Apple's MacBook Pros have become the go-to laptop for professionals who demand high performance for creative tasks like photo and video editing.
The covers have been lifted off the latest revision to the 15-inch model, which includes a supremely high-resolution 'retina' display, the latest Intel Ivy Bridge Core series processors, a slimmer and lighter design and dedicated graphics cards.
Before you get too excited though, be aware that the base model that I've reviewed here starts at a not inconsiderable £1,800. If you want the top spec with all the gubbins, you're going to have to shell out over three grand. It's on sale now at the Apple store.
Design and build quality
When you slide the Pro out of the typically minimal box, the first thing you'll notice is its slim new design. It comes in at only 18mm thick, which shaves 6mm off the previous model's thickness, although its footprint is roughly the same. That 6mm might not seem like much, but it looks and feels like a major improvement. In fact, I was rather taken aback at such a big machine being so slim.
The Pro is now slimmer than the legions of ultrabooks on the market that are extremely thin yet offer a lot of power. While the Pro doesn't technically qualify as an ultrabook, it's now possible to think of it as one. If you do, it's without doubt the best ultrabook ever made.
The new slim design means Apple's been able to shave almost half a kilo off the weight, bringing it down to just over 2kg. You might not want to whisk it off on your travels across Europe, but you shouldn't struggle to carry it around for a day in a sturdy bag.
It uses the same unibody design as the others in the MacBook range, meaning the chassis has been made from a single piece of aluminium. That not only results in a deliciously good-looking machine, but it also makes it considerably more sturdy and resistant to knocks and bumps than laptops made out of various bits and pieces stuck together.
All the components are arranged to fit very neatly within the solid metal frame, which results in a very secure fit. It's much less likely that things are going to accidentally wobble loose if you make a habit of carrying it around. If you need a powerful machine for the road, rest assured the Pro is certainly capable of withstanding a rough-and-tumble lifestyle -- although I'd make sure you kept it in a sleeve to avoid scuffing that delightful, minimal metal.
Under the lid, things don't look much different from last year's model as the keyboard and trackpad haven't changed a jot. Given the keyboard is extremely comfortable to type on and the large glass trackpad still offers the most responsive experience in the business, that's definitely not a complaint. There's quite a bit of spare space around the trackpad though, so it wouldn't have been unwelcome had Apple made it a gnat's wing bigger.
The speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard are still in effect, so if you look top-down at the new Pro, you won't notice any difference between it and its predecessor. Apple reckons it's given the speakers a boost too, although I wasn't exactly blown away by a wall of noise. They're definitely among the best speakers available on laptops, with good high and mid levels, but they're almost completely devoid of bass. You'll want to use a decent set of headphones or external speakers to immerse yourself in your music and videos.
Around the edge you'll find an SD card slot, a thinner MagSafe 2 power connector (your existing MagSafe 1 plug won't work), two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt-powered Display Ports and a combined headphone and microphone jack. There's an HDMI port for hooking up to your massive TV using a normal HDMI cable, without requiring an adaptor.
There are a couple of points to raise with the port selection on offer. Firstly, the combined headphone/mic jack means you can't record onto the computer from an external device through a line-in socket while monitoring the audio on headphones. If you do a lot of audio work, you'll need to use an external sound card.
Particularly annoying is the absence of an Ethernet port. Apple has clearly sought to keep the thickness to a minimum, which is why it's decided to cut the Ethernet out, but Pro users who need to upload high-definition photos and videos to the intertubes will need to be able to connect to a high-speed wired connection.
You can buy an Ethernet adaptor that plugs into one of the Thunderbolt ports, but that's going to set you back an extra £25. Considering you're spending up to three grand on the thing, I'd certainly have expected this to have come as standard.
You'll therefore need to make sure you're always in range of an ultra-fast wireless connection if you hope to stream high-definition video smoothly. If you want to download large programs like Final Cut Pro from the App Store, you're definitely going to need that adaptor.
