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Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2014) review: Still the best higher-res laptop, but the competition is catching up

A faster processor for some models, plus RAM boosts and price cuts for others, but no major overhaul.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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7 min read

Editors' note (June 27, 2017): At this year's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple gave its laptop line a modest makeover. The $1,299 12-inch MacBook and $999 13-inch MacBook Air have been updated with faster, more powerful Intel processors. The new MacBook Pros -- the $1,299 13-inch, $1,799 13-inch with Touch Bar, and $2,399 15-inch with Touch Bar -- have those new chips, too, along with upgraded graphics hardware. 

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8.3

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2014)

The Good

The 2014 15-inch MacBook Pro offers excellent performance and a better-than-HD screen, plus a boost to its specs for the same price as last year's model.

The Bad

There's very little new here beyond minor component upgrades, and the entry-level 15-inch Pro is the same price as before, even while several other MacBooks have seen $100 cuts. Higher-resolution screens are no longer a unique feature.

The Bottom Line

While the small updates to the 2014 model aren't enough for most existing users to upgrade, Apple's excellent 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is still our go-to laptop of choice for shoppers at the high end.

Otherwise, aside from a RAM bump here and a slight price drop there, the 2017 batch is very similar to the one from 2016, with the same enclosures, ports, trackpads and screens. But be forewarned: Buying a new MacBook Pro may require you to invest in a variety of adapters for your legacy devices. Also note that the 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 has been discontinued though the $1,999 15-inch model from that year -- an update of the 2014 edition, reviewed below -- remains available for those who want all the ports and fewer dongles.

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Watch this: Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade
Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade
1:49

For anyone complaining that Apple has not released any new products in the first eight months of 2014, we point you toward a series of underplayed but important updates to the Mac line of laptops and desktops.

Already this year, we've seen processor bumps and price cuts for the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air, a new lower-cost entry level 21.5-inch iMac all-in-one desktop, and now similar component upgrades and price cuts to the MacBook Pro line.

apple-macbook-pro-with-retina-display-15-inch-july-2014-product-photos04.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

The entry-level 13-inch and 15-inch Retina models each doubled the included RAM, from 4GB to 8GB for the 13-inch, and 8GB to 16GB for the 15-inch. Both of those models also received a slightly faster CPU, with the 15-inch model reviewed here going from a 2.0GHz Intel Core i7 to a 2.2GHz Core i7, but still from the same generation of Intel Core i-series processors (newer CPUs are expected from Intel late this year).

Further, the higher-end 15-inch Retina Pro, the base model we reviewed in each of the past two years, dropped its price by $100, down to $2,499; and the lone non-Retina MacBook Pro, the positively ancient 13-inch model with an optical drive and relatively paltry 1,280x800-pixel display, also dropped its price by $100, down to $1,099.

The model we're testing here is the entry-level (to stretch the term) 15-inch Pro, which starts at $1,999 (£1,599, AU$2,499 RRP) and includes the aforementioned 2.2GHz Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD storage. Unlike the higher-end models we've reviewed in previous years, this Pro doesn't have a discrete Nvidia graphics card, relying instead on Intel's integrated Iris Pro graphics.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The small speed bump and added RAM make this a modest improvement over the 2013 version, but it's essentially the same machine. As that Retina MacBook Pro received a very strong recommendation as an excellent all-around premium powerhouse, this updated version does, too, even if anyone looking for the next big thing from Apple will be disappointed that this "new" Mac isn't really all that new.

PC GeekboxMacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014)Toshiba Satellite P50t-BST2N01MacBook (13-inch, 2014)
Price as reviewed $1,999/£1,599/AU$2,499$1,799/£1,199/AU$2,499$999/£849/AU$1,199
Display size/resolution 15.6-inch, 2,880 x 1,800 screen15.6-inch, 3,840 x 2160 touchscreen13.3-inch 1,440 x 900 screen
PC CPU 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 4770HQ2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ1.4GHz Intel Core i5 4260U
PC Memory 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz4GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1536MB (shared) Intel Iris Pro2GB (dedicated) AMD Radeon R9 M265X1536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000
Storage 256GB SSD1TB 5,400rpm Hybrid HDD128GB SSD
Optical drive NoneDVD/RWNone
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system OSX 10.9.4 MavericksWindows 8.1 (64-bit)OSX 10.9.3 Mavericks

Design and features

The exterior design of the MacBook Pro remains unchanged since the 2013 model we reviewed (and essentially unchanged from the 2012 original, as well), so much of the analysis we wrote for the previous model remains unchanged.

This laptop is slim, but with an expansive footprint, and it feels denser than it looks at first glance. The 15-inch MacBook Pro isn't exactly a carry-all-day-every-day package, although one could tote it around to and from work, or on day trips without much trouble.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The keyboard and trackpad remain essentially the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook. Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, with the possible exception of Lenovo, a company as involved with keyboard research and development as any.

