Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display full review

When it comes to the big breakthrough, the clue is definitely in the name for the Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. But before we peer more closer into that screen, let's look over those other details that stood out during our first impressions. Read more Apple Mac laptop reviews.

See also: new Macworld UK review of the 15-inch Apple MacBook with Retina display, with new benchmark tests

The Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is very thin and very light. Not quite down to the level of the MacBook Air, but at only 1mm thicker than the Air's 17mm it's still incredibly slim for such a feature-packed notebook. 

And at just 20 gram over 2kg, it's also the lightest MacBook Pro ever. Or PowerBook, for that matter, weighing less than the smallest 12in PowerBook G4.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Build quality

To admirers of the Apple way of building personal computers, it may come as little surprise that the build quality of the retina MacBook is simply outstanding. Lifting the satin aluminium lid – a well-engineered balance between too flappy and too stiff – reveals a very clean deck below.

So clean, even the familiar asymmetry from a right-hand power button has been scrubbed away, with the metal power button now transmuted to plastic and moved into the former Eject key position.

With no optical drive to swell the casework, the lost Eject is also redundant.

The keyboard is almost identical to that seen in the Unibody MacBook Pro and MacBook Air: black keys, white legends, backlit when required with the help of a hidden ambient-light sensor. If anything, the keys now seem a little lower profile. But typing action remains a first-class experience. Touch typists rejoice as your WPM will benefit.

Looking at the promotional videos, the keyboard looks to have new keycap scripts, spelling out 'command' for the super key, for instance, rather than the simple apple logo or even 'cmd' legend of yore.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Cool as a very cool thing

Apple Macs have long been the quietest production PCs you'll find, and that reputation for freedom from the whirring and ticking of cooling fans that provide the soundtrack to Windows PCs has now been pared further toward unprecedented quiet bliss.  

By subtly staggering the pitch of the blades of the internal fans, a single point of resonance has been removed. The aim was to make an even more peaceful computing experience. And remember, there are no other moving parts such as optical or hard-disk drives here.

We tried stressing the MacBook Pro Retina with a heavy workload to see how it fared. Using Handbrake, we set out to transcode MPEG-4 television programmes, creating files ready for the Apple TV 2. As a multi-processor-aware app, Handbrake used all available processor cores – that's four real and four virtual, thanks to Hyper-Threading – raising overall system load to around 600% out of a theoretical maximum of 800%. 

By this point, we could actually sense a draught of warm air streaming from the hinge area. And in the quiet of midnight, could just discern the sound of the flowing air. At all other times, this notebook barely purrs. 

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Ports and connectivity

The arrival of USB 3.0 is long overdue for the Apple Macintosh, making it all the more welcome on these latest generation all-flash MacBooks. The entry-level Retina MacBook Pro may have 'only' 256GB but with USB 3.0 storage so plentiful, it's now a doodle to expand the SSD with really quick storage on demand from any number of affordable drives, whether disk or solid-state.

Two Thunderbolt ports shows that Apple is definitely taking this interface seriously. A desktop-class Intel Cactus Ridge Thunderbolt chip here should allow two independent 10Gbps high-speed buses.

And without ethernet or FireWire, some people will be immediately reaching for an adaptor to turn one or both those ports back into their favoured interface.

You can buy the Thunderbolt-to-gigabit ethernet adaptor today for £25; the FireWire 800 version will cost the same when it goes on sale some time later.

The bigger letdown in connectivity is the wireless configuration. We're not knocking Bluetooth 4, which promises better battery life for our mice and keyboard – once they've been updated to use the revised standard.

No, we were disappointed that in the same month that other laptop and network brands are now releasing 802.11ac hardware, the Mac is still using 802.11n. 

It's a very quick 11n, the Broadcom BCM4331 Wi-Fi chip giving the Retina MacBook about the fastest n-gen wireless you'll find, thanks to its three-stream 3x3 capability. In our first tests, we were transfer files at 250 Mbit/sec using 5GHz 11n at short range.

Apple has been on the vanguard of 802.11 wireless technology since it made the first usable 802.11b solution for its laptops in 1999. We wonder if 802.11ac and its heralded gigabit performance will be an option soon, perhaps even by swapping over the removable AirPort card within.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display: That Display

The display is definitely the thing. And it's the component that is both stupendously gorgeous, and just a little bit flawed too.

The retina-level resolution is so much more than plain marketing. The screen is a joy to behold, relieving eyestrain thanks to the way it makes text so sharp. Colour depth from the IPS panel is so rich and saturated, most TN screens will look washed-out and anaemic after you spend time reading from this panel.

But there's no escaping that this is a glossy screen, fronted with reflective glass.

Reflections on an Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display still has a glass-fronted screen that will reflect room lights, windows and your own reflection

The good news is that it's not nearly as distracting in its mirror-like state as the displays on the chunky 13in and 15in MacBook Pro models. And the sheer wealth of detail, the great contrast and deep colours do go a long way to make up for its small amount of reflectivity.

Apple says the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display has 75% less glare than the regular glass-fronted MacBook Pro models.

We're not sure how it came up with that figure. There's no SI unit for glare. How do you empirically measure how glary a polished panel can be?

We could equally have been told that its 46% less twinkly; or has a57% reduction in bloom. Just how do you quantify the annoying appearance of windows, lights, your own reflection, when you're trying to see into a computer's desktop?

Side on: Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

in-plane switching (IPS) technology in the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display means you'll see rich, accurate colours, even from acute angles

You can select between five different virtual screen resolutions – 1024 x 640, 1280 x 800, 1440 x 900, 1680 x 1050 and 1920 x 1200. Conspicuously absent is the panel's native 2880 x 1800 pixels, although we did get an idea of just how ridiculously small on-screen elements could be when installing OS X as a virtual machine in VMware Fusion 4.1.

What is remarkable is just how usable the non-multiple resolutions can be. Set at 1680 and 1920 in particular, you get a very detailed and relatively sharp interface. Switch back to pixel-doubling 1440, though, and you appreciate just how razor-sharp this HiDPI mode technology works.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Retina concerns

To get the best out of the Retina technology, each piece of software must be prepped first. Mac OS X itself, the current 10.7 Lion edition, is practically all-Retina now. As are several of Apple's own software titles, as you would hope, such as Final Cut Pro X and Aperture 3.3.

It's not all rosy though – we tried writing this review in Apple's word processor Pages, only to find ragged pixellated fonts. So we switched back to the OS' built-in TextEdit, which does benefit from super-sharp graphics. 

Apple and its developer partners have some work to do to ensure that every app looks as lickable as those that have been recently recompiled with hi-res graphic elements.


Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Specs

  • 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3615QM
  • 15.4in (2880 x 1800) glossy IPS display
  • Apple OS X 10.7.4 Lion
  • nVidia GeForce GT 650M with 1GB GDDR5 and Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • 256GB Samsung mSATA 6GBps SSD
  • 8GB DDR3L memory
  • 2x Thunderbolt
  • 2x USB 3.0
  • HDMI
  • SD/SDXC card slot
  • dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n with 3x3:3 MIMO antennae
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 720p FaceTime webcam
  • stereo speakers
  • 3.5mm headset jack with Toslink optical output
  • buttonless multi-touch glass trackpad
  • Apple iLife ’11 software
  • 99Wh lithium polymer non-removable battery
  • 85W MagSafe 2 power adaptor
  • 359 x 247 x 18.0mm
  • 2021g