MacBook Retina a stunning improvement in laptop technology

CBC News got exclusive use of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, Apple's next-generation laptop, which boasts a resolution of five million pixels -- or three million more than an HDTV. As Peter Nowak discovers, the resolution and video processing is impressive, although the price is a little steep.

Peter Nowak reviews Apple's next-generation laptop

Attendees at the 2012 Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco in June gather around Apple's new Macbook Pro laptop, which features a screen resolution of five million pixels. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images )

Two years ago, Steve Jobs altered the course of the web’s evolution by declaring war on Flash. The multimedia browser software that powered everything from games to videos was insecure, drained battery life and was unwieldy for touch-enabled applications, he said, which is why he refused to let it run on iPods, iPhones and iPads.

With the popularity of Apple’s gadgets exploding, the grave was dug. The final nail in the proverbial coffin came late last year when Flash maker Adobe declared it would no longer develop the software for mobile devices. Website, software and app developers have since moved on to HTML 5, Apple’s preferred multimedia design language. Flash, meanwhile, looks destined to wither on the vine of technologies whose time has come and gone.

As the biggest and most influential tech company in the world, Apple now looks to be driving another, similar paradigm shift, this time toward a higher-resolution web. The company is expanding its "Retina" display, first unveiled as a feature of the iPhone 4 in 2010, into a growing number of products. The iPad was added earlier this year, while a new high-end MacBook Pro laptop, announced at last week’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, is now getting the upgrade.

After a few days of playing with the new MacBook with Retina, it’s hard to imagine going back to a lower-resolution computer. The 15-inch Retina display — so named because it has a resolution density so high that the eye supposedly can’t discern any pixels — is a stunning improvement from previous models. The laptop boasts a resolution of five million pixels, or three million more than an HDTV and four times the previous generation MacBook Pro, according to Apple.

'Stunning' resolution

To the naked eye, the difference is most noticeable in photographs and certain text uses. Pictures look considerably sharper, crisper and more colourful than on non-Retina displays, which is useful when browsing through hundreds of vacation photos.

In my experience, there have been many occasions where a photo I’ve snapped with my camera or phone looked great on the respective device’s screen. Once transferred to my TV for all to see, the problems with the picture became glaring and even embarrassing. The reason I missed all the imperfections, from flecks of dust to poor focus, was often my computer and its substandard screen.

The Retina display, with its super resolution, fixes that. The MacBook makes it easier to spot out-of-focus or otherwise flawed photos before they’re blown up into a larger format. Once identified, the problems can be adjusted with editing software such as iPhoto or Aperture, or the photo can be scrapped altogether in favour of a better one.

The same holds true for text, depending on whether the particular application has been optimized for Retina displays. Text viewed through Apple’s Safari browser, for example, is incredibly sharp and pleasant to read.

Things go downhill, however, with applications that haven’t yet been upgraded. Reading website text with Firefox, for example, is akin to watching an analog television signal on an HDTV. The imperfections of the text are more noticeable, to the point where they look blurrier than on a non-Retina display.

Here’s where Apple’s influence may come into play. As Retina displays and the inevitable clones become more pervasive, web and app developers are likely to make the necessary upgrades. If so, that will likely have a huge impact on the web. Higher-resolution graphics and text will mean bigger file sizes, which will translate into more data traffic across internet networks, not to mention the need for more powerful devices to process it all.

No disc drive

The Retina MacBook Pro is just that - it’s packed with the sort of incremental technical improvements we’ve come to expect from every successive generation of computers. The laptop is powered by Intel’s quad-core Core i7 processors with up to 16 gigabytes of 1600 megahertz memory and 1 GB of dedicated video memory. The storage, meanwhile, is all flash-based, so copying files is faster than a traditional hard drive.

The lack of an optical disc drive, first ushered in with the MacBook Air, is sure to annoy some. Apple is again betting — in all-or-nothing fashion — that the future is disc-less, with all necessary media and software coming via download. Those who absolutely need disc drives will have to buy an external attachment if they want to use the Retina MacBook.

In many common use cases, the processing power differences aren’t that noticeable. For example, I did a speed test between the Retina MacBook and the new 13-inch MacBook Air, to see what the difference would be in copying files from a USB stick. The Retina MacBook, with its USB 3 port, copied the 3.5GB file in about five minutes while the Air - which has only a duo-core processor - did it in almost six. All things considered, that’s not that big a difference.

Similarly, both computers ably played four Quicktime high-definition movies simultaneously with no discernible slowdown or lag. The Retina MacBook scored more points in this test, of course, because of the higher resolution of the videos. They just looked so much better.

The Retina MacBook’s power supremacy was most apparent when it came to video processing. I tried outputting several videos from iMovie on both machines, with the higher-end machine typically finishing its jobs in about two-thirds the time of the slower one.

Testing the Retina MacBook against the Air wasn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison - pardon the pun - but it did highlight the difference in target markets. The high-end laptop, at a lofty price range of $2,229 to $2,829, is aimed at professionals who deal with photos and videos on a regular basis, as well as at enthusiasts who simply must have the latest and greatest.

Heavier than Air

Not surprisingly, it packs a few extra advantages. At a touch over two kilograms, the Retina MacBook feels clunky compared to the Air, the heaviest of which weighs in at only 1.3 kilograms. Still, the more powerful laptop is only slightly thicker.

It also offers about seven hours of battery life in moderate usage, which I found to be about an hour or two more than the Air. Lastly, the Retina MacBook also has a built-in HDMI port, for easy connection to external monitors and televisions. 

All told, there’s little doubt the Retina MacBook Pro is a powerful machine with the best-looking display on the market. It’s a little heavier than its Air cousins, but the performance differences make up for it.

The Air line, which features four models between $1,029 and $1,529, is still priced at the upper end of laptops, but is more within reach for the everyday user. It’s a safe bet that Apple will, over time, filter down the Retina display into its less-expensive machines, with web and app developers adjusting their output to match.

The average consumer is probably better off waiting a year or two for that to happen. However, for pros and enthusiasts who need the best visual fidelity possible, the Retina MacBook Pro is a no-brainer purchase.