A couple weeks ago, I bought myself a 15” Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display. I thought I would give you guys a hands on review of this machine. If you’re looking for a new laptop, listen up over the next few paragraphs.
My Old iMac
Over the past few years, my primary machine has been a 20” Aluminum iMac. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it honestly. Performance never was all great and opening it up to upgrade the hard drive or clean out the gunk that’s no doubt been accumulated was almost impossible. I had upgraded the RAM, but that was as far as I could go. Most of all, I missed the portability of my last PowerPC Mac, a white 12” iBook that got me through my last years of college and a couple campaigns in my former life of working with political candidates. In fact, even when I had the iMac, I found myself going back to the old worn out iBook running OS X 10.3 until websites would no longer run on its version of Safari.
That iMac has been getting long in the tooth for a while now. As my responsibilities for Geek Beat, as well as my freelance gigs, have increased, the iMac hasn’t been able to keep up. The live blog for Geek Beat Live required me to shut down almost everything else running on the iMac. I was also starting to deal with major overheating issues. It became clear that I needed a new Mac. The question, however, was which one?
I had two requirements that were seemingly in conflict with each other, power and portability. Finding the MacBook to meet my needs had me looking over the whole gambit of Apple portables. I started by looking at MacBook Airs like Cali and John have. However, upgrading the CPU and the memory to 4GB caused the price to quickly rise. I then moved on the other options. The 13″ MacBooks were all saddled with a relatively slow Intel 4000HD integrated graphics chip. I don’t game often these days, but I wanted that option. The conventional 13 and 15-inch machines were affordable, but the screens were low resolution, they lacked standard SSD storage, and were heavy. Doubly so for the 15″. I looked at the Retinas and found my answer in the refurbished store, a 15″ 2.3ghz machine for just under $1800.
I’ll say this again, I bought mine from the refurbished store. I have had nothing but good luck with factory refurbished hardware I have bought, so I had no reservations buying this MacBook. My wallet had even fewer reservations. That being said, the price I paid is not the price you will pay. The standard model is $2199 in the US Apple store and was updated with a 2.4ghz quad-core Core i7 early this year. All other specs, however are identical.
Looking at it from the outside, it looks just like any other MacBook Apple has made in the last few years, just thinner. That’s not a bad thing either. They are the best-looking and well-made design and having used a lot of PC laptops, the backlit keyboard and especially touchpad are worlds above anything you’ll find at your local electronics retailer. What made this machine really stand apart to me was the weight. As much as the specs are a desktop replacement-class machine, it’s so light you can’t believe it’s a 15″ notebook. From a design standpoint, this machine is a homerun.
The specs are impressive. There’s a 2.3ghz quad core i7 3615QM of the Ivy Bridge series for the CPU, paired a HM77 Panther Point chipset. The ones currently shipping use the 2.4ghz 3630QM. In single core turbo boost mode, it ramps up to 3.3ghz. In other words, these chips make themselves suitable to whatever task you’re doing. For graphics, it uses the on-board Intel 4000HD graphics for most things. However, when you need more power, there’s also a dedicated Nvidia Geforce 650M with 1GB of ultra fast GDDR5 memory. This adds to up maximum battery life when you’re surfing the web and more power when you need it. Further more, OS X seamlessly switches between the chips.
System memory is 8GB of DDR3L low voltage. An extra 16GB is available from the factory, but unfortunately it’s not on any kind of daughter-card. How it ships is how it stays, which is a bit puzzling for this class of machine. The SSD storage uses fast 6mmps SATA III and does come on a daughter-card that can be easily replaced, but it’s not officially sanctioned by Apple. One retailer, OWC, already makes replacement SSDs for the 13″ and 15″ Retinas. For I/O ports, you get the Magsafe power adapter port, twin Thunderbolt ports, a USB 3.0 port, and a 3.5″ in/out jack on the left hand side. The headphone jack is also compatible with headphones with inline controls and microphone. On the right hand side, you have a second USB 3.0, a full-sized HDMI, and a SD slot that supports SDHC and SDHC cards as well. The iSightHD camera supports resolutions up to 720P and there are dual microphones for noise canceling. There are stereo “advanced design” speakers, but quite frankly the sound quality wasn’t all that great. Bluetooth is 4.0 and Wi-Fi is 2.4/5ghz 802.11N.
