Q&A: 15-inch MacBook Pro with retina display

I'm trying out one of Apple's new, next-generation MacBook Pros with a retina display. I asked my followers on Twitter what they wanted to know about the it, and got a slew of great questions. I've posted representative questions here, along with my answers.

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  1. This system is the base model, selling for $2,199. It has an Intel Core i7 processor, 8 GB of 1,600-GHz RAM and a 256-gigabyte flash drive. It has two USB 3.0/2.0 ports, an HDMI port (about time, Apple!), two Thunderbolt ports, a memory card reader and a combo headphone/mic jack. 

    It uses a MagSafe 2.0 AC adapter, which has a smaller connection that previous chargers. That's right, your old Mac power bricks won't work with this one.

    There's no optical drive, and no Ethernet adapter. This is a notebook for the streaming, broadband Internet age.

    One thing to note about this design: It's pretty much non-upgradeable. The memory and the flash drive are soldered to the system board. The battery is also non-replaceable by mere mortals. If you order one of these, you'll want to make sure you're getting a configuration you can live with for a long time. 

    And if you max out the configuration with the fastest processor, the maximum 16-GB of RAM and a 768-GB flash drive, plan on paying about $3,750. 
  2. As was true with the iPad 3, many software developers are going to have to optimize their apps for the new MacBook Pro's retina display. Apps that don't use OS X's Cocoa software libraries will not fare well. One of the best examples is Twitter for Mac, which has annoyingly fuzzy text. By contrast, Echofon, another Mac client, has crisp, sharp text. 

    You can see an example in an image I posted to Twitter showing a chron.com story in Chrome, on the left, and Safari, on the right. 
  3. Websites that use low-res images for graphics, buttons and icons are going to have decide whether they want to upgrade these components, because they are noticeably fuzzy on a display like this. As more and more devices have these very high-resolution screens, it will become an issue.

    For now, I don't quite think this is a reason not to buy this model - developers will catch up fairly soon even if website operators don't. But it depends on your tolerance for graphical fuzziness.

    With apps that are optimized for the display, such as Apple's Aperture photo-management program, and websites with high-res graphics, the display here really shines. It is indeed the best-looking screen I've ever used, and it will be hard going back to my older, 13-inch MacBook Pro.
  4. I have yet to hear the fan, period. I haven't done anything yet that really pins the meter, though. But running Windows in a virtual machine and watching video, which quickly triggers the fan in most notebooks, so far have not caused audible fan noise.

    The bottom gets a little warm, but nothing like my late-2009-era  MacBook Pro. That one gets downright uncomfortable. 
  5. The display is impressive, but I'm more blown away by the speed, which can largely be chalked up to the 256-gigabyte flash memory storage. (Apple pointedly does not refer to it as a Solid State Drive, or SSD.) With this very fast (500 MBps read/write speed) storage, almost everything happens instantly.

    For example, Mac users know how dock icons bounce when you click on them, and continue bouncing until the app is launched. On this device, most app icons bounce up, and the app has finished launching before the icon falls back to the dock. Yes, even the bloated and slow iTunes moves this quickly. 

    Another example: I installed the latest version of Parallels on the retina MacBook Pro, along with a Windows 7 virtual machine. It takes about 8-10 seconds for Windows to boot to a usable desktop. A restart of Windows takes only 17 seconds to go from clicking the Shutdown button to a usable desktop. 
  6. While I haven't really had this long enough to give it a thorough test, so far what I've seen indicates that Apple's claim of 7 hours may be accurate, and possibly even a little modest. 
  7. On apps that are not optimized for the display, not. They're just smaller, and still fuzzy.

    The Display properties has a nice feature that lets you select from several resolution presets, with the middle one being recommended as the best balance between smooth text and readability. If you display text at the full 2,880-by-1,600 resolution, it's way too small to read . . . at least for my eyes.
  8. Images seem to look fine; apps are not harder to use. Very high-resolution photos look amazing. NASA's high-resolution Blue Marble pictures of the Earth from space are spectacular on this thing.
  9. Apple has engineered the LCD part of the screen into the topmost sheet of glass, thus reducing the number of panes of glass in the display. This does cut down on the reflection and glare, but there's still some. It's worse under office fluorescent lighting than outdoors.
  10. No, that feature won't come until Mountain Lion is released next month.
  11. For most people interested in a portable Mac, this model is probably overkill, both in terms of power and price. 

    But here's something very interesting. The base price of the standard, non-retina, 15-inch MacBook Pro is $1,799. It has the same processor as the retina model - a 2.3-GHz Core i7 - but only 4 GB of memory and a traditional hard drive. The base retina model is $2,199 with 8 GB of RAM and a 256-GB flash drive.

    If you configure the traditional MacBook Pro to have 8 GB of RAM and a 256-GB Solid State Drive, it costs $2,399 - actually more than the retina MacBook Pro with similar specs. If you're looking for a machine with this configuration, the retina model is the better deal.

    Still, $2,199 is a lot of money for a notebook computer. While there's not really an equivalent Windows PC because of the display, a high-end Dell XPS 15z with similar specifications sells for around $1,600. Eventually, all Macs will have a retina display, and prices are likely to drop. 

    Unless you're someone who needs an extremely high-res screen - such as a photographer or digital artist - you may be better off with a traditional MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. 
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