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Retina MacBook is Apple’s best, but could be better

A new MacBook Pro with Retindisplay is used by customer an Apple store Palo AlCalif. Thursday June 14 2012. The

A new MacBook Pro with Retina display is used by a customer at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday, June 14, 2012. The MacBook Pro with a resolution of 2,880 by 1,800 pixels, the Retina screen can show every pixel in a five-megapixel shot, all at once. It has more pixels than a high-definition TV set — 2.5 times as many. The MacBook Pro with Retina display starts at $2,199. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

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Updated: August 1, 2012 12:57PM



“Wow.”

I’ve shown off the new MacBook Pro With Retina Display (henceforth known as “the Retina MacBook”) to three people since I got it last week, and that’s always the first reaction. When’s the last time anybody reacted that way to a notebook?

And the quality of the Retina MacBook goes more than screen-deep. I’m comfortable declaring it the best Mac Apple’s ever made. Even after I read that line back and perform all of the second-guessing that’s necessary before I make such an absolute statement. Yes, I stand by that statement even after I discover that Apple has been describing it with those same words, and I start to worry about being mistaken for one of those idiots who writes a review based on a press release.

It’s the best Mac Apple’s ever made because it encapsulates every good idea that we come to anticipate from a new piece of Apple hardware. The build quality is top-shelf. It’s powerful. It exposes almost all of its advanced features right at the surface, where they can be of greatest benefit to the user. While lesser companies worry about whether their notebooks have specs and benchmarks that will make the product look good in a table that compares it against similar products, Apple has articulated the Retina MacBook’s signature feature ­-- a 15.1-inch 220 ppi display -- in such a way that makes ultra-high-resolution in a notebook meaningful and valuable to everybody. Not just to those hardcore gamers who want to play Diablo III at 5 megapixels.

But is it this the best MacBook for everybody? Oh, dear, no. Apple clearly and consistently refers to the Retina MacBook as a next-generation, future-forward product. It doesn’t replace the conventional 15-inch MacBook Pro in Apple’s product line.

Of all of the smart decisions Apple made in designing the Retina Macbook, that was one of the smartest. Apple built a machine that will certainly be the mainstream MacBook within two or three years’ time. Not all Mac users should ready to make that leap today.

Apple has never made a Mac as advanced as the Retina MacBook. My enthusiasm is slightly tempered by the realization that Apple’s never made a machine in this price range that demands so many sacrifices from the user.

That Screen

Apple didn’t engineer a 2880 by 1800 screen because they wanted to win a numbers war with any Windows notebook. They clearly did it to make the MacBook better. The screen’s default setting shows the desktop and its UI elements at the same proportions as what you’d see in a conventional 15-inch notebook. Everything’s just crisper and sharper and easier on the eyes.

And that’s lovely, but that’s not the reason why the Retina display is such a big win. Unlike the difference between the new Retina iPad and the older model, when I switch between the new MacBook and my own 15-inch MacBook Pro, the transition isn’t nearly so jarring. The old screen still looks fine; the new one just looks better.

The real Win of this display is delivered by apps that use the extra detail as a means of convening additional information. The new, Retina-optimized edition of Aperture is almost a completely different experience on the new MacBook. Each thumbnail preview practically contains enough detail to pick out the 8 keepers from a batch of 100 recently-imported photos without having to maximize each one for a closer look. And when I’m editing a photo at pixel-for-pixel magnification, I can see a meaningful chunk of the picture; I can see a whole face, instead of just an eyeball.

The benefit translates across multiple apps. A conventional MacBook uses a toolbar, icon, or thumbnail to hint that there’s something worth clicking into and exploring in greater detail. The Retina MacBook can just show you what you need to see, at a glance, without cluttering up the display.

