First Impressions: MacBook Pro with Retina Display

I’ve now had a new MacBook Pro with Retina display for a few days, and I can safely say that the new display is the future of computing. Not only is the clarity astounding, but the viewing angle is also impressive. With 8 GB RAM, and a 256 GB SSD, this computer could be a perfect computer for anyone who needs to work in an office and on the road. Just connect an external monitor – Apple’s 27″ Cinema Display – and you’re all set to work at home. If you need more storage, an external hard disk will do the trick.

(I had initially been planning to buy the laptop from Apple, but the delay was listed as 3-4 weeks. I happened to spot on that it was available last week, so grabbed one right away. They seemed to have a small number of them in their first delivery. It’s possible that may also get some before they’re in stock from Apple.)

I have a laptop for three reasons. I work at home and don’t travel much, so it rarely leaves the house, except on vacations. But in my work writing for Macworld, I often need a second computer to test software. The second reason is to write away from my desk. If the text I’m working on allows it, I like to sit in my living room in front of my stereo and listen to music while I work. Finally, I must have a second computer in case my main Mac – currently a Mac mini – breaks down. I had a number of issues with a previous iMac, and it was out for service for several weeks. I can’t afford to stop working.

I’ve said all of the above to point out that, for me, the MacBook Pro is not a computer I use all the time. For some people, the limit of 256 GB might be problematic, though for me, it’s mostly empty (most of my files are on my Mac mini). I don’t think that most users will have problems with RAM; the default 8 GB is sufficient for most types of work. The price, however, will scare away a lot of users. With the cost of a 13″ MacBook Air about half that of the MacBook Pro, you’re paying a premium for the display, though you’re also getting speed, storage and RAM.

In a recent article I pointed out that Apple had to issue an FAQ to respond to some of the questions users have about the retina display. It’s worth noting that the default resolution – the “Best for Retina display” – is actually a lower relative resolution than my 27″ Cinema Display. In other words, the same items – say, the System Preferences window – are larger on the MacBook Pro. Instead of the retina display making things smaller but sharper, it has made them a bit larger, while making them exceptionally sharp. This is a very good thing for my aging eyes; as resolutions have increased (i.e., more pixels on a screen, but not higher pixel density), I’ve found that I’ve had to increase the sizes of texts. Here, the text in the Finder sidebar is bigger than what I see on my 27″ display. If I scale the display one step toward “More Space,” then things are about the same size as my previous laptop, a 13″ MacBook Air.

The other strong point of the new MacBook Pro is the battery. I haven’t pushed it hard at all, but compared to my MacBook Air, it seems that this new MacBook Pro has much longer battery life. When I would use my Air for writing and find, after a couple of hours, that the battery was down to 50-60%, the MacBook Pro stays around 80%. (Users of this MacBook Pro, or models since 2010, should see this hint from the Mac OS X Hints web site for a way to extend battery life even more.)

I’ve had two MacBook Airs since the first one was released in 2008. I kept the first one for nearly three years, then replaced it in late 2010. Comparing the MacBook Pro to the MacBook Air, it’s obvious that the 15″ laptop is much heavier: 2 kg compared to 1.35 kg, or about 50% heavier. The trade-off here is the size of the screen and the quality of the retina display. Again, as this is not my main computer, the weight doesn’t bother me too much, but I have been used to a much lighter laptop, and I notice it each time I pick it up.

I’m very happy with the MacBook Pro, mainly for the display. (In fact, if it had not been for the new retina display, I would not have replaced my MacBook Air.) Not only is it sharp, but the viewing angle is the best I’ve ever seen. But given the work I do, a 13″ laptop is enough for me. I’ll keep this MacBook Pro until Apple releases a 13″ MacBook Air with a retina display. Now that would be the perfect laptop for my needs.

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9 thoughts on “First Impressions: MacBook Pro with Retina Display

  1. Youre not paying a premium for the Retina display but rather the SSD. Try comparing the price to a similarly spec’d non-Retina MBP. You’ll see the Retina MBP is actually cheaper.

  2. Kirk, first thank you for your informative blog! I learned of your blog through your book, “The Mac OS X Command Line: Unix Under the Hood”. I’ve been contemplating upgrading my 3 year old Dell netbook to a Macbook Air. Would you recommend going ahead with that upgrade now or waiting until Apple releases a Retina Air? Thanks!

    • Either computer would be a great replacement for a Dell laptop. if I were you I would check both of them out in an Apple store, and see if the weight of MacBook Pro is too much for you. I have no idea when they will eventually release a MacBook Air with a retina display.

      • Thank you, Kirk! Would you opt for any of the hardware upgrades on either the Air or the Retina Pro, or would you go with the stock configuration?

        • I chose the stock config for the MacBook Pro. It has 8 GB RAM, which is sufficient for me, and the 256 GB SSD is also enough. If this is going to be your main computer, you might want more storage, but if it’s an SSD, that storage is very expensive.

          • Thank you, Kirk! The stock specs of the MacBook Pro would certainly be sufficient for my needs, likewise. With either the Air or the Pro, I already have a 2TB Seagate external drive that will amply supplement the SSD’s capacity. Later this month I should have an opportunity to do the side by side comparison you suggested of the Air and the Retina Pro in the Apple Store. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

  3. Naive question: In your review, you refer to the rMBP’s great viewing angle. Isn’t the viewing angle on any laptop a variable thing? Please explain, thanks!

    • The viewing angle on an LCD depends on the quality of the display. The MBP has the best viewing angle I’ve ever seen. And I think this is why Apple shows off these computers on an angle, rather than facing customers. (This is the case in Apple stores, apparently.)

  4. > I don’t think that most users will have problems with RAM; the default 8 GB is sufficient for most types of work.

    Just a heads up about this: the RAM cannot be aftermarket upgraded. It’s soldered onto the motherboard.

    With that being said, I would not recommend buying the 16GB model, even if you think you’d use it. The reason is that with the SSD, virtual memory is not much slower than regular memory, so you’ll hardly even notice it when it’s used.

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