MacBook Pro (with Retina display) full review

This latter random read/write test is crucial in assessing how fast a computer feels in normal daily use. And those 131 and 152 MB/s random-access numbers give an excellent indication of real-world speed that will be terrifically fast when launching applications and opening and saving files.  

But watch out for the 2013 MacBook Pro Retina, which will almost certainly feature the PCIe interface spearheaded by the 2013 MacBook Air. By removing the classic SATA interface entirely, solid-state storage performance will sky rocket beyond the current circa-550 MB/s barrier. 

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display: Processor 

An Ivy Bridge-generation processor is a very fast asset in any computer. And with its third iteration of Core Series technology, Intel again reduced power consumption and heat output while still increasing measured performance, rated against the previous year’s Sandy Bridge series. 

The 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-3720QM here has four discrete cores, but arranged into what Intel calls Hyper-threading technology. This allows each core to manage two independent threads separately, effectively letting the OS X system ‘see’ eight processor cores. Additionally, one of those cores will overclock automatically under demand to 3.6 GHz, a short-term Turbo boost to plough through tasks more quickly. 

We used the Geekbench 2 test, which uses cryptography routines and similarly sophisticated number mangling to push a modern processor to the maximum. This benchmark’s baseline result of 1000 points was garnered by a (now) rather elderly reference machine – an Apple Power Mac G5 with a single 1.6 GHz IBM PowerPC processor. 

Nevertheless, the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (Mid-2012), powered by the original top off-the-shelf option of 2.6 GHz processor, scored an average of 13,088 points in Geekbench 2.

So for context, the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display here has the processing clout of a baker’s dozen of Apple’s professional desktop workstations from a decade ago.

A revised Geekbench, version 3, has a useful extra trick. Like the venerable Cinebench test, it will additionally show the best speed when only a single core is put into action. That’s handy to demonstrate available performance in single-threaded applications. 

In Geekbench 3, the Retina MacBook Pro averaged a result of 12,670 points with all cores running, and 3254 points with a single thread. So rather than a simple 8:1 ratio in speed, we can get a clue to the effect of Turbo-boosting on one core with closer to a 4:1 difference.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display: Graphics

Apple’s top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro notebooks include two graphics processors – a relatively low-power graphics controller built into the main Intel processor for everyday tasks, and a dedicated nVidia GeForce GTX graphics processor which automatically takes over for more demanding tasks. Our sample had an nVidia GsaeForce GTX 650M with 1 GB of GDDR5 video memory.

We gauged graphics performance with several gaming benchmark tests. In Batman: Arkham City and with quality set to 1280 x 800 pixels and Medium detail, the Retina MacBook Pro averaged 50 fps; the result of moving up to ‘screen native’ 1440 x 900 pixels was effectively the same at 51 fps. 

Turning to the Unigine engine test, the Retina MacBook could replay the Heaven benchmark test at 35 fps at 1280 x 800 pixels; and 29 fps at 1440 x 900; both with default Medium detail selected. With Unigine’s newer Valley benchmark, we saw figures of 37 and 32 fps respectively. 

With any intensive graphics or gaming routine, we saw internal temperatures rise, enough to make the fans audible but as noted below not disturbingly so thanks to a clever cooling regime. 

Graphics horsepower was good overall, good for most games but not outstanding by the standards of professional mobile workstations. Connect an external display in addition to the built-in screen to view these games, and framerates collapse to the high teens in frames per second.  

And even the OS X interface could stutter jsut perceptibly in something as mundane as scrolling a webpage in Safari. We’re hoping that the next generation of MacBook Pro with Retina display will benefit from a speedbump in graphics performance to restore completely a fluid graphical interface. Haswell’s improved integrated graphics bode well for a small lift here too. 

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display: Build quality and design

At just 18 mm thick, the Retina MacBook Pro 15in is disarmingly slim for such a powerful laptop computer. Then again, making a thin notebook is not so difficult given the right choice of components – integrated and non-removable lithium polymer battery, mSATA-style storage, and the removal of an optical drive.

