Special note: All images in this post are retina ready!
I’m always buying and reselling things, my favorite of which are Mac computers. I love trying out new iMacs and MacBook Pros to see which fit my work flow the best. Just last week, I came across a ridiculous deal on an open-box retina MacBook Pro, so I decided to order it and see how it runs.
I’ve been using a 2.3GHz quad-i7 MacBook Pro 17, with an antiglare screen, so I’ve been quite spoiled as far as performance and quality go. The question is, can this new Retina MacBook Pro with less ports and a smaller screen meet my need for full-on computer awesomeness.
I’ve spent a few days with the machine, and these are my impressions.
Let’s face it. The new retina MacBook Pro is light. It’s over two pounds lighter than the 17″ MacBook Pro. I know I’m not comparing it to the 15″ model, but if you’re serious about your work, you probably work on a 17″ machine.
2 lbs is a huge weight drop. It’s incredibly noticeable when you pick the laptop up that it’s saving as much weight as possible. This has as much to do with the loss of a spinning HDD and optical drive as it does with the new design, and of course a little bit of Apple magic.
The 17″ MacBook Pro is quite heavy, at 6.6 lbs. When I carry it around, I definitely feel its girth, and I know that if I drop it, there will be significantly more damage to it than to a lighter device. It also feels very solid, so there’s a tradeoff, if you’re going for solid.
How thin is thin? The retina MacBook Pro is ridiculously thin, for a Pro machine. It’s 0.71″ thick at it’s thickest point. The 17″ is 0.98″ thick, which we can just round off to 1″. Thirty percent decrease in thickness. It really feels like a MacBook Air when I’m holding it.
I always wonder if Apple will continue to make their devices thinner and thinner until the iPods are just printed on a sheet of paper that you can lose like a business card. It sure seems to be going that way, and this new MacBook Pro is no exception. It looks stupidly thin. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing! It’s just getting to a point where I actually wonder if this thin-madness will ever end.
Mr. MBP 17″ is not so thick, himself. At an inch thick (for the specs you can get), it’s a nicely packaged device; however, seeing that the 17″ is packing a 2.3GHz quad-i7, while the 15″ is packing a 2.6 quad-i7… it just doesn’t seem possible.
I/O (or, the ports)
I love ports. I love plugging in my iPod, my Logitech mouse receiver, and a flash drive at the same time. The retina MBP only has 2 USB ports, which kind of sucks. It also has 2 Thunderbolt ports, and raise your hand if you know of one peripheral that uses Thunderbolt today. Didn’t think so.
It’s curious that Apple decided to include HDMI, while Mountain Lion will premiere AirPlay support. It’s odd that they’re looking out for their users who don’t have an AppleTV. The new hotness also comes with an SD card reader, which I find incredibly handy, as I upload photos very often. I didn’t like the Expresscard34 SD Reader I’ve been using, since I have to pop the damn thing out each time I want the card out. New SD card reader = WIN.
I really wish Apple would have included three USB ports and only one Thunderbolt. I like that the USB is 2.0/3.0, because my main external hard drive is a GoFlex USB3.0 drive. The speed increase from Firewire 800 to USB 3.0 is nice, but it’s not mind-altering.
The 17″ wins hands down in this department, with its three USB ports, one Firewire 800, one Thunderbolt, one Ethernet, and a mic input (in addition to the headphone out). I often do file transfers over ethernet; that won’t be an option any more, unless I shell out money to Apple for an adapter cable. I won’t.
MagSafe vs. MagSafe 2
This was inevitable. As the laptops get smaller, the ports will have to follow suit. This explains the loss of Firewire, Ethernet, and original MagSafe. They’re just too big. Mic input? Well, that’s not too big, but I’ll get over it.
I don’t really mind that there’s a new MagSafe adapter. A lot of users are complaining that now they won’t be able to plug their new laptop into ANY power cable in the house. I say Get off your lazy ass and go get your cable. The new MagSafe is thinner, therefore sleeker, therefore more attractive. It’s great.
