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Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display review: Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Thin, fast, and sporting a high-resolution screen, the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display pairs high-end computing power with a superstylish MacBook Air-inspired design.

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 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
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
10 min read

Editors' note (October 23, 2012): In addition to the 15-inch model reviewed here, Apple now offers an all-new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display as well.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

The Good

The unprecedented high-resolution screen on the new <b>MacBook Pro with Retina Display</b> makes images -- even simple text -- look beautifully clear. Despite a redesigned, lightweight body, the powerful components, including an Nvidia GPU, compare well to recent high-end desktop replacements. Overdue new ports, including USB 3.0 and HDMI, are welcome.

The Bad

With a $2,199 entry-level price tag, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display costs more than the typical American mortgage. The lack of onboard Ethernet jack, FireWire, or an optical drive can be inconvenient at times. Despite being thinner and lighter, it's not as travel-friendly as a true ultrabook or MacBook Air.

The Bottom Line

The newly redesigned MacBook Pro with Retina Display combines an amazing screen with just enough of the MacBook Air design to feel like a new animal, and to take its place as the best of the current MacBook breed.

The release of a brand-new Apple laptop design is rare, and always accompanied by much fanfare. The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display is no exception, especially as it introduces a new screen technology to laptops, while pulling in influences from the MacBook Air, existing Pro, and even the third-generation iPad.

At a starting price of $2,199, the Retina MacBook Pro is in a different tier of product than other recently spec-bumped Airs and Pros, but it also offers a mix of design and features that can't be duplicated in other Mac laptops: a quad-core processor in a body that's svelte (but not quite ultrabook-thin), discrete graphics, a super high-res display, and -- new to any MacBook -- HDMI.

This is the biggest change to the Pro's aesthetics since it adopted the now-familiar aluminum unibody construction in 2008. Updated periodically with new processors and new features, the MacBook Pro line remains a familiar sight in offices (especially in creative fields) and coffee shops. And, while that pre-existing 15-inch model is still considered thin for a midsize computer, recent challenges from Window-powered ultrabooks and even Apple's own MacBook Air have clearly influenced this split in the MacBook Pro family tree, leading to a thinner, more forward-looking offshoot (which will live alongside the thicker, non-Retina 15 and 13-inch Pro laptops).

MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Hands-on (pictures)

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Note that the 2012 MacBook Air and Pro lineups have been updated to Intel's third-generation Core i-series processors, also known as Ivy Bridge, and this new MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts out there. As Apple laptops have at times taken a while to trade up to Intel's latest hardware, it's nice to see Ivy Bridge arrive in a timely manner.

Of course, the real highlight is that new Retina Display. Its resolution is 2,880x1,800 pixels, providing a level of detail never seen on a laptop before. The highest standard Windows laptop screen resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels, the same as an HDTV. That previous high-water mark has been fine in my experience, but even that can make text and images look small on a 15-inch laptop. Apple solves this via a different dot pitch for the screen, much as it did on the third-gen iPad.

In person, the Retina Display looks great, although you're more likely to notice it when comparing to a non-Retina laptop. It'll likely be more useful for heavy readers or Photoshop/Final Cut users at first, and we'll have to see how long it takes for other popular programs to update themselves to take advantage of the new screen.

In the end, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, while expensive, is the best all-around MacBook Apple now makes -- unless you absolutely, positively need a built-in optical drive or Ethernet jack (both are available via external dongles or peripherals). It provides desktop-replacement-level performance, but is nearly as slim as an imagined 15-inch MacBook Air would be, even if it's a little heavier than it looks. Because it eclipses the previous MacBook Pro in many ways, it earns a CNET Editors' Choice nod.

Still, it feels like a rest stop on the road to somewhere else, a not-too-distant future when all laptops are paper-thin and feather light, with powerful hardware, wide connectivity, and generous solid-state storage that rivals bulky old platter hard drives. Don't be shocked to see Retina screens filter down to less expensive models at some point in the not-too-distant future. We're not there yet, but this is a big step in that direction.

