72-Hours Review: Macbook Pro with Retina Display (2012)

I think plenty of sites has laid it out for you to know. My own experience mirrors the composite list of reviews floating online, so read any of them to get an idea. If I had to pick, it would be CNET’s and The Verge’s. If you want to go further, check out Anand’s first impressions, because he gets to the heart of the matter. Well, I like them because I share his knack with familiarity in the computer component arena, at least as a personal background. Also, this is something I see in the future.

I always wondered how much my gearhead-for-PC nature comes from the fact my dad used to work for DFI. I was pretty young at the time and he only worked there for a few years, but I guess it was during a time when I was quite impressionable. He would tell me the stories at work about hardware and what’s popular and what’s always coming back for RMA; I was at least old enough to figure out that a 286 was slower than a 386. It’s kind of amusing now to think back to it, but having easy and cheap access to component hardware (he worked in the warehouse for the RMA team) probably had an impact. Granted, this is back when a 1x caddy-loading CDROM drive was like, $200, but hey.

Oh, just to make it clear as a disclaimer, this is my first Mac. We used to own an Apple II, but that probably doesn’t count. I used macs pretty extensively for a few months back during my high school/undergrad days (mostly in Codewarrior…and Escape Velocity) but that is OS9, so that probably doesn’t count either (even if UI-wise OSX is still just “evolutionary” to OS9). Since then I’ve occasionally used OSX, so I can get around if I had to; I just never had to customize it.

Fast forward to today. I think I wrote something about this just the other day, but here’s really the consumer-side take now that I had the chance to sleep with it and get that urge to rub that gorgeous retina display on my face, off my back.

I’m going to say the new Retina MBP  is almost perfect. By perfect I mean it in the sense that I think of laptops in general as a balance of three factors: price, size, and component. Each component relate to another by some facet of science, technology, economics and/or marketing. For example, smaller laptops are by nature less powerful because you can only fit fewer components and components that heat up less. More advance technology enable smaller laptops to fit more components and faster components, so that’s how those two relate. Components relate to price in the obvious way, although through mass production and improve technology, components decrease in prices. However when some component or parts is tailor-made or not very highly commoditized, price goes up. The same logic governs between price and size; whichever size gets made the most and gets bought the most gets to be the cheapest (at least on a per-quality basis, meaning high performance laptops will still be more expensive than low performance laptops even if more people buy high performance ones).

A lot of the times manufacturers compromise on these 3 elements, especially when pioneering one aspect. The latest tech? It’s going to be overpriced. Smallest size? It’s going to have crap specs. Cheap? It’s going to be a huge ugly low-end thing.  In that way, perfect here means that the balance between price, size (and design, I suppose) and component match. I can sit here and say with good conscience that the $2230 +tax I spent is well-worth it, because I am getting my money’s worth. It is very expensive; is it worth 2 Macbook Airs? I think we can debate this, but let’s just say that there are reasons why I don’t have a Macbook Air, despite my generally good valuation of them (not to mention they’re $1000 or so less).

To just take the flip side, I also think it’s fair to say that the MBPR (R for Retina Display) is overpriced because the high-res screen is kind of a first, and they want to charge more for it. Right after the Apple Store went online after the WWDC talk, I did a sanity check over at Sony’s store (and discovered their free PS3 or Vita deal, but anyway) and priced out a similar 15″ VAIO S series. Build quality and design aside, you can get a similarly specced machine for about 1500 or so, and that’s with their high end 1080 screen. So in essence, you are paying another 600 or so for the improved screen and maybe better construction/design. The Sony S has carbon fiber, which is reasonably comparable with unibody aluminum if you asked me, even if it’s much cheaper and flexes a lot more than I would like. The similarly specced VAIO had roughly the same weight, but it’s thicker than this gen’s old MBP by about < 0.1″.

Is the extra $600 worth it? I’d say so but clearly YMMV. And I would like to think it varies only because different people value that display differently. Reading the reviews online, a lot of people write it off, saying it’s only for “pros” which I think is hilarious. That’s like saying good earphones are only for DJs and musicians. If your hearing goes to crap in a couple decades, well, blame you are not a DJ or musician? Yeah, the price is very high and fact remains most people are not comfortable paying 4 digits for computers, let alone over 2k, especially given how quickly computers depreciate. But I think there’s a lot to be said about computers that retain their value (Macbooks do), computers that have balanced components (in other words, “strong” weakest links, as I referred to in my previous post), and generally will last you a long time.

[For reference, the weakest links now are the GPU and CPU–Moore’s law is unforgiving, so they ought to be rightfully so.]

