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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Display at scale
In case you missed it, the Retina MacBook Pro is designed to operate with two external displays at up to 2,560-by-1,600 each in addition to the internal 2,880-by-1,800 screen. That's a ton of screen real estate and a common desktop setup for creative pros and developers. Apple's own 27-inch Thunderbolt Display ($999, not tested) doubles as a full docking station with built-in gigabit Ethernet, speakers, FaceTime HD, and FireWire 800 all from a single Thunderbolt connection. Apple has promised an 800-megabit FireWire adapter for Thunderbolt, but it hasn't appeared yet.

I have no ambivalence about dropping SuperDrive. It's been a long time since I've needed to burn a DVD on a plane. Thumb drives and SD cards cover my sneakernet and video needs. Externally powered DVD burners are much faster than SuperDrive, and Apple's USB-powered SuperDrive is skinny and practically weightless.

The only component I truly miss, the only one that isn't cheap to replace, is the digital (optical) audio input. I receive and record digital audio content in many formats, from many devices and on all kinds of media. Instead of using utilities to encode, transcode, and split tracks, I cheat by playing the original content and capturing the digital audio stream. The Retina MacBook Pro still outputs optical digital audio along with a line/headphone-level analog signal.

The Retina redesign obviates the need for an external microphone with remarkable built-in mics. Apple combines a pair of sensors with some nifty signal processing to separate speech from background noise. You can participate in a FaceTime or Skype call without leaning into your computer, using a headset microphone, or raising your voice. In fact, you can lower your voice for courtesy or privacy and still be clearly understood. This makes a world of difference for Mountain Lion's new voice dictation feature. I work in some noisy environments that make phone calls difficult. With the new microphones in the Retina MacBook Pro, I can dictate in a conversational tone.

The sensitivity of the microphones borders on spy gear. They're great for recording notes and interviews or making calls with multiple people in the room, but you still need a professional mic if you're recording a high-bit-rate podcast or other commercial audio.

Finally, the Retina MacBook Pro uses a pair of cooling fans with an unusual twist: Instead of the typical whistle that rises in pitch as the fans speed up, all you hear is moving air. Even at its loudest, it blends in with typical office sounds and doesn't leave your ears ringing.

Retina display: A higher high-res
At 2,880 by 1,800, the Retina MacBook Pro has the highest resolution of any notebook. That's quadruple the pixel count of Apple's standard 15.4-inch display (1,440 by 900), and it bests even Apple's 27-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 Thunderbolt display. You can view a 5-megapixel photograph, or a 5-megapixel swath of a much larger image, with no loss of detail. The Retina MacBook Pro is also Apple's first 15.4-inch notebook capable of displaying 1080p HD video without subjecting it to lossy downsampling.

As a whole, the Retina display is breathtaking. Deep blacks and rich colors complement the crisp detail added by the heightened pixel density. Areas of solid color fill in beautifully without seeming viewed through a screen door.

Retina isn't just about photos and video. It does wonders for text. It's easy to forget how beautiful type is. The simulated subpixels created by antialiasing smooth out curves and diagonals on typical displays, but at the cost of destroying the very shapes that make fonts interesting. Everyday body type, like what you're reading right now, turns into art on Retina.

Final Cut Pro X was among the first Mac apps updated for Retina display. The preview displays full-resolution 1080p HD without crowding out the UI.
Final Cut Pro X was among the first Mac apps updated for Retina display. The preview displays full-resolution 1080p HD without crowding out the UI.
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