Review: MacBook Pro impresses, Retina MacBook Pro dazzles

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is blazing fast, but the all-new Retina MacBook Pro is unsurpassed

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Standard hardware features carried over from late 2011 models of the 15-inch MacBook Pro include a full-size backlit keyboard, 15.4-inch glossy LED backlit display, Apple headset-compatible headphone jack with optical digital audio output, Thunderbolt/Mini DisplayPort, FaceTime HD 720p Webcam, glass multitouch trackpad, multistream 802.11n Wi-Fi, SDXC memory card slot, and stereo speakers.

Everything you've read in this section is standard equipment no matter which 15-inch MacBook Pro you buy. From there, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook Pro take quite different paths. The first gives you last year's model, only faster: same chassis, same storage, same external ports, and the same aftermarket internal upgrade options as before. There are no surprises and no need to adjust -- just a healthy adrenaline kick to a simply great pro notebook with no rise in price.

If you feel like an adventure, if you're curious about what you could accomplish with the world's most advanced notebook, you should meet the new flagship of Apple's pro notebook lineup: MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Retina MacBook Pro: What trade-offs?
The 2.3GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display fetches a $400 premium over its non-Retina counterpart. You couldn't blame the average buyer for thinking that's a lot to pay for a skinny case and a fancy screen. It's also natural for longtime MacBook Pro users to look at Retina MacBook Pro in terms of the long-standard features it drops: SuperDrive (DVD burner), gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, user-upgradable memory, audio input, cross-model-compatible MagSafe charger, and the option to choose magnetic or solid-state disk. It also removes the sleep and battery-level LEDs.

In truth, the $2,199 2.3GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display is probably the best deal Apple has going. In addition to the 2,880-by-1,800 display, the base config includes 8GB of RAM, 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory, the thinner and lighter chassis, a higher-capacity battery, and best of all, Apple's next-generation 256GB SSD. You can't come close to building a comparable machine from the $1,799 15-inch MacBook Pro plus $400 in upgrades from Apple or third-party suppliers.

The components Apple trimmed to make the Retina MacBook Pro fit in its new case, without compromising performance, are well chosen. Instead of carrying everything with you, you get to choose the peripherals you need. Instead of upgrading inside the case, make use of Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 to expand externally.

The value of the trade-offs became obvious after alternating between carrying 15-inch MacBook Pro and Retina MacBook Pro for a few weeks. Apple's redesigned notebook fits so much better in my hand that I take it everywhere, more like a tablet than a desktop-replacement-class notebook. The multistream 802.11n Wi-Fi lets me connect to late-model base stations at up to 450Mbps.

When you land at a desk, Retina MacBook Pro turns out to have more connectivity options, not fewer. Apple offers a $29 gigabit Ethernet adapter that plugs into a Thunderbolt port. A second Thunderbolt port has been added to Retina MacBook Pro so that using Ethernet doesn't tie up your connection to a high-resolution display or external Thunderbolt RAID. To make it easy to connect to HD monitors, Apple added an HDMI output on the right side of the chassis. You don't need an adapter; the HDMI port carries multichannel digital audio as well.

All Intel Mac applications will run on Retina MacBook Pro, but some will exhibit scaling artifacts until they're updated. For example, compare Chrome 20, at left, with native Safari, at right.
All Intel Mac applications will run on the Retina MacBook Pro, but some will exhibit scaling artifacts until they're updated. For example, compare Chrome 20, at left, with native Safari, at right.
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