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

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Everything you've read in this section is standard equipment no matter which 15-inch MacBook Pro you buy. From there, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook Pro take quite different paths. The first gives you last year's model, only faster: same chassis, same storage, same external ports, and the same aftermarket internal upgrade options as before. There are no surprises and no need to adjust -- just a healthy adrenaline kick to a simply great pro notebook with no rise in price.

If you feel like an adventure, if you're curious about what you could accomplish with the world's most advanced notebook, you should meet the new flagship of Apple's pro notebook lineup: MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Retina MacBook Pro: What trade-offs? The 2.3GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display fetches a $400 premium over its non-Retina counterpart. You couldn't blame the average buyer for thinking that's a lot to pay for a skinny case and a fancy screen. It's also natural for longtime MacBook Pro users to look at Retina MacBook Pro in terms of the long-standard features it drops: SuperDrive (DVD burner), gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, user-upgradable memory, audio input, cross-model-compatible MagSafe charger, and the option to choose magnetic or solid-state disk. It also removes the sleep and battery-level LEDs.

In truth, the $2,199 2.3GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display is probably the best deal Apple has going. In addition to the 2,880-by-1,800 display, the base config includes 8GB of RAM, 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory, the thinner and lighter chassis, a higher-capacity battery, and best of all, Apple's next-generation 256GB SSD. You can't come close to building a comparable machine from the $1,799 15-inch MacBook Pro plus $400 in upgrades from Apple or third-party suppliers.

The components Apple trimmed to make the Retina MacBook Pro fit in its new case, without compromising performance, are well chosen. Instead of carrying everything with you, you get to choose the peripherals you need. Instead of upgrading inside the case, make use of Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 to expand externally.

The value of the trade-offs became obvious after alternating between carrying 15-inch MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook Pro for a few weeks. Apple's redesigned notebook fits so much better in my hand that I take it everywhere, more like a tablet than a desktop-replacement-class notebook. The multistream 802.11n Wi-Fi lets me connect to late-model base stations at up to 450Mbps.

When you land at a desk, Retina MacBook Pro turns out to have more connectivity options, not fewer. Apple offers a $29 gigabit Ethernet adapter that plugs into a Thunderbolt port. A second Thunderbolt port has been added to Retina MacBook Pro so that using Ethernet doesn't tie up your connection to a high-resolution display or external Thunderbolt RAID. To make it easy to connect to HD monitors, Apple added an HDMI output on the right side of the chassis. You don't need an adapter; the HDMI port carries multichannel digital audio as well.

All Intel Mac applications will run on the Retina MacBook Pro, but some will exhibit scaling artifacts until they're updated. For example, compare Chrome 20, at left, with native Safari, at right.

Display at scale In case you missed it, the Retina MacBook Pro is designed to operate with two external displays at up to 2,560-by-1,600 each in addition to the internal 2,880-by-1,800 screen. That's a ton of screen real estate and a common desktop setup for creative pros and developers. Apple's own 27-inch Thunderbolt Display ($999, not tested) doubles as a full docking station with built-in gigabit Ethernet, speakers, FaceTime HD, and FireWire 800 all from a single Thunderbolt connection. Apple has promised an 800-megabit FireWire adapter for Thunderbolt, but it hasn't appeared yet.

I have no ambivalence about dropping SuperDrive. It's been a long time since I've needed to burn a DVD on a plane. Thumb drives and SD cards cover my sneakernet and video needs. Externally powered DVD burners are much faster than SuperDrive, and Apple's USB-powered SuperDrive is skinny and practically weightless.

The only component I truly miss, the only one that isn't cheap to replace, is the digital (optical) audio input. I receive and record digital audio content in many formats, from many devices and on all kinds of media. Instead of using utilities to encode, transcode, and split tracks, I cheat by playing the original content and capturing the digital audio stream. The Retina MacBook Pro still outputs optical digital audio along with a line/headphone-level analog signal.

The Retina redesign obviates the need for an external microphone with remarkable built-in mics. Apple combines a pair of sensors with some nifty signal processing to separate speech from background noise. You can participate in a FaceTime or Skype call without leaning into your computer, using a headset microphone, or raising your voice. In fact, you can lower your voice for courtesy or privacy and still be clearly understood. This makes a world of difference for Mountain Lion's new voice dictation feature. I work in some noisy environments that make phone calls difficult. With the new microphones in the Retina MacBook Pro, I can dictate in a conversational tone.

The sensitivity of the microphones borders on spy gear. They're great for recording notes and interviews or making calls with multiple people in the room, but you still need a professional mic if you're recording a high-bit-rate podcast or other commercial audio.

Finally, the Retina MacBook Pro uses a pair of cooling fans with an unusual twist: Instead of the typical whistle that rises in pitch as the fans speed up, all you hear is moving air. Even at its loudest, it blends in with typical office sounds and doesn't leave your ears ringing.

