The Retina MacBook Pro: More than an Apple Desktop Replacement?

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At the close of Apple’s not-entirely-a-surprise next-gen MacBook Pro reveal at WWDC on Monday, Phil Schiller told the audience it was “the best computer Apple has ever made.” The implication: The new Pro is much more than just a portable powerhouse.

Sure, everything about the new MacBook Pro implies power, and not merely high-end laptop power, but high-end desktop power. In fact it comes with features even the highest-end desktops aren’t yet capable of, evident most of all in its ultra-high-resolution “Retina” display.

“There has never been a notebook this thin, this light for professional use,” said Schiller during the show. And yes, it’s slender with the optical drive nixed: 0.71 inches thin (or thick — you pick), essentially the same as the 0.68-inch MacBook Air if you round both to the nearest tenth of an inch. And it’s surprisingly light at 4.46 pounds, or about the same as the 13-inch MacBook Pro (Schiller called it the “lightest Pro notebook that we have ever made,” which is technically true, if only marginally so — the reason it’s stunning is all the stuff it manages to pack in at that weight grade).

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An objet d’art? Perhaps. Schiller called it “the most beautiful computer [Apple has] ever made.” I’d argue that’s still the Air, with its tapered, blade-like case, but I suppose he means the whole package, including the breathtaking new display.

Unlike Any Laptop or Desktop Display

And that’s what singles the new Pro out as something much more than just another lovely-looking Apple laptop: the 2880 x 1880-resolution screen. “Reading your mail is like reading fine print,” boasted Schiller of the screen’s visual qualities, adding that “surfing the web can be like experiencing magazine-like quality.”

High-end desktop replacement laptops today run up to 1920 x 1080 (or 1200) pixels, aka 1080p, the same as high-end high-definition TVs. The highest-end desktop computer monitors sold in stores have a pixel ceiling of 2560 x 1440. Apple’s own 27-inch LED Cinema Display tops out at the latter screen resolution. If you want to buy a desktop display the equal of the new MacBook Pro’s, you can’t — or at least not without exploring niche products and sales channels not even I’m aware of, and that you certainly won’t find at mainstream retailers.

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That makes the new MacBook Pro an anomaly that falls outside conventional vertical resolution or aspect ratio metrics. There is no 2880 x 1880 in the standard display resolution grid. The closest is probably 2560 x 1600, aka WQXGA, or “Wide Quad Extended Graphics Array,” which uses a 16:10 aspect ratio (four times the pixels of a WXGA 1280 x 800 screen).

The importance of all those pixels is twofold for professionals: They offer unprecedented visual clarity and image crispness, as well as configurable screen real estate, say you want to jam several windows onscreen without overlapping or playing the “spaces” game.

The Pro offers multiple default resolution options, from “Larger Text” to “Best (Retina)” to “More Space” — if you opt for the integer-scaled setting, i.e. “Best (Retina),” you’ll be treated to incredibly sharp images at a Pro-standard interface resolution of 1440 x 900. But if you want to crank up the resolution (shifting to “More Space”) so you can fit more on screen at once, you can take the Pro to 1920 x 1200, say, and the image quality will still be higher than it would on a native 1920 x 1200 display.

The only caveat? All of Apple’s native apps have been adjusted to take advantage of the screen, but third-party apps will have to be repopulated with higher quality imagery to take advantage of the new display, else they’ll look interpolated (scaled up and consequently blurrier).

Cover Me

Then there’s the removal of the cover glass, the third piece of glass (Apple uses two in the screen). According to the always meticulous Anand Lal Shimpi at Anandtech:

In the standard (glossy) MacBook Pro, Apple had a standard LCD arrangement with two sheets of glass plus a third piece of cover glass that gave it the seamless edge-to-edge glass appearance. The MacBook Air and the high-res/matte display on the other hand did not have any cover glass and instead hid the LCD panel behind a bezel. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display uses a similar LCD construction to the MacBook Air/matte-MBP, without a cover glass. Instead the Retina Display’s two glass layers are different sizes…

The benefits are supposed to include higher contrast ratios, improved viewing angles (via IPS or “in-plane switching” — the first time Apple’s employed this technology in a Mac laptop) and significantly reduced glare (the Pro’s screen is still glossy, but without the cover glass, it’s supposed to deliver the color depth of a glossy screen along with the glare-reduction of a matte one). Anand reports that “[compared] to [his] matte MacBook Pro, the Retina Display is obviously more glossy but at the same time remarkably close.”