Harder, much harder, it is to balance performance and a slim chassis with heat and noise. Inside the MacBook Pro with Retina display are two innovative cooling fans. Their assymmetrically spaced blades reduce audible resonance, so when the fans do ramp up from their idle 2000 rpm to higher speeds, up to 5000 rpm when required, the result is far more peaceful than any other laptop on the market today. Their combined sound is more like the even white noise of a detuned radio or distant river, rather than the whining drill of a traditional cooling fan. 

The low-profile keyboard we found to be even more comfortable for fast and consistent typing than the very similar design of out Mid-2012 Unibody MacBook Pro. Backlighting has improved though, so there’s less light bleed from around the keys than in the usual Unibody model, and key profile is slightly lower. 

The large glass trackpad is now being emulated in the Windows world, we’ve noticed, but only perhaps in size: having experienced the best that Microsoft’s hardware partners can muster in touch control, we’d say the MacBook range has the finest trackpads you’ll find in terms of sensitivity, precision and sheer satin slickness. 

Controversially, besides the dual-layer DVD±RW optical drive Apple removed several familiar ports and connectors from the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display. Gone is gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800 too, replaced by two separate Thunderbolt ports. You can find Thunderbolt adaptors at £25 each that will restore the network and FireWire connectors, even if you lose the convenience of always having them built-in and ready without having to rummage for errant dongles. 

On the left are the two Thunderbolt ports, plus MagSafe 2 magnetic power connector, USB 3.0 and a headset jack with Toslink optical audio output. On the right is another USB 3.0 port, SDXC card slot and HDMI port.  

It’s worth noting that the latter video output is limited to an older version of HDMI, v1.2 or earlier it seems, since no resolution greater than 1920 x 1200 was available from this port when we plugged into a Dell professional monitor with 2560 x 1600-pixel display and HDMI 1.3a ports. That’s a shame, as it means you must use a valuable Thunderbolt port to connect to such ultra-high resolution monitors. And as we move into the future of HiDPI retina-class viewing, we will need those higher resolution displays all the more. 

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display: Battery life

Considering the complement of quad-core processor and retina-class IPS display, runtime away from the mains remains very good. The large reserves of power available from three internal power packs certainly helps bolster battery life – there’s nearly 100 Wh of lithium-polymer energy cells distributed inside.

 

As a guide to real-world battery life, we presented the Retina MacBook Pro with two similar scenarios. First, playing an MPEG-4 video file – a Blu-ray rip of Avatar – on a loop with QuickTime Player; and then the same film played with VideoLAN Client (VLC). In both cases the screen was calibrated to 120 cd/m2 brightness and set not to dim. 

The difference between software players goes some way to highlight the difference in potential runtime available, depending which of the two available graphics processors is currently in use. 

QuickTime is well-equipped to use hardward-accelerated video playback, passing the strain of video decode from CPU to GPU, enabling much more efficient (and often smoother and higher quality) playback. And following Apple’s release of the VDADecoder API three years ago, we believed VLC was hardware-accelerated too by the graphics processor, since we’d noticed that opening VLC would always cause the MacBook to switch from Intel to nVidia graphics.

Playing the H.264 file with QuickTime 10.2 and the video decoded by Intel HD Graphics 4000, we saw CPU load at just 6.5 percent. Played on a loop, the MacBook Pro with Retina display lasted 7 hours and 5 minutes from a full charge.

Playing the same file with VLC 2.0.8 and the nVidia GTX 650M automatically powered up. The MacBook Pro with Retina display survived for 4 hours 43 minutes under the same conditions. 

However, we now believe the latter scenario was actually still using CPU decode, since hardware acceleration is not due in VLC until v2.1.0, due for release soon. We compared VLC 2.0.8 and VLC 2.1.0-pre2, and saw CPU usage fall from around 20-25 percent, to a steady 12.5 percent. 

This suggests that in our second battery use scenario, we were experiencing the worst of both worlds – discrete graphics card powered up and full CPU video decoding.

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