Review: Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

When Apple introduced the MacBook Air in 2008, it shook up the entire PC industry. In just a few years, “the world’s thinnest notebook” evolved from a super-slim novelty into a viable computing solution, sending other manufacturers on a mad rush to issue their own supremely portable ultrabooks. We’re now surrounded by a bunch of PC notebooks that looks remarkably similar to Apple’s Air.

And now we get to watch that same game play out at the top end of the notebook space.

With its newest MacBook Pro, Apple has drafted another set of design standards and build philosophies for PC makers to follow, this time for high-performance machines. The next wave of portable computers will become even slimmer. They will lose their optical drives. Their serviceability will be limited. And the screens will get better — much better.

Whether you’re a fan of Apple hardware or not, it’s difficult to deny that the new Pro’s stunningly crisp, high-resolution Retina display is a significant jump forward in the notebook space. We’ve seen phones and tablets with screens this clear and sharp, but this display is the first of its kind in a notebook computer. Over the next few years, we’ll undoubtedly see the Asuses and Toshibas of the world scrambling to add competitive, high-resolution displays into their own thin, unibody machines.

Of course, frontline tech like this is costly: The base model starts at a whopping $2,200 — $400 more than the 15-inch, entry-level non-Retina MacBook Pro, and $1,000 more than a 13-inch Pro or MacBook Air.

It weighs in at 4.46 pounds, 1.1 pounds less than the previous MacBook Pro, and it’s light enough for me to confidently pick up and carry with only one hand. The machine measures 0.71 inches, only 0.03 inches thicker than the MacBook Air. Unlike the Air, which has a patented wedge-shaped design, the Pro is uniformly thick all the way from back to front, save for a small curved taper around the bottom edges of the base. For long-time users of the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro, the shaved frame and 20 percent weight loss on this new machine are pleasant and welcome upgrades. But anyone used to the MacBook Air may still find the larger 15.4-inch display and thicker body a bit unwieldy and, dare I say, chunky.

After using the MacBook Pro with Retina Display for a week, I’m loath to go back to my old 15-incher. On my older machine, everything takes a few moments longer. The lag is slight, but noticeable nonetheless. And once your eyes have been opened to the Retina way of life, the raggedy pixel edges on any lesser display will jump out at you, sending you into a depressed state of longing. Like I mentioned in Gadget Lab’s hands-on report, fretting over things like sharpness, accuracy and pixel density seems silly when you take stock of the problems out there in the big bad world. But when you consider that we spend at least eight hours a day staring at computer screens, guess what? These things matter. The sharper screen makes a really big difference.

But there’s one more thing: Because of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display’s tightly packed internal components, the machine is nearly impossible to upgrade or repair yourself. The Air is like this, too, and so are Apple’s mobile products like the third-generation iPad. Some believe this is a bad trend in computing. And indeed, it may not be the best for the environment. But let’s face it: In this world of fierce competition ruled by Moore’s Law, by the time you’re ready to upgrade your computer, it’s time to buy a new one anyway.

So what we have here is an expensive, factory-sealed machine that’s the first of its breed. In later generations, the price will come down. And we may even see Retina displays show up in MacBook Airs by the end of this year if the rumor mill yields anything truthful.

For now, the Retina display-equipped Pro is still a luxury item, and may not be worth the price for average users. But for professional content creators and power users juggling multiple 1080p video streams and doing detailed photo editing, the new Pro offers a level of visual accuracy heretofore unheard of.

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