June 14, 2012 -- After 20 minutes of using Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina Display, I switched back to my own six-month-old MacBook Pro to send an email. But when I looked at its screen, I thought my contact lenses had actually fallen out. For a second I was worried; everything on the screen looked less crisp and less bright. It's not an old machine, but it was really as if an optometrist had switched my prescription, or I'd been forced to use my old glasses. Everything just seemed blurry by comparison.
The biggest upgrade to the MacBook Pro laptop literally meets the eye. But despite its name, the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display has much more than a new, super-sharp 2280 x 1800-resolution, 15.4-inch display. It also has fastest mobile performance parts on the market, improved speakers, and a new selection of ports. Oh, and it still manages to be only .71 inches thick. Impressive indeed, but worth $2,199?
"This is the most beautiful MacBook Pro we've ever made," Apple's Phil Schiller said when he took a curtain off the new laptop this week. And Mr. Schiller wasn't lying. Apple hasn't changed the general aesthetic of the MacBook Pro line since 2008, when it introduced the unibody aluminum design with a glowing Apple embedded in the lid. They haven't wanted to mess with such a well-balanced, clean design.
The new MacBook Pro has one major change, though -- it's much thinner than previous Pros. It is only slightly (very slightly!) thicker than the MacBook Air and a handful of other Windows 7 ultrabooks on the market. (To the naked eye, the thickest part of the MacBook Air actually looks thicker than the new MacBook Pro.) That thinness also makes it much lighter than the other Pros.
The laptop weighs just 4.46 pounds now; .04 pounds less than my 13-inch MacBook Pro but 1.5 pounds more than the 13-inch MacBook Air. Obviously it doesn't feel as light as the Air, but it's much easier to hold in one hand than the 15-inch Pro and most other laptops. And yet, despite its thin stature, it still feels remarkably solid and sturdy.
To accommodate those thinner dimensions, Apple did remove the CD/DVD drive and Ethernet port from this model (they're still available on the 13- and 15-inch Pros). However, it still was able to add some new ports. The laptop has two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, SD card slot, and an HDMI port. It also put one USB port on the left edge and another on the right edge so you don't block the ports when you plug in a mouse or external hard drive.
Unfortunately, they did remove the tiny LEDs from the edge that told you the battery level when the laptop is closed. Apple also changed the charging port, or MagSafe. The new adapter is flatter and because of the new size and shape won't take older versions, which is a bummer if you've accumulated the older chargers or happen to leave yours at home. (Apple does offer a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 converter for $9.99.)
What has been kept intact, however, is the extremely comfortable chiclet keyboard. It is also backlit, which came in very handy for writing this review on a dimly-lit plane. Similarly, the wide glass track pad has been untouched. Using it to navigate Apple's Mac OS X Lion operating system was beyond smooth, and gestures like two-finger scrolling and three-finger swipes consistently worked throughout the operating system and software. That is something I cannot say of most track pads on Windows 7 laptops. (The new Pros ship with OS X Lion, but will be available with the next version -- Mountain Lion -- next month.)
But, of course, you'll be looking at the screen as you work. And it's simply hard to describe the quality of the display in words. Even as I'm writing this review after 24 hours of use, I'm distracted by the crispness of the text and the icons on the bottom of the screen. And I'm continuously tempted to toggle over to YouTube and watch more 1080p clips, which look better on this display than on most HDTVs.
Perhaps the most amazing part about the display, though, is how crisp things look at every angle; turn the laptop to the side and you will see the same quality and presentation.
That experience isn't uniform across all applications just yet. Parts of the Firefox browser look a bit blurry and text isn't as crisp in third-party browsers as it is in Apple's own Safari, for example. In Safari, websites pop. It's really the type of thing you have to see for yourself, but with this display, images can be downright stunning. You will just want to call friends over to look at what you're seeing.
But just as impressive might be what is inside the laptop. With the screen at 65 percent brightness, the laptop's large battery still lasted six hours on a charge. I was able to work on the laptop for an entire 5.5 hour flight from San Francisco to Newark, and still had 20 percent left when I touched down. On a more grueling video playback test, which loops the same HD video clip, the laptop lasted 5 hours and 22 minutes. That's longer than most Windows 7 ultrabooks, though not as long as the 13-inch MacBook Air, which lasted an hour more in the same test.
All the while, you still get blazing fast performance thanks to the quad-core 2.3 GHz Core i7 processor, Nvidia's latest GeForce graphics, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB flash drive inside the laptop. The power of the Pro is probably more than most people will need; the extra graphics and processing power are great for video editing and heavy graphics work, but most people who spend their time running a web browser, email, and some other desktop apps won't get close to challenging the machine's limits. Everything about it flies; it boots in under 20 seconds and resumes from sleep as soon as you open the lid. And if you're looking for even faster performance, you can configure it with a faster processor, more RAM (up to 16GB!), and a larger drive, but you'll spend over $3,000.
And there's the rub. It's pretty clear that the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is one of the finest laptops ever to grace this Earth; it's beautiful to look at in more ways than one. But you do have to pay a premium for what is all around the most premium laptop now on shelves.
Now, if you have the money for a high-end laptop, the answer is simple: this is the one to buy. The blend of the screen, size, and power is unmatched. Those who want something cheaper, and perhaps smaller, can pick up one of the other MacBook Pros or the 13-inch MacBook Air, which likely provides enough performance for most people in an even thinner and smaller package. It really depends on what your needs are.
But do yourself a favor: if you don't have any intention of buying the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, avoid looking at its screen at all costs -- all that practical advice might just seem, well, very blurry.