Price as reviewed $2,199
Processor 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM
Memory 8GB, 1600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 256GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M / Intel HD 4000
Operating system OS X Lion 10.7.4
Dimensions (WD) 14.1 x 9.7 inches
Height 0.7 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.6/5.4 pounds
Category Midsize

In hands-on use, the new, thinner 15-inch MacBook Pro is both familiar and very different from what we've seen before. This is not an ultrabook (or an ultrathin laptop, as one would call these systems before Intel invented the ultrabook term), nor is it a full midsize laptop. Instead, it's an entirely new take that skirts the two, taking features from both sides of the aisle.

In the hand, at 0.7 inch, it's nearly as thin as a MacBook Air, at least the thicker end of that tapered system. But it's heavier than it looks, closer to a Pro, at 4.6 pounds. In other words, this is not the ultimate mobile laptop for people who have to jog around from place to place all day long, five or more days per week.

Watch this: New MacBook Pro Unboxed at Always On

Still, it feels like a nice shift from the current Pro, which is what I'd call a "carry it around twice per week, tops" laptop. More often than that, especially with the traditional 15-inch MacBook Pro, and it really drags you down. I could see carrying this new, thinner Pro around with you several days per week, or maybe to and from work on a daily subway commute at a stretch.

From a distance, this could be mistaken for an Air, but up close, it's a different story. The design of the speakers, on either side of the keyboard, is lifted from the MacBook Pro. Along with the slablike, non-tapered body, I'd say the new Pro leans 70/30 or more toward the Pro rather than the Air in terms of design DNA.

The keyboard and trackpad are essentially the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook, which is a good thing. Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard. And the trackpad, with its multifinger gestures, remains the industry leader. There are some patents, secret sauce, and OS-level sleight of hand behind this, but the practical result is touchpad experience far more satisfying than on any other laptop.

The Retina (left) and non-Retina MacBook Pro displays compared. CNET

The Retina Display is the real hardware breakthrough of the system. Now that this very high-resolution screen technology has come to the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro, it's something of an Apple staple, and future products will have to at least consider including it. Of course, it's just a branded name for a very high-resolution screen -- 2,880x1,800 pixels, a level previously unseen in laptops (I've seen some larger desktop monitors come close). By adjusting the dot pitch and promoting the use of customized software (some of Apple's own apps and, not surprisingly, Photoshop, have already been updated), text and images avoid the typical high-resolution pitfall of appearing too small.

Even in everyday use, the screen looks amazing. Colors pop and images have great depth, but the biggest difference to me, same as with the latest iPad, is in text. Compare blocks of text side by side (using the "reader" button in Safari is a great way to do that), on a Retina and a standard MacBook Pro screen, and the difference is unmistakable, as seen above. The non-Retina 15-inch Pro used for comparison has a 1,440x900-pixel native resolution.

Interestingly, like the other 13 and 15-inch MacBooks, the new Retina Pro sticks with a 16:10 aspect ratio, using the much more common 16:9 only in the 11-inch MacBook Air. It's hard to imagine a situation where it would make a tremendous amount of difference, but some people have strong preferences, and there's something to be said for matching the aspect ratio of HD television content, or at least having a universal standard to design around.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display Average for category [mainstream]
Video HDMI, DisplayPort (via Thunderbolt) VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt, SD card reader 4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None DVD burner

Apple can both give and take away when it comes to ports and connections. Ethernet, the optical drive, and FireWire are on the chopping block, but -- in what I can only describe as a very pleasant surprise -- HDMI has been added.

The twin Thunderbolt ports literally double down on that still-underused connection, and the pair of USB 2.0 ports have become USB 3.0. Both are potentially useful for adding external storage to augment the flash memory, but you might also need those extra connections to hook up dongles for Ethernet and FireWire.

