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Review: Apple MacBook Pro 15 with Retina (mid-2015)

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:46 pm 05/06/2015

A new year, a newly updated Apple MacBook Pro, with the mid-2015 refresh delivering battery optimised processors and a really new graphics chip. Is this as close as Apple gets to perfection?

Features

Apple’s last entry in the 15 inch arena is the MacBook Pro with Retina, so if you’re needing a 15 inch computer and you want it from Apple, this is the one to look at, or at least the series to.

Be aware, however, that this is pretty much professional territory, with a sense of professional pride extending to what Apple throws into this machine, making it gutsy and high-end simply because of what the company is using.

As such, you’ll find Intel’s quad-core processors here, with Core i7 chips from the fifth-generation, also known as “Broadwell”, offered in either 2.2 or 2.5GHz versions stock, though configurable up to a 2.8GHz version.

This is paired with 16GB RAM which is the maximum, with either a 256GB or 512GB solid-state drive — no hard drives are found here — with this solid-state drive also configurable to a whopping 1TB, twice that of the 512GB drive.

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Video options are indeed options in this laptop, providing either Intel’s Iris Pro graphics standard — built-in graphics for those playing at home — or a choice of AMD’s Radeon R8 M370X with 2GB graphics. That option is only available in one of the models, the high-end model, with the base model not upgradeable to this option.

Viewing the graphics, you’ll find a 15.4 inch In-Plane Switching (IPS) screen, offering Apple’s “Retina” concept in spades with a display resolution of 2880×1800 native, which in turn provides a pixel clarity of roughly 220 pixels per inch, not far from what is offered in the 13 inch MacBook Pro (227 ppi).

A few ports are also offered on this machine, and you’ll find two Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a single SDXC slot, one 3.5mm headphone jack, and a lone HDMI port, which appears to be consistent with the previous MacBook Pro 15 inch.

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Connections are also consistent, offering both Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac WiFi, with the latter of these backwards compatible with existing wireless 802.11a/b/g/n standards, while multimedia is also catered through Apple’s typical assortment of microphones (two of them on this body, found on the left side of the machine) and a FaceTime HD 720p camera above the display.

A full-size backlit keyboard is also here, as is Apple’s new style of trackpad, the “Force Trackpad” reliant on vibrations that trick your fingers and brain into thinking a button is there.

Apple’s MacBook Pro 15 inch with Retina comes with Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” out of the box.

The model in this review is the highest model out of the two available before configuration, and is equipped with a 2.5GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD, and both Intel Iris Pro and AMD Radeon R9 M370X auto-switching graphics.

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Performance

Big laptops aren’t as popular as they once were, but Apple’s MacBook Pro still manages to draw attention due to the level of quality the company throws in.

Need a desktop every where you go? No worries, because that’s what the 15 inch MacBook Pro is more or less designed to cater for, providing a big screen and big set of specs in a machine that barely hits two kilograms.

That’s not something many computer companies can build, either, and as you can imagine, Apple’s attention to excellence is evident in this 15 inch MacBook Pro as much as it has been with prior models.

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This is like the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro 13, the iMac, and even that especially thin brand spankin’ new MacBook we saw earlier in the year, with another beautifully chiselled unibody piece of aluminium making up the shell of the computer filled with the right technical configuration and operating system combination to make a machine truly spectacular, a fact you realise when you switch the machine on and let the interface greet you for the first time.

There’s the familiar Apple chime that starts the computer up, the bright Retina display shining information into your own retinas, and a speedy system bringing it all to life super quickly.

And it does exactly that, because while the fourth-generation Intel processors from last year we’re no slouch, the fifth-generation “Broadwell” processors are just as strong, booting the system up quickly and providing a computer for you to use.

If you’re already with a 15 inch MacBook Pro, chances are that you won’t have a lot of reason to change to a new computer, unless you’ve throttled yours to death, and that’s because the differences aren’t huge.

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Let’s start with the screen, because if you’ve ever seen the 15 inch Apple MacBook Pro since Apple made the move to its high-grade pixel-perfect Retina screens, this isn’t new.

The 15.4 inch In-Plane Switching (IPS) display with 2880×1800 resolution is still sharp, still bright, and still super easy to look at thanks to the extra amount pixels it packs in, and resolutions can be scaled which is ideal if you have weaker eye sight.

The frame is still the same, with more of that solid aluminium Apple has relied on for yonks providing a durability that few hardware manufacturers can match.

There’s little doubting that the aluminium material and Apple’s design both help to make the MacBook Pro one of the better feeling machines out there, and when we review them, we’re always reminded of that fact.

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Apple’s keyboard is also top notch, again with the island key design that so many refer to as “chiclet” (it’s an American thing that has to do with gum, in case you’re curious), with two speakers flanking the keyboard on either side.

One thing has changed, however, and that’s the mouse, with Apple grabbing its Force Trackpad found on the 13 inch MacBook Pro and that new super-slim MacBook.

This mouse is a little different from the standard fare Apple uses, though given that it’s in practically every Apple laptop barring the Air, we suppose this is the standard fare, or the new standard anyway.

As such, this mouse isn’t actually made with a mouse button like before, with Apple relying on its “Force” trackpad technology, which acts like a trackpad — button under a touch-sensitive piece of glass — but isn’t actually one.

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Rather, this technology relies on sensors picking up your pressing and vibrates the trackpad ever so slightly from left to right to give the feeling of a button. In fact, because there is no button and just a vibration, it can offer a further deeper click — what Apple calls a “force click” — to activate extra functionality, such as looking up map locations, previewing web pages, or searching up a definition for a highlighted word.

