Retina MacBook Pro review (15in, 2015) full review
The new 15-inch MacBook Pro for 2015 has arrived, picking up a trio of component upgrades on the way. Apple’s best laptop features the same design and layout as the first Retina notebook that launched in 2012, and once again two models are available – here we focus on the top model with 2.5 GHz processor and AMD graphics (Product code: MJLT2B/A)
The smaller 13-inch MacBook Pro saw some significant upgrades when it was updated in March this year, notably the change to a 14 nm Broadwell dual-core processor from Intel. It was widely expected by followers of the upgrade cycle that Apple was holding back the new 15-inch notebook while waiting for Intel to release the matching quad-core Broadwell chips.
We have also reviewed the 2015 2.2GHz MacBook Pro here.
Yet it seems Apple may have grown weary of waiting, and so we find exactly the same Haswell-generation chips as were fitted in the previous refit almost 12 months ago, in July 2014. The model reviewed here has a 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7-4870HQ, a quad-core processor with Hyper Threading Technology to virtualise eight cores, and with a short-term Turbo Boost facility up to 3.7 GHz for one lucky core.
The processor platform is good but it does miss out on Intel’s ‘tick’ revamp, which would have seen a process shrink from 22 to 14 nm. That may have changed little in speed performance but could have reaped substantial benefits in reduced power consumption, leading to even longer battery life, if our experiences with the Broadwell-powered 13-inch are anything to go by.
Even without this new processor though, Apple is claiming one more hour of battery life for this MacBook Pro compared to last year’s 13in MacBook Pro (2.7GHz), moving from 8 to 9 hours of wireless web-browsing time.
Now in early June, just two weeks after this 15-inch MacBook Pro of 2015 launched, Intel is finally allowing its laptop-making customers to announce mobile quad-core processors from the Broadwell collection. Whether Apple will slip in a silent upgrade to these chips too in the coming months, or simply wait until the succeeding Skylake generation of Intel chips are ready – potentially towards the end of this year – remains to be seen.
In the meantime, what we have today is a premium 15-inch notebook that sees three hardware changes since the 2014 refresh. None of these changes are visible from the outside, but one will be apparent to the touch as soon as you start using the 2015 MacBook Pro – we are talking about the new Force Touch trackpad.
The second change is to the discrete graphics processor, with the top model receiving an AMD transplant to replace the ageing Nvidia organ. And the final material difference, and perhaps the most startling to enthusiasts of storage technology, is a major tweak to the internal flash drive. This moves it from around 50 percent faster, to now more like 400 percent faster, than the best SSDs fitted to most other laptops.
MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review: Force Touch trackpad
Apple pioneered the trackpad on laptops back in the early 1990s, when Windows laptop factories were still fitting upside-down-mouse trackballs or little rubber pointing sticks in the middle of the keyboard. The trackpad (today ‘touchpad’ in Windows parlance) is now all but ubiquitous as the way to interact with every notebook computer of any faith.
Under Apple’s stewardship the concept has seen trackpads grow larger in size, increase in precision and sensitivity, and notably gain multi-point touch recognition to allow new hand gestures to guide the user through a computer’s GUI.
The new Force Touch trackpad is something of a departure though, and even though the trackpad looks identical on the surface, it is now a fixed, essentially unmoving construct, relying on strain gauges, electromagnet solenoids and additional processors and algorithms to do its work. Superficially the same as it was in the first Unibody MacBook of 2008 it may be, but still waters run deep.
As we found with first the 13-inch MacBook Pro and then the new little MacBook, the Force Touch trackpad allows you to control the strength of the ‘click’ for normal clicks (Light, Medium, Firm); and additionally to register an extra, deeper click when you press slightly longer and more firmly.
The Force Touch concept works well on the MacBook Pro, allowing you to deep click on the fast-forward and rewind buttons in QuickTime Player, for example. The harder you press, the faster the speed-up. Another useful benefit, if one that takes some mental training to get used to if you’ve been driving trackpads for years, is that you can press anywhere on the trackpad surface with equal pressure to elicit a click, rather than along just the front edge.
MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review: Graphics
Apple does not seem too partisan when it comes to favouring either of today’s two makers of PC graphics processors, tending to oscillate between fitting either Nvidia or AMD’s graphics adaptors. Since the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display was introduced in 2012, there has been a build using discrete Nvidia graphics in addition to low-power integrated Intel graphics, starting with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 650M for the Mark I; and for the last two refreshes, the slightly better GTX 750M.