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Is it really a “Retina” display though, as claimed, by which Apple means that human eyes can’t discern individual pixels? The term spawned with the company’s iPhone 4, which offered a resolution high enough (on a small screen) to yield 326 pixels per inch.

The claim hinges on the belief that the human eye lacks the ability to discern individual pixels at a pixel count of 300 pixels per inch or higher, viewed at a distance of about 10 inches. There’s some scientific wrangling over what the human eye is actually capable of (plus it varies depending on your vision), but one thing that seems pretty clear: 220 pixels per inch, the new Pro’s resolution, falls well short of what’s meant by the term “Retina” on even Apple’s scale.

But Apple seems content to use the term as a way of referring to display updates where it’s doubling, tripling, or quadrupling its display pixel counts. And who really cares about the marketing semantics, when the Pro’s new screen offers roughly four times the number of pixels of prior Apple laptops — an incredible 5,184,000 pixels total — right?

A 15-inch Desktop

From a processing standpoint, it’s tough to compare the new MacBook Pros to Apple’s Mac Pro, since the latter packs hardware angled more toward server-caliber usage, e.g. lower frequency six-core Xeon processors with twice as much L3 cache (12MB) and eight memory slots (configurable with to 32GB). But compared with more standard, consumer-grade desktops — including professional audio/video-angled ones — the new Pros are remarkably desktop-like.

Each of the quad-core Intel Core i7 processors — 2.3 GHz, 2.6 GHz or 2.7 GHz — can turbo boost a full 1 GHz, taking the highest-end Pro to just a few hundred megahertz shy of 4GHz. The current Ivy Bridge desktop processor darling by comparison is probably Intel’s i5-3570k, which runs at 3.3 GHz, turbos up to 3.8 GHz and also has 6MB of cache. And bear in mind that these are processor options you tend to find in extremely heavy 17- or 18-inch gaming systems, not 15-inch laptops of the same thickness as Apple’s MacBook Air.

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You also get 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3L memory (upgradeable to 16GB) — more than enough for most audio/video apps. The 256GB flash drive can be traded up for 512GB or even a previously unthinkable 768GB. And besides the built-in Intel HD 4000 GPU for everyday use, Apple’s included Nvidia’s brand new Kepler-based, 28-nanometer GeForce 650M, a video card that supports DirectX 11.1 (in Windows), uses a 128-bit memory interface and comes with 1GB of GDD5 memory (faster and more expensive than this card’s alternative option, DDR3).

According to NotebookCheck:

Despite the slower core clock of only 735 MHz, the GDDR5-version of the card should be much faster. Demanding games of 2011 like Battlefield 3 will be playable in 1366×768 and medium or high settings. Less demanding games, such as Modern Warfare 3, are easily playable with maxed out settings and 1080p resolution.

There’s also a clear nod to high-end external peripheral wonks with the Pro’s not one, but two Thunderbolt ports.

The rest is pretty laptop-standard: a 720p FaceTime camera, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, a full-sized backlit keyboard, two USB 3.0 ports, an SDXC card slot, a dedicated HDMI port, a headphone port, a thinner MagSafe connector port and an estimated battery life (according to Apple) of up to seven hours.

The MacBook Pro family, prior to the new “Retina” model, was already considered a desktop replacement system. Consider pro-audio magazines like Sound on Sound, for instance, which often has ads for pro-grade studio equipment or digital audio workstation software modeling the older Pros, whether connected to a high-end Apple monitor or running standalone.

And with a screen capable of outputting significantly more, pixel-wise, than current desktop monitors or televisions, Apple just laid the groundwork to potentially draw an even bigger swathe of the pro-user market away from the “laptop-as-compromise” mindset and over to the “R.I.P.-desktop” one for good.

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