Apple MacBook Pro (15in with Retina display) review
Apple's 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display is perhaps the finest notebook on the Australian market
- Excellent screen
- Sturdy build quality
- Great keyboard
- Runs quietly
- Some noticeable warmth
- Screen reflections can be annoying
There's no doubt that Apple's 2012 MacBook Pro is a great piece of kit. Its Retina display and Ivy Bridge CPU are the main attractions, but its keyboard and overall build quality are still among the best in the business and make this laptop a worthy upgrade for current MacBook Pro users and new users alike.
Price$ 2,499.00 (AUD)
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I've never owned a MacBook Pro, nor have I ever used one for an extended period of time (except for this one, of course). I've always been firmly in the PC camp, preferring Microsoft's Windows to Apple's OS. That said, if I was in the market for a new notebook right now, the latest MacBook Pro, with its lovely little Retina display, would be penciled in near the top of my wish list.
Design and build quality
This will come as no surprise to most of you, but the MacBook Pro's hardware is very impressive compared to most Windows-based notebooks: it's thin (both the base and the screen), rigid (thanks to its all aluminium, unibody design), and it possesses none of the tackiness that can sometimes be seen on PC laptops — it's a very clean, minimalist design and there are no annoying stickers. It's super-strong, too: you can hold the Pro with one hand from either corner, wobble it up and down as hard as you can (without dropping it), and the chassis won't bend at all. It doesn't have an optical drive installed, which adds to the strength of the body.
The fact that this notebook can be lifted so easily with one hand, considering it's a large-ish 15.4in model, just goes to show how light the unit is, too. It weighs only slightly over 2kg, which is about 500g less than a typical 15.6in Windows-based laptop, albeit one with an optical drive. The width of the unit is manageable, too: it's about 360mm across the front and 247mm from the front to the back. It's only 18mm thick, which includes the thickness of the flat stops that are on its base (they don't really stop the unit from sliding across a table), but it looks thinner because the lid tapers a tiny bit towards the edges.
A strong set of hinges hold the 15.4in screen firmly in place and the notebook is well balanced, allowing the lid to be lifted with one hand when it's sitting flat on a desk. Ports are located on the either side of the chassis. They include full-sized HDMI and USB 3.0 ports, along with an SD card slot, on the right side, and one USB 3.0, two Thunderbolt ports, a headphone jack and the magnetic power connector on the left side. It's a shame that there is no built-in Gigabit Ethernet connection due to the thin chassis, but if you really want one, there is a Thunderbolt-to-Gigabit Ethernet adapter that can be purchased for $35.
The speakers that are either side of the keyboard are of decent quality and I found them enjoyable to listen to while working. Of course, good set of headphones or speakers should be used if you want a richer sound.
Specifications and performance
On the inside, the MacBook Pro supplies a performance boost like no other thanks to Intel's third generation Core i7 CPU. The 15in MacBook Pro model that I looked at came with a 2.3GHz version of the i7 CPU, which has four cores, Hyper-Threading, a 6MB cache and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. My model also had an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics adapter, 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM (1600MHz) and, most impressively, a 256GB solid state drive.
In terms of performance, this thing is fast. I ran Blender 3D rendering and iTunes MP3 encoding tests on it, using the same workloads that I run on Windows laptops, and the MacBook Pro flew. It recorded only 13sec in the Blender test and 25sec in the iTunes test. Compared to laptops that use the same Core i7 CPU speed, such as the ASUS G75VW high-end gaming notebook, the MacBook Pro turned out to be 6sec faster in Blender and 18sec faster in iTunes. I also ran some video encoding tasks using Handbrake, in which the MacBook Pro took 11min to convert a vob file (Human Traffic if you must know) into an H.264-encoded MP4 file. The solid state drive was very quick, too, recording an average of 371 megabytes per second when copying large files.
During these workloads, the base of the unit got noticeably warm, but not uncomfortably so. (Perhaps I'd think different if I tested it in the middle of summer rather than winter.) The MacBook Pro sucks air into its base through three slits on either side of the chassis (rather than vents on the bottom panel), which feed cool air through channels that lead to the two system fans. Air comes out through the spine of the notebook and escapes up in front of the screen. The fans are said to have asymmetric blades, which result in various frequencies rather than one constant, annoying sound. To be honest, I barely noticed them running during my tests unless I really concentrated on them. That's the point, I guess. There aren't any other moving parts in this notebook apart from those fans.
Boot time wasn't an issue with this notebook: I only ever booted it once (which took less than 10sec) and then just closed the lid and opened it again whenever I wanted to use it. Once the lid was lifted, the system was ready to use within one second. This is the type of instant-on performance Windows-based Ultrabooks are trying to emulate, and they are getting there.