The Retina Display
The heart of this machine is a 2880×1800 display with a 16:10 aspect ratio using IPS technology and a LED backlight. At 220 pixels per inch, this display is only bested in pixel density by Chromebook Pixel. It’s a thing of beauty to look at. However, I think retina might be a bit overblown. I have no problem moving back and forth between retina and non-retina macs and iDevices. Two manufacturers make this display, LG and Samsung. The LG is said to have ghosting issues that the Samsung does not, which worried me when I ordered. However, I have had no issues whatsoever so far and mine does have the LG.
What is not overblown is the flexibility Apple’s implementation of this screen gives. Apple does not give you pure 2880×1800 resolution, but instead gives you virtualized resolutions. Standard is the same 1440×900 as the previous MacBooks, but can also simulate 1024×640, 1280×800, 1680×1050, and 1920×1200. I have used the 1680×1050 before permanently settling on the 1920×1200. I haven’t noticed any performance issues and the display looks just as beautiful to me as before. I just have a crapload of space in a 15.4″ display. In fact, there is so much real estate that I have decided against going with an external display.
The Downsides of Retina
If applications are properly updated, Apple’s retina display works flawlessly. However what about older apps that don’t? For standard apps run in-window, non-retina apps might look slightly blurry compared to retina apps. The effect with full screen apps is not so painless. I tested it with several games and got some very mixed results. Newer games like StarCraft II and ones constantly updated like Valve’s Mac titles on Steam worked just as you’d expect. They read the Mac as having 1920×1200 resolution and acted normally. Other older games like Doom 3 and Duke Nukem Forever did not have a clue how to handle the retina display and seemed basically unusable on this Mac. There is a fix though if you turn off automatic graphics switching and let the machine go solely to the 650M. Even though it’s a pain, I recommend this before playing any game on a MBP Retina. Just remember to turn it back on or it’ll adversely effect your battery life.
Next Generation I/O
Like I said in the specs rundown, this machine has two each of USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. That might sound redundant, but it’s really not. USB 3.0 is significantly faster than its predecessor USB 2.0, but it has several significant drawbacks compared to Thunderbolt. The lack of a dedicated processor that makes it slower and less consistant than Thunderbolt also makes it far less expensive to implement.
Thunderbolt, on the other hand is a game changer when fully implemented and with Intel’s next generation server/workstation platform arriving soon, its golden age might not be far off. Thunderbolt is a combination of two technologies: DisplayPort and PCI Express 2.0 x4. It is fast, fast enough to not only replace FireWire, it replaces eSATA and professional Fiber Channel as well. It can also be daisy chained up to 6 devices per port. It’s not just drive arrays either, Thunderbolt can be used literally for any application an internal PCI-E X4 is used for, and using the same drivers including pro audio/video interfaces and even potentially external video cards. With two Thunderbolt ports, this gives a docked laptop nearly the same expansion choices a pre-Thunderbolt desktop tower would have.
Before I bore you with benchmarks, the CPU, GPU, and the SSD are doing their job beautifully. Like I said earlier, I have multiple apps and Chrome tabs open at the same. I have yet to see the beach ball show itself. Tasks are pretty much instant. What’s more, I have launched Starcraft II with all my apps open and it’s definitely playable. But the big question is, exactly how fast is it? I will now bore you with a couple benchmarks.
In cross-platform test Geek Bench, my machine had a total score of 11987. While this benchmark is great for comparing system across platforms, it really isn’t based on any real-life applications. For that we have the next benchmark, Cinebench.
Cinebench is a benchmarking tool from Maxon based off its Cinema 4D modeling software. It gives you an idea of how your computer will perform in modern multi-cpu aware applications that make use of the GPU. The MacBook Pro with Retina managed 32.42 frames per second in the OpenGL graphics test and 6.00 points in the CPU test. I also ran the optional single-core test to find out how much of a difference the Quad Core CPU makes. Apparently a rather large one. The single core test scored a 1.26. The Machine was 4.78 times faster in the multi-core test than the single-core test.
