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

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.