Three million, four hundred twenty thousand pixels aren't the only things separating Apple's new Retina Display MacBook Pro from every laptop the company has made before now. Yes, the screen is a major milestone for laptop displays just as the iPhone 4 and iPad 3 displays before it. But this new, $2199 MacBook Pro is home to a few more firsts: it's the first Pro without interchangeable innards, making aftermarket RAM or hard drive upgrades impossible. It's the first to include USB 3.0 ports and HDMI.
These are features on a checklist that signify the Pro as a premium notebook. They're also indications of what we can expect from Apple in the next few years. It's only a matter of time until the classic 13- and 15-inch Pros follow the 17-inch and quietly disappear.
The 2880x1800 display also raises a whole crop of performance questions. How can Apple claim both 15-inch models offer the same battery life? How will a mobile graphics card handle powering five million pixels? Apple's banking on Nvidia Kepler to live up to the challenge. Gamers may compulsively start drooling at the prospect of playing Diablo 3 at 2880x1800 resolution, but that's a tall order for a mobile graphics card. Expect some growing pains as we move into an exciting new generation of display technology.
A Display From the Future
For the past two years technology makers like Samsung have been showing off ultra high resolution displays in smaller and smaller packages, but rarely have they jumped past the prototype phase. Only in the past six months or so are we finally seeing those displays make it into mass production and show up in devices like the Galaxy Nexus and HTC One X, which deliver over 300 ppi with their 1280x720 screens. And there's the new iPad, naturally, which packed a 2048 x 1536 pixel display into a 10-inch form factor to deliver over 250 ppi.
The new MacBook's display can't match that pixel density because it's dramatically larger at 15.4 inches, but you'll also be using it at lap or desk distance--probably slightly further away than a tablet and significantly further away than a phone.
The way Apple's handling that resolution is novel: they're letting users scale the display as they see fit. By default, the system scales the 2880x1800 resolution down to a quarter of its full size, 1440x900. That's the base resolution of the regular 15-inch MacBook. The result is an incredibly sharp picture. But you can slide the scale as you choose, scaling up to 1680x1050 or 1920x1080 for more screen space. That's as high as you can take the OS, so even at 1920x1080 you'll benefit significantly from downscaling sharpness.
This is a new experience for most computer users. We're not used to DPI scaling. Neither are developers, which is why it's going to take some time for all third-party applications to display properly on the new MacBook. Anandtech compared Safari and Chrome running on the new screen and found that Google's browser ignores Apple's text rendering, resulting in ugly, jagged text. Expect some software annoyances to come from using this display for a few weeks, if not months, after launch.
The same article points out that games aren't restricted like Mac OS; they can and will scale all the way up to native 2880x1800. Guess what: that's really, really high, and laptops in general (and Macs in particular) are not known for their gaming performance. How's that going to work?
Kepler and Ivy Bridge at the Plate
The two MacBook Pro revisions released in 2011 used AMD graphics, but this year Nvidia's back in play with a brand new GPU. The new GeForce GT 650M offers 1GB of DDR5 memory, as did last year's Radeon 6770M. The new architecture is faster, as shown on NotebookCheck's comparison charts, but the 650M isn't exactly setting the graphics world on fire. While the 650M supports up to 2GB of dedicated memory, Apple opted for the 1GB version, meaning you won't see the kind of performance out of the MacBook Pro as Notebook Check got in some of its gaming benchmarks.
Obviously playing games on the Mac--especially at 2880x1800 resolution--isn't going to be ideal. Dialing the resolution back and/or playing less demanding games should work out just fine, though. Video professionals who work on laptops will see a big boost in video transcoding speeds thanks to Intel's Quick Sync technology. It was fast in Sandy Bridge, and it's even faster in Ivy Bridge. In terms of general performance, the new Ivy Bridge processors score only marginally faster than last year's Sandy Bridge. Benchmarks don't reveal any significant gains for the processors Apple picked for this year's laptops.
The classic 15-inch model and new Retina MacBook sport the same processors, RAM and graphics cards, making power consumption of the two units pretty comparable. It's telling, then, that Apple had to include a 95-watt-hour battery in the new MacBook to match the 7 hour battery life claim of the standard unit's 77.5-watt-hour battery. That's what it takes to power the higher resolution display--not as big a jump as Apple made from a 25-watt-hour battery to a 42.5-watt-hour between the second and third iPad generations.
We'll have to wait for extensive battery rundowns to see if the 2880x1800 screen proves to be a burden. Optimistically, the laptop will offer great battery life and only take a small performance hit in regular use thanks to the high resolution display. Gaming at that resolution would be a challenge for virtually any GPU.
USB, HDMI and Soldered Components
Apple slimmed down the already-thin MacBook Pro design by a quarter inch to bring the weight of the Retina MacBook down to 4.46 pounds. It's still heavy compared to an ultraportable MacBook Air or Ultrabook, but damn light for a 15-inch system that's not built out of flimsy plastic. Getting down to that size necessitated cutting some features that few people will really miss. The optical drive is gone. The Ethernet port had to go. Battery technology is still the biggest limitation for our mobile devices, as you can see in the image below. The battery takes up a huge portion of the laptop body.
New features like HDMI and USB 3.0 are great for utility, but they're also new territory for Apple. The company has always pushed its own connectors over more popular alternatives, and until now only the media center-focused Apple TV and Mac Mini have offered HDMI. Apple waited until Intel natively supported USB 3.0 with its Ivy Bridge chipset instead of installing one of many third-party chipsets available in 2011.
Installing USB 3.0 and HDMI isn't exactly an admission that Thunderbolt is a little-supported transfer format that's not really growing, but it's a nice compromise for mainstream users.
The saddest victim of Apple's quest for thinner profiles is the death of the replaceable component. Apple has never really liked having its devices opened up, but the new Retina MacBook joins the Air line in having soldered-on solid state memory and RAM, meaning neither is user-replaceable with aftermarket parts. This sucks for two reasons: one, Apple charges a lot more for RAM than you'd pay for third-party memory. Two, changing your mind is not an option. Buy the amount of memory you'll want two years from now, because you won't be upgrading.
On the bright side, a 500 MB/s SSD will make this laptop fly.
The MacBooks of 2013 and Beyond
With a starting price of $2199, it's easy to see why Apple didn't update its entire line of laptops with quad-resolution LCDs. They're really expensive. This is the first IPS MacBook Pro screen, so viewing angles should be great. Unlike the glossy MacBook Pro screens, the Retina screen isn't covered with an extra layer of glass, which Apple promises will majorly reduce glare. When can we expect to see this kind of display in every Apple laptop?
Probably not next year. The year after? Perhaps. Think of the arc the MacBook Air has taken: it started out as a prohibitively expensive system in 2008 and became Apple's cheapest laptop in 2011. The rise of solid state technology made that slim design practical. The same thing will happen with LCDs: as more and more factories begin cranking out these incredibly dense displays, prices will fall and support will grow. The Retina MacBook Pro will likely be more popular than the first Air, but it's not going to rake in sales until its price comes down closer to the $1799 starting price of the regular 15-inch Pro.
Following what the PC market does will be interesting. Android devices have arguably bested the iPhone 4 screen, but only in the past six months. It'll be awhile before PC makers give us some good alternatives to the 2880x1800 panel, but we bet they're already scrambling.