You can’t buy a machine with ‘Pro’ in the title without getting some power. The question is, what qualifies as power? My 15″ rMBP test machine has a 2.6GHz Ivy Bridge quad-core i7, whereas my 17″ MBP has a 2.3GHz Sandy Bridge (previous generation) quad-core i7 processor. The newer processor has a faster clock cycle, but it also has to work extra hard to push almost four times the number of pixels to the display.
The next section talks about upgradeability, which also affects performance. My rMBP has 8GB of soldered-in RAM, whereas the 17″ can easily take a $70 16GB RAM upgrade. Most people won’t need 16GB, but there was a time when I didn’t need 4GB. Then I did. These things happen.
Moving on. Horsepower. The retina MBP really does hold its own, when it comes to processing power. The only action it can’t best my 17″ MacBook Pro at is scrolling in Safari. Safari is rendering web pages at four times the pixels, so it slows down a bit. I’ve read that Mountain Lion will speed this up, but since it won’t be out for a few more days, I haven’t had a chance to test it.
Sidenote: when I scroll in Firefox (not retina-ready), the speed is exactly the same on both machines.
When scrolling through Desktops on MacBook Airs at the Apple Store, there is a considerable amount of screen tearing. Enough to say, “Who okayed this for all these months?” The good news is that the screen tearing isn’t present on the retina MBP. If it were, I would have shipped it back already. Performance is very smooth with multiple apps open.
This is where I get a little iffy about my future as a MacHead. The setup in my 17″ MBP involves removing the optical drive, installing a 120GB SSD in the optical bay, and keeping the stock 750GB HDD in the stock location. I also upgraded the RAM to 16GB for less than $100. The same can’t be done in the new rMBP, in any regard.
When you buy your rMBP, you’re stuck with the options you choose. Well, that’s not completely true, as OWC does offer SSD upgrades, but I’m a cheapass, and I will only buy SSDs for <$0.70 per GB. That won’t happen with the ‘SSD stick’ Apple has produced here. They’ll always be more expensive than their 2.5″ counterparts.
I don’t like that the upgradeability is so limited on this machine, but I’m also always constantly buying and selling my computers, all while making a profit. So all in all, I’m not worried about it; however, regular power users should be. If you’re not planning to dust off your ebay skills to upgrade your machine, you’ll have to pony up a lot more cash up front for the beefier machine.
I’m a Snow Leopard guy. I don’t like the iOS style of Lion, and I don’t want an OS that’s been developed for the least common denominator. Sadly, it’s impossible to install Snow Leopard on the rMBP. It runs GREAT on my 17″ (early 2011) MBP. I love that I can click the upload button in WordPress, flick four fingers up to show the desktop, click and hold an image, flick four fingers down (while holding the file) and insert the image. If you kept up with that, you probably use that shortcut all the time. It’s doesn’t work in Lion.
I tried using BetterTouchTool, but I couldn’t get it to work the way I wanted. I also liked Spaces. I don’t really like Mission Control. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but I feel that spaces were superior to Mission Control.
I’m a small bit of an audiophile, even if I can’t tell the difference between 320kbps and ALAC. I like to enjoy music on my laptop speakers while I’m working. The speakers on the 17″ MBP absolutely shine, in this regard. As ridiculous as it seems, there’s a subwoofer in the 17″. The sound that emanates from that machine is beastly, to say the least.
The speakers on the retina MBP are not very good; I qualify them as “tinner” than the 17″ MBP. They don’t have as much bass, but there appears to be more stereo separation, likely through more pronounced highs – sometimes too much high.
There is a bit of distortion present at certain frequencies. At the beginning of Ellie Goulding’s Lights, I hear very noticeable distortion on the high pitches, at high volumes. The 17″ MacBook Pro handles these frequencies with aplomb, and everything sounds crystal clear compared to the rMBP.