The stand-out feature of the new 15-inch MacBook Pro is the screen. It's bearing the 'retina display' moniker we've previously seen on the iPhone 4S and, more recently, the new iPad. It simply means the resolution has been given a significant bump, to the point where you can't see individual pixels from a standard viewing distance.
The resolution is now a whopping 2,880x1,800 pixels, which is double the previous model's 1,440x900 pixels in both directions. So why exactly would you need such a high-resolution screen?
It's mainly to benefit graphics and video professionals. When you look at high-resolution images on the screen, it's able to pack in so much more detail into the same physical amount of space, resulting in a ridiculously sharp image. Looking at photos taken on the excellent Canon EOS 5D MKIII, I was amazed at their clarity, with the tiniest details rendered extremely crisp, even when I pressed my nose nearly up against the glass.
For video professionals, it means 1080p footage can be displayed at full resolution in a small window within a program like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. That immediately makes it a more viable option for on-the-go editing. You won't need to hook it up to a bigger external monitor in order to get the best view.
That might sound great, but it's not all smooth sailing if you don't have graphics at the forefront of your mind. Apple has made a point of upgrading its own icons, graphics and software to look pin-sharp on the new display -- especially compared side by side with the Air. But software from third-party developers that hasn't been boosted for the new screen isn't going to look as smart as it once did. In time, most developers (at least the ones who want their software to look good) will make their apps retina-ready, as they did when the iPhone was upgraded.
The same issue applies to web browsing. Safari has been given an upgrade so all text looks crisp and sharp, but Google's Chrome browser has yet to receive the same treatment. Put them side by side and you'll notice a huge difference, with Chrome's fonts looking appallingly low quality in comparison. I had a play with a beta version of Chrome known as Canary, which seems to have addressed the text problems by using much higher-resolution fonts.
It's not just about text though. Icons and images are being upscaled in order to be normal sized on screen, meaning they're noticeably not as sharp. Although the difference might not immediately smack you in the face, it's difficult to ignore. You could probably live with it while you wait for web developers to upgrade all the graphics, but it's worth checking it out in an Apple store before you shell out thousands of precious pounds.
Resolution aside, the screen is extremely bold and very bright. I found looking at high-resolution photos to be a joy, with deep black levels and rich colour. If anything, the screen might be a little too bold, with colours sometimes bordering on the unnatural -- something that might become a problem for video producers needing to check colour balances from a shoot. It's similar to the Samsung Galaxy S2's bold Super AMOLED Plus screen, which was considerably more vivid than the iPhone 4S's more natural screen.
It does, however, have superb horizontal viewing angles. This is particularly handy if you're showing a group of your photography colleagues or clients your photos and want them to be seen at their best, regardless of where they're sat.
It's not just the screen and chassis that's been upgraded. Apple has whacked in a whole host of new tech under the hood to make sure the Pro is capable of tearing into all kinds of graphics work. Crucially, it has updated the processors to include the latest Intel Ivy Bridge chips, which boast considerably improved built-in graphics.
Like the other MacBooks, the new Pro can be configured to be more or less powerful, depending on your needs. My review model came with an Intel Core i7-3615QM processor clocked at 2.3GHz, along with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive. That's the base configuration and will cost you £1,799. The only addition you can make to that is to plop in an extra 8GB of RAM for £160.
The higher spec model comes with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7 processor as standard (or a 2.7GHz i7 for an extra £240), 8GB of RAM (or 16GB for another £160), and a 512GB SSD drive (or a 768GB drive for £440 more). The standard top model will set you back £2,229, but if you want all those extras, be prepared to shell out a cool £3,099.
So just what sort of power can you expect from that new slim frame? To find out, I took it for a spin and launched my set of brutal benchmark tests to see how it measures up.