The Retina display
So now that you know this thing is fast and well built, it's about time you got to know a little about its Retina screen. When I first booted this laptop, I was surprised that it wasn't set to take advantage of the native 2880x1800-pixel resolution. Instead, it was set to "Best (Retina)", which is a resolution between 1280x800 and 1680x1050 (or that's what it's meant to look like anyway). Perhaps this is because not all applications look good at such high resolutions — Firefox, for example, is marred by noticeably fuzzy text when viewed at the screen's native resolution (a fix is scheduled for this). On other applications, such as Safari, the screen looks immaculate at its native setting. Text is rendered richly and smoothly and there is plenty of space on the screen to line up windows side by side.
I embraced the native screen resolution with all my might by placing Firefox and OpenOffice windows side by side as I worked. If needed, I just increased the font size — no biggie though. What I did miss was Windows' Aero Snap feature, where you can snap windows to the side of the screen and they automatically resize themselves to fit half the screen. Having to drag windows and resize them manually was a sluggish experience at the native resolution of the screen. Of course, this is a non-issue if you want to just use the maximum resolution for one application.
The screen's brightness and viewing angles are superb. I never had to play with the screen to get the contrast right when sitting in front of it. Even from the sides, the image was almost perfect. The brightness can be adjusted automatically via a built-in ambient light sensor and it worked well when the laptop was on battery power to ensure the brightness level was comfortable for the environment I was in. If I wanted to though, I could have changed the brightness manually — there are 16 levels to choose from. What's also impressive about the screen is how thin, yet strong it is. Puddles didn't appear on the screen no matter how much reasonable force I applied to the lid.
Movies looked well saturated, black on the screen blended in almost completely with the black bezel around the screen, and scenes looked acceptably clear, even HD (720p) files that were played back in full-screen mode on the 2880x1800 resolution. Of course, you'll get much better results if you view Full HD movie files. Reflections can be a bit of a problem in well-lit environments, but adjusting the tilt and maximising the brightness can offset this problem. Perhaps the best part of the high resolution is that it allows you to view photographs at a much larger size and with more pixels on the screen at once, which can make editing easier as well — not just because you can view so much of the image on the screen, but because you can also see more while still having lots of tool palettes on the screen.
Keyboard and touchpad
For long typing sessions, the MacBook Pro's keyboard and palm rest are top-notch. The palm rest is huge (108mm) and its aluminium can feel a little cool at first, but it warms up as you continue to use the notebook. What's really special is the keyboard. Sure, it doesn't have separate backspace and delete keys (I make lots of spelling mistakes and almost hit the power button on many occasions expecting it to be the Windows version of Delete), but the chicklet-style keys are spaced perfectly and there is no number pad jammed in just for the sake of it. The keys have a nice, matte feel to them, decent travel and responsiveness and they are solid. The Shift keys are the right size, the arrow keys are easy to feel for and, best of all, the whole thing is backlit. Simply press the F5 and F6 buttons to change the brightness in incremental levels (16 of them all up) or don't worry about it and just let the ambient light sensor control the illumination when running on battery.
The touchpad is large (115x77mm) and centred according to the base, not the keyboard's space bar. Despite its size and placement, it never got in the way while typing. I did find the lack of a right-click button annoying, as well as the lack of double-tap-and-drag functionality (even though the specs say it supports it), but these are just things that I am used to coming from a PC background — I'm sure I could get used to it if i had to, just like I did three-finger dragging. Having to enable the tap-to-click functionality was a little odd to me, too though — you would think it would be more intuitive to have it enabled. Again, it's probably just a PC thing. I did love the ability to swipe between applications so easily with three fingers and two-finger scrolling was an absolute pleasure in long documents.
When it comes to battery life, Apple has always boasted more longevity than PC equivalents and it's not an ill-founded boast. The battery in the MacBook Pro has been custom made to fit into the chassis and take up all of the available space that's left around the motherboard. It's not just a cylindrical or rectangular battery, but a battery that's shaped to fit its environment. This means that it can be bigger and allow the notebook to last longer.
Testing the MacBook Pro with the same battery rundown routine that I use to test Windows laptops (that is, not using any power saving features, maximising screen brightness, enabling Wi-Fi and looping a video file), the MacBook Pro lasted just over four hours (4hr 2min). Compared to a 15.6in Windows-based laptop such as the ASUS N56VM, which has the same CPU speed and lasted three and a half hours, this is a very good result, especially considering it has such a bright and high-res screen. Its longevity was helped by the use of a solid state drive rather than a conventional, spinning hard drive, and graphics switching technology that allows the MacBook Pro to use the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics when running on battery, rather than the more powerful NVIDIA graphics, which are used when it's plugged in. If you dim the screen, you can get a lot more life out of it, but it will depend on your workload, too.
My first major experience with a MacBook Pro has been an overwhelmingly positive one and I found lots of things to like about this notebook. Paramount to the user experience are the Retina screen, the speed of the unit and its very good keyboard, but the overall design and feel of the unit is very enjoyable, too. It's relatively light for its size, and it's tremendously strong thanks to its unibody aluminium design. There's not much to dislike about it at all, except for some of the differences between this and a Windows system, but that's just a personal preference.
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