Of course, the secret is something I already kind of touched upon in my previous post: the technology to make a high definition panel, small and good quality, has been around for a long time. Because for the longest time people didn’t really value this quality, these more expensive, better quality panels don’t sell. But if you want a quality computing experience you need a good display, it’s that simple. I mean if you really dig into it that also has a lot to do with the way the display evolved over time as a part of the user experience. PCs didn’t become major entertainment machines until maybe the mid-00s; I certainly didn’t realize it until I was watching the two music videos that came with the default install of Win95 (1997). It’s transformative, but overly budget-minded approaches to marketing has slowed this down drastically, coming from the PC component side and OEMs.

Apple was able to exploit this gap in their MBPR. Given the volume of sales they do (perhaps scaled up via their iPads and iPhone fabs) they can make this profitable and affordable to us. This is not so much new technology as simply expensive technology made popular by Apple’s marketing and economy of scale, to think back to the three qualities: component, price, size.

To that end, I think the 15″ size is the real compromise in the Macbook Pro w/ Retina Display. If I had one major dissatisfaction with it, it would be just that. This machine will be perfect at 13″. At 13″ we are talking about the Macbook Air. A MBA with this quality of panel and with at least 1200 lines, and a NVIDIA 650M, is my perfect laptop. Well, perfect in the common sense of the word; but it will be second to the 11″ variant of the same. Yes, I believe the MBA will get Retina soon enough. And yes, I might even trade down for that. And yes, 11″ is probably my ideal size. FWIW, I don’t know why they haven’t slapped the iPad display on the MBA 10″ yet.

The MBPR would also be better at 17″ believe it or not. Apple killed off the 17″ line with this update, and for good reasons: They don’t want people to debate if it’s better to have a 17″ screen or a 15″ screen that kicks the pants off of the 17″ screen. It’s not a real debate to me, but after using the MBPR for 72 hours I can assure you if there is a list of improvements to make this panel better, making it bigger would be on the top of the list. Actually it is only after that realization that I truely realized why the 17″ MBP met its end. Bigger is also better in this instance.

The root issue is that the 15″ display is a good size for productivity, and at the WS form factor it’s passably okay for entertainment. However now you have a couple million more pixels, you can actually use the extra real estate (or rather, make the extra 2″ worth it). At the usual viewing distance, if you sit back and watch something on the 15″ it is not a particular engrossing experience, even with the MBPR panel. Ever imagine if it was 17″ or 19″? My jaw just dropped again.

Of course anything more than 17″ it becomes impossible to use on a plane (in econ seats), so I don’t expect anything huge-large ever from Apple. But even at the same resolution, if the 17″ MBP were to resurrect with a quality panel like the 15″ MBPR, that would be an attractive option for a lot of people (in this case, real pros who want to do photo/video work for certain).

Looking back to the rise of the 15″ laptop, it is probably the poster child of compromise in personal computing, isn’t it? At 10-13″ you get great portability and the shrunken panel improves battery life. Once you hit 15″ it gets to be so big that you’re carrying a lot of waste space, or in the MBPR’s case, a lot of battery, to offset for the power consumed by the display. The 15″ size only makes sense as a desktop replacement, in my mind. But it sold, so people made components at that form factor, and it was cheap for both OEMs and consumers. It proliferated in America, for what reason? You know what I think? Go big, or go home: either make it small, or make it huge. Don’t dick around like this, especially at this price tag.

But that is a compromise I’m willing to live with if we’re talking about a 4.48-pound, 0.71″-thick machine. The Apple design factor reaches for me, that extra mile, in which bridges my wallet with theirs, despite the 15″ size. Or the fact that gigabit is through a $30 adapter. These are relatively minor things I can live with, as I’m already a packrat of sorts, but they are squarely in the minuses category.

As for the rest of the machine, read the other reviews as I have nothing to add.

Lastly, now that I have reacquainted myself with OSX and MacOS in general, I’m going to say that anyone who think OSX is better than Windows 7 is not credible. It’s really the same experience. There are some things it’s better at, but there are some things it’s not; the sum of the overall user experience is unfortunately not notable enough in the general sense to make a fuss over it. If anything, the fact that OSX has a lot of utilities and things baked in makes it a “better” value proposition–a value proposition that costs you more money! LOL.

Of course, unless it impacts some specific use case that makes you prefer one or the other…like WOL in Lion, does it even work? Is it “darkwaking” or what? Any tips? I plan to make good use of that HDMI out and hook it up to the entertainment system when I’m not hauling the laptop around. So the idea is if it can WOL, I can access it at work; if I’m in the living room, hopefully it can wake on BT keyboards? To set up the same in a PC, it took me like, 15 minutes.