Apple raised the bar for professional laptops when it introduced the new 15-inch MacBook Pro With Retina Display last year. It was a typically expensive Apple product, but the large, high-resolution IPS screen was ideal for creative users who needed a powerful laptop for photography, design and other graphics-intensive tasks. This year’s update sticks with the same basic design, but adopts an Intel Haswell processor that provides improved battery life, whilst also cutting the price by £100.
Apple Giveth, Apple Taketh Away
A price cut is a rare event with Apple products, so a new starting price of £1,699 (inc. VAT) for the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display sounds like a welcome improvement. However, there’s a sting in the tail here as, in some respects, this new model actually has a lower specification than its predecessor.
The previous model, priced at £1,799 (inc. VAT), included an Intel Ivy Bridge i7 processor running at 2.4GHz, along with 8GB of memory, 256GB of solid-state storage and an nVidia GeForce GT 650M graphics card. The new £1,699 (inc. VAT) model we review here has the same amount of memory and storage and steps up to the new Haswell processor.
However, its clock speed drops to 2.0GHz and the nVidia graphics card has been removed, which means that graphics tasks are now handled by the less-powerful integrated graphics of the Haswell processor. If you do need a discrete graphics card for graphics intensive tasks such as 3D modelling and animation then your only alternative is to buy the top-of-the-range MacBook Pro model, which costs a hefty £2,199 (inc. VAT) with 2.3GHz clock speed, 16GB memory, 512GB SSD, and an nVidia GeForce GT 750M graphics card.
Alternatively, there’s a less expensive 13-inch model that starts at £1,099 (inc. VAT) with an Intel i5 Haswell processor running at 2.4GHz, 4GB memory and 128GB solid-state storage. Both 13-inch and 15-inch models also benefit from 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a faster PCIe interface for the SSD, and two new Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, which potentially provide data transfer speeds of up to 20Gbps for demanding tasks such as video editing.
There may have been a number of changes on the inside, but the external design of the 15-inch MacBook Pro remains unchanged. There are few Windows laptops that can match the clarity and brightness of its 15.4-inch IPS screen and 2880 x 1400 pixel resolution, so it’s hardly surprising that the MacBook Pro remains a favourite with the photographers and designers who have always been Apple’s most loyal users.
However, there are more prosaic uses for that high-definition screen too. Wide viewing angles mean that it’s an excellent choice for users who need to give presentations on the road, and you can cram an awful lot of spreadsheet data onto that screen if you need to.
The MacBook Pro is also one of the slimmest, lightest 15-inch laptops currently available. It measures 18mm thick and weighs 2kg, so it’s not quite in Ultrabook territory, but that’s still significantly less than most 15-inch laptops. The build quality, as ever, is impeccable, with Apple’s now traditional brushed-metal aluminium casing proving to be both sturdy and elegant.
In addition to its Thunderbolt ports the MacBook Pro also provides two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, and SD card slot. There’s no Ethernet, though, nor an optical drive, although both are available as option extras from Apple. It’s also worth mentioning that the MacBook Pro is not easy to repair or upgrade – in fact, the MacBook Pro is virtually impossible to repair or upgrade. The entire unit is sealed, and the memory can’t even be upgraded after purchase, so you have to make sure you buy adequate memory when you place your order with Apple.
The chief advantage of Intel’s new Haswell processor is, of course, improved battery life, and Apple quotes a battery life of 8 hours for this new model, compared to 7 hours for its predecessor. However, a couple of afternoons spent in a Wi-Fi coffee shop with the MacBook Pro suggested that casual Web browsing and use of Microsoft Office should actually allow you to get a full 9 hours out of it without too much trouble at all.
The Haswell processor performs well, too. Its 2.0GHz clock speed is lower than that of its Ivy Bridge predecessor, but our tests indicate that basic processor performance is actually 10-15% higher. This particular version of the Haswell processor – the quad-core i7-4750HQ – also introduces Intel’s new Iris Pro integrated graphics, which claims to provide significantly better 3D graphics performance than previous generations of integrated graphics.
Our tests with a number of 3D graphics programs confirm that the Iris Pro lives up to Intel’s claims, almost doubling the 3D performance of Intel’s previous HD 4000 series integrated graphics. But while the Iris Pro graphics will probably meet the needs of most users for 2D graphics and design work – not to mention the occasional lunch-time gaming session – it still can’t match the performance of a dedicated, discrete graphics card.
It’s therefore disappointing that the only option available for demanding photo, video and 3D modelling applications is to step up to the high-end configuration that costs £2,199 (inc. VAT). There are numerous Windows 8-based laptops that may lack the elegant design of the MacBook Pro, but which provide powerful 3D graphics cards for considerably less.
In addition to its updated hardware, the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the first new Mac model to ship with Mavericks – the latest version of Apple’s OS X operating system. Apple claims that Mavericks includes more than 200 new features, although many of these are additions to bundled apps such as Apple’s Mail and Messages, and offer little that is of particular interest to business users.
However, Mavericks does include two new features that Apple calls ‘timer coalescing’ and ‘app nap’, that are designed to maximise battery life on laptops. Mavericks also provides improved ‘sandboxing’ for apps such as Calendar and Contacts, and the Safari Web browser, in order to prevent it from spreading malicious code from phishing Web sites.
Apple also now includes its iWork suite free of charge, consisting of the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and the Keynote presentations program. These are unlikely to replace Microsoft Office, but all three apps are compatible with MS Office file formats, so they could be handy for users who may not have MS Office installed.
Who Should Buy It?
The 15-inch MacBook Pro is very expensive and, of course, significantly larger and heavier than its 13-inch counterpart, so business travellers who value portability above all else will prefer the slimline MacBook Air or a Windows Ultrabook. The laptop’s poor upgrade and service options are also short-sighted limitations. Even so, the dazzling Retina Display will earn its keep for users who need a large, high-quality display for graphics, design and other creative applications.