The 2012 Retina MacBook Pro [Review]

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The Retina MacBook Pro is the best Mac Apple has ever made. That doesn't mean it's the best Mac for you.
The Retina MacBook Pro is the best Mac Apple has ever made. But is it the best Mac for you?

Performance & Feel

Portal 2’s Wheatley in Retina. Can anyone say Apple?

There was a time not too long ago when everything about a computer’s performance was judged by how fast its processor was, how good its graphics card was and how much RAM it had.

When Apple introduced the new MacBook Airs back in late 2010, they finally shifted the way most people thought about how powerful a laptop could be. On paper, the new MacBook Airs were dinky little machines, with wimpy last-gen Intel Core 2 Duo processors, anemic GPUs and RAM that just maxed out at 4GB. Then you actually used one, and you suddenly found yourself using the fastest computer you’d ever used in your life.

The reason the new MacBook Airs feel so speedy, even compared to machines with far better specs, is because they finally ditched the major performance bottleneck that had been crunching away underneath our fingertips for years: spinning, physical hard drives. The new MacBook Airs may not have been able to do as many calculations per second or draw as many polygons as, say, a MacBook Pro, but for 95% of what people do on their computers, none of that mattered; what was really dragging everything down and spitting up so many beach balls and introducing so much friction into our Mac experience was the fact that computers were still recording and reading their data from the computer equivalent of a 78rpm record, when every other element had become as fast as light.

You become divorced from OS X’s spinning beach ball to such an extent that when you do see one, it’s like accidentally running into a nasty ex instead of living with a ball-and-chain.

The Retina MacBook Pros gives the same gift to professionals that the MacBook Air gave to more casual laptop owners: it ditches the spinning hard drive and puts OS X into hyperdrive. The system starts up and goes to sleep faster than ever before. Rebooting the machine takes less than six seconds, and when you log in, all your previously open apps restore almost instantly. Apps open and close more quickly. Large files nearly load up instantaneously. You become divorced from OS X’s spinning beach ball to such an extent that when you do see one, it’s like accidentally running into a nasty ex instead of living with a ball-and-chain. Every single core aspect of using a Mac becomes faster, as if it were greased. The result is that, even ignoring benchmarks, the day-to-day feel of using the Retina MacBook Pro seems as if every spec in the machine had been doubled, or even tripled.

Even so, the MacBook Pro isn’t a machine for casual computer users. It’s a machine ultimately meant as a portable workstation for users who need to push their computers to the utmost limit: video professionals rendering movies, designers crunching massive Photoshop files, and the hardcore gamer looking for the fastest gaming machine he can carry under his arm. CPU, GPU and RAM count a lot.

The only Macs with a better Geekbench score is the Mac Pro and the top-of-the-line 27-inch iMac.

Luckily, the MacBook Pro is, even in its base configuration, still a powerhouse of a machine.

Testing the baseline Retina MacBook Pro with a 2.3GHz Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M Kepler GPU, we walked away with a Geekbench score of 12019.

That’s a staggering improvement over the 2011 MacBook Pro, which only boasted a GeekBench score of around 9500. The silicon in this machine is over 20% faster than the last-generation model, and that’s without taking into account the performance boost of the SSD. That makes this the fastest Mac you can buy short of a Xeon-fueled Mac Pro, leaving even the top-of-the-line 2011 Sandy Bridge 27-inch iMac in the dust by a considerable margin.

Diablo III runs pretty well even at 2880 x 1800. Frame rate counts during carnage.

In the real world, we saw huge performance gains on Adobe PhotoShop (which has not been updated for the Retina display yet), iMovie, Aperture and other system-taxing applications. And without a doubt, this is the best gaming notebook out there: Blizzard’s Diablo III ran at an acceptable 20-25 frames per second for us even with a maxed out (and quite unnecessary) resolution of 2,880 x 1800, and reducing it to a still insane but more realistic resolution of 2048 x 1280 gave us frame rates of 45 to 50 frames per second, even when hacking a meat path of carnage through the tormented denizens of the Arreat crater on Hell difficulty.

There’s no point in mincing words. Silicon for silicon, the Retina MacBook Pro is the most powerful notebook you can buy, and a 20% faster machine than last generation. Combined with the new Retina display and ultra-fast flash storage, this is the pretty much the best all-encompassing professional rig you can buy off the shelf.

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