The large glass trackpad, with its multifinger gestures, remains the industry leader, even as Windows laptops move to more touchscreen controls, at least partially to compensate for the hassle of using a touch pad with Windows 8. The ability to do easy four-finger swipes, and the no-lag scrolling in Web browsers, is something Mac users always been able to brag about to PC users. That said, some basic settings, such as tap-to-click, really should be turned on by default. Instead, I had to go into the settings menus and tweak the touchpad and accessibility settings to get the touchpad set up exactly how I like it.

The 15-inch Retina Display remains a main selling point, and Apple now uses the Retina branding on the iPhone and iPad as well. Some Windows laptops now go for even higher resolutions, and it's not unreasonable to ask when we'll see this trickle down to the MacBook Air line, perhaps in the form of a rumored 12-inch higher-resolution model. The Retina screen has a 2,880x1,800-pixel display, and is at its best when displaying text or professional photography. Videos rarely go past 1080p, and most Mac games can't display higher resolutions to begin with.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Retina Display looks great even during everyday Web surfing, although you're more likely to notice the resolution difference when comparing with a non-Retina laptop. Other PC makers are joining the better-than-HD party as well, with up to 3,200x1,800-pixel-resolution models from Lenovo, Dell, and others, and even the full 4K resolution 15-inch Satellite P50t from Toshiba. That competition means laptop buyers are finding higher resolutions at lower costs, so the Retina screen here is not quite the unique selling point it was a couple of years ago.


Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014)
Video HDMI, mini-DisplayPort (x2)
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt 2, SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery

Many Macs now match established PC port offerings more closely, thanks to the the addition of SD card slots and HDMI ports in some models. That definitely helps for people moving over from the Windows side, or for those using such exotic tech hardware as flatscreen monitors or digital cameras.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

As in last year's model, you get two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, which also double as Mini DisplayPort outputs, an SD card slot, and Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. You won't find an optical drive or Ethernet jack, but both of those are becoming increasingly rare even in 15-inch laptops.

The HDMI and Thunderbolt video outputs can drive two additional external displays, at up to 2,560x1,600 pixels, so you can set up a Retina MacBook Pro with its Retina screen sandwiched by two high-resolution external monitors, and it becomes quite the command center.

In our benchmark testing, you can rightly expect a premium laptop such as this to turn in premium performance scores. Unlike the previous two 15-inch MacBook Pro models we tested, this is the lower-end (again, a tough term to use for a $2,000 laptop) model, not the more advanced version with faster CPUs and dedicated graphics hardware, but the recent CPU bump helps, and the $1,999 2014 MacBook Pro performed about the same as the $2,599 2013 version we tested. The original 15-inch Retina Pro, from 2012, fell slightly behind in some tests, as its CPU was from a previous Intel generation.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The integrated Intel Iris Pro graphics aren't going to drive many high-end games, especially at anything close to the system's native 2,880x1,800 resolution, but last year's Tomb Raider reboot ran at 39.6 frames per second at high detail settings when we dialed the resolution down to 1,440x900 pixels.

Excellent battery life is a given for modern MacBooks, but with no change to battery technology and a CPU from the same family as the previous generation, you shouldn't expect an improvement over last year's Pro. The new system ran for 9 hours and 21 minutes in our video playback battery life test, while the 15-inch 2013 MacBook Pro, which had some small component differences, but was overall similar, ran for 9 hours and 52 minutes in the same test.

Conclusion

Apple has quietly upgraded almost the entire Mac lineup so far in 2014, minus the still-new Mac Pro desktop and the often-overlooked Mac Mini. Still, these upgrades are minor at best, and in most cases, not nearly as important as the price cuts some models (but not this one) have received at the same time.

At $1,999 and up, the 15-inch Pro remains a hefty investment, and with the 13-inch MacBook Air now down to a mere $999, it may be tougher to justify, especially as the basic design and ideas behind it are now three generations old.

Still, despite the lack of new razzle dazzle, the only slightly newish 15-inch MacBook Pro remains one of our favorite premium power-user laptops, thanks to its solid unibody construction, excellent display, and great all-around performance.

HandBrake multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)

MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 171MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013) 177Toshiba Satellite P50t-BST2N01 181Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 478
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 253Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2012) 241Toshiba Satellite P50t-BST2N01 197MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013) 194MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 190
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

Toshiba Satellite P50t-BST2N01 90Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 76Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2012) 64MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 63MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013) 60
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

Toshiba Satellite P50t-BST2N01 172Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2012) 419MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 561MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013) 592Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014) 986
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.

System configurations

MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014)

OSX 10.9.4 Mavericks; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4770HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Pro Graphics; 256GB SSD

MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013)

OSX 10.9 Mavericks; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 750M + Intel Iris Pro Graphics; 512GB SSD

MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2012)

OSX 10.7.4 Lion; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M + 512MB Intel HD 4000; 256GB SSD

MacBook Air (13-inch, 2014)

Apple OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks ; 1.4GHz Intel Core i54260U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1,536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 128GB SSD

Toshiba Satellite P50t-BST2N01

Windows 8.1 (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4700HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2,048MB (dedicated) AMD R9 M265X; 1TB Hybrid 5,400rpm HDD

apple-macbook-pro-with-retina-display-15-inch-july-2014-product-photos07.jpg
8.3

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, 2014)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Battery 9