Apple MacBook Pro (2012) review

5 stars
£2,300
Apple’s MacBook has lost weight and gained a dazzling hi-res Retina Display. It’s not cheap, but is it worth it?

overview

Go on, get your face closer to it. You know you want to. It's the first thing everyone does. Lie cheek down on the keyboard and press your nose to the glass if you like: the answer's still the same.

Apple MacBook Pro (2012) - overview 2

No, you really can't see the pixels.

It's the defining factor of the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display, so important it's included in the name. That 220 ppi screen has a higher resolution than a 30inch desktop monitor, crammed into just 15 inches. It is truly remarkable. But is it enough to justify the astronomical price, and does it mask any other fatal flaws?

screen

That miraculous display really is as good as they say. Letter definition is better than the printed page, and pictures are a joy to behold. It's not quite a case of 'once you've tried it you'll never be able to use another monitor', but you’ll definitely be aware of other screens’ shortcomings in the future. For a professional writer, photographer or video artist it isn’t exactly essential, but it does make life considerably more pleasant.

Because not only is it beyond sharp, with nary a jaggy in sight around corners and curves, it's also bright and colourful too, thanks to its IPS design. There's are a lot of other manufacturers who should be hanging their heads in shame, having spent the last ten years trying to convince us to be satisfied with 1080p on computer displays or barking on about 3D claptrap in more recent times.

resolution

In order to stop text and images appearing tiny on the Retina Display’s immense pixel count, Apple has introduced a new method of scaling things on screen. Unlike other operating systems, the Retina Display isn’t about making point sizes finer.

Apple MacBook Pro (2012) - resolution 2

You may have noticed that it's exactly twice the dimensions – and therefore four times the number of pixels – as a standard MacBook Pro's 1440x900 screen. The way OS X has been configured is to use four pixels for every one of the old, so that the desktop and font sizes appear exactly the same size as on the older panel, just much, much better defined. You can choose from other scaling options that mimic other 16:10 sizes such as 1680x1050 and 1920x1200, but the one thing you can’t do is select 2880x1800 for the desktop.

There is a minor problem with pioneering new tech: no one else is ready for it. In order to support applications that don't take this scaling into account, OS X pretends it has a native resolution of 1440x900. So on first run all games will choose this resolution, and so will non-optimised apps that do their own rendering – like Google's Chrome, for example. As a result, everything about them looks ‘worse’ than it does on a 'normal' screen, with blocky images and slightly smeared text. At other times things creep through at a true 2880x1800 resolution and are rendered so small as to be unreadable.

Not that all applications have to be designed specifically for Retina. Libre Office (nee OpenOffice) looks and behaves beautifully. We assume apps that depend on optimisation will catch up, but for now it does make that Retina Display a little less essential.

design and build

The screen may be what makes the new MacBook special, but the redesigned bodywork doesn't exactly detract from it either. Following the same design cues as the MacBook Air, Apple has stripped out the DVD drive and tapered the base to a fine point. Even at its deepest, the MacBook Pro is just 18mm thin.

Apple MacBook Pro (2012) - design and build 2

It still weighs over two kilos – almost double the weight of the Air and the best of its Ultrabook rivals – but that's still light for a 15incher. Last year's Sony Vaio S weighed marginally less, but not much.

Despite less space on the satin-finish body, there’s still room along the sides for two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 jacks and an HDMI out, as well as the redesigned magsafe charging cable and an SD card reader. It's a bit annoying that an inserted SD card doesn't push in until its flush with the case, but you can't have everything.

As far as the keyboard and trackpad go, they appear to be exactly the same as older MacBook Pros. In a word, excellent.

processing power

Despite the diminutive dimensions there's plenty of processing power in the MacBook Pro. The Intel Core i7 chip is a proper quad core with hyperthreading, and not one of those annoying dualies masquerading under the same name. It’s not just the thinnest, lightest and highest resolution MacBook Pro to date; it’s the fastest too. No mean feat.

It combines with the SSD drive for very sprightly desktop performance and near-instant boot times. The NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics are surprisingly perky too, especially given the number of pixels the card has to drive.

