Apple's New Laptops (Mid 2012)

Review: MacBook Pro with Retina Display redefines the concept of a 'pro' laptop

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Also missing is a SuperDrive, to no surprise. In my own personal use, I use the SuperDrive only to make backup copies of the DVD movies my kids get as presents, maybe five or six discs per year. I can’t remember the last time I burned data to an optical disc; too many times I’ve had a backup DVD that went bad, and I have USB flash drives I can use for times I can’t transfer a file over the network or the Internet. If you need a SuperDrive, you’ll have to get an external drive, such as Apple’s $79 USB SuperDrive.

No More Lights: The Retina MacBook Pro (top) does not have the indicator lights on the front edge of the case that are found on the regular MacBook Pro (bottom).

A not-so-obvious missing feature is an ExpressCard/34 slot, which was only available on the recently discontinued 17-inch MacBook Pro. The Retina MacBook Pro has no ExpressCard slot, so you’ll have to find other ways to get the functionality you’re used to having with an ExpressCard. For example, 3G connectivity: You can use a USB 3G modem, or you can use tethering on your iPhone.

The Retina MacBook Pro uses a MagSafe 2 connector, the same kind that is used on the MacBook Air. The regular MacBook Pros continue to use the older MagSafe connector, and MagSafe 2 and MagSafe are not the same size. You can’t plug in a MagSafe 2 adapter into a MagSafe plug, and vice versa. If you want to use a MagSafe adapter with the Retina MacBook Pro, you’ll need a $10 MagSafe to MagSafe 2 Converter. There is no MagSafe 2 to MagSafe converter.

Slimmer body

At first glance, the Retina MacBook Pro looks a lot like the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro and the aluminum body design is essentially the same. The major difference is the thickness. With the lid closed, the Retina MacBook Pro measures 0.71 inches, while the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro is nearly an inch tall. The thin profile of the Retina MacBook Pro aids portability, but it also helps alleviate the discomfort you might have (as I do) with the edge of the laptop cutting into your wrist as you type. The angle isn’t as steep as it is with the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it’s not like the tapered edge on the MacBook Air. It seems that Apple decided not to create a tapered edge in order to maximize the amount of battery inside.

Vents Underneath: A set of vents are on each side of the Retina MacBook Pro. Apple says that low frequency audio is played through these vents, while mids and highs are heard through the speaker grills next to the keyboard.

The Retina MacBook Pro weighs 4.46 pounds, which is nearly a pound lighter than the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro, and more than 2 pounds lighter than the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Lighter is better—that’s a given—but what’s impressive about the Retina MacBook Pro’s weight is that its 4.46 pounds feels evenly distributed. Of course, it’s a bit heavier toward the screen, but it’s also not too light in the area around the trackpad, so if you carry the laptop while it’s open (admit it, you’ve done that more times that you’d like anyone to know), the laptop won’t suddenly tip over.

A minor cosmetic note: One thing you’ll notice with the open Retina MacBook Pro is that the MacBook Pro logo is no longer at the bottom of the screen. It’s on the bottom of the laptop. Apple got rid of the cover glass for the display, and the logo was part of the cover glass. Apple decided to not put the logo on the bezel of the display.

Two other changes: The power button replaces the optical drive eject button on the keyboard, and there’s no longer a battery life indicator on the hardware.

Benchmarks: How does it compare?

To gauge the performance of the two new Retina MacBook Pro models, Macworld Lab tested the $2199 and $2799 models using Speedmark 7, our benchmark suite of real-world applications and tasks.

Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Mauricio Grijalva, William Wang, and Kean Bartelman

Impressively, the 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro isn’t just the fastest laptop we’ve tested, it’s the fastest Mac we’ve tested, posting a remarkable 330 Speedmark 7 score. The 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro isn’t far behind, with a score of 319. The previous fastest laptop was a Late 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro Core i7 2.4GHz, and the fastest desktop Mac we’ve tested was a Mid 2010 BTO 27-inch 2.93GHz Core i7 iMac with an SSD.

Compared to the fastest new 15-inch regular MacBook Pro with a 2.6GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 5400-rpm 750GB hard drive, the 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is 38 percent faster, and the 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is 33 percent faster.

If you look at the scores for last year’s MacBook Pros, the new 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is a whopping 51 percent faster. The comparison with the new 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro is just as impressive; it’s 46 percent faster.

How We Tested: We duplicated a 2GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 2GB files, and then unzipped it.

How We Tested: In Pages ’09 we converted and opened a 500-page Microsoft Word document. In iMovie ’11, we imported a two-minute clip from a camera archive, and performed a Share Movie to iTunes for Mobile Devices function.

How We Tested: In iTunes, we converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using the High Quality setting. In Handbrake 0.9.5, we encoded a single chapter (to H.264 using the application's Normal settings) from a DVD that was previously ripped to the hard drive. In Cinebench, we recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors.

How We Tested: We installed Parallels 6 and ran WorldBench 6’s Multitask test. In Photoshop CS5, we ran an action script on a 100MB image file.

How We Tested: In Aperture 3 we performed an Import and Process on 207 photos. In iPhoto ’11, we imported 500 photos.

How We Tested: We ran Mathematica 8’s Evaluate Notebook Test.

It’s the flash storage that gives the Retina MacBook Pros a serious boost. Compared to the new regular MacBook Pros, the Retina laptops see serious gains in disk-based activities, such as in our Duplicate 2GB Folder test, Zip 4GB Folder test, and Unzip 4GB File test. In other tests where the storage device comes into play (Import iMovie Archive, Aperture Import, iPhoto Import), the Retina laptops held an advantage.

