MacBook Pro (with Retina display) full review

The new Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (Late 2013) is almost upon us. But before the launch of the 2013 version of the Retina MacBook Pro, it’s high time to take a closer look at the world’s finest notebook computer – the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (Mid-2012).  

We put the first Apple MacBook Pro with 15-inch Retina display back on the lab testbench. Apple UK loaned us an original model with 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8 GB of memory, 512 MB storage and nVidia GTX 650M graphics with 1 GB of video memory. Note however that models currently on sale include either a 2.4 or 2.7 GHz processor, after Intel’s running processor upgrade early in 2013. The latter 2.7 GHz model now also receives 16 GB of memory as standard, while our sample had 8 GB.

Update: Apple unveiled new MacBook Pro models at its 9 March 2015 press event. For more details, take a look at our New 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (early 2015) preview.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display: Unibody goes Retina

October, five years ago, saw the introduction of the Unibody design of Apple MacBook Pro. Today’s Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display is a distillation of that one-piece shell laptop, brought up to date with the third-generation of Intel Core i7 processor.

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At heart then is a powerful quad-core Intel processor that runs efficiently enough to provide useful runtime from battery power. The Retina MacBook also marked the first MacBook Pro with solid-state storage as standard. It makes perfect sense – apart from price, there’s no downside to switching to a solid-state drive. 

Front and centre though, the real breakthrough with the MacBook Pro with Retina display is of course the incredible display. Like the iPhone and iPad before it which pioneered ultra-high density IPS-technology screens in mobile computing, the Retina MacBook’s screen has pixels so tightly packed together, you cannot discern them at normal viewing distances. (See What is a Retina display, and are they worth the money?)

While the iPhone has 326 pixels per inch (ppi), the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display has a lower pixel density of 220 ppi – still amply sufficient to give the required effect when viewed from a comfortable distance of around 60 cm. 

The display weaves its magic by rendering as if it had the same 1440 x 900 pixels as every previous 15-inch MacBook Pro; but using 2880 x 1800 pixels in a quad-resolution system also known as HiDPI mode. This places considerably more strain on the graphics processor which must render four times as many pixels – a trickier task when displaying motion video or gaming action. But Apple’s implementation with either of its graphics controllers (just) about manages it.

The Retina effect on a laptop is stunning. Image quality is breathtaking, consigning every laptop screen before it into near obsolescence. Incredibly fine details can be found in images, and combined with the wider gamut and higher-contrast screen, it reproduces beautifully rich colours and textures like no other notebook computer before it. 

Look even closely at the elements of the OS X interface, and you won’t see any jagged edges. Beyond the beauty of photographs and graphics, the Retina MacBook is a real boon to readers, to editors, to anyone that reads printed words from the screen. Typography is rendered exactly as it was designed, without the need for fuzzy anti-aliasing to give the semblance of rounded script edges.

We evaluated the screen using a Datacolor Spyder4Elite colorimeter to find some numbers to back up some of our hyperbole. The device cannot quantify the HiDPI mode effect, but it did show that the display was capable of showing 98 percent of the sRGB gamut, and 76 percent of Adobe RGB. Those figures are good, but not uniquely outstanding. 

Our non-Retina MacBook Pro (Mid-2012), meanwhile, takes a twisted-nematic (TN) display. A very good example of the technology, it measured 92 and 68 percent respectively in the same gamut test.

Contrast ratio in the checkboard test of the standard MacBook Pro came in with 520:1 contrast ratio. The Retina MacBook Pro was recorded at 720:1 at its maximum measured brightness of 300 cd/m2. That’s a high maximum brightness too – impressive looking but too high for normal use. The only time you may need such a level is when working outside in strong daylight. 

Colour accuracy is impressive too. We ran a Delta E test, and looked for deviation from absolute colour fidelity with a range of 48 spot-tone tests. The Retina MacBook Pro averaged just 1.35 Delta E. Our TN-screen MacBook Pro measured a little higher, but still good, 2.40 Delta E. 

The Retina display has a shiny glass front, normal the enemy of easy viewing despite the illusion of saturated colours and high contrast. Yet this screen is manufactured by a special process that bonds the TFT panel to the glass to reduce reflection and refraction. Additionally, like older models of gloss-screen MacBook Air, there is an optical reflection-reducing coating to improve viewability in normal daylight conditions. The result, like that now matched by the latest iMac displays, is the best gloss screen we’ve seen.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display: Flash storage 

An SSD is shockproof and won’t suffer disk crashes from the movement of the laptop. It’s lighter in weight, shaving precious grams from the total. Power consumption is lower – when mitigated by the amount of data it can push in a given time anyway. But the golden metric is of course its incredible speed. 

The Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display comes as standard with 256 GB of flash storage. Our sample had 512 GB capacity, taking Apple’s non-standard type of flash storage that resembles the pared-down mSATA card. It’s still essentially Serial ATA Revision 3.0, but the connector is proprietary to Apple.

And it is fast. Like most computer brands, Apple will buy in components from more than one supplier, and we understand both Toshiba and Samsung SSDs are in use by today’s Retina MacBook Pro. 

Our sample had Samsung flash NAND inside. We tested its performance in OS X, and saw sequential read speeds up to 480 MB/s, while sequential writes averaged 402 MB/s.  

Every Apple product reviewed 

At the small file level, the Intech QuickBench could unfortunately only offer single-threaded testing, so we couldn’t assess the SSD in the best way possible  – input/output operations per second, or IOPS – but random reads averaged from 4 kB to 1024 kB amounted to an average of 131 MB/s, while random writes here averaged 152 MB/s. 

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