Retina MacBook Pro review (15in, 2.5GHz, mid 2014)

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is Apple’s best ever notebook computer, a portable workstation squeezed into an 18 mm-thick slab of milled-from-solid aluminium. The breakthrough design of 2012 received its most significant update in October of last year, when it benefitted from a SATA-busting innovation in storage technology, the latest draft-11ac Wi-Fi capability, and important updates to its central and graphics processors.

Now, in summer of 2014, Apple has dropped the prices and refreshed the processors in its range of MacBooks with Retina display. The Retina-screen MacBook Pro line has received a running upgrade to its Intel CPU – a baseline clock speed increase of 100 MHz across the board for the 13-inch dual-core models, and 200 MHz for the quad-core 15-inchers.

It seems likely that Apple has made these slight tweaks to the MacBook Pro range predominantly to allow it to bring down pricing, but also because the Broadwell processors that are the natural successor to the Haswell chips in these Macs, and the generation before them, are delayed: likely a cause of frustration to Apple. 

The price drop follows the same pattern that we saw with the MacBook Air and iMac ranges earlier this year, with a reduction of around £100-£150 per unit, although the top of the range MacBook Pro with Retina display is now £200 less at £1,999. It is this top of the range 2.5GHz quad-core MacBook Pro model, with its dedicated nVidia processor that we will be looking at in this MacBook Pros with Retina display review. Here we test this flagship ‘best’ model and see how it compares to its 2.3 GHz counterpart of last autumn. This may not be the update we were hoping for, but the price drop is certainly welcome.

We have added the Speedmark test results from the labs at Macworld US and the results of Macworld UK Technical Editor Andrew Harrison's full benchmark report on the new MacBook Pro.

You can read about the Retina 2.6GHz 13-inch MacBook Pro 2014 here

Our Retina MacBook Pro review (13in, 2.8GHz, mid 2014) is here

Which Mac laptop? MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparative review

Not sure which Mac to buy? Read our Best Mac buyers guide

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Price

In the case of the 15-inch MacBook Pro options there is the ‘good’ entry model that has been bumped up from 2.0 to 2.2GHz, while simultaneously dropping in price from £1,699 to £1,599. And then there’s the ‘best’ model that includes a dedicated nVidia processor, which moves from 2.3 to 2.5GHz, now at the more accessible price of £1,999, down by £200 from the 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display’s top of the range price of £2,199.

If you were to boost the top-of-the-range MacBook Pro with all the build-to-order options on offer it would cost a staggering £2,549, slightly more than the entry-level Mac Pro at £2,499 (more on the build-to-order options below).

As we note in our review of the 13in MacBook Pro without Retina display, Apple has reduced the price of that model by £100 to £899. As the sole remaining Mac with an optical drive, this is good news for those who want to use CDs and DVDs; it was feared that the model would be discontinued.

The really good news for UK customers is that the US hasn't seen the same price drops. The only price drop there is for the non-Retina MacBook and the flagship 15in model, which dropped $100 to $2,499. That's the equivalent of £1,478, but you should note that US pricing doesn't include tax, so you would need to add 20% and other factors to the price here. Still you can't deny that the Mac is cheaper in the States.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Specs

We looked around this Mid-2014 MacBook Pro with Retina display, and found the same specification as last year, as well as the same components and features throughout. Joining the Intel processor is the same nVidia GeForce GTX 750M graphics processor with its own 2.0 GiB of dedicated video memory, and the same new PCIe-attached flash drive that decimates that in any other laptop SSD currently on sale. The high-end MacBook Pro with Retina display maintains its 16GB RAM, but the entry-level 15-inch also boasts 16GB RAM, up from 8GB in the last generation.

For anyone not familiar with the layout of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, it is a premium all-metal notebook with an ultra-high resolution screen, designed and built with user comfort in mind.

There’s no attempt to bolt on a touch-sensitive screen – instead it has a more workable user-input arrangement in the form of large multi-touch trackpad with silky glass top, and an eminently typable backlit keyboard.

Around the sides are what could be described as a considered selection of data ports. There’s one USB 3.0 on each side of the body, arguably rather frugal, and no ethernet port. Apple’s long-favoured FireWire port is also now missing in action. But replacing all these to some extent are two high-speed Thunderbolt 2 ports on the left. With the use of separate adaptors a Thunderbolt port can be turned into gigabit ethernet, or FireWire 800; or for external display connections, there are adaptors to use Thunderbolt’s DisplayPort capability to connect to HDMI, DVI or VGA monitor inputs.

So what does this new generation model have that its predecessor didn’t?

