Macbook Pro with Retina Display

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Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either. Never thought I would ever buy a Mac. That makes it the 3rd Apple product I’ve ever bought – first was a 1st gen iPod Shuffle circa 2005, and second was a 1st gen iPod Nano circa 2006.

Couple months ago I gave my laptop to my dad (who wanted an upgrade from his 6 years old laptop to my 3 years old laptop) because I didn’t think I would need it for at least a year or so since I have graduated… and then of course I decided to go to grad school, meaning I still need a laptop! So I started looking for a new laptop.

I’ve bought a few laptops over the years, so I have pretty much figured out things I liked and hated. When I started looking this time I already had a PRETTY good idea of what I am looking for – long battery life, relatively light, and not a Mac. I don’t really have anything against Macs (unlike iOS, which I have many things against), just that they had always been overpriced, and I could never afford them. This time I am almost completely ignoring performance because I realized that I don’t play games on my laptop enough to worth sacrificing weight and battery life for a fast CPU and discrete GPU. That pretty much puts me in the “ultrabook” segment… whatever that’s supposed to mean.

There were quite a few laptops I was looking at – Lenovo t440s and Asus UX302 being the most likely candidates. They both have around 7 hours of battery life, and are relatively light, so they do fit the bill.

And then, for some bizarre reason, I decided to check out Apple.com just for lols.

I was surprised!

Macbook Pros now start at $1,300, compared to around $2,000 just a year or 2 ago. These machines do have very good specs for the price – very nice display, 700MB/s SSD, Intel Iris (5100, which is significantly faster than Intel HD 4400 used on most Haswell laptops), and 9 hours battery life claimed. So I started reading reviews, and became even more impressed.

Most reviews were very positive, and they all mentioned that the battery life is actually closer to 10-11hr than 9, which Apple claims. I won’t bore you by quoting those reviews further, since if you are considering MacBooks, too, you have probably also read those reviews already.

So I’m just going to write about the things most of those reviews didn’t mention, and I thought were important in making my decision –

Positive

  1. The screen is 16:10, instead of the much more common 16:9. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on what you use the laptop for. 16:9 is better for watching movies, and 16:10 is better for work (at least for coding). Vertical space is very important because a few lines of extra screen space means much less scrolling up to see function definitions, variable declarations, etc. On the other hand, horizontal space is not very useful unless you write code in very long lines.Another thing to note is that since 16:10 is closer to square than 16:9, the same diagonal length in 16:10 equals more area than a 16:9 screen with the same diagonal length. In fact, if you do the math, you’ll see that 13.3″ in 16:10 gives you an area that is almost exactly half way between 13.3″ and 14″ in 16:9, and the same vertical space as 14″ in 16:9.
  2. The 13″ MacBook Pro has a 70 WHr battery. That is larger than almost all other ultra ultrabooks including the ones with longest battery life – t440s (47 WHr), UX302 (50 WHr) and HP Spectre 13 (51 WHr). That’s where the battery life came from. There are no weird secret software optimizations or anything. If you have a battery twice as big, it will last twice as long.

    Sorry software guys… this one is a solid hardware design win for Apple. Software optimizations may have helped a little, but no doubt most of it is because of the much bigger battery, that hardware guys managed to design in.

    Modern lithium polymer energy density is about 160 WHr/kg according to Wikipedia, which means an extra 20 WHr would weigh about 125 grams more.

    With 125g more weight in battery, and a 5% bigger screen, it’s understandable that it’s very slightly (about 0.1-0.2 lb) heavier than the other ultrabooks, and I think it’s a very good tradeoff that all the other manufacturers seem to be very reluctant to make. I would take 3 more hours of battery life over a slightly lighter laptop any time, especially since the charger weighs way more than the difference, and I would have to carry that, too, if the laptop can’t last a whole day. This is probably the single biggest reason I chose the MBP – that it has about 2 hours longer battery life than the next runner-up.