More after the break...

gaming performance

How perky, exactly? Together, they’re enough to play Diablo III with everything maxxed-out at the native 2880x1800 resolution, and still get a consistent frame rate of just under 30 frames per second. It helps a lot when you realise that at that resolution anti-aliasing makes no difference at all, so you can turn it off for a performance boost.

Portal 2 positively flies with 60-odd fps even at native resolution. Interestingly, Apple’s lack of eye-bleedingly graphically intensive games actually works in its favour here: everything that is available on Mac OS is positively monstered by the 650GT, even at Retina resolutions.

It’s also worth pointing out that gaming seems to be the only activity that forces the Pro’s fans to kick in to an audible level, and the good news is that even then they aren’t too obnoxious. The even better news is that they can be drowned out by the truly excellent (at least by laptop standards) speakers.

storage

As mentioned above, storage on the MacBook Pro with Retina Screen is provided by an SSD drive, in varying capacities from 256GB to 768GB. We tested the 512GB version, which is plenty of room for most people using a laptop.

The storage is the one thing, however, that makes us wish you could open up the MacBook Pro and upgrade it yourself. Even though prices for SSDs have fallen dramatically, notebook manufacturers – and not just Apple – are still including massive markups of up to £300 over the retail price. The cost of a 512GB SSD upgrade to a non-Retina MacBook Pro, for example, is £800 – but you could buy your own and fit it for £500.

Presumably Apple is expecting people who need more space – like video editors – to buy Thunderbolt drives to make up the deficit.

battery life

Storage is a concern, but the only real criticism of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the battery life. Apple quotes seven hours in its spec sheets, but we got nowhere near that. A straightforward video rundown at half brightness saw it last for three hours and 20 minutes, while working and browsing the web ran it down in just a little bit more.

It’s disappointing, but given the reduction in size and power required to run all those pixels, maybe hoping for more was optimistic.

value for money

One of the sagest pieces of advice we ever heard was this: you'll never win an argument with economics. Whatever you believe, there'll always be a well-established school of thought about money that backs it up. So it is with the MacBook Pro Retina Display edition.

There's never a case for spending £2300 on a 15inch notebook. Never ever. No matter what your heart is telling you right now, you do not need a Retina screen. As marvellous as it is, it will not make you a better photographer or writer, nor will it substantially increase your enjoyment of films or the web. Truth is, after a few weeks you may not even notice it.

But then again... there are plenty of laptops that cost more. The mark-up for the screen is around £500, and – if the price of 30inch panels is anything to go by – it’s worth at least that. Even an Alienware M14x, when kitted out with identical components but a lesser display, costs the best part of £2000 (although a lot of that is the SSD upgrade). And that weighs a lot more.

It isn’t, by market standards then, terribly bad value for money. But does that matter? Being aware of the fact that you could buy a notebook with similar performance and still have money to spare for a 30inch screen with the same budget doesn’t actually make us admire the MacBook Pro any less.

verdict

Technically speaking, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a straight five stars for excellence.

There is no better laptop available today. But you must buy it knowing that not only is the MacBook Pro expensive, it's not much of an investment for the future either. After all, how long will Retina remain a novelty? It didn't take long for phones to catch up and surpass the pixel density of the iPhone 4, and there's no reason to imagine other manufacturers will ignore the buzz Apple has created here. Then there's the likelihood of a cheaper 13inch Retina MacBook Pro to consider too.

So buy one, and don’t look back. You’re getting more than just a fancy screen, it genuinely is the best laptop around in almost every respect – battery life aside. Or don’t buy one and wait for a future bargain. Either way, Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a milestone event that deserves its accolades, even if you end up admiring it from afar.

UPDATE: The MacBook Pro with Retina Display sits at No.2 in our Top Ten Laptops - we couldn't decide between the power of the 15in model and the portability of the 13in so we've left that choice up to you. It's worth mentioning that the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina Display will save you a chunk of money over its larger sibling.

says

Apple MacBook Pro (2012)

Apple’s new MacBook Pro is a remarkable laptop. It’ll be remembered for that searing display but there are many more reasons to admire it

Apple MacBook Pro (2012) review
5 stars
£2,300
Plain brilliance
Fastest performer to date
Top quality speakers
Slimline 18mm thickness
The £500 mark up for Retina novelty
Not all apps are Retina ready
Disappointing battery life
power
screen
build
apps
OMG!
WTF?
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