Review: Retina MacBook Pro (mid 2012)
Saturday, 01 September 2012
Comparing the new MacBook Pro (main pic, courtesy Apple Inc) to my outgoing MacBook Pro is not that indicative, ie it’s not a direct comparison to the outgoing version of the MacBook Pro. However, there are links to sites with more direct comparisons below, under Speeds.
I bought my old (mid 2010) MacBook Pro at completely the wrong stage of the cycle, out of urgency – a few months later it was replaced by quad-core models that blitzed it, speed-wise. Apple also introduced Thunderbolt on the MacBook Pro, making my 2010 seem redundant almost immediately, and also precluding me from testing exciting new Thunderbolt devices with their impressive throughput speeds (not that many were available, at first). When my daughter bought a 13-inch MacBook Pro a few months later, it beat my ostensibly much more powerful MacBook Pro on all tests except video. Ouch. (I reviewed this MacBook Pro
here back in 2010.)
The new Retina MacBook Pro not only has a new CPU (Ivy Bridge chipset) and Nvidia video card with Kepler GPU driving the Retina Display, it also has SSD instead of a traditional hard drive. Dropping the optical drive bay (you can buy an external Apple USB SuperDrive
for under NZ$120) and the old school hard drive meant Apple could shave off precious area and weight. It’s slightly thicker all over than the thickest part of a MacBook Air. The previous MacBook Pro was 24.13mm thick – the Retina is 18.3mm thick (c24% slimmer). The previous was MacBook Pro was 36.47 centimetres across, and the Retina shaves about about a half-centimetre off that (35.89cm), and front to back the new one saves a couple of millimetres too: 24.71 compared to 24.94mm, so all around it’s slightly smaller despite the screen staying at 15.4 inches. It’s also 25% lighter – both these factors make it definitely feel easier to carry, and to get in and out of a laptop bag. Bonus.
I did get used to plugging everything into the left-hand-side of the older MacBook Pro – now there’s a USB 3 (it’s backwards compatible) 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 with HDMI – in other words, a large, modern TV, such as you find in most boardrooms. On the left there are also two Thunderbolt ports (no ethernet, but you can get an NZ$50 adapter), 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 (and 1, for that matter) drives will still work, and the newer faster USB 3 drives that PC users have been yammering about are also now available to you. Yay!
Another thing is the built-in speakers. Apple played around with the cooling engineering to make the fan quieter (it’s asymmetric so it doesn’t generate a vibration) and also to save space, meaning the speakers are a bit better. Are they? I have to say yes – 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 it text all looks newly crisp and nice typefaces re-justify your faith in the art of typographers, and icons – even in the Dock – somehow look more 3D with ones like, for example, NetNewsWire’s and Mail’s looking particularly marvellous if you put Dock magnification up to the fullest.
Other than that, you get used to it really fast and get a visual jolt when you go back to a ‘lesser’ display. And some apps are still playing catchup – Photoshop, for example, displays images in all their high-resolution glory – but its dialogue boxes look terrible, blurry and pixellated by comparison (an update is expected in a month or two).
At it’s native 1680x1050 setting, the Retina Display looks great, even compared to the high-res option of the 2010. It defaults to Best for Retina Display, but if you click Scaled the other options appear, from Larger Text to More Space (making everything smaller). It’s very quick to switch between resolutions compared to other Macs.
The 2010 MacBook Pro I used for comparison was a well-specced machine for its day, fitted with the dual-core 2.66GHz i7 CPU (a better 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, used for hours every day and for many presentations to groups, plus it’s been a close companion on several trips.
It has always been kept updated with the latest versions of system software and apps.
Starting up the 2010 MacBook Pro takes two minutes and 7 seconds. This is from the fully-off state, and Login Items off so nothing would open at startup, and timed up to the point that the Dock appears as that’s when the Mac becomes usable. Note this is also with two USB2 external hard drives plugged in, plus an external monitor. The Retina MacBook Pro booted in 31.7 seconds, but then I realised I forgot to turn Login Items off (apps that open at startup). With those three apps off, which all load data before I can use the Mac (Mail, Tweetie and NetNewsWire) the time to usable from pressing the Power-On button was 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.
In Photoshop CS6 tests, I opened a 9.6MB max-file-size JPEG taken on a Canon 5D MkII. With Photoshop not running, I dropped the image file on its icon in the Dock and timed Photoshop booting and opening the image: 11.8 seconds. On the Retina, this took 5.8 seconds. (Photoshop is not yet Retina-ready, in that its interface hasn’t been redrawn for the higher resolution. Other than that, it works the same and is fully compatible.)
Running Smart Sharpen over the same image (Advanced: amount 37%, radius 1.0px, Remove Gaussian Blur, More Accurate, Shadow set to Fade 7%, tonal width 29%, radius 1px, Highlight Fade 0%, tonal width 32% and radius 1px) took 8.6 seconds. On the Retina, 3.9 seconds.
The Oil Paint filter set to Stylisation 1, Cleanliness 3.95, Scale 10, Bristle Detail 10. Lighting 360, Shine set to 10, took 6 seconds. The Retina performed the same task in 2.4 seconds.
Then I ran GreekBench
and CineBench, both test utilities available online. GeekBench 2.3.4 is by Primate Labs and the Mac version costs US$12.99; a cross-platform Pro version costs US$79.99 and the standard cross-platform US$19.99. There is also a Linux version, plus a free 32-bit ‘tryout’ version. GeekBench provides a set of benchmarks engineered to measure processor and memory performance. You can share Geekbench results with other users online on the Geekbench Browser, and create an account to track your Geekbench results in one location.
