July 07, 2012, 7:55 AM — As the old saying goes: Seeing is believing.
Having used Apple's newest 15-in. MacBook Pro -- the slimmed-down version with the super-high-resolution Retina display -- for several days now, I'm a believer.
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The now-top-end MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,199, represents a serious leap forward in screen technology. Words don't really do the 2880-x-1800-pixel screen justice, but let me try. It's stunning, amazing, unparalleled, hyper-sharp, crystal clear, film-like, bright, saturated, radical and mind-blowing.
If you've seen an iPhone's 3.5-in. screen in the last two years or the new iPad's 9.7-in. one, you have a good idea of what the MacBook Pro screen looks like. Only it's much, much larger. That makes this more than an evolutionary laptop update; it's a revolutionary change.
Oh, and the rest of the hardware is nothing to sneeze at either, given that there's no hard drive -- the storage is a flash-based solid-state drive (SSD) -- and the processor is the latest Intel Core i7 processor. The combination makes for an extremely fast laptop.
Think of it this way: If a 17-in. MacBook Pro (now discontinued) mated with a MacBook Air, this would be the offspring, offering up the best of its parents' abilities and the blow-your-eyes-away Retina display.
The MacBook Pro line-up
The $2,199 Retina model comes with a healthy 8GB of RAM (which you can double for another $200); a 256GB SSD; the aforementioned Core i7 chip running at 2.3GHz; an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip for day-to-day graphics needs and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics chip with 1GB of video RAM for more intense uses like video work and gaming (or running three external monitors). It also offers two high-speed Thunderbolt ports; two USB 2.0/3.0 ports, one on each side; an SDXC card slot and an HDMI port, which makes it easy to connect to your home entertainment system.
There's a catch, though. If you need more than 256GB of storage, you'll have to buy the pricier $2,799 MacBook Pro, which also offers a faster 2.6GHz i7 chip. That particular model, the same one Apple provided for this review, has 512GB of SSD storage. You can bump the processor to 2.7GHz for $250 (not necessary, in my book) and/or increase the storage to a 768GB SSD for $500 (really stretching the budget). And if you just won the lottery, you can check the option list for 16GB of RAM and spend another $200.
Cost out the door for the ultimate MacBook Pro? A mere $3,749.
For the more budget-conscious, the "basic" model should more than serve your needs, as long as you're judicious about how many movies, music files, photos and documents you need to keep on hand at any given moment. (I've been using a 17-in. MacBook Pro with a 256GB SSD for a couple of years now and still have room left.) This is where being able to store files in the cloud, whether through Apple's iCloud sync-and-storage service or a third-party operation, comes in handy.
If you liked the old, chunkier 15-in. MacBook Pro and just want a faster processor and more storage options, the 2.3GHz Core i7 version goes for $1,799, and the 2.6GHz model sells for $2,199. More importantly, on those models you can still upgrade the storage and RAM yourself. (More about this expandability issue below.)
But if I were about to spend $2,199 and had to choose between the two MacBook Pros -- one with Retina display, one without -- I'd figure out a way to make the Retina version work. It's lighter, thinner, and it has that stunning screen.
The Retina display
In case you're wondering, a 2880-x-1800-pixel screen has more than 5 million pixels. That's more than you're looking at on the 27-in. iMac or even a high-end HDTV -- and when you pack those pixels into a 15-in. display, you get a level of sharpness and seriously rich color saturation heretofore unseen.
As soon as this MacBook Pro arrived, a co-worker called up photos from a recent trip to Greece. We both marveled at how good they looked, particularly given the subtle vibrancy of the colors. The same is true when viewing high-definition videos. Video looks as luscious as film. And text is impossibly sharp in text documents.
Best of all, you have a choice of resolutions, depending on how strong your eyes are and how big or small you want on-screen elements to look. The standard resolution out of the box is 1440-x-900 pixels, the same as other 15-in. MacBook Pros. But apps that haven't been updated to take advantage of the new technology can look a little pixelated at that resolution, especially with text.
Since I love, love, love higher resolutions, I immediately switched to the highest available: 1920-x-1200 pixels, the same as on my 17-in. MacBook Pro. At that resolution, everything looks sharp, whether the app has been updated or not. Yes, menu bars and screen icons get a little smaller, but the trade-off is worth it.
You can also drop the resolution to 1024 x 768 pixels, or 1280 x 800, which could be useful for someone with impaired vision, since doing so makes everything on the screen larger. All of the resolution options are detailed in the Displays preference pane; pick the one you want and the change takes about a second, no logging out or restarting required.
One resolution not readily available, ironically enough, is 2880 x 1800. It can be done, if you want to download a third-party utility and run it. (Switching back to an Apple-supported resolution is as easy as opening the Display preferences pane and choosing one of the options there.) But on-screen icons and text are awfully small at that resolution.
Although Apple markets this screen as a Retina display -- its term for a screen where your eye can't discern individual pixels -- the pixels-per-inch (ppi) count is actually lower than the screens on the iPhone and the new iPad. The MacBook Pro Retina display offers 220ppi; the iPad, which was unveiled in March, delivers 264ppi; and the iPhone packs those pixels in the tightest, with 326ppi. Since you tend to view a laptop or tablet from further away than the iPhone, the difference isn't noticeable.
The new display also shows less glare than before, which is important if you're outdoors or in an office with bright overhead lights or sunny windows.
One thing that's missing: the optical drive. Ever since Apple unveiled the first MacBook Air in 2008 sans a built-in drive, it seemed natural that the company would eventually follow suit with its other laptops. I'm surprised Apple waited this long. So don't be surprised if other MacBook Pros are similarly downsized over the next year or two, shedding not only the drive, but the weight. This particular model weighs less than 4.5 pounds and is noticeably thinner than past models.