The MacBook Pro Strikes Back (With Retina Power)

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It was nearly two years ago that I said goodbye to my MacBook Pro. I loved the device, but the new MacBook Air was that good. My Pro — which was only six months old at the time! — seemed like total overkill for my computing needs. The Air was finally fast enough to use on a daily basis, and it was (obviously) significantly thinner and lighter. It was a no-brainer in my mind: Air all the way.

And in these past 20 months, the Air has been my go-to machine. But last week, a new challenger was unveiled: that old familiar friend, the MacBook Pro. Armed with both a slimmer body and a killer new screen, the device is stunning. And at least in my mind, it has brought back that old debate as to which is the best MacBook.

Following Apple’s WWDC keynote, I got to play around with the Retina MacBook Pro for a bit, and was given a demo unit to take home. I quickly posted some initial thoughts as to how it could fit into my computing life — long story short: I wasn’t sure. A week later, I have a bit more understanding as to how the new MacBook Pro fits in.

The most important thing to me was to take the device on the road, since that’s my primary use case for the MacBook Air. For much of the past week, I have been on the road: first in New York, now in London. While the new MacBook Pro is about a pound lighter than the non-retina variety, it is also about a pound and a half heavier than the 13-inch Air (and two pounds heavier than the 11-inch Air). This concerned me.

While there’s no denying that the Retina Pro is heavier than the Air when carrying it around, in a bag, it’s really not all that noticeable. The bigger issue for me has actually be the physical size of the device. While the 13-inch Air is like carrying around a standard spiral notebook (you know, the kind with paper that we used to use in school way back when), and the 11-inch Air is not that much different from carrying around a tablet, the 15-inch Retina Pro feels a bit like carrying around a surfboard by comparison. Obviously, that’s an exaggeration, but it really does feel significantly bigger (though almost oddly thin).

Of course, with that size, you do get a bigger screen. And significantly better speakers. And a better typing experience (more area on which to rest your palms). It’s a trade-off. And it’s no deal-killer for me.

Alongside the new design and screen (which I’ll get to in a second), the Retina Pro was bestowed with specs similar to the upgrades the other varieties in the MacBook Pro line got. Considering my belief that the spec is mainly dead, I’m not going to focus on them. I will say that this feels like the fastest Mac I’ve ever used. But at the same time, much that power is mainly lost on me since most of what I do on a PC these days is in a browser.

What I do care about is that I know this machine will be more than capable of handling any software I download over the next couple of years. At home, I have an iMac that is three years old — it feels like a total dog when even compared to my MacBook Air. Part of that is a slower processor/older architecture, but that device actually has more RAM than my Air. So I chalk the biggest differences in speed to the lack of an SSD (solid state hard drive, which Apple amusingly calls “flash” drives).

This Retina MacBook Pro has flash storage that’s said to be significantly faster than previous models (the flash drives found in the last generation Air). The RAM is also said to run twice as fast as the last generation. In real-world usage, these differences seem hard to perceive when compared to the Air. But again, compared to my old iMac, this thing screams.

The Retina MacBook Pro also includes two USB 3 ports and two Thunderbolt ports. There don’t appear to be too many devices out there that yet support either at full speed, but this also ensures that this machine is set for the future. More interesting is the inclusion of an HDMI port. This means that you can hook up the Retina MacBook Pro to basically any HD television. This will be very handy for presentations (though I suspect we’ll see more Apple TV’s in conference rooms as well given OS X Mountain Lion’s inclusion of full desktop AirPlay).

The new fan design, while not noticeable to any user beyond the new side vents at the bottom, is fascinating. The machine actually makes a different noise when the fan kick on. It’s still audible, but not nearly as annoying as it was previously. And again, since most of my computing is done in the browser, I haven’t done much to make the fan come on. But a few times in Chrome (which comes with Flash), there they go.

The fan seems to dissipate heat pretty well, though the Retina MacBook Pro does get more noticeably warm at the bottom than the Air. It’s not hot, it can’t cook like a George Foreman grill, but it’s noticeable at times.

Now, the screen.

Wow, just wow. To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure just how noticeable the difference would be. But the reality is that the update to “retina” is significantly more noticeable on a 15-inch screen than on either a 3.5-inch screen (iPhone) or 9.7-inch screen (iPad). Yes, the PPI (pixels-per-inch) is lower, but the effect of cramming this many pixels into a display this size is amazing. I’ve now shown the screen to a couple dozen people and practically every single one has had the same reaction along the lines of “whoa”.

The effect is upgraded to “holy shit” if they happen to have another laptop with them. Everything looks dull and blurry when compared to this Retina MacBook Pro screen. A couple people have remarked that it’s like looking at an old TV and an HD TV side-by-side. And remember, this screen is significantly better than an HD TV.