I ran GeekBench in 64-bit mode on both machines. The overall score for the 2010 MacBook Pro was 6457; the Retina scored 13060. That’s 102.26% faster, or twice as fast. A Mac Pro tower I tested a couple of years ago scored 13,074 in 64-bit mode – 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: A MacBook Pro Retina specced like this sells for NZ$4818.99; the 2009 Mac Pro cost NZ$5799, and that’s with no monitor.) The current lineup of Mac Pro
is NZ$3999 with one 3.2GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon processor, and there’s a 12-core (2x2.4GHz Intel Xeon) base model for NZ$6099, and there’s a Server version – but this whole line is creaking now and due some serious work, with new models rumoured for the new year.)
The Geekbench score is somehow averaged from processor integer and floating point, and memory and memory bandwidth performance.
Below that those are further broken down into categories: Integer Performance by Blowfish, text compress (single and multi), text decompress, image compress and Lua, both run twice – once single-threaded, once multithreaded. Floating point performance has 7 categories also run in single and multithreaded iterations, memory is measured by read sequential, write sequential, Stdlib Allocate, Stdlib Write and Stdlib Copy. Stream performance is also measured by copy, scale, add and triad (all both single and multi-threaded.) So it’s fairly comprehensive.
Processor to processor, they’re not that different actually, despite the Retina having four cores (which gives better multithreading results). For example, just taking the first Blowfish figure, the 2010 scores 2098 (92.2 MG/sec) and the Retina 2300 (101.1MB/sec) – not to dissimilar (the Retina is 9.6% faster). But the multithreading score that follows really tells the 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).
Floating Point score comes out to totals of 9292 for the 2010, 19,756 for the Retina, again over twice as fast.
Memory score doesn’t show quite that – 4315 for the 2010, 7160 for the Retina; about 40% better. Stream performance was 4140 (2010) vs 8310 (Retina).
CineBench is free, unlike GeekBench, but also cross-platform, so is handy to compare to similarly configured PCs as well as to other Macs. The CineBench test suite that evaluates your computer’s performance capabilities based on MAXON’s animation software CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide.
Its test procedure consists of two main components – the graphics card performance test and the CPU performance test. The details (rather than bore you too much here if you’re not interested) are all on the Maxon site
Suffice to say 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.
In general use, it does what faster, newer Macs always do to me: I think ‘That’s a bit faster, sure.’ But when I go back to an older Mac, it feels like there’s something wrong with it, it’s so treacly performance-wise.
Processor-wise, as you can see the new MacBook Pro Retina is just over twice as fast. It’s the SSD that really makes this thing seem quick, though. A Solid State Drive has, by definition, no moving parts. A hard drive, by comparison, writes tracks by magnetic encoding on circular strips. The drive has to ‘spin p’ to it’s operating speed on start-up, and can spin down to save power, requiring it ‘spin-up’ again to operational speed to open a file or another application. It’s a heavily engineered device to close tolerances, and that spinning platter (typically at 5400 or 7200rpm) is relatively fragile if the read/write head contacts the surface, say if you bang the Mac while it’s opening a file, application or playing a movie from disc. Also, that read/write arm is carefully manufactured, and has to seek out over that spinning platter to find the data you require, which is then loaded via the bus, CPU, RAM etc for you to finally see on screen. All this is ‘slow’, by modern terms, and also fragile. It requires much more cooling than an SSD, which is basically just a set of chips on a circuit board. It also needs a heavy shock mounting – all these considerations are dispensed with in an SSD. It’s cooler to run, takes up less space and it’s much more shock resistant. Speed is dependant on the speed of electrons and whatever slow-downs they incur from the chips and wires.
More speeds — you can't beat BareFeats
for lots of wonderful, careful speed comparisons of all sorts of aspects of Macs.
The reason the Retina boots so fast is that the OS is on the SSD. A 73.7MB movie duplicated on a 5400rpm hard drive of another 2010 MacBook Pro took 11.3 seconds. The same file transferred from a USB2 2GB flash drive to the Retina in 5 seconds, and once on the Retina’s internal SSD, duplicated in .6 seconds. This is where the real impression of speed derives from, and although hard drives nowadays represent very, very cheap mass storage, you can see their days are numbered, especially in computers that need to be slim, robust and light.
Conclusion — Apple’s best MacBook Pro by a long chalk, and possibly Apple’s best Mac yet
What’s great — Slimmer, faster than ever, gorgeous display
What’s not — You could say no optical drive, but I have been dissatisfied with these for so long I’m happy to dispense with it. Ethernet port is a must for NZ broadband speeds – the WiFi in these is the fastest, but it’s slower than being directly hard-wired into the system (wireless to the wired) and with the slow broadband system we have here in the first place, I’d recommend that adapter for maximising what there is (I bought one).
Needs — Someone with deep pockets who needs Mac Pro performance in a beautiful slim form. Final Cut Pro and Logic on the road? No sweat.
What — Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display, 2.6GHz, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD NZ$4818.99 inc GST
System — 2.6GHz Quad-Core Intel Ivy Bridge i7; 16GB RAM; 512GB SSD for storage; 2880x1800 Retina Display; video card NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M 1024MB (1GB) graphics and Intel