MacBook Pro: 15-in. Retina screen is revolutionary

Apple's top-end laptop makes a big leap with new display technology

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New 15-in. MacBook Pro on top of discontinued 17-in. MacBook Pro

The 15-in. MacBook Pro (top) is noticeably thinner than the now-discontinued 17-in. version. It is also now the top-end MacBook Pro in the line-up.

(If you're someone who burns CDs and DVDs, you can get an external drive for $79 that connects via USB. You can also opt for a non-Retina-display MacBook Pro, which got a speed bump in the latest update, but retains the optical drive and weighs in at 5.6 pounds.)

In fact, by dumping the optical drive, Apple was apple to make the MacBook Pro just 0.71 inches thick -- about the same as the MacBook Air at its widest point. The lighter weight is obvious as soon as you pick it up; it's like picking up an Air, though it doesn't taper at the front edge like the Air. With the lid closed, it looks like an earlier 15-in. MacBook Pro that's been run over by a steamroller.

Surprisingly, the keyboard (lighted, as before) feels firmer than those on earlier models, and the brushed aluminum chassis feels even more solid.

Other changes -- some obvious, others less so -- include:

  • Two Thunderbolt ports, which effectively replace the now-discarded FireWire 800 port and the Ethernet port; adapters are supposed to be available this month if you have older FireWire peripherals or need to use an Ethernet cable.
  • A new and thinner MagSafe 2 magnetic power port (which means, of course, that older cords won't work with this one).
  • A non-user-replaceable 95 watt-hour battery that Apple says should hold a charge for seven hours. If you look at the internal photo of the MacBook Pro posted by Apple (see below), you can see how much space the battery takes up. I didn't get seven hours on battery power when testing this model. Doing a combination of light word processing and Web surfing over Wi-Fi, I got just under five hours before needing a charge (though I did have the brightness all the way up). Your mileage will vary.
  • A relocated power button -- it's now part of the keyboard where the no-longer-needed eject key used to be -- and a tweaked bottom chassis, which now incorporates numerous slots for better ventilation and cooling.

A few words about speed

Not long ago, every computer manufacturer (and owner) used processor speed for bragging rights about who had the fastest hardware. But with the advent of multi-core chips, outright GHz measurements have faded as an absolute benchmark. Don't get me wrong; new owners still run tests to see how new processors compare to their predecessors. But processing speed is only part of the equation, and as dual-core processors have given way to quad-core chips -- chips that can now offer virtual cores and hyperthreading -- apples-to-apples comparisons are even more nuanced.

In particular, the move to flash memory for storage has had a major impact on how fast modern computers are. This is certainly true of the new MacBook Pro.

To get an idea for how this laptop stacks up, I used two different benchmarking apps, one to stress the 2.6GHz processor, the other to test the read/write speeds of the 512GB SSD. Both yielded noteworthy numbers, especially the SSD.

Using Geekbench to test the Core i7 processor, I found that the MacBook Pro turned out a score of 12030. That score represents several benchmarks rolled into one: processor integer and floating point performance, as well as memory and memory bandwidth. (For comparison purposes, my 2011 MacBook Pro has a Core i7 running at 2.2GHz and returned a score of 10128.)

I was even more impressed with the performance of the flash storage. Using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, I tested the I/O speeds of the on-board SSD, which is connected directly to the MacBook Pro's motherboard. Since it doesn't face any kind of SATA bottleneck, the read/write speeds I saw were almost double those of a typical consumer SSD. Where consumer drives tend to produce I/O speeds of 200 to 250MBps, this MacBook Pro delivered a write speed of 400MBps and a read speed of 448MBps.

That explains the fast boot-up time (nine seconds from start-up chime to desktop) and the virtually instant wake-from-sleep when you lift the MacBook Pro lid. (Again, for comparison purposes, the aftermarket Intel SSD in my own MacBook Pro could do no better than read speeds of 280MBps and write speeds of 163MBps.)

Expandability concerns and buying advice

Shortly after Apple unveiled the Retina MacBook Pro, hardware repair firm iFixit pronounced it the "least repairable" laptop ever. Ouch. The reason: This model can't be upgraded. You can't add a new hard drive or even boost the RAM once you buy it. Apple used non-standard screws and even glue to put it together, meaning companies like iFixit or users are dependent on Apple to fix anything that goes wrong.

Apple clearly wants owners to view their laptops not as a starting point for future upgrades, but as an intact appliance -- albeit a stylish and powerful one -- that needs no improvement. In the same way you don't open up a new DVD player and start tweaking the internal hardware, you can't do that with your new laptop.

Many buyers won't care; but for the geekier set, this could be a showstopper. Heck, I added the SSD in my own 17-in. MacBook Pro and doubled the RAM to 8GB. However, concerns about upgrades wouldn't stop me from buying this new laptop any more than it would stop me from getting an iPad or iPhone.

It's certainly a paradigm shift, and Mac fans have already protested loudly on various message boards. My advice: Get used to the change. Apple seems to be moving in this direction and will almost certainly do the same thing with its other laptops.

With that in mind, you'll need to be extra cautious when choosing your hardware. If you think you'll need more than 256GB of storage -- the only amount offered in the $2,199 model -- you'll need to consider the pricier MacBook Pro. Think you'll want 16GB of RAM in a couple of years? Better get it now when you order (though I expect 8GB is more than enough for the foreseeable future).

So should you buy this laptop? If you're interested in embracing the future of display technology, then yes. Apple has taken a giant leap forward with the Retina display -- and it's your only option if you want 1920-x-1200-pixel resolution. (The 17-in. model is no more.)

However, if you're a hardware-upgrade fan, then no. You'll likely be happier with a non-Retina MacBook Pro. But even that is likely to be simply a holding maneuver, given the direction Apple is taking.

The good news? You have time to decide. The Retina MacBook Pros sold out so quickly that there's currently a three- to four-week shipping delay. That alone indicates just how popular this model is likely to be.

Ken Mingis is Managing Editor, News at Computerworld and also oversees the site's Macintosh Knowledge Center. His e-mail address is kmingis@computerworld.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmingis or subscribe to Ken's RSS feeds:

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This story, "MacBook Pro: 15-in. Retina screen is revolutionary" was originally published by Computerworld.

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