Review: MacBook Pro impresses, Retina MacBook Pro dazzles

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is blazing fast, but the all-new Retina MacBook Pro is unsurpassed

Introduced in 2006, redesigned with a unibody aluminum chassis in 2009, and upgraded to quad-core CPUs in 2011, Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro has long been a go-to notebook for professionals of all stripes. Available since June, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro -- updated with Intel's latest Ivy Bridge CPUs, 1,600MHz memory, enhanced graphics, and at last, USB 3.0 -- is back on the leading edge, while its completely reengineered sibling, the MacBook Pro with Retina display, defines a new edge entirely.

The latest crown jewel of Apple's pro notebook lineup is completely new: from the ultra-high-resolution display (the highest ever on a notebook), to the MacBook Air-inspired slim chassis, all the way down to the standard, stunningly fast solid-state drive (SSD) flash storage.

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Don't let the slender case and lower weight fool you. The Retina MacBook Pro is a pro notebook through and through, squeezing the Ivy Bridge-fueled performance of the 15-inch MacBook Pro into a 4.5-pound package measuring just 0.71 inch thick. You can tell from the name that the display is literally nothing like you've ever seen, but the whole machine is an engineering marvel. The Retina MacBook Pro pushes the notebook two years into the future, and there's no early adopter tax in the price. It costs less than a comparable bundle of upgrades to 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple topped off the June upgrade to its pro notebook lineup with the July release of OS X Mountain Lion (version 10.8). I tested the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, the Retina MacBook Pro, and Mountain Lion to see how they measure up to the demanding requirements of technical and creative professionals. I used the latest tools from Adobe, Apple, Quark, Parallels, and open source, drawing media and code from large commercial projects. If you're the kind of person whose daily work pushes notebooks to the limits of performance and durability, this review is for you.

Common ground: Ivy Bridge to Mountain Lion I work-tested the base 2.3GHz configurations of 15-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina display. They're priced at $1,799 and $2,199 respectively before you add configure-to-order options. Apple's step-up models and à la carte options let you select the CPU speed, disk type (magnetic or SSD) and capacity, and RAM.

Several key new features are common to all 15-inch MacBook Pro models, with and without Retina display. The heart of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is a new Intel quad-core, Core i7 mobile CPU. This updated microarchitecture, code-named Ivy Bridge, is an engineering increment to the Sandy Bridge CPU that originally brought quad-core to the MacBook Pro. Intel designed Ivy Bridge to be a drop-in replacement for Sandy Bridge; notebook makers can use the new chip without changing anything else.

That's not how Apple rolls. Apple's deft exploitation of Ivy Bridge is pivotal to making all models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro a worthwhile upgrade for application performance alone. Even users of Core i7 Mac or PC notebooks will feel the upgrade, but if you're currently using a notebook or desktop with 1,066MHz RAM, Apple's new MacBook Pro will plain blow you away. Apple's updated pro notebook platform runs markedly faster from iron to app.

Ivy Bridge's updated memory controller allowed Apple to kick the speed limit on the MacBook Pro's RAM from 1,333MHz to 1,600MHz. Because every hardware subsystem -- CPU, I/O, storage, graphics -- is dependent on RAM, a jump in memory speed opens up performance headroom for the whole system. It's up to engineers to optimize the rest of the platform to put those additional quarter-billion memory transfers per second to best use. Intel and Apple have done a yeoman's job of it for the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Faster memory makes a huge difference. In benchmarks, the 2.3GHz Ivy Bridge CPU looks faster than prior architectures at the same clock speed because it can complete each worst-case load/compute/store cycle in less time. Mountain Lion uses memory as cache for local and shared files, and the faster memory makes the second and subsequent reading of many files, particularly second-time app launches, markedly quicker. The 64-bit OS, application frameworks, and apps themselves make heavy use of memory-mapped file I/O and shared memory. If you use a virtualization engine like Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, or Oracle VirtualBox to run Windows, Linux, or OS X side by side with Mountain Lion, your guest VM's performance is largely dependent on memory speed.

Ivy Bridge also debuts a major reworking of the low-power IGP (integrated graphics processor), dubbed Intel HD Graphics 4000. For the first time, I tip my hat to an Intel IGP. It still uses main memory as video RAM, but Intel loaded HD Graphics 4000 with more cache to reduce round trips to memory. Better yet, Ivy Bridge's big level-3 cache (6MB in the tested 2.3GHz CPU) is now shared with the IGP. When the CPU needs to move data to the IGP, it can often make that trip without leaving the chip. That adds up to faster 2D graphics, smoother video playback, and more responsive GUIs while running on battery power.

If you've been waiting for USB 3.0 to hit the Mac, your wait is over. All 15-inch MacBook Pro models have two USB 3.0 ports. Thunderbolt remains king of external I/O at 10Gbps, fast enough to keep up with the speediest external RAID (among other things). USB 3.0's top speed of 5Gbps, coupled with new high-speed transfer modes, trounces USB 2.0 and opens the MacBook Pro to a whole universe of fast, affordable external storage options. USB 3.0 is, of course, backward compatible with existing USB 2.0 and USB 1.1 peripherals. It's time to upgrade those FireWire enclosures.

Mountain Lion drivers required Mountain Lion has built-in drivers for standards-compliant USB storage, audio, Webcam, and MIDI peripherals, along with human interface devices such as keyboards, mice, and joysticks. The bundled iLife suite -- GarageBand, iMovie, and iPhoto -- augments the OS with support for a broad range of still and video cameras, with frequent updates pushed out through the Mac App Store. If a peripheral requires a device driver (kernel extension in Mac parlance), make sure it's 64-bit and specifically rated compatible with Mountain Lion; 32-bit kernel extensions that worked in Lion are no longer supported.

Apple has returned to Nvidia to supply 15-inch MacBook Pro's standard discrete graphics processing unit (GPU). All models feature Nvidia's GeForce GT 650M with either 512MB or 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 (Graphics Double Data Rate v5) video memory. By default, the Nvidia GPU automatically takes over for Ivy Bridge's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 whenever you launch an application that requires hardware-accelerated 2D or 3D graphics, and the GPU stays active until you exit all of the apps that need it. The GPU also kicks in when you connect an external display. Apple supplies GPU device drivers for OS X and Windows (the latter for use with Boot Camp). If your Mac application requires Nvidia's proprietary CUDA GPU computing interface, you'll need to download the latest CUDA driver from Nvidia's site.

Standard hardware features carried over from late 2011 models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro include a full-size backlit keyboard, 15.4-inch glossy LED backlit display, Apple headset-compatible headphone jack with optical digital audio output, Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort, FaceTime HD 720p Webcam, glass multitouch trackpad, multistream 802.11n Wi-Fi, SDXC memory card slot, and stereo speakers.

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