Now that the buzz about the MacBook Pro Retina has waned I’d like to tell you the reasons behind my decision to not buy it.
As you recall, a few weeks ago, just before WWDC 2012, I sold my old pre-Unibody MacBook Pro 15″ and for about three weeks I managed my blog entirely from an iPad.
When the MacBook Pro Retina was unveiled at WWDC 2012, I got very excited and even stood in line at the local Apple Centre for 20 minutes just to have the chance to have some quality time with it.
Like me, many other bloggers either purchased it or gave a serious thought about buying one. As the days wore on, I had time to read the first reviews and forums and started getting an opinion on whether I should go for it or not.
Certainly the new Mac laptop is the future of Macs, there’s no doubt about it. The MacBook Pro Retina’s main feature (but don’t be fooled, it’s not the only one) is a fantastic screen. Despite the innovative technologies that it uses, the base model of the MacBook Pro Retina is priced quite aggressively compared to other Mac laptops on the market.
There are three main reasons why eventually I decided to pass this model and concentrate my assessment on whether to buy the standard MacBook Pro and Air, that I eventually bought (but this is for another post).
Revision A product
I’ve been a longtime Apple user and if there is one thing I’ve learnt in these twenty one years is that Rev. A Apple products are invariably destined to oblivion sooner than later revisions.
Don’t get me wrong, Apple is no different than any other multinational. When you introduce a new product the QA that the company carries out is limited to the pre-production units. The real QA is done by the users with the first product revision that goes on sale.
When users get their hands on the new machine they start using it in the real world. That means, using the laptop in a café, on a table with bread crumbs on it, in a car, maybe on a plane. Users’ wireless networks are the most diverse and problems with the network card can surface unexpectedly. On top of that users install a whole set of software to fit their needs that can of course change the way the cooling system is used.
Furthermore, there’s the usual problems with manufacturing processes. In the case of the MacBook Pro Retina, the beautiful screen is likely the most critical component of the whole laptop. It’s not a coincidence that the waiting times to buy a MacBook Pro Retina are so long. The demand of the new Mac is high but not even close to the demand of a new iPhone model. The delay is likely caused by the complexities of the manufacturing process of the new Retina display.
There’s also another thing. The new MacBook Pro Retina is completely different from any other computer ever designed by Apple. Its cooling system is new as well as the display and the battery (although admittedly Apple has some good experience with batteries thanks to the iPhone and the iPad). I would be not surprised if some of these systems turn out to be problematic once users start using the product in the real world.
In summary, the likely Revision B of the MacBook Pro that will be released when the Haswell family of Intel processors are released will make it a grown up product.
Given that I change laptop every four years or so, I was not ready to live with the teething problems that surely will surface in this model.
Hardware pushed to the limits
The moment I saw that the specs for the new MacBook Air (the classic MacBook Pro non-Retina and the MacBook Pro Retina use the same integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphic card) I though that this card must be a heck of a card. I also noticed that the two Pro models, non-Retina and Retina, shared the same discrete graphic card, the NVidia GeForce GT 650M.
Then I started writing down some numbers. The integrated card is able to drive displays from a resolution as little as 1366×768 (MacBook Air 11″) to the astonishing resolution of 2880×1800 of the Retina. In the Retina that card is being asked to drive a display with almost 400% more number of pixels of the small Air.
When it comes to the discrete graphic card NVidia GeForce GT 650M must drive four times as many pixels as the normal Pro.
I must be skeptical by nature but I can foresee that as applications become more demanding and more important as OS X adds more eye candy to its UI, the discrete graphic card is going to kick in more often than it should. That of course will result in a shorter battery life and less available processing power for the programs that really need a discrete graphic card.
AnandTech in his review has clearly stated that none of the graphical components in the MacBook Air were designed for those resolutions.
At the default setting, either Intel’s HD 4000 or NVIDIA’s GeForce GT 650M already have to render and display far more pixels than either GPU was ever intended to. At the 1680 and 1920 settings however the GPUs are doing more work than even their high-end desktop counterparts are used to.
The result is some stuttering of the UI even doing simple things like activating Mission Control:
At 2880 x 1800 most interactions are smooth but things like zooming windows or scrolling on certain web pages is clearly sub-30fps. At the higher scaled resolutions, since the GPU has to render as much as 9.2MP, even UI performance can be sluggish. There’s simply nothing that can be done at this point – Apple is pushing the limits of the hardware we have available today, far beyond what any other OEM has done.
As you recall, I’ve experienced something similar in my twenty minutes of quality time with the MacBook Pro Retina.
Again, my feeling was that it was wise to wait for the next revision of the product when both Intel and NVidia will have components ready for those resolutions.
Only recently, during my stay in California, I had the pleasure to have lunch with an Intel design engineer who told me how hard Apple is pushing Intel for better performing graphical capabilities out of their chips. Intel Haswell and even more Broadwell family of i5/i7 microprocessors will fulfill many of Apple requests. A big part of Intel’s roadmap was actually adapted to meet Apple’s demands. This is fascinating stuff. I was high even if I was only drinking iced tea.
At the beginning of this post I said that the Retina is currently priced quite aggressively compared to other Apple laptops.
It’s true, the base Retina model cost exactly the same as my specs out MacBook Air 13″.
Nevertheless, what I want to say in this section is that the low end Retina Mac is priced $400.00 more than the base non-Retina MacBook Pro 15″.
I would expect the prices of the Retina to go down next year when – in my opinion – the base non-Retina MacBook Pro 15″ will be phased-out and a new base Retina model will take its place, likely at exactly the same price.
The original MacBook Air was priced at a premium compared to other Mac laptops confining it to a niche market made of frequent travellers and hipsters. Prices of newer MacBook Air models got slashed to the point that the current models are actually the entry-level Mac laptops. The magic of the economies of scale, the absurdly efficient Apple logistics and contractual power with its suppliers has made all this possible. There’s no doubt that a similar pattern will repeat for the Pro Retina even though it will never be an entry model.
I’ve tried to give you the three main reasons why I didn’t go for the Retina. I am sure that whoever has bought one has found many more reasons that it is a good choice. Different people have different ways to assess and process data to make the best decision.
Unlike the many commenters online, I didn’t find the fact that there were not any 3rd party applications ready for the Retina display a problem. Usually developers are very fast when it comes to updating their software to include functionalities introduced in a new Apple product and I knew that that is a price to pay when it comes to breakthrough technology.
Despite the fact that I didn’t buy the new MacBook Pro Retina, I am a strong believer that it is an incredible product. Whoever says that after all it’s just a laptop with a high resolution display has not grasped the evolution of laptops and the trend of computers.
In the same way that when I bought my MacBook Pro 15″ in 2008 I knew that the next laptop would have an SSD, I now know that my next laptop will have a Retina display.