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Mac Planet: Eyes open for the Retina

Apple's new MacBook Pro features a high-definition display. Photo / Supplied
Apple's new MacBook Pro features a high-definition display. Photo / Supplied

The new MacBook Pro with the high-definition screen has a name that hardly trips off the tongue, so I'll just refer to it as the Retina. Comparing the new MacBook to my outgoing MacBook is not that indicative, ie it's not a direct comparison to the outgoing version of the MacBook Pro. However, there are links to some below.

I bought my old (mid 2010) MacBook Pro at the wrong stage of the cycle, out of need - just months later it was replaced by quad-core models, and Apple also introduced Thunderbolt, making my 2010 seem redundant almost immediately, and also excluding me from checking out exciting new Thunderbolt devices with their impressive throughput speeds. When my daughter bought a 13-inch MacBook Pro at the end of 2010, it beat my ostensibly much more powerful MacBook Pro on all tests except video. Ouch.

The new Retina MacBook Pro not only has a new Quad-Core Ivy Bridge CPU running at 2.6GHz and a 1GB Nvidia video card, it has the Retina Display. It also has an SSD instead of a traditional hard drive. Dropping the optical drive bay (you can buy an Apple external optical drive for NZ$120) and the old-school hard drive meant Apple could shave precious area and weight.

Despite the power it's just a shade thicker all over than the thickest part of a MacBook Air. The previous MacBook Pro was 24.13mm thick - the Retina is 18.3mm. The previous MacBook Pro was 36.47 centimetres across, and the Retina takes about about half a centimetre off that (35.89cm), and front-to-back the new one drops too: 24.71 compared to 24.94mm. All around it's slightly smaller despite the screen staying at 15.4 inches diagonally. It's also 25% lighter - it's definitely easier to carry, and to get in and out of a laptop bag. Bonus.

As for ports, there's one USB 3 (backwards compatible to 2 and 1) port on each side, plus an SDXC card slot (for reading cards from digital cameras) and a new HDMI port on the right. This will be handy for those who present - just plug it into an existing digital display (ie, a TV) with HDMI. On the left there are also two Thunderbolt ports (no Ethernet, but you can get an adapter for NZ$50), the MagSafe2 charge port (not compatible with older MagSafe cables) and the combined audio in/out.

USB 3 means you don't have to get a fast, but still expensive Thunderbolt drive. Your USB 2 drives will still work, and finally faster USB 3 drives are also available to Mac users.
Apple played around with the internal cooling to make the fan quieter (it doesn't generate a vibration or hum as it's asymmetric) and also to save space, meaning the speakers could be changed. They are incredibly clear: there still isn't enough bass but with the clarity and extra volume, they're a definite improvement.

The screen takes up more of the lid area (the surrounding black bezel is narrower). All those extra pixels - they're individually smaller, in other words, to fit more in - make for better contrast and images look amazing, particularly those shot on high-megapixel cameras. Blacks are deeper and everything looks more precise. The biggest obvious differences is that text looks extra crisp. Good typefaces re-justify your faith in the typographers' art. Icons somehow look more 3D with ones like, for example, NetNewWire's and Mail's looking particularly marvellous with Dock magnification up to full.

Other than that, you get used to it really fast and only get a visual jolt when you go back to a 'lesser' display. Some apps are still playing catchup - Photoshop, for example, displays images in all their high-resolution glory - but its dialogue boxes look blurry and pixellated by comparison (an update is expected soon). Most Apple apps are already Retina-ready.

At it's native 1680x1050 setting, the Retina Display looks great, even compared to the high-res option of my 2010 MacBook Pro. It defaults to Best for Retina Display, but if you click Scaled the other options appear, from Larger Text to More Space (making everything look smaller). It's very quick to switch between resolutions compared to other Macs.

AnandTech has an excellent analysis of the Retina Display.

The 2010 MacBook Pro I used for comparison was a well-specced machine for its day, with the dual-core 2.66GHz i7 CPU (the top option at the time).

For all that, with its faster-than-stock (7200rpm) internal 500GB drive, the higher resolution display option (for its day) of 1680x1050 run by the NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M video card with 512MB RAM plus 8GB system RAM, it has been a wonderful machine.

Starting up the 2010 MacBook Pro takes two minutes and 7 seconds. The Retina MacBook Pro boots to usable in 30.3 seconds.

Booting GarageBand, which always seems slow to load (for an app on a Mac), timed to 13.2 seconds on the 2010 (better than I expected, actually), but on the Retina that was cut to a very acceptable 3.7 seconds. Final Cut Pro X on the 2010 MacBook Pro took 53.2 seconds to load to a usable state. On the Retina: 5.2 seconds - a dramatic improvement.
I also ran GreekBench and CineBench, both test utilities available online.

The overall GeekBench score for the 2010 MacBook Pro was 6457; the Retina scored 13,060. That's 102.26% faster, just over twice as fast. A Mac Pro tower with 12GB RAM I tested a couple of years ago scored 13,074 - just that tiny bit faster. Considering this Mac Pro tower had two quad-core chips (eight cores versus four), you can see how much power this slimmed-down MacBook Pro represents - in Mac terms, anyway.

Look at the price differences, too: this MacBook Pro Retina spec sells for NZ$4818.99; the 2009 Mac Pro is NZ$5799, with no monitor.

Processor to processor, the two machines are not that different, despite the Retina having four cores for better multithreading results. For example, the first Blowfish figure for the 2010 is 2098 (92.2 MG/sec) and the Retina 2300 (101.1MB/sec). The Retina's CPU is only 9.6% faster. But the multithreading score tells the multi-core story - 6730 for the two-core i7 of the 2010, 16,166 for the four cores of the Retina. More than twice the improvement (140.2% faster).

If you like looking at numbers, here's the link for the full GeekBench results of the machine I tested.

CineBench is free but also cross-platform. It's handy to compare to similarly configured PCs as well as to other Macs. The CineBench test suite evaluates your computer's performance capabilities based on MAXON's animation software CINEMA 4D, used by studios and production houses worldwide.

The test procedure details are on the Maxon site.

The overall Cinebench score for the 2010 was 2.53 - for the Retina, a pretty staggering 38.15 - 14 times better, thanks to that massive (for a Mac laptop) 1GB video card.

Also check BareFeats for lots of wonderful, careful speed comparisons of all sorts of of Macs and aspects thereof in lab conditions.

In general use, the Retina does what faster, newer Macs always do. I think: 'That's a bit faster, sure.' But when I go back to an older Mac, it feels like someone's poured treacle into it.

So processor-wise, the new MacBook Pro Retina is just over twice as fast. It's the SSD that really makes this thing seem quick. A Solid State Drive has, by definition, no moving parts. A hard drive has to 'spin up' to it's operating speed on start-up, and can spin down to save power, requiring it to spin-up again to operational speed to open a file or another application. This makes it comparatively 'slow' and fragile. It requires more cooling and heavy shock mounting - considerations virtually dispensed with for SSD.

On the Retina, anything disk-related is considerably zippier, including startup. A 73.7MB movie duplicated on a 5400rpm hard drive of another 2010 MacBook Pro in 11.3 seconds. The same file on the Retina's internal SSD duplicated in .6 seconds - so fast, it was hard to stopwatch. This is where the Retina's real impression of speed derives from.

This is Apple's best MacBook Pro by a long chalk. It's also probably Apple's best Mac. Ever. So far ... there are strong rumours of new iMacs very soon, plus maybe a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

(A more detailed version of this review appears on macnz.)

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