Now we see the pendulum swing back to AMD, with the inclusion of a Radeon R9 M370X graphics processing unit. It is fitted with 2 GB of GDDR5 video memory, the same quota as the outgoing Nvidia part.
You won’t find this AMD graphics processor on other laptops though as the part seems to be custom-built for Apple. Note that like all GPUs that Apple has fitted to its professional-label MacBook Pro notebooks ever since the line was launched in 2006, the 2015 MacBook Pro takes a consumer-grade graphics adaptor, here bearing the Radeon name.
(Contrast this with professional workstation notebooks made by the likes of HP and Dell. Both AMD and Nvidia design graphics processors specially profiled for professional use, known as AMD FirePro and Nvidia Quadro respectively, built with more exacting standards for render accuracy and reliability. And possessing commensurately higher price tags too.)
The AMD Radeon R9 M370X looks to be based on a 28 nm architecture codenamed Cape Verde that dates back to 2012, and this particular version runs an 800 MHz GPU clock, 1125 MHz memory clock (4500 MHz effective speed, after the quadrupling properties of GDDR5 RAM) and 128-bit memory bus. It has 640 stream processors for parallel processing and 40 texture mapping units.
Comparing with Nvidia’s graphics is not straightforward as its architecture is slightly different, with a specification listing shading units (384) and render output processors (16) besides a count of 32 texture mapping units. However the previous Nvidia GTX 750M did have a slightly faster core-clock speed of 926 MHz, the same size 128-bit memory bus, and a faster memory clock of 1254 MHz (or 5016 MHz effective).
Apple reports that the new AMD graphics are faster than the outgoing Nvidia solution, and these claims were borne out in our testing in every instance, up to and including a 70 percent performance increase in one game.
Before the graphics benchmark results, it’s worth reiterating that the CPU is the same as when we last tested the breed in summer 2014. We ran the usual processor tests anyway as part of our comprehensive routine to ensure nothing unexpected had arisen, and found figures that were within 1 percent tolerance of last year’s results.
In brief, this means a single-core Geekbench 3 score of 3717 points, rising to 14,325 points in multi-core mode; Cinebench 11.5 with results of 1.54 and 6.41 points respectively for the two modes; while Cinebench 15 reported 132 and 602 points.
For reference, Dell’s comparable copycat computer is the Precision M3800 which runs an Intel Core i7-4712HQ at 2.3 GHz, and gives benchmark scores around 5 percent slower in Cinebench, and up to 18 percent slower in Geekbench.
Cinebench will also test graphics rendering performance with an OpenGL routine, and in our tests of the mid-2015 MacBook Pro with its new AMD graphics we found 12.5 and 16 percent improvements over the previous Nvidia model. Specifically, Cinebench 11.5 framerate rose from 48 to 54 fps, while Cinebench 15 advanced from 54 to 63 fps.
Turning to gaming, we started with Batman: Arkham City and found it would play around one-third faster. At the low setting of 1280 x 720 pixels and Medium detail, Nvidia gave us 61 fps while AMD played at 83 fps (36 percent faster).
Set to 1440 x 900 size – arguably the best resolution for this MacBook Pro’s 2880 x 1900-pixel display – the game rose from 50 fps through Nvidia GeForce GTX 750M, to 66 fps through the AMD Radeon R9 M370X, for a 32 percent improvement.
Unigine Heaven is a synthetic gaming benchmark, and here the AMD graphics showed around 20 percent improvements on the previous Nvidia – moving from 35 to 42 fps (1280 x 800, Medium), and from 29 to 35 fps (1440 x 900, Medium).
Most impressive gaming performance lifts were found in the 2013 reboot of the classic Tomb Raider game. In our experience testing Windows machines, this game typically works better through AMD graphics hardware – right down to the added TressFX™ graphics API for DirectX, which optionally shows Lara’s hair more realistically, each strand rendered separately with the help of the AMD Graphics Core Next architecture. Sadly this feature has not been ported to the OpenGL version of Tomb Raider for Mac.
Set to a modest 1280 x 800-pixel resolution and Normal detail, framerate was lifted from 40 fps under Nvidia to 65 fps under AMD (63 percent faster). At 1440 x 900, Normal detail moved from 33 to 56 fps (the vaunted 70-percent improvement) and from 31 to 49 fps at High detail (or a 58 percent lift).