Force touch technology can take some time to get used to, but since this is the third computer we’ve used with it on-board, we’re finding that we like it more and more. It is early days for this technology, we know that, and given that there are opportunities to turn the touchpad into a surface for drawing and writing, we’re eager to see the sort of apps that developers make for this device.

The port selection is also solid, offering two USB 3.0 ports, one HDMI, and two Thunderbolt 2.0 ports; sorry, no 3.0 here, because that would mean a Type-C USB port. This selection means you’re pretty much given everything you need, complete with a half-height SD card, which should be handy for photographers and video editors.

And that brings us to the performance, and with the latest generation of Intel chips, it’s hard to see this machine as performing anything other than solid, which is exactly what it does.

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Start-up from cold and off only took a few seconds, and a return from standby was practically instant, assuring us that yes, this really is a machine made for what Apple advertises it to: professionals.

In fact, we found virtually no lag of any kind, and the few times any popped up, it seemed like it came from an app that had crashed, because there still are apps that do just that.

Apple’s use of an Intel quad-core chip is particularly useful, however, especially if you’re using programs like Adobe Photoshop and Premiere to work which will actually take advantage of those two extra cores that are otherwise missing on the 13 inch dual-core only version of the MacBook Pro.

The review model we looked at also included the AMD Radeon R9 M370X, and while we didn’t need to flog the graphics too aggressively for games —yes, we’re still addicted to Valve’s “Portal 2” for our testing — we found it could handle a bit of gaming, even at that 2880×1800 resolution, which impressed us greatly.

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One area that you might find a little concerning is the battery life, which offers as much as nine hours of battery life if you’re not doing much — web surfing and writing, basically — or closer to four or five if you decide to make full use of the high-end specs found inside the MacBook Pro 15 inch with Retina.

If you don’t do a lot, that’s great, and given there’s a fairly capable processor underneath, up to nine hours is pretty decent. We saw closer to seven or eight, but depending on the browser you’re using — because Apple’s Safari does tend to perform better on the battery than Google’s Chrome — your mileage may vary.

But the moment you need to actually use the guts of the computer, with creative programs making full use of the computing and graphical processing power, we see the life drop significantly, and closer to four or five hours being offered.

That’s not bad, but it’s also not good, and we suspect we’re seeing that discrete graphics chip making a dent to the otherwise excellent Broadwell performance provided by the fifth-generation Intel Core chips.

Easy to take with you, but it does need a better battery.

Easy to take with you, but it does need a better battery.

The other downside of the MacBook Pro 15 with Retina isn’t the screen, and it’s not the body. It’s not even the keyboard or mouse because they’re all excellent, too.

No, it’s the price, because with an initial price of $2799, this is not a cheap computer.

In fact, with a cost of between $2799 and $3499 for the various models before you configure them — yes, we said “before” — this is one breed of computer that sits in the upper end of the spectrum, making it a machine that won’t be for everyone.

Granted, the specs here are higher than the 13 inch variant offered by Apple, with a quad-core Intel Core i7 taking the place of the dual-core Intel Core i5 found in the smaller model, and more memory here too (16GB in the 15 inch compared with 8GB in the 13).

Those are specs not everyone will need, and while we can see gamers and artists going full in for what the 15 inch offers, it’s not a configuration most will need.

And if we want to play semantics (which we generally do), the Retina display on the 13 inch is technically better for your eyes than the one on the 15 inch, though only by a smidgeon.

If the price doesn’t bother you, however, it’s not really a negative, and really, if that and the battery life is all we’re complaining about, Apple has really built something impressive.

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Conclusion

It’s hard to go past the excellence on offer from the MacBook Pro, and just like we’ve seen from previous metal-bodied masterpieces, this is Apple building a machine to its utmost perfection.

Really, that’s what is being provided here: pint-sized computer perfection, with a perfect metal body, a perfect balance of hardware, a perfect keyboard and mouse, and a perfect and brilliant screen.

This is perfection, and there’s no other way to say it.

Perfection doesn’t come cheap, mind you, and while the base model of the MacBook Pro 15 starts at $2799 for no discrete video option and a modest 256GB solid-state storage, the model we’re reviewing is the 512GB version with an AMD Radeon M370X, a variant that attracts a retail value of $3499.

That’s not a small amount of moolah, and if you have that much to spend, you’ll get a solid chunk of a laptop, with a machine that offers the specs, performance, and design that matters, with the result being a computer you’d be hard pressed to complain about.

And it’s not everyone that needs a machine like this, either.

For instance, we love the performance on offer, and video editors, graphic editors, creative sorts of all types, and even gamers will likely love what Apple has provided in this machine, but it won’t be everyone that sees the value in a machine carrying close to a $4K price tag.

People who don’t need the graphics, however, can likely cut back on the graphics and go for the less pricey model, which will bring that value back to just under $3K, though with less storage. Both are still quite up there in price, and between $2800 and $3500 are still large price tags to pay when you’re talking about computers.

That said, the computers in question are excellent computers, and if you don’t mind spending that sort of change, you will love what Apple has done with its MacBook Pro, and it’s as close to perfection as big laptops get.

Price (RRP)

$2799 (starting price); review model was $3499;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Apple’s beautiful design returns; Very, very solid; Well spec'd for pretty consistent performance; Beautiful screen;Another excellent Apple keyboard; Force trackpad is a great inclusion; Plenty of connection options;

Product Cons

Expensive; Battery life could be a little better; Can get a little toasty once you start working it;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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