I was a bit surprised to discover that all apps don’t inherit the benefits of the Retina display automatically. The whole OS has been optimized for Retina (all of its built-in apps, and every app’s menubar, are rendered at maximum density). But the text here in my word processor is appearing at lower resolution and the anti-aliasing is obvious. It’s doubly-interesting because I’m using Apple’s own “Pages” app. Many pre-existing apps have ignored Apple’s guidelines in order to eke out greater performance. These developers are now scrambling to toe the party line, no doubt.

(Call it “shame-based compliance.”)

The screen has five different modes, which approximate different screen sizes. At one extreme, you get the limited real estate of a 1024x640 display. However, though the menubar and windows are all larger, everything’s still rendered at 220 ppi. Call that the “Large Print” edition of MacOS, for people with poor vision. At the other end of the scale, there’s a mode that mimics 1920x1200 (again, rendered at 220 ppi), for folks who need an extra-big desktop.

I don’t have a projector handy but I did plug the Retina MacBook into a 1920x1080 monitor to see how well it’d work with conference room hardware. The MacBook handily adjusted its resolution to the monitor’s optimum setting, and I also had the option of forcing a lower resolution if I wished. Good.

Visit my blog to see a series of screenshots that illustrate each of these modes: http://ihnatko.com/2012/06/15/retina-macbook-pro-screen-pageant/

Let’s not leave this topic before mentioning that even when we set aside the higher definition, the Retina screen is noticeably prettier than its predecessor. Apple says that the new MacBook offers better color, deeper blacks, and richer contrast due to the fact that they’ve removed every extraneous layer of glass and film between your eyes and the surface of the actual display component. Well, it works.

And Everything Else

There’s more to the Retina MacBook than just a pretty screen. It includes Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors, running at 2.3 to 2.7 GHz depending on the configuration. In raw CPU performance, its Geekbench score marks its performance at roughly 20% above my comparatively-priced 2011 15” MacBook Pro.

But tests aren’t as important to me as actual day-to-day impressions. The Retina MacBook uses flash-based storage exclusively; the solid-state drive plus these new CPUs are a potent combination. They make this Mac feel much, much faster than the Geekbench scores imply. Independent tests suggest that the new MacBook’s all-flash storage is even faster than the drives in last year’s Macs, due in part to a much faster controller chip.

It’s an across-the-board performance boost that goes way beyond simple file-shuffling. Though while we’re on that subject, I must report that when I imported a card full of the MacBook’s SDXC slot, Aperture finished the job so suspiciously quickly that I cursed and wondered what sort of error it had encountered.

The new MacBook has a wealth of high-speed data ports. It has two Thunderbolt ports, which are fast enough to keep up with the immense throughput demands of external displays, RAID storage, and HD video streams. And they’re on separate channels, so a Cinema display plugged into one port won’t affect the speed of the storage device you’ve plugged into the other. Thanks to on-CPU support from the Ivy Bridge processor, MacBooks now have USB 3.0 as well. There’s one on either side of the Retina MacBook. Hooray! A wide USB thumb drive or mobile broadband adapter won’t in effect occupy both USB ports! These, too, are on independent channels.

USB, Thunderbolt, SDXC...oh, yes, and this is also the first Mac to sport a built-in HDMI port. Nice to once again have a MacBook with some form of dongle-free video. VGA still requires a $29 dongle (which connects through either one of the Thunderbolt jacks).

Many familiar -- and damned useful -- MacBook Pro features are missing in action.

There’s no FireWire port, the optical drive is gone, and the gigabit Ethernet jack has been 86ed as well. Most people have moved past most of those features by now. So noted and entered into the record. But many people who can justify a top-of-the-line notebook use some of them often enough to feel the sting.

For me, the most painful omission is the Ethernet. Wifi is everywhere, but it isn’t always reliable. In hotel rooms, conference rooms, and even in my own office, a hardwired network connection has saved my bacon many, many times...and as recently as last week. If I relied on the new MacBook as my primary machine, I’d never want my $29 Thunderbolt Ethernet dongle to be more than a five-minute rummage away from the machine at any given time. If I cared at all about FireWire -- and no, I don’t -- there’s a $29 Thunderbolt dongle for that, too.

