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Not very long ago, to be the 15-inch MacBook was to be the life of the laptop party. Big and powerful, yet still slim and attractive, the college kids wanted MacBook Airs, while the designers and artists wanted the 15-inch MacBook Pro (or, in a few cases, the bigger 17-inch version).
That logic has shifted with the release of Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Despite the similar names, these are two very different beasts.
One is nearly ultrabook-thin, with solid-state storage, an HDMI port, dual Thunderbolt ports, no optical drive, and a unique 2,880x1,800-pixel display. And, it starts at $2,199. The other is the same 15-inch MacBook Pro we've known and loved for a couple of years, but upgraded to Intel's third-generation Core i7 processors (both models have Nvidia graphics and USB 3.0 ports). That starts at $1,799 (as reviewed here), but is easily upgraded to $2,199 or more.
Except for the optical drive, higher storage capacities, and lower staring price, it's hard to think of a way in which the full-size MacBook Pro is superior to the new, thinner Retina Display version. That model is clearly the new flagship MacBook, while this 15-inch Pro exists to serve those who are tied to what Apple may consider legacy features -- DVD drives, Ethernet cables, and even FireWire.
The math should be simple. If you can afford the Retina version, and can live with its connectivity and storage limitations, go for that. If not, the standard 15-inch MacBook Pro is still a great laptop, with excellent build quality, amazing battery life, and powerful performance. But, despite a long-term fondness for this particular product, the overall design, unchanged for the past few cycles, is starting to feel a bi dated, especially the default 1,440x900-pixel screen resolution.
|Price as reviewed||$1,799|
|Processor||2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM|
|Memory||4GB, 1600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 650M / Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||OS X Lion 10.7.4|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.4 x 9.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.7/6.4 pounds|
While its internal components have been updated to include the latest hardware from Intel and Nvidia, the 2012 version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro looks and feels the same as previous iterations. It's still one of the best overall laptop designs around, and still one of the thinnest full-power 15-inch models, but thanks in part to competition from ultrabooks (an Intel marketing program to design and promote thinner laptops across several screen sizes), Windows laptops are catching up quickly.
The basic building block should be familiar by now: a solid chunk of aluminum, which is carved down into a shell with support struts. This unibody chassis has the benefit of being thin, but strong and flex-free at the same time.
The keyboard and trackpad are essentially the same as those seen on the last several generations of MacBook Pros. Holding the Retina Pro side by side with this model, the only discernible differences are slightly shallower keys in the thinner Retina model, and a separate power button in the upper-right corner of the interior panel (on the Retina Pro, the optical drive eject button has been replaced by a power button). It's still one of the best laptop keyboards, perhaps a close second to Lenovo for overall ease of use.
The large glass trackpad, with its multifinger gestures, remains the industry leader. Many Windows laptops have added larger clickpads over the past year or so, with somewhat similar multitouch gestures, but none can yet compete with the MacBook's gesture implementation. (But, here's a quick Mac touchpad tip. The tap-to-drag functionality is turned off by default. To turn it back on, look in the Universal Access settings menu, not the trackpad settings menu.)
The 1,440x900-pixel display is one of the few weak spots in this system. It's similar to the 1,366x768-pixel display you'll find on less expensive midsize Windows laptops, but anything even close to this price range should start off with a much higher resolution. A 1,680x1,050-pixel display is a $100 option, and money well spent (plus, there's also an antiglare version of that higher-res screen). Of course, even that resolution can't compete with either the 1,920x1,080 found on many premium Windows laptops, or the 2,880x1,800-pixel resolution on the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Interestingly, both this and the Retina version are still 16:10 aspect ratio displays -- some of the only laptops to keep that standard.
|Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, June 2012)||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||DisplayPort/Thunderbolt||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
Apple is clearly sticking with Thunderbolt, even upping the number of ports to two in the Retina Pro. Here, you still just get the one, which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort output. The only big change in connectivity options is the jump to USB 3.0 ports. Unlike Windows laptops, which label those ports in blue, to differentiate from USB 2.0, Apple says they're all USB 3.0 now, across the MacBook lineup, so there's no need to label them as such. One upgrade I miss here is the new HDMI port found on the Retina Pro. I'm also not a fan of the new power connector, dubbed MagSafe 2, on this and the other Pros. Having one universal connector any MacBook could use was very useful for multiple-MacBook families.
Like nearly every new laptop right now, the 2012 version of the MacBook Pro includes Intel's latest Core i-series CPUs, previously known by the code name Ivy Bridge. In this case, it's a quad-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM, with a 2.6GHz version available in the $2,199 upgrade model.
The actual application performance was modestly improved, mirroring what we saw in Windows laptops that switched to Ivy Bridge. If you get the $2,199 base model Retina MacBook Pro, you'll get the same chip, and essentially the same performance, with some minor improvement in some tests thanks to the Retina Pro's solid-state hard drive.
There's been a big switch in graphics from last year, however. A new Nvidia GeForce 650M replaces last year's AMD Radeon HD 6750M. In our admittedly dated Call of Duty 4 Mac gaming benchmark, we got 69.6 frames per second at the native 1,440x900-pixel resolution, which was much better than last year's 41.3 frames per second. Of course, we'd expect that from a newer, faster processor and video card. The GPU here is the 512MB version of the 650M. You can get a 1GB version, but only with the more expensive 15-inch Pro base model.
|Apple MacBook Pro 15.4-inch (Summer 2012)||Average watts per hour|
|Off (60 percent)||0.28|
|Sleep (10 percent)||0.68|
|Idle (25 percent)||9.93|
|Load (5 percent)||54.77|
|Annual energy cost||$5.43|
No big improvements to battery life were expected with the move to Intel's latest generation of CPUs, and this model's run time of 6 hours and 54 minutes in our video playback battery drain test is exactly the same result as last year's Pro (which was similar to the iteration before that). It's also about what you'll get from either the 15-inch Retina Pro or the 13-inch Pro. We've settled into a comfortable level of battery life with MacBook Pro laptops. It's impressive, but I'm looking forward to moving the goal posts again for the next generation.
Apple includes a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra $349 and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products and their sealed bodies. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials, and e-mail with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail store Genius Bars, which, in personal experience, and as heard from others, is generally a frustration-free experience.
This revision to the 15-inch MacBook Pro looks minor from the outside, with nothing new to report designwise. But inside, sure, there are new Intel CPUs, but the Nvidia graphics and USB 3.0 may be a bigger deal. I've previously called this the most universally useful laptop you can buy. That title now has to be split with the Retina version, and honestly, if you buy this, there may always be a twinge of remorse that you didn't make the jump to the Retina model, budgets be damned.
Benchmark testing by Julie Rivera.
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