The default 256GB of solid-state storage is close enough to mainstream size for me, but digital packrats will want the 512GB option, part of an upgraded base model that starts at $2,799. There's also a 768GB upgrade from that, but that's an additional $500. Still, this is one of the first "professional" laptops that can get away with having no spinning platter drives.

Yes, that is indeed an HDMI connection. CNET

But it's the HDMI that's really a mind-blower. We've asked for that for years, just because it was the easiest way to get content onto big TVs, projectors, external monitors, and so on. Apple doesn't always add features just because they're "practical" (see: SD card slot, 11-inch MacBook Air), so let's just assume the repeated inclusion of HDMI on MacBook "wish list" articlesover the years finally had some impact (as unlikely as that seems).

The high-end 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU and Nvidia GeForce 650M GPU remind me of the recent spate of Ivy Bridge gaming laptopswe've reviewed. They also had quad-core Core i7 Ivy Bridge CPUs with new Nvidia GPUs. However, those were giant 17-inch desktop-replacement rigs, with huge cases and terrible battery life. I did see a 15-inch version of that recently, from Maingear, and the Retina Pro feels like that kind of serious power shrunk down to a much slimmer size.

In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, the system ran even faster than that first wave of quad-core Intel Core i7 Ivy Bridge systems. The caveat is that our benchmarks, including Photoshop and a multimedia multitasking test which included QuickTime, tend to be weighted toward OS X performance. In hands-on use, it felt evenly matched with a system such as the Origin Eon 17-S. That's more than enough power for just about any task, and even more impressive when you consider that those other systems are mostly full-size desktop replacements.

The switch from AMD graphics to Nvidia's GeForce 650M is also a big step. Macs have never been serious gaming machines, but occasional standouts such as Diablo IIIare available cross-platform, and make for an excellent anecdotal test. That game will add additional support for the native 2,880x1,800 resolution via a future update, but for now you can still crank up the in-game resolution that high in the options menu. It made for a somewhat sluggish experience, running at around 23 frames per second, according to the onscreen frame rate counter. Pulled back to 1,440x900-pixel resolution, the game flew, at around 65 frames per second.

To compare the performance with older MacBooks, we ran our dated Call of Duty: Modern Warfare test. It crashed when we tried to get the in-game resolution up to 2,880x1,800 pixels, but ran at 75.4 frames per second at 1,440x900 pixels and 70.8 frames per second at 1,680x1,050 pixels. The past two 15-inch MacBook Pros we've tested, running on different AMD GPUs, ran the same test at between 41 and 51 frames per second at 14x9.

Battery life has always been a MacBook strong suit, especially when combined with Intel's very efficient processors and the lower power requirements of solid-state storage. Even though this system has a discrete GPU, it can turn that component off and on as needed, so it's not draining your battery unnecessarily. A couple of years ago, MacBooks required you to log out and then back in to swap graphics processors, but for the last couple of generations, that's happened automatically and seamlessly. In our video playback battery drain test, the new MacBook Pro ran for 6 hours and 59 minutes. That's great for a 15-inch laptop, and it may even run longer depending on your workload. The previous 15-inch MacBook Proran for about the same time, 6 hours and 54 minutes. Yes, this is, like all current MacBooks, a sealed battery. Some people positively hate that, it's never bothered me.

Apple includes a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support, which has always struck us as odd. 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 my experience, have always been fairly frustration-free encounters.

I've previously called the 15-inch MacBook Pro one of the most universally useful all-around laptops you can buy. This new version adds to that with HDMI, faster ports, and more portability. But it also subtracts from that with its exclusion of an optical drive and Ethernet port, plus its very high starting price. The Pro and Retina Pro are clearly two laptops designed for two different users, and with the exception of all-day commuters who need something closer to a MacBook Air or ultrabook, one of the two branches of the MacBook Pro family tree is still probably the most universally useful laptop you can buy.

Benchmark testing by Julie Rivera and Joseph Kaminski.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Battery 8Support 8