I listen to music during the day and watch movies/TV Shows with my wife at night, so good speakers are a must (as we don’t have/won’t be buying a TV). The tinny sound on the retina is too much to bear, so the 17″ MacBook Pro absolutely takes the cake on the speaker front.
Of course, the display
This one’s easy. The retina MacBook Pro’s display is stupid good. When it was announced, I thought Nah, 1900 x 1200 on 17 inches is as good as it can get. I was wrong. I can run 1920 x 1200 on this 15″ rMBP, and it’s clearer than the 17″. Some applications aren’t retina-ready yet, so they look pretty blurry at the moment, but I’m sure that will be remedied in the next month or two.
To be honest, the display on the rMBP is so good, it’s the reason I’m selling my 17″ and keeping the 15″. 1920 x 1200 feels “small” on the 17″ – meaning it’s hard for me to read words on it. On the 15″ though, the text is so crisp that it doesn’t look as small. It’s easy to read at any resolution.
I like that I can switch between 1440 x 900 and 1920 x 1200 on the rMBP. When working on the 17″, I want the resolution to be 1920 x 1200, but if I’m just going to be doing some writing or web browsing, I’d like a more readable resolution. Anything besides the native 1920 x 1200 on the 17″ looks blurry, whereas all resolutions on the rMBP look great.
Glossy vs. Matte
I love matte displays. I used a Black MacBook for five years, and the number one feature I wanted in an upgrade was a matte display. When I got my first 17″ antiglare MacBook Pro, I instantly fell in love with the matte display. The colors are super rich, and no amount of light can hinder my workflow, as there are no visible reflections.
I’ve always disliked the glass displays on MacBook Pros and hoped Apple would go back to the days of matte. This retina display is different. It only has one pane of glass, whereas the older models have three panes of glass. The retina display is ‘less reflective’ than the non-retina displays. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Would I prefer matte? Absolutely. Would I swap this out for a matte option? In a heartbeat. But that doesn’t change the fact that the reflections aren’t terrible on this machine, and the glass does really help the colors to pop. I’m a matte fanboy at heart, but I’ll make a temporary exception for this gorgeous display.
What about photos?
I though photos would look exactly the same. How much better can a photo really look on a higher res display? A TON better, as it turns out. I shoot photos with a Panasonic Lumix LX5, and the level of vivid clarity on this display is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I can pick out details in the photos that I can’t see on the 17″ MBP.
Again, I know it sounds ridiculous, but there is a visual difference in photos on this display, as compared with the antiglare display on the 17″ MBP.
The retina MacBook Pro is extraordinarily good. I don’t like that there aren’t as many ports as on the 17″ MBP, but the times they are a changin’. Hey, maybe I don’t really need to be doing three things at once anyway, right? Regardless, the weight, the display, and the processing power are enough to convince me that this is my current choice of computer. For the next month, at least.
I actually decided to sell the Retina MBP and keep my 17″. After another day with the rMBP, I just don’t like that I can’t take it apart and tinker with it like I can my 17″. The retina display is amazing, but it also makes non-retina apps look relatively terrible.
The speakers in the 17″ are better, as I mentioned before, and since my wife and I use the MBP to watch movies, the 17″ display provides better viewing at a distance.
The Real Reason
Really? I don’t like Lion. OSX 10.7 (Lion) just doesn’t feel like a real computer operating system. I like Snow Leopard, and I’ll likely stick with Snow Leopard as long as this machine will keep up with my needs. The 2.3GHz MBP is the last 17″ Apple model that will run Snow Leopard, so I’ll be keeping this machine for a while!
Lion sucks, and Mountain Lion will likely suck too. I don’t care who doesn’t like that opinion, because it’s the truth from a power user – me.
I’ve upgraded my 17″ machine to Mountain Lion, and it’s much, much better than Lion. I’m used to the reverse scrolling AND the multitasking with Mission Control. Congrats, 10.8 – you’ve won me over!