This week, Apple introduced what it immodestly described as, “without a doubt, the very best computer we have ever built.” The self-congratulations didn’t end there. In announcing its new MacBook Pro with Retina display, the company said it had made “huge leaps” in technology and design, hailing the laptop as a new paradigm in personal computing that was only made possible by throwing out previous constructs and starting from scratch.
I know Apple never learned the meaning of the word hyperbole, but a radical new design? Viewed from one’s actual lap, Apple’s latest is virtually indistinguishable from previous designs; a closer sibling to the tank-like old Pro than the sports-car-like MacBook Air. Not that the fish aren’t biting: Reviews have been generally positive, and within a day of the computer’s Monday release, shipping backlogs on the Apple site went from five days to two weeks. By Thursday, the backlog had grown to four weeks.
I’m one of those fish, having compulsively hit refresh on the Apple Store site after the company’s announcement until I was able to order the computer, like most first adopters, sight unseen. Then I went to an actual Apple store and spent some quality time with a floor model while I waited for mine to arrive. The reality of the Retina MacBook is a study in compromises. Like the wildly popular but often despised crossover SUV’s, my new laptop attempts to be all things to all people, forcing serious trade-off’s in the process. Here are five things that have me second-guessing my impulse buy:
1. “Least Repairable Laptop Ever” That was the judgment of IFixIt, a popular online gadget repair manual, which gave it a 1 out of 10 on the site’s scale for ease of repair or upgrade. You got that right. For starters, among Apple’s innovative design decisions was to fuse the fancy new Retina display to the case and remove the protective glass layer in front. This makes it more vulnerable to damage, and means you’re basically screwed if it does get damaged. The RAM is soldered to the board and cannot be replaced or upgraded after purchase. The SSD hard drive is proprietary and cannot, as of yet, be upgraded by the user. And the battery is glued to the case, preventing replacement. With previous models, you could drop by the Apple Store and pick up a new battery right off the shelf. Now, it appears Apple’s solution to virtually any hardware issue is likely to mimic their approach to iPhone, iPad and iPod repairs, namely, “we’ll take that, here’s a new one.” Even hardcore Apple enthusiasts on sites like Appleinsider.com are advising that AppleCare, the company’s extended warranty, is a must have here (for an extra $350, of course). And best keep all that “personal” content (you know what we’re talking about) off your internal drive, lest it be viewed by your neighborhood Apple geniuses the first time you have a problem and have to hand over your whole machine for replacement.
2) The Price of Beauty. Yeah, it’s a tad thinner and a pound lighter than my old MacBook Pro, but the real star here is the screen. Apple appropriated the “Retina” label it first used with its current model iPhone’s and iPad’s to suggest that the resolution is so high that pixels become indistinguishable to the human eye. And though the display’s pixels are not as dense as those other devices, the MacBook’s resolution is indeed the highest, for probably the next couple months, on a laptop. It looks great. But as CNet noted, you need to be comparing it to the regular MacBooks to fully appreciate the difference. Did we really need a 2,880 x 1,800 resolution on a 15” screen? Even Apple knows it would be ridiculously small for fonts or icons, which is why they don’t allow you to set the resolution anymore. Instead, you pick the text size you want and the computer chooses how to scale it, maxing out around 1,920 x 1,050 for normal use. Programs like iPhoto can take advantage of the full resolution but only because they have been specially modified to do so. Those that haven’t yet been modified, like Firefox and Outlook, look like crap, with blurry text and graphics.
That will solve itself with time, but what won’t is the weight, size or battery life, all of which were impacted by the screen resolution. Those five million pixels suck up some serious GPU (graphics processor) time, which in turn, sucks up battery power. It’s impressive that the computer still can claim seven hours of battery life with optimal use (though note that USA Today, in its review, warned that power users will probably get only two hours). But I can’t help thinking that if Apple hadn’t added that fancy new screen, it might have gotten closer to that aspiration of an Air-like profile and weight.
3) Good thing that battery is big. Apple redesigned its power supply connector for the new MacBook, supposedly to accommodate the thinner case, though the even-thinner, previous-generation MacBook Air cases did just fine with the original one. That means anyone wanting to have multiple power adapters for, say, the office and home, needs to either shell out $80 for an extra one or buy converters for their existing ones. Also, Apple also took a huge step backward in the design of their latest connector. Its first MagSafe had a reputation for pulling out easily, especially when used in your lap. Apple improved the next version, redesigning the connector to be lower profile, rounded, and directing the cable to the side. Problem solved. Inexplicably, the new adapter reverts to the old design. Problem unsolved.
4) Sunscreen is extra. Apple has been enamored with glossy glass screens for a while now. They help pictures and movies pop with vibrant colors. But power users have long known that glossy screens flat-out suck for outdoor use or in rooms with bright lights behind you, like the average office environment. And if you spend more time, like many of us do, emailing, surfing the Internet, or working with documents, instead of editing your next Vimeo submission, you won’t see much of the upside of the gloss. With the Retina Mac it’s go gloss or go home. Apple claims to have improved the glare problem, but its results would have to be measured in fractions. The screen still attracts glare like a solar panel.
5) You say you want a revolution… Yeah, but this ain’t it. Inevitably, this time next year we will see 2,880 x 1,800 pixel screens all over the place. This is a minor evolution of the line, not a major shift. Apple is selling its own history short, because the Air remains its most innovate design, all these years later. As Dan Ackerman at CNet noted, the Retina Mac “feels like a rest stop on the road to somewhere else,” a place where we truly get thin, light and beautiful. Already, the Samsung Series 9 is smaller and lighter. And many of the rest of the radical changes are more marketing hype than features. The asymmetrical fan blades that were going to revolutionize quiet laptop cooling? If you try real hard, you might hear a trivial difference. What about the “All Flash Architecture”? In other words, whereas before you had a choice between a fast, but ridiculously expensive SSD drive, or a cheaper, larger capacity conventional hard drive, now you can only have the SSD drive. Only Apple could successfully market that limitation as a revolutionary feature.
Of course, if you need to connect an Ethernet cable you better shell out extra for a dongle and hope you can find it when you need it. Need to watch a movie on disc or load a program or content the old fashioned way? Apple has just the extra accessory to sell you for that, too, since it is no longer included.
The new MacBook Pro with Retina display is a nice computer. The screen is innovative at a cost of both dollars and features. Whether it’s worth the substantial premium (more than $4,000, fully loaded) is a personal decision. Apple has never been accused of catering to the wish lists of the masses, and this is no exception. It has staked its claim on a new display standard and if that means trade-offs, take it or leave it. As usual, the company will likely have enough takers to do alright.