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

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Apple may be legendary for its refusal to talk about products it hasn’t released yet, but when it announced the second-generation MacBook Air thin-and-light notebook back in October of 2010, it tipped its hand. By calling the new machine “the first of a next generation of notebooks which will replace mechanical hard disks and optical drives with Internet services and solid state flash storage,” the company all but formally declared that the Air’s minimalist design would influence future versions of its other laptops.

Now it’s official. On Monday, at Apple’s WWDC keynote event, the morning’s major hardware announcement was a radically-revised 15″ MacBook Pro. Like a MacBook Air, the new model sacrifices the hard disk, DVD burner and other venerable technologies in favor of a more portable design. But it also retains the Pro line’s traditional emphasis on potent features such as fast processors and graphics. And its new Retina display is the most advanced screen that anyone’s ever built into a laptop.

This new MacBook Pro begins at $2199, for a version with a 2.3-GHz quad-core Intel i7 Ivy Bridge processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage space. You can spend as much as $3749 if you beef it up with an even faster processor, double the RAM and 768GB of storage.

(MORE: The History of Apple’s MacBook Pro, 2006 to Retina)

At those prices, you can understand why Apple also kept a cheaper 15″ MacBook Pro in its lineup. Starting at $1799, that version is one of four other new notebooks Apple released this week, including revisions to the 11″ and 13″ MacBook Airs and the 13″ MacBook Pro. It’s a modest update to the previous model, removing the DVD burner but retaining the hard drive and adding improvements such as zippier processor options and support for the high-speed USB 3.0 standard. The Retina display isn’t an option. (If you’re contemplating spending $1799 for this model, my advice is simple: Come up with another $400 and spring for the $2199 one instead.)

Aesthetically, the Retina MacBook Pro is a close cousin of its predecessors, sporting the basic handsome industrial design that Apple has been refining since 2008, with the same aluminum unibody case, oversized touchpad, backlit keyboard and other familiar features. There is, however, substantially less of it. Changes such as eliminating the DVD burner and hard drive let Apple make the new model 25 percent thinner and 20 percent lighter than the older-style 15″ model that remains in the lineup.

For a powerful 15″ laptop, the Retina Pro is a featherweight: At 4.46 pounds, it’s slightly lighter than the much smaller 13″ old-style MacBook Pro. Still, no computer this large achieves forget-you-have-it-with-you portability. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that rumors this would be a 15″ MacBook Air turned out to be off base.

In the Windows world, manufacturers make new computers more alluring by adding more stuff. Apple often does so by stripping features away. Typically, it removes technologies that are on their way out anyhow, but quashes them before it’s completely obvious to everyone that they’re deadwood.

The MacBook Pro’s removal of the DVD drive isn’t exactly unprecedented, but it’s a rare omission in a 15″ notebook; most other PC makers are dragging out DVD’s demise as long as possible, just as they did with the floppy drive a decade or more ago. But unless you love to watch DVD movies, there’s little reason to build a DVD drive into a portable computer anymore. The drives are still occasionally useful for installing software, but an external USB unit you can stash in a desk drawer works fine. If Apple’s $79 model sounds steep, shop around: Other models are available for more like $40.

The absence of DVD apparently has a happy side effect: Without that pesky drive, an Apple executive told me, it was possible to re-engineer the speakers for better audio quality. They sound surprisingly good, even when you crank up the volume. Apple also used a new dual-microphone system to help reduce background noise in applications such as FaceTime video calls.

This is also the first Pro without built-in Ethernet. The connector wouldn’t fit on the skinny case, so Apple removed it and offers a $29 USB adapter instead. But the left- and right-hand edges of the system accommodate enough other ports to make this possibly Apple’s best-connected mobile Mac to date.

(MORE: Apple Shows Off Air-Like MacBook Pro, iOS 6, Mountain Lion and More)

The machine has two Thunderbolt ports which provide an extremely high-speed connection for external add-ons such as hard drives and work with adapters for displays, FireWire peripherals and other devices. Along with the other new MacBooks, it’s also one of Apple’s first computers to offer USB 3.0, which runs at up to ten times the speed of older USB ports and is already commonplace on Windows PCs.

In another welcome “what took so long?” move, Apple has equipped the Retina Pro with an HDMI port, allowing for easy hookup to HDTVs. It’s the first portable Mac with this feature, available on even dirt-cheap Windows laptops.

Like the MacBook Air, this Pro dispenses with a conventional hard disk in favor of solid-state storage. The downside is that it’s pricey and tight on space compared to a drive: The $2199 Retina MacBook Pro has 256GB of space, vs. the 500GB hard drive in the $1799 old-school MacBook Pro.

In multiple other respects, however, memory chips beat rotating disk platters. There are no moving parts, so there’s less chance of catastrophic, data-damaging failure. Battery power is conserved. And solid state is faster–especially for launching applications and loading large files.

Beyond the quick solid-state storage, the Pro offers faster Intel processors than its predecessor, has a newer Nvidia graphics system and uses higher-speed RAM. It should all add up to impressive performance, and while I didn’t perform any scientific benchmark testing, the system never felt less than snappy. Mark Spoonauer of Laptop magazine did run benchmarks: The results were impressive. (The magazine’s battery test also showed the Pro surpassing Apple’s claim of seven hours on a charge.)

Some fast laptops tax their processors to such a degree that they heat up like pavement in the summer, forcing the use of noisy fans to bring the temperature down. The famously fan-phobic Apple says that it tuned the ones in the Pro to run at different frequencies so the whirrrrrrrrrrrr is less obvious. Even when I loaded gazillions of browser tabs, streamed videos and ran a virtualized copy of Windows 7 courtesy of Parallels Desktop, the Pro kept its cool and I couldn’t tell if the fans were active without pressing my ear to the case.

(Speaking of Windows, I tried using OS X’s Boot Camp to install a non-virtual version of Windows; I was curious whether it could take full advantage of the Retina resolution. Partway through the installation process, Apple’s Boot Camp setup told me it couldn’t continue.)

LIST: Top 10 Gadgets of 2011

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