The Thunderbolt Ethernet dongle is a huge win for the MacBook Air, incidentally. It runs at full gigabit speed and finally delivers real Ethernet to Apple’s most portable of Macs.

One highly suspicious omission: the new MacBook has no external indicators of any kind. Gone is the white “sleep” indicator that made the MacBook look like it was gently snoring. Well, that’s no big deal. Its real purpose was to tell you that the hard drive’s heads were safely parked and that the MacBook could be safely moved. That’s not an issue on a machine with flash storage. But I deeply miss the battery status indicator. As I’m leaving the office, I need to wake up the Retina MacBook to answer the question “Should I grab the AC adapter, or do I have enough battery to run this for a few hours?”

Those are personal opinions. I’ll say objectively that the Retina MacBook’s MagSafe connector is poorly designed. MagSafe is Apple’s name for the magnetically-docking power plug that (ideally) pops cleanly and safely off of the MacBook if someone walking by gets their foot caught on its power cord. The new MacBook is much thinner, and so is the plug. So it has less surface area to grab onto. Plus, the plug itself is much wider, and the cord come in at a right angle to the body of the MacBook.Put it all together, and the result is a power connector that pops out every time I lift the MacBook off my lap for any reason. Annoying.

Yes, the new MacBook is thinner and lighter than the conventional 15-inch MacBook Pro. It’s a little more than a pound lighter. You can feel the difference. It’s also about a quarter of an inch thinner. That’s an impressive engineering achievement, but honestly, it’s a negligible improvement that doesn’t offer any real benefit. This is still a big, 15-inch notebook, after all. I can’t remember any time when I was packing for a trip and thought “Jeez, if only my MacBook were a quarter of an inch thinner! I can’t fit this copy of People Magazine into my laptop bag!”

Battery life is excellent. I saw about 7 hours in normal business use, and I got a little more than half of that when I did my worst to make the battery cry. Apple says the battery can keep the new MacBook in standby mode for 30 days. I’ll take them at their word for that.

The new MacBook performs very well whether you want it to be quiet or noisy. In a week of use inside a quiet office, I didn’t notice the fans even once. And the sound is unusually rich and full, with ample bass.

I’ll also take a moment to talk about heat. This is one cool customer. When I’m on the sofa with my 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro, I slide a heat-dissipating pad under the back-left corner to prevent the hair on my knee from singing off. The center of the new MacBook gets a little warmer after several hours’ use, but it’s not enough to feel uncomfortable.

I can confidently state that this is the first MacBook that’s fully certified for nudist use. Though I quickly assure the manager of Apple’s editorial hardware loans program that this is purely conjecture on my part.

Upgrades (You Can’t Have Them)

There’s one last awkward topic to discuss, and it’s important: upgrades. The Retina MacBook was apparently designed by Dr. Gregory House. It’s permeated by the conviction that people never change. The bottom plate is secured with pentalobe screws. The system RAM is soldered onto the motherboard. The battery is glued in. And while the solid-state drive module is socketed, it appears to be a proprietary design.

(This information comes courtesy of the folks at HYPERLINK “http://iFixit.com”iFixit.com, who disassembled and documented the innards of the Retina MacBook hours after its release.)

The upshot of all this is that you will never, ever be able to upgrade the memory, so the smart move is to forget all about buying the 8 gigabyte configuration and buy the maximum configuration. Think carefully about which SSD to buy, too; some day, some third party might figure out a way to provide an aftermarket upgrade, but don’t count on it. And if your battery reaches end-of-life in two or three years (which would be typical) your only option is to give Apple $199 to swap in a new set of cells.

Why so many limitations? Well, hardwiring things in allows the engineers more freedom in placing components (the RAM no longer needs to be where a user can reach it, for example) and for tighter and more compact placement (no need for connectors). So it’s easy to surmise that these changes were partly dictated by Apple’s current design obsession, which can be captioned “Damn the torpedoes...if we eliminate the plating on the hull of the ship, we can make this vessel another half a centimeter thinner!”

