Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display review: Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Super-high resolution screen; very slim design; can be configured to be supremely powerful.

The Bad Very expensive; No Ethernet port for uploading big files; cannot be upgraded with faster components.

The Bottom Line Apple has updated its workhorse 15-inch MacBook Pro with a super-high resolution retina screen, a slimmer and lighter design and the latest-generation Intel processors. It's an extreme machine, but the lack of an Ethernet port and the total inability to upgrade it will be problems for pro users.

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Apple's MacBook Pros have become the go-to laptop for professionals who demand high performance for creative tasks like photo and video editing.

The covers have been lifted off the latest revision to the 15-inch model, which includes a supremely high-resolution 'retina' display, the latest Intel Ivy Bridge Core series processors, a slimmer and lighter design and dedicated graphics cards.

Before you get too excited though, be aware that the base model that I've reviewed here starts at a not inconsiderable £1,800. If you want the top spec with all the gubbins, you're going to have to shell out over three grand. It's on sale now at the Apple store.

Design and build quality

When you slide the Pro out of the typically minimal box, the first thing you'll notice is its slim new design. It comes in at only 18mm thick, which shaves 6mm off the previous model's thickness, although its footprint is roughly the same. That 6mm might not seem like much, but it looks and feels like a major improvement. In fact, I was rather taken aback at such a big machine being so slim.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display versus last year's
The Pro certainly packs plenty into its skinny frame.

The Pro is now slimmer than the legions of ultrabooks on the market that are extremely thin yet offer a lot of power. While the Pro doesn't technically qualify as an ultrabook , it's now possible to think of it as one. If you do, it's without doubt the best ultrabook ever made.

The new slim design means Apple's been able to shave almost half a kilo off the weight, bringing it down to just over 2kg. You might not want to whisk it off on your travels across Europe, but you shouldn't struggle to carry it around for a day in a sturdy bag.

It uses the same unibody design as the others in the MacBook range, meaning the chassis has been made from a single piece of aluminium. That not only results in a deliciously good-looking machine, but it also makes it considerably more sturdy and resistant to knocks and bumps than laptops made out of various bits and pieces stuck together.

All the components are arranged to fit very neatly within the solid metal frame, which results in a very secure fit. It's much less likely that things are going to accidentally wobble loose if you make a habit of carrying it around. If you need a powerful machine for the road, rest assured the Pro is certainly capable of withstanding a rough-and-tumble lifestyle -- although I'd make sure you kept it in a sleeve to avoid scuffing that delightful, minimal metal.

Under the lid, things don't look much different from last year's model as the keyboard and trackpad haven't changed a jot. Given the keyboard is extremely comfortable to type on and the large glass trackpad still offers the most responsive experience in the business, that's definitely not a complaint. There's quite a bit of spare space around the trackpad though, so it wouldn't have been unwelcome had Apple made it a gnat's wing bigger.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display trackpad
There's no change with the trackpad, but there was little room for improvement anyway.

The speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard are still in effect, so if you look top-down at the new Pro, you won't notice any difference between it and its predecessor. Apple reckons it's given the speakers a boost too, although I wasn't exactly blown away by a wall of noise. They're definitely among the best speakers available on laptops, with good high and mid levels, but they're almost completely devoid of bass. You'll want to use a decent set of headphones or external speakers to immerse yourself in your music and videos.

Around the edge you'll find an SD card slot, a thinner MagSafe 2 power connector (your existing MagSafe 1 plug won't work), two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt-powered Display Ports and a combined headphone and microphone jack. There's an HDMI port for hooking up to your massive TV using a normal HDMI cable, without requiring an adaptor.

There are a couple of points to raise with the port selection on offer. Firstly, the combined headphone/mic jack means you can't record onto the computer from an external device through a line-in socket while monitoring the audio on headphones. If you do a lot of audio work, you'll need to use an external sound card.

Particularly annoying is the absence of an Ethernet port. Apple has clearly sought to keep the thickness to a minimum, which is why it's decided to cut the Ethernet out, but Pro users who need to upload high-definition photos and videos to the intertubes will need to be able to connect to a high-speed wired connection.

You can buy an Ethernet adaptor that plugs into one of the Thunderbolt ports, but that's going to set you back an extra £25. Considering you're spending up to three grand on the thing, I'd certainly have expected this to have come as standard.

You'll therefore need to make sure you're always in range of an ultra-fast wireless connection if you hope to stream high-definition video smoothly. If you want to download large programs like Final Cut Pro from the App Store, you're definitely going to need that adaptor.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display right ports
You'll find an HDMI port and an SD card slot on the right, but no Ethernet.

Screen

The stand-out feature of the new 15-inch MacBook Pro is the screen. It's bearing the 'retina display' moniker we've previously seen on the iPhone 4S and, more recently, the new iPad. It simply means the resolution has been given a significant bump, to the point where you can't see individual pixels from a standard viewing distance.

The resolution is now a whopping 2,880x1,800 pixels, which is double the previous model's 1,440x900 pixels in both directions. So why exactly would you need such a high-resolution screen?

It's mainly to benefit graphics and video professionals. When you look at high-resolution images on the screen, it's able to pack in so much more detail into the same physical amount of space, resulting in a ridiculously sharp image. Looking at photos taken on the excellent Canon EOS 5D MKIII , I was amazed at their clarity, with the tiniest details rendered extremely crisp, even when I pressed my nose nearly up against the glass.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display side
Despite being glossy, Apple claims the display offers 75 per cent less glare.

For video professionals, it means 1080p footage can be displayed at full resolution in a small window within a program like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. That immediately makes it a more viable option for on-the-go editing. You won't need to hook it up to a bigger external monitor in order to get the best view.

That might sound great, but it's not all smooth sailing if you don't have graphics at the forefront of your mind. Apple has made a point of upgrading its own icons, graphics and software to look pin-sharp on the new display -- especially compared side by side with the Air . But software from third-party developers that hasn't been boosted for the new screen isn't going to look as smart as it once did. In time, most developers (at least the ones who want their software to look good) will make their apps retina-ready, as they did when the iPhone was upgraded.

MacBook Pro and Air screen comparison
The retina display on the Pro (bottom) offers considerably smoother icons (click image to enlarge).

The same issue applies to web browsing. Safari has been given an upgrade so all text looks crisp and sharp, but Google's Chrome browser has yet to receive the same treatment. Put them side by side and you'll notice a huge difference, with Chrome's fonts looking appallingly low quality in comparison. I had a play with a beta version of Chrome known as Canary, which seems to have addressed the text problems by using much higher-resolution fonts.

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