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Apple Retina MacBook Pro Review: The MacBook Pro, Only More — and Less — So

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So this MacBook Pro is sleek. It’s fast. But it’s the Retina display that makes it unlike any other personal computer that Apple or anyone else has released. As on the iPhone 4 and 4S and the new iPad, Apple upped the screen resolution to the point where the individual pixels are indistinguishable. The Pro’s resolution of 2800 by 1800 pixels isn’t merely impressive for a 15″ laptop; it’s unprecedented. It’s four times more than the old-style 15″ MacBook Pro, and nearly five times as many as the standard display on HP’s suspiciously MacBook-like Envy 15 laptop.

Even beyond the record-setting resolution, this is an exceptional computer display. It’s got less glare than previous MacBook Pro screens. (If I wave at my 13″ MacBook Pro, I see myself waving back–not so with the new Pro.) Contrast and viewing angle are both outstanding.

What do all the extra pixels get you? The OS X operating system and Apple’s own applications, which the company has updated to take advantage of the new screen, are gorgeous in ways that computer software never has been. Icons look like tiny paintings; type in the Safari browser is crisp, crisp, crisp.

(MORE: Apple’s OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion: The Mac Gets Even More iPad-Like)

It’s the same revelation as the Retina-equipped new iPad on a larger canvas, and it’ll spoil your eyeballs for anything else. After two hours with the Pro, I saw jaggies on my MacBook Air’s display that I’d never noticed before.

Photo-editing should be a killer app for this computer: Instead of throwing out detail in order to cram high-resolution images onto the screen, it’ll be able to display them in all of their multi-megapixel splendor. Apple has already upgraded Aperture and iPhoto, its own photo apps, and says it’s working with Adobe to update Photoshop CS6 for the new display.

At the moment, however, most software isn’t Retina-ready. OS X compensates by doubling low-resolution graphics to fill space, and the results vary from okay to awful. Microsoft Word’s icons were a tad grainy, but when I typed characters, they looked smooth enough. The non-Apple browsers I tried–Chrome, Firefox and Opera–rendered text in such a fuzzy fashion that I can’t imagine many people will willingly use them until they’re updated. And Amazon.com’s Kindle for the Mac e-reader software looks like an eye test gone awry.

TIME images

On top: Safari on the new MacBook Pro. On bottom: Chrome. (Images are at 200% magnification.)

Video is another trouble spot. A high-definition Glee episode that I bought from Apple’s iTunes looked good in full-screen mode; the same show from Amazon’s streaming video service didn’t deal well with being scaled up.

In both Safari and other browsers, images on the web don’t benefit from Retina: they were designed for lower-resolution displays and are slightly blocky on the MacBook Pro, much as standard-definition TV suffers on an HDTV.

Now, the fact that Retina MacBook Pro early adopters will have to deal with some technical glitches is nothing new. In its zeal to embrace new technologies and shed old ones, Apple has a long history of rushing past the rest of the world. But the rest of the world has a pretty solid record of catching up. If the early days of the new iPad are any indication, many developers of major applications will release Retina-friendly Mac applications in relatively short order. Waiting until they do is a perfectly rational decision.

(VIDEO: Five New and Noteworthy iPad Features)

Holding off on a purchase for at least a few weeks has another side benefit: Starting some time in July, the system will begin shipping with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, the worthy upgrade to Apple’s operating system. (Those who buy it right now will be able to download Mountain Lion for free from the Mac App Store.)

Even for those of us who are unlikely to spend more than two grand on a computer, or who prefer something more ultraportable than a 15″ model, the arrival of the Retina MacBook Pro is a meaningful moment in Mac history. It’s the most refined, advanced PC that Apple has produced to date. And it’s a safe bet that the ideas it exhibits will be reflected in future models from the company, including ones with smaller screens and smaller price tags. It’s both a great computer, and a preview of great computers to come.

MORE: 6 Reasons Apple Is So Successful

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