On the Cinebench CPU test, it returned a score of 5.89. By comparison, the new 13-inch MacBook Air (which also packs the latest Ivy Bridge chips), achieved a score of 2.56 on the same test. I found the Air to be extremely nippy and capable of handling high-definition video encoding easily. So the fact that the Pro more than doubled its score hints at it being a seriously potent machine.
In my own use, I found it extremely fast, with absolutely no delay in opening programs or navigating through the OS X Lion operating system. To see how it handles encoding high-definition video, I set it to convert my 11-minute 1080p video clip into 24fps H.264 video. It managed this in the lightning-fast time of 4 minutes 35 seconds. The new Air completed the same task in a much slower (although still good) time of 8 minutes 30 seconds. The previous-generation Air, without the new Ivy Bridge chips, took 17 minutes.
It's clear to see the improved graphics performance on the Ivy Bridge processors is lending an excellent helping hand. It was a similarly speedy experience when I loaded enormous high-definition photos into iPhoto (supplied as standard), with imports completing very quickly and no lag visible at all when flicking between full-screen images.
Even the base model I was using will have no trouble editing high-res photos and videos. If you're a serious power user and want all your rendering and encoding to complete as soon as physically possible, you might want to opt for the higher-end configuration.
It's important to bear in mind that Apple has done everything it can to stop you from upgrading the system by yourself. The internal components have been soldered down inside and protected by custom screws, so only the most technically minded are going to be able to swap parts out -- an act that will totally void any Apple Customer Care and warranties you have.
That's extremely annoying to see, especially on such an expensive machine. It means that although you have a super-charged computer now, when faster SSDs and quicker RAM come out over the next couple of years, you won't be able to upgrade it as you normally would. It makes it more tempting to buy the most expensive model in order to 'future-proof' yourself and invest in a machine that will still be considered very powerful two or three years down the line. Apple will no doubt be quite happy with that.
Of course, many users don't care about upgrading and will be more than happy to carry on using the given configuration in their machine until the day it conks out completely -- or until they sell it. But it's rather galling to know you're spending thousands on a machine now and can't do anything to make it faster next year when it's superseded by quicker models.
The new Pros boast an Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics card with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. That will come into play with gaming, as well as lend a hand with editing in programs that are designed to use graphics cards alongside the main processor.
I booted up Valve's excellent puzzle game Portal 2 to get an idea of its gaming abilities. I found it was able to maintain an average frame rate of about 60fps, which resulted in very smooth gameplay with no lag at all. Portal 2 isn't the most demanding of games, but of course most of the top titles available through Steam won't play on Macs. If you're a dedicated PC gamer, you're still better off sticking to a Windows machine (although you could dual-boot Windows using Parallels).
My review model came with a 256GB SSD. Unlike traditional hard disk drives, SSDs don't have any moving parts so are more resistant to knocks, as well as being faster and more efficient. The drive was able to achieve a write speed of 403MBps and a read speed of 447MBps, which is extremely quick. This helps out with general use, but also gives the Pro very quick start-up and resume-from-sleep times.
To see how long the Pro is able to last away from the plug, I loaded a high-definition video file, set the brightness to maximum and timed how long it took for the battery to conk out. It kept going for 3 hours 45 minutes, which is very impressive, given the sheer size of the machine and the brightness of the display.
Playing video certainly isn't the most intense task you're ever likely to do on the Pro, so if you hope to edit and encode a lot of video on your travels, you shouldn't stray too far from a plug.
If you only need to fire off a few emails and keep the brightness to a minimum though, you needn't be too worried about the power inadvertently cutting out halfway through your explanation of why you aren't at work.
The new MacBook Pro is a stunning machine in many ways. Its new slim design is a superb change from the previous model and the retina display is nothing short of breathtaking. It's armed to the teeth with powerful processors and graphics cards too, so it won't shy away from the intense graphics tasks it's designed for.
Sadly though, the annoying lack of an Ethernet port, the high price and, crucially, its inability to be upgraded, mean it falls short of full marks.