In other tests that aren’t so disk dependent and more CPU focused, the Retina laptops and the new regular MacBook Pros were within range of each other, such as in our HandBrake Encode test, Pages Import test, MathematicaMark, and the Cinebench CPU test.

The one test where the new regular MacBook Pros clearly pulled away from the Retina laptops is in our Portal 2 frame rate test. The regular 2.6GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro was 9 percent faster than its Retina counterpart with the same processor. The regular 2.3GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro was 4 percent faster than the 2.6GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro, but it was 17 percent faster that 2.3GHz Core i7 Retina MacBook Pro. Even though the Retina laptops and the regular MacBook Pros have the same graphics hardware (the regular 2.3 GHz MacBook Pro’s GeForce GT 650M has 512MB of memory, versus 1GB in the other three laptops), the Retina displays have so many more pixels to push that it can affect the frame rate in games.

How We Tested: In Cinebench, we ran that application’s OpenGL frames-per-second test. Using Steam and Steam for Mac, we created a self-running demo for Portal and recorded the frames-per-second rating.

Macworld is in the process of testing the four standard configurations of the new regular MacBook Pros. We’ll have a detailed review coming soon.

We have a list of Speedmark scores that compares the new Retina MacBook Pros to every Mac we've tested with Speedmark 7, which includes some Mac models from 2009 to late 2011.

Heat and noise

I don’t have lab-produced test results, but I’ll give my subjective observations. The Retina MacBook Pro, while running the Diablo III installer, warmed up, but not enough to make me uncomfortable while it rested in my lap. The heat was from the center of the bottom of the laptop, and it didn’t seem to radiate beyond that. The fans did not kick in.

Front Vents: The Retina MacBook Pro has vents that sit in front on the display, something you don’t see on the regular MacBook Pro.
After Diablo III finished its installation, I ran the game. I was able to select 2880-by-1800 in the game’s settings, and during gameplay, the fans are definitely running and noticeable. The laptop heated up immediately, in the forward part of the bottom, underneath the keyboard where the GPU and CPU are located, and it heated up enough for me to move the laptop to a desk.

I watched several YouTube videos and iTunes movie trailers, all streaming 1080p or 720p over the Internet. The laptop got a bit warmer than when I installed Diablo III, but not hot enough for me to need to move the laptop off my lap. I wasn’t able to trigger the fans while doing this, and the videos ran smoothly.

I also used Handbrake to convert a movie file for my iPhone—the Retina MacBook Pro doesn’t have an optical drive and I didn’t try ripping a DVD or CD using an external drive. The file conversion took less than 5 minutes, during which time the fans did not run, and the laptop did not noticeably heat up.

Battery life

The Retina display is power-hungry; you need a lot of juice to move all those pixels. The Retina MacBook Pro’s built-in battery is rated at 95 watt-hours. By comparison, the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro is rated at 77.5 watt-hours. The Retina MacBook Pro has a much bigger battery.

However, Apple rates the battery life of all its 15-inch MacBook Pros at 7 hours of what the company calls “wireless web” use. When Macworld Lab tests battery life, we use a more rigorous test. We loop a movie file in full screen mode in QuickTime Pro until the battery is drained. This drains the battery faster than general use that involves Web access.

Both Retina laptops lasted about five hours in our test. Even with their larger batteries, they didn’t last as long as the regular 15-inch MacBook Pros, which lasted several minutes longer. The previous generation of 15-inch MacBook Pros actually outlasted the new models by a significant margin.

The new definition of “pro”

Apple’s idea of “pro”—at least for laptops—doesn’t involve customizable hardware, which means a few hardcore users are at a crossroads. You can still buy the regular MacBook Pro, open it up, and have your way with it, but I'm guessing it won’t be too long before that design too follows the 17-inch MacBook Pro into discontinued status.

So, what is Apple’s idea of a “pro” laptop? For now, it’s the Retina MacBook Pro, which is philosophically very close to the MacBook Air. Obviously, it’s light, it’s smaller than before, but the missing features force you to adjust, as with the MacBook Air. The “pro” aspect, in this case, refers to the performance; the general CPU speed matches the regular MacBook Pro (when you factor in the flash storage, the Retina MacBook Pro blazes past the regular laptops), so no performance compromises are made, and the performance is several notches past the MacBook Air.

Macworld’s buying advice

With the Retina MacBook Pro, Apple once again proves it is a company that refuses to sit still and get comfortable. It redefined the ultraportable laptop with the MacBook Air, and has now altered the concept of the “pro” laptop. Going lighter and smaller was expected, given how Apple does things, but the change in feature set will have current MacBook Pro owners reexamining their needs.

One thing to consider: Customers actually have more laptop choices now than than they've had since the demise of the MacBook. There are three different types to choose from: the MacBook Air, the regular MacBook Pro, and the Retina MacBook Pro. It’s a good variety that ranges in price from $999 to $2799, not including BTO options.

The Retina MacBook Pro, however, is the future of Apple’s laptop line—and it’s a bright, shining symbol of excellence. The Retina display is something to be marveled at, and the lightweight, smaller design addresses the demand for our devices to be even more portable. You’ll have to make a few adjustments, but fortunately, you don’t have to sacrifice performance. The Retina MacBook Pro is quite a remarkable laptop.

Editor's note: Updated at 6/15/12 at 8 a.m. PT to correct a price reference to the 2.6GHz Core i7 model. Updated on 6/18/12 at 7:30 p.m. PT to add a link to Speedmark 7 scores.

At a Glance
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