Mostly, though, I attribute these design choices to Apple’s fundamental philosophy that any feature that isn’t being used by the majority of consumers is eligible for termination. If Apple has data that tells them that most people never upgrade, then upgrades cease to be a priority. It’s a valid point of view, but it’ll continue to be controversial.

My own worry, spoken in a somewhat paternal voice that perhaps I’m not entitled to use, is that by continuing to make choices that only address the majority of consumers, Apple will one day wind up with a line of hardware that’s Adequate for everybody but Great for nobody.

The Bottom Line

I have a fundamental problem with many of the choices that went into the Retina MacBook. My own obsession is noting every choice that went into a design and then asking “what does the consumer get out of this?” Let’s not forget that this is a super-premium notebook that costs a minimum of $2,200 and can easily reach three grand. It’s reasonable to expect a lot of value and few compromises.

For that amount of money: you can’t upgrade it at all, you have no option but to use fast, but limited solid-state storage...and it’s missing some onboard features that can be found in many budget Windows notebooks. I can’t believe that I’m writing a review of a $2200 laptop in which I needed to type the word “dongle” so many times. Didn’t we used to make fun of computers that require a sackful of sold-separately additional accessories?

All of these quirks and omissions are immediately forgivable in a computer like the MacBook Air. It’s deliciously and delightfully thin and compact. An Air disappears inside your bag. Hell, it’s so thin and light that a first-generation Air disappeared inside New York Times’ tech columnist David Pogue’s household newspaper recycling and was thrown away.

A MacBook Air buyer is giving up upgradeability and onboard ports, but they’re getting something wonderful in return. It’s a fair trade. A dongle-fied Ethernet connector seemed like a trivial tradeoff for a computer that easily fit inside the newspaper pocket of my smallest bag.

With the 15-inch Retina MacBook, all they’re getting is an extra quarter-inch of space in the large laptop bag that they’re still going to need to carry around. The consumer is giving something up and getting nothing of value in return. I argue that the Retina MacBook would have been a better product if it were made thick enough to accommodate Ethernet, socketed RAM, and more options for mass storage.

My own 2011 MacBook Pro is clearly the lesser Mac. But it represents a serious investment of my money and I need to get as much longterm value out of the thing as I can. Here it is, more than a year later, and I’m so impressed by the SSD performance of the new Retina MacBook that I’m considering getting a solid state drive. No problem: I can easily swap out the hard drive myself. Or, maybe I’ll crunch the numbers and swap the 512 gig hard drive for a larger one. It’s all up to me. The 8 gigs of RAM are ample for what I use my MacBook for, but if my needs change, I can upgrade to 16 gigs pretty easily.

I stand by my earlier assertion that the MacBook Pro With Retina Display is the best Mac Apple’s ever made. If I were buying a new MacBook this year instead of in 2011, I likely would be buying one. I’d be cursing the need and the expense of external dongles, and I’d be trying to figure out how to live my life with only 256 gigs of storage (I don’t think the 512 gigabyte option would be in my budget), but it’s a terrific piece of kit.

Also, my objections are tempered by the fact that Apple consistently refers to this new MacBook as a future-forward design. They don’t expect it to be the right choice for everybody. If your needs are better served by a present-day design, the conventional 15-inch MacBook Pro has been upgraded to include many of the performance goodies of the Retina MacBook: USB 3.0 and Ivy Bridge. And if you’re part of that majority who wouldn’t suffer any hardships from the Retina MacBook’s omissions, then none of this really matters to you.

But just as firmly, I must stand by my belief that the Retina MacBook represents a rare case of Apple allowing style to affect function. It’s a quarter-inch thinner. Fab. But that difference doesn’t make the new MacBook even one millimeter better, and it comes at a tangible, and in my opinion unfortunate, cost.

It’s the best Mac that Apple makes, but it’s not the best Mac it could have been.



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