Apple’s new flagship notebook brings its much-praised high-definition Retina Display to its laptop line at last, but Matt Hill asks if the high spec justifies the price or do its compromises undermine it?
[Original published on T3.com in June]
The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display was the big reveal at Apple’s WWDC keynote. Bringing the iPhone 4S and the new iPad 3’s much-vaunted killer feature – their nonsensically high-definition screen – to the Cupertino crew’s notebook line, rather than the iMac desktops as many had suspected, it stood alone as an all-new product alongside refreshes of the MacBook Air and standard MacBook Pro lines.
Yet with ultrabooks such as the Asus Zenbook building on the success of the MacBook Air, bringing compact power and flexibility to the affordable end of laptops, is a super-charged, super-priced portable chock full of the latest technological advancements aimed at professionals rather than hardcore gamers cumbersome and unnecessary?
To find out, we tested the entry-level £1,799, 2.3GHz version of the Apple MacBook Pro 2012 with 256GB hard drive, although there’s also a 2.6GHz version of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display with 512GB hard drive for £2,299, with greater custom specification also available.
Build quality and aesthetics
As with anything that comes out of Sir Jonathan Ive’s tech laboratory, the new flagship laptop is stunning to look at, a strong mix of style and substance, its aluminium unibody all understated curves lines and minimalist beauty.
Sit it next to the other members of the MacBook Pro line and you realise just what a feat it is to produce something so high-spec yet so compact. Despite the introduction of an intensive Retina Display, at only 1.8cm thick it somehow nears MacBook Air slimness – there’s 0.1cm difference at the Air’s flabbiest point (which isn’t very flabby) – yet feels altogether more robust.
We still wouldn’t want to drop one without a fairly hefty case, mind, and at a mere 2.02kg in weight, it’s almost disconcertingly light for such a serious machine. But hey, we’re not complaining – it adds little bulk to your bag or burden to your journey.
Elsewhere, the Trackpad is responsive and tactile yet solid and durable, and while the new quieter, assymmetrical fan system attains its secondary aim admirably – we didn’t hear a peep – it also clearly knocks its primary out of the park, too, reducing lap burn to a thing of the past.
Many complained the iPad 3 ran hotter than previous models, but after a full day of constant use, the new MacBook Pro’s underside was barely lukewarm.
Screen and resolution
The much anticipated jump to a Retina Display is, as you’d expect, a revelation. The 15.4-inch backlit LED screen is of such a high resolution – 2880×1800, at 220 pixels per inch – and its output so crisp that you can read 10-point text on it if you’re sitting on the other side of the room (we’d worry about you if you tried it too often, though, as it’s a laptop), while colours dance and contrast is excellent.
It has less reflection and offers a wider viewing angle, too. If you’ve struggled doing multiple tasks on laptop screens before, you’re in for a treat. In fact, it’s been very much made with professional photographers and film-makers in mind – you can run a full 1080p video and still have three million pixels at your mercy – and unsurprisingly the first apps to take advantage of it are Adobe Photoshop and Aperture.
When you’re dealing with HD recording or large file-size snaps, the new MacBook Pro undoubtedly sings. That said, much like the iPad 3’s Retina Display, it does make any app or service not optimised for its new technology – we’re looking at you, 72dpi internet image files – appear rather shabby. Unlike the iPad 3, though, Apple doesn’t have a such a tight grip on the notebook end of the market, so it will be interesting to see if, and how quickly, companies adapt to Apple’s new high visual water mark.
Power and performance
Almost as impressive as the screen is how effortlessly the next-generation MacBook Pro handles pretty much every task you throw at it. The 2.3GHz quad core Intel Core i7 processor is super quick that you barely notice it doing any work at all – programs load up in milliseconds without seeming to break a sweat, while the fan’s quiet as a mouse.
Its bumper 8GB memory is a multi-tasking dynamo, too, handling six different desktops (we were feeling demanding) running multiple programs with ease and no slowdown, while video editing in Final Cut Pro is a breeze due to it being able to handle up to nine different feeds for one-touch live editing.
All of this power backs up Apple’s increasing play for the gaming world, as well, and with its Intel HD Graphics 4000 and Nvidia GeForce GT 650M setup we had fare as diverse as BioShock 2 and RC Mini Racers running with all settings up to 11 without any noticeable slowdown or degradation.
The 256GB of storage means you can get a fair amount on there, too, and switching from hard drive to flash makes access quick, but if you’re anything like us you will need to upgrade to at least 512GB unless you have some serious cloud storage.
Connectivity and features
On this front, it has wired and wireless connectivity down, from SDXC card support to 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The two speedy new USB 3 ports – one on each side as ever, handily – are also backwards compatible to USB 2, while two Thunderbolt ports, headphone jack and a single HDMI out complete the set.
To be honest, beyond a display, we still struggle to find things to put in our Thunderbolt holes and would have preferred it to fly solo, with a third USB taking its place. Yet the lack of FireWire or Ethernet access means you may be thankful for them as these can both be connected via Apple’s Thunderbolt adaptors.
The new and improved 720p HD front-facing camera does a fine FaceTime/Skype job, but ironically its images and video look a bit washed out and degraded on the Retina Display’s sharp screen.
AirPlay mirroring is responsive and reliable, and while our MacBook Pro packed the Retina-optimised Lion operating system, the upcoming Mountain Lion OS is primed to raise the feature bar even further from July.
Yet what won’t be coming is an optical drive, which has been reduced, MacBook Air-style, to an external add-on. For something as purposefully entry-level as the Air, this seemed understandable, but on a professional notebook it will not be a view everyone shares.
Battery and life expectancy
Apple’s quoted seven-hour battery life is for “web use”, so if you’re planning on doing more than checking your Facebook page be prepared for less. Ours ran out of juice from 100% following a little more than five hours of semi-intensive use, with a variety of tasks from watching video locally, over AirPlay, listening to iTunes, playing games, web browsing and picture editing.
As you would expect, word processing is not as labour intensive as multimedia usage, but at this price and spec it’s a professional notebook aimed at heavy usage so we reckon around five is what to plan for.
It’s fine, if not startling, but again, as we’ve found with the iPad 3, fuelling the quality of output necessary to make the Retina Display dazzle comes at a battery-life cost. The 30 days of standby is far more impressive.
The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display is undoubtedly Apple’s most impressive laptop to date. Somehow melding the best of the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro and the iPad 3 has resulted in a beautifully designed technological beast that hoovers up multi-tasking and powers through the most taxing of programs.
If anything, it’s ahead of its time, as many developers will now have to raise their services’ games to make the most of its admirable tech. It’s always good to see Apple pushing the boundaries again, but this poses problems as it treads its own line that may not necessarily marry with your requirements – performance and HD elitism over battery life and general viewing, cloud and Thunderbolt over optical drive and a plethora of USBs.
At £1,799 for the basic model we tested and more than £3,000 if you go high end and overboard on the spec upgrades, it sure doesn’t come cheap, but then this in a different class to anything else we’ve tried.
Ultrabooks have their place, for sure, but the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a fully fledged, high-end desktop replacement that you can carry around with you without fuss. Spend 10 minutes with one and you’ll want it; spend a week with one and you won’t want to give it back. We don’t have to give ours back do we? Oh…
From £1,799, out now, apple.com/uk
Stunning Retina Display
Fierce processing power
Lack of Retina optimised apps
No optical drive
NB: See the original article with image gallery and video at T3.com