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

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MSRP: $2,199.00

The Good The unprecedented high-resolution screen on the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display 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.

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8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 8
  • Support 8

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.

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).

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.

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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.