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

By Tom Yager, InfoWorld |  Hardware, MacBook Pro

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.

It also marks a milestone in accessibility. For visually impaired users (my personal cause), the Retina display is built-in adaptive technology. It makes devices usable by the millions of people who aren't yet ready for braille or VoiceOver, but who can't use a standard LCD. If you know someone like this, show them zoom (interactive UI magnification) on the Retina MacBook Pro.

For those of us with normal vision, one of the hidden benefits of the Retina MacBook Pro is its ability to mimic, with very good quality, the resolutions of Apple's other notebook displays. It will even match the 1,920-by-1,200 layout of my former favorite pro notebook, the now-defunct 17-inch MacBook Pro. If what you want from lots of pixels is more UI real estate, the Retina display will give it to you, and yes, it's perfectly usable. If you want to see every last dot, you can crank most OpenGL games up to the native 2,880 by 1,800. Note that I didn't say you could play them like that.

I don't have room here to give the Retina display its proper due. It is worth your effort to see it in person and investigate on your own. If you're a Mac application developer, I recommend watching the three WWDC 2012 sessions on creating apps and Web content for OS X high-resolution displays.

If the Retina MacBook Pro didn't have the Retina display, I'd still see it as this era's template for the professional notebook. It overturns the conventions that notebooks can be either fast or portable, and that displays can be either compact or readable.

The classic 15-inch MacBook Pro has too great a following for Apple to risk declaring it obsolete, and I wouldn't say it has run its course. However, Apple's heavier notebook is not more powerful, more capable, better built, or a better value than its thinner sibling with the Retina display. We don't have to wonder what the future "MacBook Pro killer" will be. It's the Retina MacBook Pro.

This article, "Review: MacBook Pro impresses, Retina MacBook Pro dazzles," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in computer hardware and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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