The Retina MacBook Pro

I got me one of them there new “retina” MacBook Pros. It’s the stock 2.3GHz 15” model with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Here’s a miniature review. Disclaimer: it’s a work-supplied computer, so I’m using it exclusively for development and didn’t have to pay for it myself.

First off, the bad. Finder won’t start with my Acer monitor plugged into the HDMI socket; the screen turns blue and the computer hangs. This is odd, as the monitor works fine with my previous 2009 MacBook Pro, and works fine with the retina model if I plug it in once the computer has finished booting.

It occasionally does weird things to the iPhone simulator. This may or may not be related to the new hardware. Xcode is so relentlessly buggy that it is difficult to tell. However, I haven’t experienced these particular problems on any of the other 3 Macs I use for development, so that narrows it down a little. The iPhone-style surrounding skin sometimes disappears, leaving me with a title bar informing me of the simulator’s build number. It also has a habit of placing the iPhone’s screen about 100 pixels below and to the right of where it’s supposed to be, which looks odd when the surround does actually appear. In Xcode itself, hovering over a keyword results in the tooltip floating somewhere near the top of the screen instead of next to the mouse.

The lack of an eject button means the Ctrl-Shift-Eject shortcut I’ve used for the past year or so no longer puts the display to sleep, so I’m forced to use the keychain app to lock the computer instead.

The massive resolution seems to tax the GPU when it has to throw a lot of pixels around. Scrolling a webpage within a large Safari window is noticeably jerkier than doing the same on either my personal 2011 13” MacBook Pro or the 2009 15” MacBook Pro I was previously using at work.

The keyboard is somehow different. I’m not sure if it’s that the keys have a different texture than my previous Macs or if they have an even lower profile, but I’m finding it a little awkward to type on.

Now the good!

This computer is fast, mostly due to the SSD. It boots in seconds, and apps typically load before their icons have finished their first bounce. It compiles my current project in half a dozen seconds, compared with roughly a minute on the 2009 laptop. VMWare resumes a suspended Windows session in no time at all. This is the first SSD I’ve owned and the performance is really stunning. I’ve held off from buying one because I’m tired of being an early adopter and getting hardware that’s unreliable or overhyped, but seeing this drive in action has convinced me to get one for myself.

The screen is gorgeous. I was concerned that non-retina apps would look horrible on the upscaled display, but although there’s a difference it isn’t one that bothers me. It manages to make the Xcode storyboarding system even more awesome than it was before, by making it possible to see each iOS view clearly even when zoomed out to 25%. Text is amazingly crisp, which is marvellous when you spend 8 hours a day in front of a text editor.

It’s now possible to use the iPhone simulator in retina mode and have it appear on-screen at the same size as the standard mode. Dragging it over to a standard-resolution second monitor causes it to automatically halve its resolution but stay at the same physical size. Handy. If the simulator starts up on the second monitor it adopts the same enormous proportions as it would on a non-retina Mac.

And now for the indifferent.

The built-in HDMI port means I’ve ditched the DisplayPort to HDMI adaptor that I was using previously. However, as the new model doesn’t include an ethernet port I’ve got a Thunderbolt ethernet adaptor plugged in instead.

As it’s a work machine I’ve no use for the USB3 or other updated sockets, so I can’t comment on whether they’re an improvement or not. Ditto for new speaker design; I don’t use them. The same goes for the new lightweight form factor, too. I prefer the 13” models, so for me a 15” laptop is oversized no matter how thin it is (and it is very thin). When Apple get around to releasing a 13” Pro with a retina screen I’ll probably end up getting one for myself.

Is it worth buying over the standard resolution model? Yes. Being able to test websites and apps on the latest displays is definitely worthwhile. You’ll lose the optical drive, but that’s mostly worthless now anyway. You can always get an external drive if you really need one. You’ll also lose the ability to upgrade the RAM or replace the battery. I’m not concerned about the battery life - I’ve treated my 2006 white MacBook’s battery well and it’s still working after 6 years - but the RAM might be more of an issue. I got the 8GB retina model, which runs Windows 7 x64 and Visual Studio 2010 in VMWare and Xcode with no issues at all. However, if I were stumping up my own money for the laptop I’d have opted for the 16GB model. I’ve had to upgrade the RAM in all of the Macs that I’ve owned in order to keep the hardware viable over time, so the extra is undoubtedly worth it.

Is it worth it if you’ve already got a decent Mac that doesn’t waste too much of your time while it compiles? Honestly, not really. The most impressive difference between the new model and my own laptop is the I/O performance, which is solely down to the SSD. My next Mac will have a retina display, but for the moment I’m just going to fit an SSD to my current laptop.