With the help of QuickRes (www.quickresapp.com) we also pushed the graphics to their size limit, expanding screen resolution beyond what OS X normally allows, to the MacBook Pro’s native 2880 x 1800 pixels. At this point you cannot expect to have playable framerates from anything but the best graphics cards. For the Nvidia 750M, it averaged 9 frames per second in Tomb Raider, while the AMD R9 M370X showed us a much better, if still too slow, 18 fps. That’s what statisticians and marketeers would call a 100 percent improvement.
MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review: Storage and Speed
We’ve already seen some significant improvements in storage performance in this year’s Apple Mac refreshes, building on the 2013 refresh when Apple kicked out SATA and introduced PCIe-attached flash drives to the world.
This year saw this strategy developed again by the use of four rather than two lanes of PCI Express. So in the case of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, sequential read speed from the PCIe-attached flash drive doubled from around 750 MB/s, to 1500 MB/s.
This year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro also gains from the doubling in PCIe bus lanes, again from two to four. But it also adds another trick that takes sequential read speed up to a staggering 2000 MB/s. In place of the venerable PCIe 2.0 standard, we now have a flash drive using four lanes of PCIe 3.0. The newer standard has nominal speed of 8 GT/s (giga transfers per second), a bump up from the previous 5 GT/s of PCIe 2.0.
Using QuickBench we measured storage transfer speeds in excess of 2000 MB/s, peaking at 2077 MB/s, and averaging 2050 MB/s for data sized 20-100 MB. Sequential write speeds were lower as is typical for solid-state drives and averaged 1542 MB/s.
Small-file random reads were almost disappointing, the weakest in measurement at 37 MB/s for 4 kB random reads, while 4 kB random writes hit 118 MB/s. Averaged across all small files from 4 kB to 1024 kB, random reads were 533 MB/s and random writes averaged 948 MB/s.
Let’s compare that to 2014’s best, which came in at 199 MB/s for averaged random reads, and 351 MB/s for averaged random writes – roughly a three-fold increase since the last refresh, and one that will really make the MacBook Pro fly in real-world usage.
MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review: MacBook revolution
We have seen a clear evolution in Mac storage performance in the last two years; actually a revolution in terms of the shake-up to the PC industry. Up until the MacBook refreshes of 2013, the best SATA SSDs had read speeds capped by SATA interface at little over 500 MB/s.
Then Apple replaced SATA with PCIe, giving a 50 percent read speed increase to 750 MB/s. Then earlier this year it used twice as many PCIe lanes, doubling that 750 figure to 1500 MB/s. And now the lanes have been widened to expand the top speed to 2000 GB/s.
Considering how PC performance was languishing with little change in storage speed when compared to ever-rising CPU increases roughly in line with Moore’s Law, Apple has accomplished much as other PC builders complacently stuck fast with outdated data-transfer technologies.
MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review: Battery life
We’re not quite sure how it’s been done, but exactly as promised we find one hour was added to unplugged runtime, as gauged by our standard battery benchmark. And our test is different to Apple’s, the latter based on wireless web browsing.
Last year’s MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2014) with the same 2.5 GHz Core i7 processor lasted for 7 hr 57 min, in our test of streaming an MPEG-4 HD film over Wi-Fi, with screen set to 120 cd/m^2 (an 11.75 setting on the 0-16 brightness range available through OS X).
This year’s model with the same CPU ran for 8 hr 58 min, which we’re happy to call ‘9-hour battery life’. If we had to guess the ‘how’, we’d wager it was either improved power-saving techniques in the Samsung-made flash drive controller; reduced quiescent current draw from the AMD graphics processor (which while not actually active during this test would still be powered up in the background); or it could be a little of both, combined with some under-bonnet changes in the operating system. Remember, last year’s MacBook Pro shipped with OS X 10.9 and so was tested running Mavericks.
MacBook Pro 15in 2.5 GHz review: Verdict
We must admit to feeling a tinsy bit short-changed by the no-show of quad-core Intel Broadwell processor in this year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro model. However this refresh sees two aspects expanded that are always in demand – faster graphics and longer battery life – while also introducing to the machine the highly versatile Force Touch trackpad interface. Meanwhile the uplift in flash storage speed may look like a nerdy numberfest but will reward any user with some real-life leaps in daily productivity. The 15-inch maintains its place as the premium mobile workstation laptop, and puts that much more clear distance between it and the Windows tributes.
Following is our initial preview of the MacBook Pro 15in, following the launch.
Apple has introduced two new 15in MacBook Pro models. They gain the Force Touch trackpad introduced in the 13in models back in March, as well as faster flash storage, better discrete graphics for the top of the range model, and better battery life.
