MacBook Pro review: 15-in. Retina screen is revolutionary

Apple's top-end laptop makes a big leap with new display technology

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But if I were about to spend $2,199 and had to choose between the two MacBook Pros -- one with Retina display, one without -- I'd figure out a way to make the Retina version work. It's lighter, thinner, and it has that stunning screen.

The Retina display

In case you're wondering, a 2880-x-1800-pixel screen has more than 5 million pixels. That's more than you're looking at on the 27-in. iMac or even a high-end HDTV -- and when you pack those pixels into a 15-in. display, you get a level of sharpness and seriously rich color saturation heretofore unseen.

As soon as this MacBook Pro arrived, a co-worker called up photos from a recent trip to Greece. We both marveled at how good they looked, particularly given the subtle vibrancy of the colors. The same is true when viewing high-definition videos. Video looks as luscious as film. And text is impossibly sharp in text documents.

Best of all, you have a choice of resolutions, depending on how strong your eyes are and how big or small you want on-screen elements to look. The standard resolution out of the box is 1440-x-900 pixels, the same as other 15-in. MacBook Pros. But apps that haven't been updated to take advantage of the new technology can look a little pixelated at that resolution, especially with text.

Since I love, love, love higher resolutions, I immediately switched to the highest available: 1920-x-1200 pixels, the same as on my 17-in. MacBook Pro. At that resolution, everything looks sharp, whether the app has been updated or not. Yes, menu bars and screen icons get a little smaller, but the trade-off is worth it.

You can also drop the resolution to 1024 x 768 pixels, or 1280 x 800, which could be useful for someone with impaired vision, since doing so makes everything on the screen larger. All of the resolution options are detailed in the Displays preference pane; pick the one you want and the change takes about a second, no logging out or restarting required.

One resolution not readily available, ironically enough, is 2880 x 1800. It can be done, if you want to download a third-party utility and run it. (Switching back to an Apple-supported resolution is as easy as opening the Display preferences pane and choosing one of the options there.) But on-screen icons and text are awfully small at that resolution.

Screen resolution options
The Displays preference pane allows you to choose from among several resolutions.

Although Apple markets this screen as a Retina display -- its term for a screen where your eye can't discern individual pixels -- the pixels-per-inch (ppi) count is actually lower than the screens on the iPhone and the new iPad. The MacBook Pro Retina display offers 220ppi; the iPad, which was unveiled in March, delivers 264ppi; and the iPhone packs those pixels in the tightest, with 326ppi. Since you tend to view a laptop or tablet from further away than the iPhone, the difference isn't noticeable.

The new display also shows less glare than before, which is important if you're outdoors or in an office with bright overhead lights or sunny windows.

Other changes

One thing that's missing: the optical drive. Ever since Apple unveiled the first MacBook Air in 2008 sans a built-in drive, it seemed natural that the company would eventually follow suit with its other laptops. I'm surprised Apple waited this long. So don't be surprised if other MacBook Pros are similarly downsized over the next year or two, shedding not only the drive, but the weight. This particular model weighs less than 4.5 pounds and is noticeably thinner than past models.

New 15-in. MacBook Pro on top of discontinued 17-in. MacBook Pro
The 15-in. MacBook Pro (top) is noticeably thinner than the now-discontinued 17-in. version. It is also now the top-end MacBook Pro in the line-up.

(If you're someone who burns CDs and DVDs, you can get an external drive for $79 that connects via USB. You can also opt for a non-Retina-display MacBook Pro, which got a speed bump in the latest update, but retains the optical drive and weighs in at 5.6 pounds.)

In fact, by dumping the optical drive, Apple was apple to make the MacBook Pro just 0.71 inches thick -- about the same as the MacBook Air at its widest point. The lighter weight is obvious as soon as you pick it up; it's like picking up an Air, though it doesn't taper at the front edge like the Air. With the lid closed, it looks like an earlier 15-in. MacBook Pro that's been run over by a steamroller.

Surprisingly, the keyboard (lighted, as before) feels firmer than those on earlier models, and the brushed aluminum chassis feels even more solid.

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