Xbench is obsolete as a benchmark since it hasn’t been updated in years. However, it still measures hard drive speed just fine. This shows how much it really pays to have solid state storage. The following read/write speeds all use 256k blocks.
G-Technology GDrive Mobile USB 2
For portable storage of my media, I have a bus powered G-Tech GDrive Mobile. This little drive has a 500GB 2.5″ laptop mechanical Hard Drive and both USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports. They’ve updated it recently though, with USB 3.0 and sizes up to 1 TB. It’s no Drobo Mini, but it does the job at a budget friendly price.
Sequential Read 39.01 MB/Second
Sequential Write 34.06 MB/sec
Random Read 17.14 MB/sec
Random Write 24.41 MB/Sec
G-Technology G-Drive Mobile GDrive Mobile FW800
There are no FireWire ports on the Retina, yes I know. I’m using Apple’s FW800 to Thunderbolt adapter. When it came to the previous generation of I/O tech, FireWire was quite a bit faster than USB 2.0, especially in sequential.
Sequential Read 72.02 MB/Second
Sequential Write 60.46 MB/sec
Random Read 21.33 MB/sec
Random Write 25.34 MB/Sec
MacBook Pro with Retina internal SSD
Here’s the bad news for both of those external drives, the internal SSD can’t crawl that slow. With no moving parts, the only real bottleneck are the SATA controllers and the speed memory chips. If you’re doing anything that requires a lot of writing to disk, SSDs will make a huge difference. These speeds are NOT a typo.
Sequential Read 372.37 MB/Sec
Sequential write 311.63 MB/Sec
Random Read 174.11 MB/Sec
Random Write 318.45 MB/Sec
The Macbook Pro with Retina comes with a 95 watt hour lithium polymer battery which is rated for the same 7 hours of use as the non-Retina MacBook Pro and the Air. So, will you get 7 hours? If you use it for a few non-demanding tasks in the default 1440×900 simulated resolution it’s probable, but unlikely. Personally, I’m looking at 4 1/2 or so because I actually multi-task. I typically have open Chrome with multiple tabs, Apple Mail for my personal email, sparrow for by business email, NetNewsWire for RSS, iTunes, Skype, Evernote, Colloquy, Twitter, plus menu bar utilities like Fantastical, Google Drive, Kuvva, and caffeine. I also use the simulated 1920×1200 resolution which drives the graphics system harder and uses up more battery in the process. Video intensive apps will also drain your battery much quicker. I struggled to reach two hours while hosting a Google Hangout. To sum it up, while the 7 hour mark may be factual on a technicality, don’t plan on a work day away from an outlet. That being said, you’ll be hard pressed trying to find a comparable Windows laptop with this kind of battery life. The ones that I found from Samsung, HP, and Asus had half the battery life.
When it comes to a laptop that costs $1 under $2200, you can’t use the word value lightly. I also must explain it doesn’t mean inexpensive, but it means you’re getting your money’s worth. So does the MacBook Pro with Retina give you value? It absolutely does. I can’t find another laptop that mixes power with portability and flexibility. It feels like and has the battery life of an ultraportable. With a quad core cpu, Nvidia 650M graphics, and dual Thunderbolt ports, it’s a also every bit a desktop replacement-class machine. It might cost a lot, but honestly, I don’t feel the need to buy an iMac or build a Hackintosh for more processor intensive needs. In that respect, it saved me money by filling two needs with one machine.
When this machine was released last year at WWDC, I had my doubts. My couple of weeks with it has made me a believer, big time. This is the best all around laptop available today. There are ultra portable 15″ laptops. There are gaming laptops and mobile workstations like the Razer Blade which are faster the MBPr. There are certainly cheaper laptops as you could buy 4 or 5 HPs for the price of this. What they all have in common is that in one way or another, they offer a compromised experience in build quality, screen power, portability, and/or battery life. This Macbook offers no significant compromises outside of your check book. If you can swing it (and mind you Apple offers up to 18 month financing) this is the machine to buy. I would have some reservations saying this about the 13″ model, but the 15″ Macbook Pro with Retina Display is a hands down choice for a Geek Beat Editor’s Choice Award. Don’t go out and buy one today though as a refresh should be imminent. Now back to working so I can pay the bill for this thing.