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Retina MacBook Pro review as a Mac Pro owner

I just returned from a five-day trip in which I worked a lot, doing significant amounts of writing, web development, and especially iOS development. And I did it all on my base-model Retina MacBook Pro: the $2199, 2.3 GHz model with “only” 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD.

This is the best computer I’ve ever used. And I can say that with no hesitation, qualification, or equivocation.

It still can’t be my primary computer, and in that sense, I can’t say it’s the best computer for me, necessarily. But that’s mostly only because I’m a picky asshole who doesn’t like a cable-covered desk, clamshell mode, dual-monitor annoyances, or external hard drives, yet I don’t mind the cost and inconvenience of having both a desktop and a laptop.

For most reasonable people’s needs, this can easily be their only computer. And if some crackpot legislators passed a law tomorrow that everyone could only have one computer, I’d definitely pick the Retina.

The only performance issue I regularly hit is the jerky scrolling, which is covered well in the excellent AnandTech review:

To be quite honest, the hardware in the rMBP isn’t enough to deliver a consistently smooth experience across all applications. At 2880 × 1800 most interactions are smooth but things like zooming windows or scrolling on certain web pages is clearly sub-30fps. At the higher scaled resolutions, since the GPU has to render as much as 9.2MP, even UI performance can be sluggish. There’s simply nothing that can be done at this point - Apple is pushing the limits of the hardware we have available today, far beyond what any other OEM has done.

I used it at the scaled “1680 × 1050” resolution the entire time, since the native “1440 × 900” resolution isn’t enough space for me to comfortably do iPad development in Xcode. I definitely felt the sluggish UI performance.

But that’s the only negative point I can make, and it’s really not that bad.

With mostly CPU-bound tasks, the Retina is not technically as fast as my “new” 2010 3.33 GHz 6-core Mac Pro, but in real-world use, it’s close enough to not notice the difference most of the time. And I have the base model. (The three available CPUs are all within about 10% of each other’s real-world performance, so I opted for the lowest-end one to keep the cost reasonable, minimize heat, and maximize battery life.) The long-standing performance gap between the Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro is now effectively moot, except for that UI performance issue.

In addition to the value of the high performance and potentially available screen space, iOS development is especially great on the Retina because the Simulator runs natively at Retina density. So you see your app in the Simulator exactly as it will appear on any modern iOS device. (Except maybe that rumored non-Retina iPad Mini in October.)

While people accustomed to MacBook Airs probably think the 4.5-pound Retina is big and heavy, I’ve found it to be noticeably thinner and lighter compared to the previous 15” MacBook Pro. It no longer feels like a “big” laptop — few would argue if Apple just called it the 15” MacBook Air. Given this size reduction and the huge increase in power and usefulness over the MacBook Airs, I no longer wish that I was carrying a 13” Air instead: the Retina is small and light enough to alleviate that desire, especially knowing what I’m getting for the additional mass.

And the screen.

That screen.

I thought, having previously used Retina screens on my iPhone and iPad, that I had a pretty good idea of how good a Retina screen would be on a laptop.

I was wrong. It’s far nicer than I expected. And after five days of only seeing Retina screens, the 30” HP ZR30w on my desk really looks like garbage. Huge, spacious garbage.

My only regret about the Retina Display is that I can’t buy a standalone one for my desk, and this one’s not big enough to just prop up the laptop on a stand and use it as the only monitor in a desktop setup.

We’re obviously in the middle of two awkward transitions: toward all-Retina screens, and toward all-SSD storage. The difficult computer choices that many power users will struggle with will probably be much easier in 2–3 years, when even the most die-hard desktop users can probably get a MacBook Something with a priced-within-reach 2 TB SSD and an external 27” Retina Display for desktop use.

Today, that’s just a fantasy. So while this Retina MacBook Pro is the best computer I’ve ever used, I’m also impatiently waiting for the day when I can comfortably make one of these my only computer, and it’s not there yet.

In the meantime, I can definitely see why so many people are migrating from Mac Pros to the Retina MacBook Pro. When the next Mac Pro comes out, I might not want it.

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