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The gorgeous, bright, color-saturated Retina display is the first thing you notice when cracking open Apple's newest machine. Its resolution is 2880x1800 pixels, but it would be a bit of an oversimplification to call that the "native resolution." When you open the Displays panel in System Preferences, the Retina MacBook Pro offers a preferred "Best for Retina" setting, and four scaled options, two upscaled and two downscaled. The upscaled options are labeled "looks like" 1680x1050 and 1920x1200. Those give you more screen real estate but shrink the screen elements--if there were a true 2880x1800 option, things would be too tiny to use. The two downscaled options, labeled "larger text," look like 1280x800 and 1024x640. Using the 1024x640 setting makes all the text and icons nice and big--and blurry.
We set the resolution to "Best for Retina" and fired up Safari, where whatismyscreenresolution.com told us our display was at 1440x900. So that's drawing the text and icons at the same size you're used to, but using four times the amount of pixels to draw them. The Retina display isn't meant to give you tons of screen real estate, bur rather to increase the pixel density at each point.
The Retina display is a beauty--depending on what app you're using. If you use a lot of Apple apps (Mail, iCal, iPhoto or Aperture, iTunes, Safari, Final Cut Pro, etc.), everything looks great, with sharp text and bright images that look more like a printed page than a computer display. But if you're using an app built for a lower-resolution display, it's possible the text and images will appear blurry. We found ourselves using Hibari instead of the official Twitter app, for example. And we couldn't stand the way Chrome or Firefox looked, keeping us in Safari where the text in every website we visited was automatically smoothed.
If you do a lot of photo or video editing, you can go to a pixel-for-pixel view and see four times more of your image than you could previously. In fact, if you edit in Final Cut Pro X, the preview area at the upper-right of the interface can show you a full 1080p video with pixel-for-pixel accuracy.
The new display seems brighter than our mid-2010 MacBook Pro too, and Apple claims that since it isn't covered by glass, the glare is reduced by 75 percent (measured by how much light reflects off of it). We couldn't scientifically test that, but anecdotally, the glare seems less than what we're used to on a LED Cinema Display, iMac, or our last-gen MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, but it's not gone totally. IPS (in-plane switching) makes the screen viewable from extremely wide angles, up to 178 degrees.
Once we tore our eyes away from the new Retina display, the rest of the MacBook Pro is beautiful as well. At 0.71 inches thick, it's just 0.03 inch--that's three hundreds of an inch--thicker than the MacBook Air. It doesn't taper like a MacBook Air does, it's just a thin slab on the desk and an impossibly slim screen. One thing we noticed is that the metal edge along the bottom is low enough that it doesn't come into close contact with our wrists, where the thicker MacBook Pro, at 0.95 inches thick, rubs against our wrists when we get lazy about hand positioning.
Ports along the left side include MagSafe 2, which is wider and flatter than the original MagSafe, and incompatible with old connectors, including the Thunderbolt Cinema Display's, without the $9.99 MagSafe to MagSafe 2 Converter available from Apple. Then you get two Thunderbolt ports, one USB 3.0 port that's backwards-compatible with USB 2.0, and the headphone port, which can output to 5.1 surround sound systems. On the right side, you'll find the second USB 3.0/2.0 port, an HDMI port for the first time on an Apple laptop, and an SDXC card slot.
No Ethernet? No FireWire? Not exactly, but the two Thunderbolt ports give you flexibility to add in the ports Apple left off. You can use one for the Thunderbolt Cinema Display or any Mini DisplayPort display or adapter, and the other for any host of Thunderbolt accessories--or, with $29 adapters from Apple, FireWire 800 or Gigabit Ethernet. More Thunderbolt peripherals are hitting the market each month, from RAIDs to external SSDs to Magma's ExpressBot 3T (available for $979 preorders at press time, magma.com), which lets you connect three PCI-Express cards at once. To keep up with our reviews of Thunderbolt devices, visit maclife.com/tags/thunderbolt.
The HDMI port let us mirror or extend the display to a 1080p HDTV, driven by the powerful Nvidia GeForce 650 M graphics processor. (The integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics saves you battery life for doing less-intense tasks--the Pro switches between them dynamically, unless you uncheck "Automatic graphics switching" in System Preferences > Energy Saver.) In fact, the Nvidia chip can support the Retina display plus two external monitors.