Retina display: A higher high-res At 2,880 by 1,800, the Retina MacBook Pro has the highest resolution of any notebook. That's quadruple the pixel count of Apple's standard 15.4-inch display (1,440 by 900), and it bests even Apple's 27-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 Thunderbolt display. You can view a 5-megapixel photograph, or a 5-megapixel swath of a much larger image, with no loss of detail. The Retina MacBook Pro is also Apple's first 15.4-inch notebook capable of displaying 1080p HD video without subjecting it to lossy downsampling.

As a whole, the Retina display is breathtaking. Deep blacks and rich colors complement the crisp detail added by the heightened pixel density. Areas of solid color fill in beautifully without seeming viewed through a screen door.

Retina isn't just about photos and video. It does wonders for text. It's easy to forget how beautiful type is. The simulated subpixels created by antialiasing smooth out curves and diagonals on typical displays, but at the cost of destroying the very shapes that make fonts interesting. Everyday body type, like what you're reading right now, turns into art on Retina.

Final Cut Pro X was among the first Mac apps updated for Retina display. The preview displays full-resolution 1080p HD without crowding out the UI.

The Retina MacBook Pro's LCD panel doesn't sit behind a layer of glass like other 15-inch MacBook Pros. Here, the exterior glass is the front of the panel. The Retina MacBook Pro's screen is treated with a coating that Apple claims cuts down on reflections by 75 percent. I prefer the high gloss of the MacBook Pro's mirrorlike glass, but I know not everyone feels that way. The Retina MacBook Pro's treatment splits the difference between gloss and matte.

The in-plane switching LCD technology used in the Retina MacBook Pro makes it viewable from practically any angle. There is a slight falloff of brightness when not viewed head-on, but text is still sharp. It's not always easy to lay out a desk so that a notebook's screen is perfectly parallel with your face. Now the built-in display is always useful in a multiscreen configuration, even if you can't plant your notebook front and center.

Solid-state storage standard The only permanent storage the MacBook Pro with Retina display supports is SSD (solid-state disk). These devices store information in flash memory, but unlike SD cards and thumb drives, SSD uses sophisticated embedded electronics to mimic a traditional spinning hard disk. The wins with SSD are lower power consumption, reduced heat, zero noise, and best of all, speed.

I've been unimpressed with the performance of consumer-grade SSD, so I was skeptical about trading a high-capacity hard disk for a smaller solid-state drive. Apple claims its new SSD technology is twice as fast as its previous implementation. After using it, I'm not only impressed, I'm a convert. This is how a notebook is supposed to work. I doubt I'd buy SSD as an upgrade -- it's still pricey -- but by making it standard in the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple provides a painless transition.

The performance of Apple's new SSD is astonishing. In my tests, Apple's SSD sustained write speeds of more than 300MBps, with bursts of up to 410MBps. Read and write speeds were almost identical. File copy tests worked out to about 160MBps. For comparison, a Mac Pro running the same tests with a single 7,200RPM SATA drive had a write speed of 80MBps to 120MBps and a copy speed of 34MBps to 50MBps.

I assumed the lower capacity of SSD would be an impediment -- not so. Given a choice between a terabyte of spinning disk or 250GB of Apple's new SSD, I'd opt for the smaller, faster storage. I found I had plenty of room for all of the projects I'm working on, plus Final Cut Pro X and Photoshop scratch files and a Windows virtual disk.

I took a cue from Apple about traveling light. I relied on Time Machine instead of indulging my usual habit of never deleting anything.

I made no effort to allow for the purported shortcomings of SSD. Apple targets the Retina MacBook Pro at creative professionals. Creative workflows are loaded with writes and deletes; ditto for technical workflows that involve virtual machines and databases. Logically, I know the "right" way to use an SSD would be to avoid overwrites by keeping plenty of free space and bunching my file deletions together. My interest in maintaining SSD-friendly habits waned about a week into my tests. That's how long it took me to stop thinking about the technology and just take advantage of it to get my work done faster.

MacBook Pro or MacBook Pro? Coming into this evaluation, I considered Apple's traditional 15-inch MacBook Pro to be a near-perfect design. Colleagues and I have relied on it for years and never considered it dated or in need of fixing. During those testing periods when I relied solely on "ordinary" MacBook Pro, I found it to be noticeably and measurably faster than previous models. Apple has played faster RAM into faster overall operation, even with a spinning hard drive. If you're coming to the new 15-inch MacBook Pro after a couple of years on a dual-core platform, you'll simply be amazed that any notebook can run this fast.

I expected to be impressed by the Retina MacBook Pro, but I thought the story was the display. Don't get me wrong: The 15.4-inch Retina display is amazing, and I'm delighted to see Apple driving high-density displays and scalable user interface principles and frameworks from mobile to Mac. This is an innovation-enabling technology, the kind of hardware that will change the way people think about user interfaces.

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