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Processors

The quad-core processors in the two 15-inch MacBook Pro models have a slightly higher clock-speed than last year's models. The top-of-the-range MacBook Pro with Retina display now features a Core i7 2.5GHz processor, bumped from 2.3GHz. These chips are still Core i7 Haswell processors, as they were last year. In the case of the entry-level 15in, the processor is now a 2.2GHz Core i7, up from 2GHz.

Because this is a quad-core, Core i7 setup, it's far faster than the dual-core setup of the 13in models - don't presume the lower number means the machine is slower - there are four processor cores. This is one of the key differences between the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models - the fact that the 13in models have a dual core processor, while the 15in models have a quad-core processor. These quad-core processors mean than the speedmark score of the 15in models is around 60 percent higher Speedmark 9 scores than their 13-inch counterparts.

However, despite the small increase in processor speed we didn't see much of an increase in our benchmark scores for this year's MacBook Pro Retina compared to the 2013 mode. Indeed, where our US Macworld Labs found that the results were slightly better than last year, we found that this year’s model was slower.

For our processor tests we used Cinebench, this is the standard benchmark tool to show differences between computer workstations. We’re used to seeing small incremental increases in the benchmark point score as newer PCs with faster processors are released. What we’re not so familiar with is faster-clocked processors of the same family returning lower numbered results. But that’s exactly what we saw in both the Cinebench 11.5 and Cinebench 15 multi-core processor tests.

We go in to more detail about these findings in this article: Latest version of OS X Mavericks causes poor multi-core benchmark results for Retina MacBook Pro. To summarise our findings here, in the Cinebench 11.5 single-core tests we found that this year’s best model scored 1.55 points, compared to 1.46 for last year’s best model. A 6 percent increase.

However, things got curious when we ran the muiti-core tests. Last year’s ‘best’ model scored 6.82 points in multi-core mode, but this year’s top 15-inch MacBook Pro scored 6.48 points in the same test. That’s around a 5 percent decrease in its point score compared to the Late-2013, 2.3GHz model.

Things didn’t look up when we ran the Cinebench 15 tests. Here last year’s model scored 126 and 623 points, respectively, for single- and multi-core modes. This year’s model scored 134 and 599 points, again we saw a decline when all eight virtual cores were engaged in the multi-core test

You can read more about our findings here, but our conclusion, based on the fact that the hardware components are identical between generations, is that the difference between models has to be the installed operating system.

When we tested the Late 2013-generation of MacBook Pro with Retina display its OS was the then brand-new OS X Mavericks. The latest 2014 model is also shipping with Mavericks pre-installed, but a later iteration – 10.9.4 versus the 10.9.0 on the previous model. This theory was proven when we ran the Cinebench tests again on the 2013 MacBook Pro with the latest 10.9.4 operating system.

In those tests, the Late 2013 model scored 1.46 and 6.82 points for single- and multi-core modes. With 10.9.4 the same machine scored 1.46 again; but 5.96 points in the multi-core test. That’s a 14 percent lower point score.

Similarly in the Cinebench 15 benchmark test, comparing results on the same notebook between two OS versions, the single-core result was the same at 126 points, while multi-core was lower with the newer OS update: now 527 instead of 623 points. That’s an 18 percent lower score. We go in to more detail in this article.

When both models were compared, running the same version of the operating system, our tests showed a 6.3 percent increase in point score in single-core mode; and 13.7 percent increase in multi-core. In Cinebench 15, there was a similar 6.2 percent increase in single-core mode; and 8.7 percent in multi-core operation.

Our tentative conclusion from these results is that the Mid-2104 MacBook Pro hardware is indeed several percent faster than the Late-2013 model, as indicated by Cinebench test results when both machines are running OS X 10.9.4.

It would appear, however, that the update from 10.9.0 to 10.9.4 has reduced performance slightly in multi-processor mode, at least when testing with either v11 or v15 versions of the Maxon Cinebench test.

In our Geekbench 3 tests, we saw no such discrepancy between OS versions. The latest Mid-2014 MacBook Pro with Retina display here scored 3658 in single-core mode and 14360 points in multi-core – both these results ahead of the 3461 and 13571 point results of last year’s model. And importantly, showing a consistent multiplier figure, albeit of around 3.92x.

Compared directly to the Late 2013 model with its 2.3 GHz processor, the Mid 2014 15-inch MacBook Pro was 5.7 percent faster in Geekbench 3.1.6‘s single-core mode, and 5.8 percent faster in its multi-core mode.

In Macworld US’s lab tests they found that the 2014 15in Retina MacBook Pro/2.5GHz scored 280, while the 2013 Retina MacBook Pro/2.3GHz scored 282. The reason for this decline in performance may be a result of the changes described above. However, the 2014 15in Retina MacBook Pro/2.2GHz scored 246, while last year's Retina MacBook Pro/2.0GHz scored 241, in the same tests.