A bunch of people have written wondering about the glare issue. I looked at the Retina MacBook Pro next to the non-retina MacBook Pro and it’s very obvious just how much better this one is in that regard. While it’s still clearly more reflective than a matte screen, for me, this is a non-issue now.

And like the iPhone, the actual screen itself has been brought closer to the glass. Everything looks like a beautiful glossy photograph.

Well, everything natively included in the slightly updated version of OS X Lion, that is.

The biggest downside of the entire device in my mind is just how bad it makes most of the web (and quite a few native OS X apps) look. While this version of OS X Lion does upscale text and some graphics to be “retina”-ready, much of the web is not. Take Facebook, for example. The text is fine, but all the images, including the logo, are extremely blurry. Google? Same problem.

And that’s the picture if you’re using the version of Safari bundled with the Retina MacBook Pro. If you try to use Chrome, you may vomit. Everything is rendered poorly — text included. Luckily, Google is moving fast to correct this and a retina-ready version of Chrome is already in the Canary (early beta) build.

Some native apps look awful too. Twitter for OS X is one notable example. It’s essentially unusable because the text is so blurry (as are all icons). Of course, Twitter hasn’t even updated it with their own new logo, so hopefully they’ll get around to that sooner rather than later. (Though it must be noted that developer Loren Brichter, who built the app, left Twitter several months ago.)

If you want examples of apps that look brilliant with the retina display, try any of Apple’s (iPhoto, iMovie, etc). Or visit apple.com from Safari. Otherwise, things are fairly bleak at the moment. And the reality is that depending on how graphic-heavy the app/site is, it’s going to be a lot of work for developers to make the upgrades. And unlike with iOS, there will still be a huge majority of the web not using a retina-screen (especially since it’s only one, fairly expensive Mac for now), so the incentives to upgrade the graphics will be less as well.

Having said that, I do expect Apple to be at the forefront of a trend here (yet again). Once you see one of these retina displays, you won’t want to look at anything else. This means that I fully expect Apple to eventually put the display across their entire line of Macs. And I suspect PC-making competitors will now be forced to follow suit. If that happens, it will actually be good news for Apple because the web really needs to get these visual upgrades (and then we can all argue as to how that will effect bandwidth, etc).

Some sites, like WordPress, where I’m typing this right now, pushed out retina upgrades right away. The result is amazing. I’m typing this, and it looks like I’m typing out printed words. Text is so crisp.

So what’s the bottom line? After this demo-unit is returned, am I going to buy the Retina MacBook Pro? And should you?

Yes, I’m going to. I’m still a bit torn because of what I previously wrote: even if I use this as an iMac-replacement, using this MacBook Pro with a Cinema Display means downgrading to less pixels. But I’m thinking of the future. Eventually, Apple will release a retina-ready Cinema Display as well. Given how perfect these graphic capabilities are for photo and video editors, I suspect it will be sooner rather than later. My guess is that the main concern is the cost at that point. And maybe we’ll see a 20 or 21-inch version before we see a 27-inch version (Apple could still tout that it has far more pixels than a 60-inch HD TV).

The other big thing to me is battery life. The MacBook Air I got two years ago was actually a huge upgrade over the old MacBook Pro in that regard. The good news is that this Retina MacBook Pro is fully on par with my MacBook Air. Apple touts seven hours of wireless web time, and that’s accurate (sometimes I’ve gotten a little less, sometimes a little more). I don’t mind slightly more weight and bulk for this screen and the same battery life.

As for you, dear reader, hopefully some of what I’ve written above will help you decide. While it may be a mistake to do so, I recommend you go to an Apple Store to check out the screen for yourself. You may get hooked immediately, or maybe you’ll be turned off by the way the web largely looks and decide to hold off. I’ve heard people make both arguments so far.

Probably the biggest argument against the Retina MacBook Pro that I’ve heard is from those who want to wait for this screen to come to an Air. Again, I do think that will happen, but I’d be fairly shocked if it was before next year (rumors of the fall are already out there). After all, they did just upgrade the Air line as well, and I’m not sure if it has the graphics (and battery) power required yet. Not to mention the cost issue. Such a device may indeed be the best of both worlds, but I still expect the MacBook Pro to be significantly more powerful for some time.

In other words, if you’re seriously debating it, it’s hard to see how you can go wrong with the Retina MacBook Pro. It sure seems pretty future-proof. At this point, I’d simply look at your budget and decide if this device makes sense. $2,199 and $2,799 is not cheap by any means. And if you can afford the $3,749 for the top-of-the-line Retina MacBook Pro with 16 GB of RAM and the 768 GB of flash storage, we’ll all be red with envy, I’m sure.

Also consider the “Pro” moniker. This device is clearly meant for a more professional (or power user) audience. And this device is clearly the best of that genre yet.