Negative

  1. Thunderbolt ports are useless, and the MBP has 2 of them. It’s something Apple has been trying to push for couple years, and has obviously failed to compete with USB 3.0, for a variety of good reasons, like insanely high cost for similar performance. Yet, they stubbornly still waste a bunch of valuable IO space on the MBP to put in 2 of them, which results in the elimination of the RJ45 (ethernet) port, as well as possibly another USB 3.0 port, both of which would be much more useful. The only use for a Thunderbolt port is with a gigabit adapter that converts Thunderbolt to RJ45… why not just include a RJ45 port instead?They did similar things with Firewire. Now it’s Thunderbolt. Why can’t they just use industry standard connectors?
  2. The machine is completely un-upgradeable and un-repairable. CPU and GPU are not upgradeable as always, RAM is not upgradeable because it’s soldered onto the main board, SSD is not upgradeable because it uses a proprietary (PCI-E) connector, and battery is not replaceable because it’s totally enclosed and attached to the rest of the machine with strong adhesives. The use of proprietary connector on the SSD MAY be justified – since the performance we are getting from those SSDs is much higher than SATA 3 limit.

    This kind of designs may be necessary to achieve the size and performance they are aiming for (70 WHr battery in a chassis this small), and is definitely an engineering feat, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not all out of necessity – for example, the use of non-standard screws is totally unnecessary. This I consider a serious downside of this machine, and almost convinced me to not buy it.

    Being able to repair my laptops is very important to me, and the MBP is very bad in this department.

At this point I was still undecided, so the next day I went to an Apple Store and played with an actual machine for about an hour, and had a few more discoveries.

  1. The screen is gorgeous. This is something everyone says… and it’s true. The viewing angle is also very close to 180 degrees. That said, I also looked at the MacBook Air 13″ to compare the screens (MBP has 2560×1600 resolution, and MBA has 1440×900), and I did not notice any difference. I don’t believe “retina” (the Apple term for high resolution apparently) really helps. It’s just a marketing thing. Though, if you are planning to sell the machine later, it can significantly affect the resale value of your machine, since many people do care about that.Also worth noting is the way OSX handles these insanely high resolutions.

    If you have tried to use Windows with this kind of resolutions, you would notice that everything becomes painfully tiny, because everything in Windows is based on absolute pixel counts. Sure, you can increase font sizes, but then everything looks ugly and now fonts and other UI features are out of proportion.

    The way OSX handles it is very similar to the way Android handles it (I’m not sure which one came first). Basically they define a concept of device-independent pixels. So basically developers would design UIs based on, say, 300 DPI screens, and the device would automatically scale everything at runtime based on the DPI of the actual device, so UI features will look the same on all resolutions. In the case of OSX, most applications would design UIs to be scaled up (in pixel count) on high resolution displays, with only some parts of the UI using the screen’s full resolution (eg. the image display region of Photoshop, or the preview screen of iMovie). For scaling of UI features, it’s unclear if the scaling is done on the geometries before rasterization (and rasterization happens on the high resolution surface), or if they are rasterized then scaled (blurry). I imagine it’s the former case since that makes more sense, but I don’t know.

    So then instead of choosing resolutions, the user chooses the scaling, to make the screen “look like 1280×800” or 1440×960, or 1920×1200, etc, and all that affects is scaling on UI elements. Very neat.

  2. The trackpad is also very nice. Probably the best trackpad I have ever used. It’s roomy, and the lack of right button doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I had imagined (by default, a 2 finger click is right click, but it can also be changed to a region on the trackpad). I am using the default 2 finger click setting right now, and it didn’t take me long to get used to.

    There is also definitely a lot of software processing going on to make using the trackpad easier. For example, on Windows and Linux, a lot of times when you click or tap on something, the cursor will move away at the same time (because the finger has to move a bit to do the tap), so you would miss the click. On OSX that very rarely happens. Usually the cursor stays completely still. That is pretty impressive. Multi-touch gestures are in general pretty intuitive and work well. Not perfect, but the closest to perfect I’ve seen.

  3. OSX is really easy to pick up, and I’m pretty used to it by now. After all, it’s based on BSD. It doesn’t have an extensive package repository like APT, but all the standard UNIX command line utilities are there, so it’s not too bad.
    But then I am already very familiar with Linux, and OSX is much more similar to Linux than Windows. If you have been using Windows all your life, it may be a little more difficult.

In the end I still decided to buy it mostly because of the VERY good battery life, build quality, screen, performance, and relatively low price, but it’s definitely not without flaws.

I would still recommend it in general obviously (otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it), but it’s a decision that you’d have to make (if you are thinking about buying it), based on how much you value the different aspects.

Took me about 1.5 hours to write this post (1800 words!), on the MBP, on battery with brightness at 60%, and wifi connected but mostly idle. It’s at 87% right now estimating 10:30 remaining. The reviews didn’t lie! Not sure why Apple is only claiming “up to 9 hours”. This is clearly more than “up to 9 hours”. Maybe they want to differentiate it from MBA?