Macworld US noted that the new models performed better than last year's models in the application tests using Photoshop, Aperture, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and Handbrake, however, the new models didn't perform as well as we would have hoped in the Finder tests: Copy, Zip, UnZip. This could be due to different SSD drives being used, as we found with the MacBook Air.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: RAM

It’s worth noting that the entry-level 15-inch also sees a doubling of its installed memory, so now has 16GB, the same as the top-spec model.

This move brings both new 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros into line with the six-core Mac Pro, the only other Mac to come with 16GB RAM as standard.

Note that it is not possible to upgrade the RAM at a later date as the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard, there isn't a build to order point of sale option for adding more RAM to the 15in MacBook either.

At least 16GB should stand you in good stead for the foreseeable future.

There have been suggestions that the extra RAM will serve this Mac well once Yosemite launches.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Graphics

The graphics in the 15in Retina MacBook Pro models are exactly the same as last year; after all, the processor hasn't changed (other than the speed boost) so we wouldn't expect to see a new graphics chip. As such the Intel Iris Pro Graphics remains, a boost from the Intel Iris Graphics in the 13in models.

The top-of-the-range 15-inch model, tested here, retains its dual graphics card setup with the same NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M discrete graphics processor in conjunction with Intel Iris Pro Graphics. Only one graphics card is used at a time, rather than both being used at the same time as is the case with the Mac Pro.

With no change to the nVidia GeForce GTX 750M card between models, we would not expect to see any significant difference in graphics performance.

In Cinebench 15, the 2013 and 2014 models rendered with effectively the same framerate, 53.56 and 53.86 fps, within the tolerance of experimental error. Cinebench 11 showed a small difference of a few frames per second – 44.92 rising to 48.24 fps. That gap was closed to fewer than 2 fps when last year’s model was retested with the current OS X 10.9.4.

Game players should find the MacBook Pro with nVidia graphics is just as capable as before. In Batman Arkham City it averaged a framerate of 61 fps when set to 1280 x 800-pixel resolution, for both Medium and High detail settings.

In Tomb Raider (2013) both generations could play with the same average framerate when set to 1440 x 900, and Normal and High detail – 33 and 31 fps respectively.

Incidentally, while these framerates are good enough for most players, we found the game could play almost 50 percent faster when ‘Use Legacy OpenGL’ was selected in the game’s settings. With the same resolution and settings, it recorded up to a 46 fps average, and crucially with a minimum framerate that never dropped below 34 fps.

In the Unigine Heaven benchmark, we also saw the same results as from the 2.3GHz model – 35 fps at 1280 x 800, and 29 fps at 1440 x 900, both tests set at Medium quality.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Display

We don’t have quantitative measurements of the display quality of the Late 2013 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it would seem that the same panel is in use. In our example it was a Samsung LCD (LSN154YL01-A01) although we’ve also seen LG/Philips in some examples of the MacBook Pro with Retina display.

In our tests with a Datacolor Spyder4Elite colorimeter, we found this panel to have 96 percent coverage of the sRGB colour gamut, and 80 percent of the more challenging Adobe RGB gamut.

Its contrast ratio in a chequerboard test was 680:1 when set to 50 percent brightness (corresponding to 62 cd/m^2), 720:1 at 75 percent brightness (152 cd/m^2) and 810:1 at full brightness (330 cd/m^2).

Colour fidelity of the calibrated display was excellent, averaging just 1.34 Delta E from a 48-swatch test, with largest deviation found with the usual ‘1F’ cyan/teal colour tone.

Colour uniformity at various brightnesses was good, around 1 percent deviation from 50–100 percent brightness, but luminance uniformity was much less consistent. The top (and specifically, top-right) of the screen was brighter than the bottom, with the bottom third as much as 30 percent darker than the top.

Subjective evaluation of this Retina display suggests it’s still about the finest computer monitor available on any modern computer, in spite of the luminance discrepancy we measured.

And thanks to OS X’s HiDPI mode there are none of the interface legibility problems we see when Windows laptops have tried to copy this model using greater-than-HD resolution displays. This frequently results in programs being rendered too small to be usefully controlled, made worse when you’re expected to control tiny elements by fingertip on Windows 8 touchscreen laptops. The latter touchscreen Windows 8 laptops also face more troubling screen-reflection issues, since the touch-control screen inevitably lacks the anti-reflective coating found here that enables current MacBook Pro notebooks to be viewed in daylight conditions, despite a high-gloss finish.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Battery life

Apple says that the battery life on the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display is 8 hours. This is less than the 9 hours offered by the 15in version, and the 7 hours of the non-Retina model.