We’re still waiting for a unit to review, and will update this article when we have been able to fully test and assess the new 15in MacBook Pro models. In the meantime here is a run down on the specs of the new machines and some price comparisons.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Price & Specs
The 15in MacBook Pro with 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, 256GB Flash storage and Intel Iris Pro Graphics costs £1,599.
The15in MacBook Pro with 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, 512GB Flash storage and Intel Iris Pro Graphics costs £1,999.
The price of the entry-level MacBook Pro is identical to the similarly specced 27in iMac model, which also offers a Retina display. In the case of the iMac the processor has a faster clock speed (3.3GHz), but the standard iMac for £1,599 ships with a hard disk, which will make that model slower than the flash equipped MacBook.
The top of the range iMac with its 3.5GHz processor and 1TB Fusion drive costs less than the top of the range MacBook Pro, £1,849 compared to £1,999.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Processor
The new 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display comes in two iterations, one has a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, the other has a 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor.
The last generation offered identical processor specs: a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 and a 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor. Not only do the new processors offer the same clock-speed, they are the same processor. These latest 15in Retina MacBook Pro models features Intel’s Haswell processors – not the newer Broadwell chips that everyone was expecting, suggesting Apple has skipped the much delayed Broadwell processors and is waiting for the next generation, codenamed Skylake.
Probably Broadwell wouldn’t have made a great deal of improvement to the 2014 models, it is quite a minor processor boost. Another reason why Apple has skipped Broadwell is the fact that the quad-core Broadwell chips that Apple would have required for the MacBook Pro models (and the new 27in Retina iMac that was also introduced) haven’t yet launched.
All eyes will be on Intel now, as the company gears up to release Skylake, which is what everyone is really waiting for. Hopefully it won’t take Intel another year to release Quad-core versions of Skylake or we will have a long wait for faster Macs.
Given that the 13in MacBook Pro models do feature the new Broadwell processors, it will be interesting to see how much those models have closed the gap on the new 15in MacBook Pro.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Speed tests
We haven’t been able to fully test these new models yet, but we have the results of tests on 2014’s 2.2GHz MacBook Pro. In that case, Geekbench 3 reported scores of 3447 and 13,238 points (single- and multi-core mode) for the 2.2 GHz Mac, against 3658 and 14,360 points for the 2.5 GHz machine. We expect similar results for the new models since the processor hasn’t changed.
Similarly, Cinebench 11.5 awarded 2014’s 2.2 GHz MacBook Pro with 1.41 and 6.60 points for its two modes, against 1.55 and 6.48 points for the 2.5 GHz MacBook Pro. In Cinebench 15 the results dropped from 134 and 599 points, to 121 and 593 points.
The new storage is said to be faster in the 2015 models, so that may well effect the speeds experienced from these new models.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Storage
The new 15in MacBook Pro models also offers exactly the same capacity of storage for the two standard models, but there is more to the storage than the 256GB or 512GB on offer when compared to last year’s models, according to Apple.
The company stated at launch that the updated 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display features up to 2.5 times faster flash storage than the previous generation, with throughput up to 2GBps. This storage is presumably connected by a 4-lane PCIe 2.0 bus, in common with the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.
When we tested the 13in MacBook Pro models, we found some interesting discrepancies between the 128GB and 256GB storage options, with the 256GB version being faster.
In the case of the entry-level 13in MacBook Pro and its 128GB flash drive, we measured sequential read speeds of 1500MB/s and sequential write speeds at up to 681MB/s. There’s a large discrepancy between reading and writing, which would usually be explained as a reduction in the level of parallelism available to smaller capacity solid-state drives.
However, with the 256GB MacBook, we found that write speeds closely approached read speeds. Sequential write speed now reached up to a maximum of 1424 MB/s, with averages of 2–10MB files of 1353MB/s; and an average speed of 1231MB/s for 20–100MB data (all measurements with QuickBench). You can read our 13in 2.7GHz MacBook Pro Review here.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Graphics
Both the new 15in MacBooks offer Intel Iris Pro Graphics, but the flag-ship model also boasts a discrete graphics card in the form of the AMD Radeon R9 M370X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory. The previous generation offered an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M instead.
Apple claims these new discrete graphics deliver up to 80 percent faster performance using new AMD Radeon R9 M370X graphics for editing video in Final Cut Pro X, rendering 3D images in pro graphics apps or playing high-resolution games.
