the major culprit of performance issues. There are numerous reports of consumers seeing image ghosting where the residual outline of say Safari will remain on the screen upwards of 5 minutes. My personal performance experience was more pleasant with my older Macbook for everything but Video encoding. The current hardware is supremely powerful by today’s standards but those bars didn’t factor in driving a 2880 x 1800 display. This results in laggy web browsing as it has to load and then redraw pages. You get barely playable frame rates at full resolution with games like Diablo 3 and you want to because 2880 x 1800 is just stunning. There just aren’t enough things that take advantage of it as Developers are making a miserable turn scrambling to find scaling algorithms that make sense when factoring in a Retina Display. Apple’s own iWork Suite lacks Retina support and looks fugly upon close inspection. Scrolling and zooming on a web page now becomes CPU intensive and results in a less than smooth experience. I’ve also seen the spinning beach ball more times in the past week than I did in the year and a half I owned my last Macbook. Final Cut Pro X crashed twice on me. The screen is also dim. I used to be able to work with brightness set to half  and now I have no choice but to go full brightness during the day on my MBPr. So though the Ivy Bridge CPU is more power efficient than last years model, the fact that more of it, along with the the GPU, is being stressed to push a display that needs to be set at full brightness results in 5 hour battery life under a diet of youtube, word processing and light photo editing. You can get over 7 hours in a non-retina version and the Macbook Airs. Mountain Lion will address many of these issues on the software side utilizing more of the GPU and Haswell should clear up any hardware throttles, so it seems Apple had a purpose in designating it the “next generation” Macbook as it’s not really ready to exist now.

So it’s the best Mac ever made? It is. The design, while subtle, harbors enough changes that makes working with it for a full day a significantly better experience than the old model. It’s thinner yes, but it feel more solid, with the old one’s feeling like I had lots of empty space between my hands. The screen is gorgeous with apps that utilize it. It’s a glimpse at resolution independence. If everything was displayed at the full 2880 x 1800 icons would look tiny and text would be illegible. So everything looks like the standard 1400 x 900 setup but all the extra pixels are used to give insanely crisp images. I almost don’t want to use my Cinema Display because it’s just not as good. The real key is when an app like Final Cut Pro X gives you a user interface that gives you the standard layout in super sharp fashion and then processes the video footage as separate entity. Let me explain, in a standard Final Cut Pro X UI the video window is down-scaled to fit the pixels in that window. In the MBPr, there’s no need to down-scale, that little window can display a full 1080p resolution. The same goes for Aperture which is Retina ready. So instead of the entire app rescaling images to make them fit the available pixel space, a Retina Display can scale the UI elements to make them fit while other parts can be viewed without altering. In practice, it means I spend less time time going into full screen mode to see how a shot or a photo looks and more time editing scenes. Workflow is greatly reduced as I weed out good photos from bad ones because the thumbnails pack so much detail.

It is the little things that count. Things like the asymmetrically spaced fan blades that I can report indeed have a quieter effect, if they even get a chance to spin. The MBPr definitely runs cooler. Exporting a 1080p video yielded 100 degree celsius temperatures on the old model and I clocked the Retina version at 49 degrees rendering the same clip. The glare on the screen is reduced but the gloss still give colors that “pop.” The speakers sound fuller and slightly louder than before. HDMI was a surprise feature but the two USB 3.0 ports were sorely needed and appreciated. The SDXC card slot is reliable now and fuss-free, not the case in older ones. Importing 40 photos literally took half a second. At first glance, it doesn’t look all that much different but its after daily use that you truly start to appreciate its svelte physique. The amount of thought put into this machine is obviously high and the more I use it, the more grateful I am of it.

You should consider buying:
-video editing more than 5 minute clips
-photo editing large RAW files
-increase productivity via screen real estate otions

You should consider waiting for Haswell version:
-have a Sandy bridge version
-want the 13 inch version of a quad core chip

You should consider the new Macbook Air:
-if you don’t fit any of the above

I bought mine here and didn’t have to pay tax. Saved me $219 which I used to buy a $187 2tb external USB 3.0 drive here.

UPDATE 7/4/12: Base model Macbook Pro w/ Retina is $2,089.99 in stores at Best Buy and $2,089.99 at Amazon for preorder.

Need more tech info on the Macbook Pro Retina? Here.

About these ads