We ran our usual battery rundown test, looping an MPEG-4 film (1920 x 1080, 30 fps) played wirelessly from a NAS drive. Consistent screen brightness is paramount since the display luminance level can greatly alter overall runtime. We’ve recently updated our screen calibration technique and can now match screen brightness to within around 1 percent of the target reference level of 120 cd/m^2.

The MacBook Pro with Retina display and 2.5 GHz Core i7 processor was able to run for a little under 8 hours (7 hr 57 min) before going into its sleep state.

When we tested the Late 2013 version with nVidia graphics (automatically switched to Intel Iris Pro under battery test conditions), it lasted 7 hrs 46 mins, although we cannot be confident of screen reference brightness being so exactly matched.

Then our colleagues at Macworld Labs in the US ran their battery tests the results were less positive. There battery life was tested by looping a playlist of shows downloaded from the iTunes Store. Wi-Fi was turned off and brightness set to 200 cd/m2. The new 2.2GHz 15in managed 7 hours, 13 minutes, while the new 2.5GHz model managed 6 hours, 48 minutes. Compared to last year's models, the 15in 2.0GHz managed 7 hours and 18 minutes, while the 2.3GHz model managed 7 hours and 32 minutes.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Storage

As best we can tell, Apple is still the only designer of notebook computers to specify the highly specified PCIe-attached flash (solid-state) drive, or SSD. With now three different OEMs supplying these parts to Apple (Samsung, SanDisk and Toshiba) there is some variability in performance between different samples of ostensibly the same computer, depending on drive manufacturer.

In a recent lab test we had two MacBook Air samples (11- and 13-inch, Mid-2014) with examples of Toshiba and SanDisk parts respectively. See: MacBook Air 2014, 13in, review, & 11in 2014 MacBook Air review.

In this 15-inch MacBook Pro we found a Samsung PCIe-attached flash drive (SM0512F) with 512 GB storage capacity. In our tests this had the same performance as that found in October 2013’s 15-inch MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, Late 2013), also fitted with the same SM0512F storage drive. And this is one extremely quick flash drive – its headline sequential speed averaged 784 MB/s reads and 737 MB/s for writes (20–100 MB data). That’s nearly 50 percent faster than the very fastest SSDs you’ll find in any other brand of personal computer, which are all restricted by the bottleneck of the SATA Revision 3 interface with which they connect to the PC.

Looking at random small-file performance as measured by QuickBench, when averaged with files sized between 4 and 1024 kB, we saw reads at 199 MB/s and writes at 351 MB/s. These are impressive figures, and help explain the entirely lag-free ‘snappiness’ you feel when launching applications and opening and saving files.

New 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: Build to order options

When purchasing a 15in version of the Retina MacBook Pro you have the choice of updating from the baseline model with its 2.2GHz i7 processor to a 2.5GHz i7 quad-core processor for £80, or a 2.8GHz i7 quad-core processor for £240.

The 15in MacBook Pro also offers build-to-order storage options including the addition of a 512GB flash drive for £240, or a 1TB flash drive for £640.

There is no option to upgrade the memory in the 15in models from the standard 16GB RAM.

Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro vs iMac

The new price of £1,399 for the entry-level MacBook Pro with Retina makes it comparable to the entry-level 27-inch iMac priced at £1,499.

What would the extra £100 get you if you were to buy the iMac? Whereas the £1,399 MacBook Pro offers a 2.2GB quad-core i7 processor, the 27-inch iMac offers a 3.2GHz quad-core processor. It also features a 1TB hard disk, as opposed to the 512GB Flash drive in the MacBook, although the decision here comes down to whether you prefer the speed associated with Flash storage or the extra capacity. The MacBook also offers 16GB RAM, compared to 8GB in the iMac.

Essentially this decision will probably boil down to portability. Despite the faster processor in the iMac it is likely to be slowed down by its hard drive, while the Flash drive in the MacBook Pro will speed things up. We'll publish our benchmarks here as soon as we've been able to thoroughly test the units. Read our comparison of a MacBook Pro and iMac here.

Read: 2014 iMac with Fusion Drive review and 2014 budget iMac review

OUR VERDICT

The price drops are welcome, especially at the top of the range where the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display is now £200 cheaper. It's still pretty pricy at £1,999, though. The latest update to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is simply a 200 MHz increase in baseline clock speed of the Intel Core i7 quad-core processor. With it, we see a small nudge in speed with applications that stress the CPU, in the order of six percent for many tests. In the process of testing we did note that in Cinebench at least, the software update from 10.9.0 to 10.9.4 may have actually slowed down multi-core performance, such that last autumn’s model could render Cinebench tests faster than this summer’s model. But that’s another matter – the key result is that Intel’s processor speed bump gives a tiny bit more speed to some number-crunching tasks, while battery life is in the same area or longer than before under our battery test conditions at least.

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