To give you some idea of the difference offered by the discrete graphics card: Last year’s top model, with its Nvidia GeForce GTX 750M graphics, could average 56 fps when set to 1280 x 800 pixel resolution and Normal detail. Last year’s entry MacBook with Iris Pro graphics played the same test at 59 fps, and could still sustain a 46 fps average after moving up to High detail. That’s with the game set to use legacy OpenGL. (Read our review the 2014 2.2GHz 15in MacBook Pro here).
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Display
The 15in MacBook Pro has a Retina display that offers a resolution of 2,880 x 1,800 pixels.
When we tested the Retina display in the 2014 MacBook Pro with Retina display we found this panel to have 96 percent coverage of the sRGB colour gamut, and 80 percent of the more challenging Adobe RGB gamut. Contrast ratio was 680:1 when set to 50 percent brightness, 720:1 at 75 percent, and 810:1 at full brightness.
It’s unlikely that this will have changed, unless Apple is using a different supplier for the screen – on last year’s model it was a Samsung LCD, but we have seen LG/Philips displays used for some models of the MacBook Pro with Retina display. We are hopeful because when we tested the 2.7GHz 13in model we found some indication that the screen had been tweaked. Last time we measured the 13-inch Retina display of the MacBook Pro in June 2014, it had 91 percent coverage of sRGB, and 68 percent Adobe RGB. With the new model, figures have improved, to 97 and 73 percent respectively. We are in anticipation of a similar improvement with the 15in models.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Trackpad
The one physical difference between the new 15-inch Pro and the old one is the trackpad. Like the 12-inch MacBook and 13in MacBook Pro, the 15-inch Pro gets the Force Touch trackpad, which is sensitive to varying degrees of touch pressure: you can set it to respond to harder/deeper presses to activate different features.
The Trackpad also provides what is known as haptic or taptic feedback, a tangible, tactile response that in theory allows you to 'feel' what you are interacting with (rather than just the flat surface of the touch pad).
The result is a two-stage click operation - a standard light click felt when gently pressing and a harder-feeling click that's felt by pressing down a little deeper. This latter click is referred to as a 'Force Click’ by Apple.
As a result of this technology, the trackpad is capable of sensing and responding to different degrees of pressure. Applications for this are currently limited – we expect that Apple will release an SDK and soon software developers will be able to implement Force Clicking in their applications. For now you can experience it in Apple apps, including Apple Maps where if you vary the pressure when you click on the zoom in/zoom out buttons varies the speed of the zoom accordingly; you can also vary the speed of rewind or fast-forward in QuickTime.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Battery life
Battery life is now at 9 hours, according to Apple’s tests. We will be running our own tests as soon as we get a unit in to review. In the meantime, for the 2014 models, our own battery test results bought up a slight advantage to the slower clocked model. In our standard battery benchmark test looping an MPEG-4 film over Wi-Fi with screen set to 120 cd/m^2, the 2.5 GHz model lasted 7 hr 57 min, while the 2.2 GHz MacBook lasted nearly an hour longer, running for 8 hr 48 min. We expect that the new machines will offer an increased battery life compared to last year’s.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: RAM
In 2014 the entry-level 15-inch saw a doubling of its installed memory to 16GB, the same as the top-spec model. In 2015 both models also offer 16GB RAM as standard. It’s not possible to add more RAM at a later date because the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard, but 16GB should stand you in good stead for the foreseeable future.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Ports
Like previous year’s models, the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display offers two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3 ports, as well as an HDMI port and an SDXC card slot. And the trusty MagSafe 2 Power Adaptor.
2015 MacBook Pro 15in review: Build to order options
There’s a 2.8GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 option, which costs an extra £230 for the 2.2GHz model or £150 mode for the 2.5GHz MacBook Pro.
If that sounds like overkill, alternatively, you can boost your 2.2GHz model to 2.5GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 for an additional £80, bringing the price of that models too £1,679.
Storage options for the 2.2GHz model (normally £1,599) include a 512GB PCIe-based Flash Storage for an additional £240.00. Essentially you could opt for the same processor (2.5Ghz) and storage (512GB) as the standard £1,999 model, but the price of that model would be greater: £2,069, and you would be lacking the discrete graphics card.
There’s also the option of 1TB of flash storage, which costs a whopping £640 on the 2.2GHz model, or £400 as an addition to the £1,999 model.
If you were to fully spec out the top of the range model with all the build to order options (2.8GHz processor and 1TB Flash storage) it would cost £2,549. Given that Apple’s flagship Mac, the Mac Pro price starts at £2,499 you may think that is a lot to spend on a laptop.