The USB 3.0 ports, which were also added to the "non-Retina" MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, let you use speedier peripherals too. We tested them with a Verbatim Store N Go for Mac hard drive (reviewed on p78), and got speeds of 77.4MBps read and 76MBps write--significantly faster than when using a USB 2.0 port on our Thunderbolt Cinema Display, where the drive mustered speeds of 37.6MBps read and 36.9MBps write.
Apple built in better speakers than in previous generations--they sound fuller and less hollow when watching movies, and more detailed when listening to music, plus they're significantly louder. Dual microphones tucked under the speaker grille help the MacBook Pro cut down on background noise when you're voice chatting, and should help the built-in dictation feature in Mountain Lion (unreleased at press time) understand you more clearly.
Inside, Apple totally reengineered the guts of the MacBook Pro. One noticeable change is the more visible vents: previous generations "hid" the vents underneath the hinge, and those are still here, along with small slits on the left and right sides, tucked under a curve in the metal. The new "asymmetrically spaced impeller blades" sound like one of Batman's weapons, but the idea is to reduce fan noise while keeping the notebook cool. We noticed some heat on the bottom and some fan noise during some Call of Duty 4, but most of the time the Retina MacBook Pro ran cool and quiet.
And it ran for quite some time, too. Apple claims up to 7 hours of continuous web surfing with the screen at half-brightness. Our continuous-use test included installing apps and updates, surfing, email, and Twitter, and we got right around 5 hours. When looping a HD QuickTime file, we got 4 hours, 46 minutes.
We benchmarked the base $2,199 version (2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 8GB of RAM, and 250GB of flash storage) and got a Geekbench score of 12,026, handily besting the last MacBook Pro we reviewed in late 2011 (15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 with 4GB of RAM), which scored 10,259.
Then we benchmarked a maxed-out Retina MacBook Pro, with a 2.7GHz Core i7 and 16GB of lucious RAM, and that hit 13,522. The only Macs faster than this are the six- and eight-core Mac Pros. We've run out of cliched phrases to say new Mac notebooks are fast, so for this one, take your pick: It zips, it blazes, it screams.
It starts up fast, in under 20 seconds each time we tested, with the best result just 16.6 seconds--the spinning wheel under the Apple logo made 2 resolutions, tops. Drives mount quickly, apps open quickly, and everything feels incredibly responsive. For normal, everyday tasks, we never had to wait.
The all-flash storage is speedy too, of course. We clocked up to 311.9MBps read and 302.9MBps write on the base $2,199 model, and up to 440.8MBps read 403.9MBps write on the built-to-order 2.7GHz model. This absolutely slays our mid-2010 2.66GHz Core i7 model's 82.7MBps read and 81.2MBps write speeds, but of course that's a hard drive. But our SSD-toting mid-2011 MacBook Air (1.8GHz Core i7) logged speeds of 220MBps read and 210MBps write, so this Retina MacBook Pro is significantly faster than that, too.
The Bottom Line. When Apple radically redesigns a piece of hardware, often the second iteration is where they really nail it--the 2010 MacBook Air was a dramatic improvement on 2008's first-gen version, adding a second USB port and flash storage over the original Air's poky PATA hard drive. Apple seems to have future-proofed this machine a bit with the dual Thunderbolt ports, USB 3.0, and HDMI, but at first-gen prices, we're not sure it's an amazing value for users deciding between this and the newly refreshed "non-Retina" MacBook Pro. (See the sidebar for buying advice.) Since it seems like a sure bet that Retina displays will eventually find their way to every Apple laptop, it might be smart to wait. But anyone who does buy this machine will get the best laptop Apple's ever made--until the next one.
2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with 6MB shared L3 cache, 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, 15.4-inch 2880x1800 glossy display, Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 512MB of VRAM and Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of VRAM, 256GB flash storage, MagSafe 2 port, two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3 port, HDMI port, headphone port, SDXC card slot, 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, 720p FaceTime camera, backlit keyboard, stereo speakers, dual microphones
Best display we've ever seen on a laptop. Two Thunderbolt ports. HDMI and USB 3. Speedy. Thin. Light. Quiet.
Apps not updated for Retina display can appear blurry. RAM, hard drive, and battery not user-upgradeable. FireWire and Gigabit Ethernet require $29 adapters. The $9.99 MagSafe-to-MagSafe 2 adapter should have been included for free.