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MacBook Pro with Retina Display; the ApertureExpert Review (part 1 of 3)

Thomas Boyd's picture
November 17, 2012 - 1:00am

Part 1 of 3 [part 2] [part 3]
A joint first-hand, hands-on review of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display
by photographers and ApertureExperts Thomas Boyd & Joseph Linaschke

Seeing a photo with deep shadows and strong colors absolutely pops on a Retina display.

[Thomas Boyd] Apple let me test drive a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3Ghz with Retina display. 

[Joseph Linaschke] Same here. I begged to keep mine a little longer so I could use it for presentations as well as photography. I’ll talk about both uses here.

[TBBefore I started using it, I questioned how much better it could actually be. My current MacBook Pro (MBP) looks pretty darn good and it’s quite fast. I have no complaints.

[JL] I think I was a little more excited about it, given that my current mobile solution is a MacBook Air 11-inch. I bought the Air because I was doing the majority of my photo editing at home (and still do) where I enjoyed the increased performance and screen size of the 27-inch iMac, and I bought the 11-inch Air specifically for writing while sitting in economy class. (Yeah, I travel that much.) But while the Air is adequate for Aperture use on the road, I certainly wouldn’t call it a performance king.

The upsides

[TB] I surfed around the web with it and set it up for work and realized the Retina display was very nice. But, it didn’t really occur to me that this was that big of deal. A nicer, sharper, cleaner display is a good thing though, right?

[JL] Frankly I was blown away at the quality of text on screen. For those of you who’ve gone from a non-Retina iPhone or iPad to the current Retina models, you know what I’m talking about. But seeing Retina bigger and brighter on the 15-inch screen was even more amazing. Text is just ridiculously sharp and clear and easy to read. My Air has a pretty good pixel per inch count of 135 PPI compared to the 27-inch iMac at 109 PPI [source], but then the 15-inch Retina boasts 220 PPI, which is lower than the iPad at 265 PPI but still amazing. The iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 are 326 PPI, if you’re counting. All that said, the 15-inch Retina at a “measly” 220 PPI is absolutely phenomenal!

[TBThen I shot my first assignment which was a football game. I could hardly believe my eyes. I felt like was actually seeing what my cameras were producing for the first time. Prior to using the Retina, I had no idea there was that much information coming out of my cameras. I could see things in the images I had no idea were there. I could see precisely where the image was focused. I could see subtlety in color and texture I had never noticed before. For someone who loves photographs like I do, it was a real treat to peer into the layers of an image like that.

Shooting a football game was really a great test for this display because I was shooting in similar light and with similar uniforms and varying skin tones, and I’ve been shooting in that stadium since 1993. I know what this subject looks like in real life and in photos whether shot on film, first generation digital, or latest generation digital. I’ve seen photos of this team displayed on everything from CRTs to iMac displays, to cheap LCDs and everything in between. 

[JL] I have to say I had the same reaction. The first pictures I brought in were from a wild animal park, so really just personal fun stuff. Nothing serious, but wow they looked great. And then I took it on a job shooting food for a local Sushi restaurant [photos], and seeing the photos on that screen on-location, with the client looking over my shoulder, was amazing. I knew that these images would never look better to the client; they’d be reviewing the final images on their uncalibrated PC screen, and frankly that scares me. So knowing that they got to see the photos at least once on my glorious screen meant that both I and the client knew that the colors, detail, and sharpness they were paying for were all present. It sucks having to explain to a client that their monitor is the problem, and no, these images are actually just fine, thank-you-very-much!

[TBSimply put, you can see things in your photos that you can’t see any other way. In this respect, every serious photographer on the planet should see their photos on a Retina display.

[JL] Which, let’s be honest, may not be a good thing if your camera and lens are underperforming! Tom saw good detail he didn’t know was there, but this could easily go the other direction. I think it’s important to take that into consideration. Like moving from a 10 megapixel to a 20 megapixel camera with the same lens, where you may suddenly see the limitations and flaws of the glass that didn’t show up on the lower resolution sensor, the same thing comes to play here. You may suddenly realize that your lens isn’t as sharp as you thought it was, or that it softens around the edges more than expected, or that your sensor is noisier than you believed. You just need to keep in mind that most people will not be seeing it like you do — however eventually everyone will have Retina displays, and so eventually those inferior images will suffer on everyone’s screen.

Let’s talk about Aperture itself, too. It’s one of the few apps that are updated for Retina (this list is growing, of course — see for a collection) and so the app looks amazing. Fine text is easier than ever to read, your photos look ridiculously awesome as already discussed, and overall it’s just “nicer”. That can be hard to quantify but when you spend most of your day looking a computer screen, “nice” goes a long way. Performance is fantastic, although that’s no surprise to me given that I’m coming from a two year-old Air and three year-old iMac, but it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt like a portable computer could become my main Mac again. I think the only real drawback of that would be that I do still want the bigger screen when I’m at my desk, so currently that means plugging into a 109 PPI 27-inch Thunderbolt display, which, let’s be honest, kinda sucks when compared to the 15-inch Retina (although this may be needed anyway for using some third-party apps — see “downsides” later in this article). I haven’t a clue when we’ll see Retina screens that big, but I’d imagine it won’t be too soon. That’ll be a hell of a lot of pixels — something in the range of 15 million pixels, compared to the 5 million of the 15-inch Retina. I do sit farther away from my 27-inch desktop screen than a laptop screen, but there is no question whatsoever that you can see a big quality difference.

But I digress. Aperture runs and looks like a champ on this Mac, as it should. However your favorite plugin is going to be a different story. More on that later.

Continue reading: [part 2] of this review, including “Other advantages” and “The downsides”, and the conclusion [part 3], including “Aperture plug-ins and other non-Retina apps” and “The bottom line”.

Apple Aperture
Thomas Boyd

Thanks for putting this together. I am considering right now whether to get the 15” or the 13”. I am thinking the 15” because of the graphics card and a couple other things. The weight is the only thing that concerns me a bit with portability compared to the 13”. Hopefully you guys discuss some of that too. Thanks

Thanks for doing this review! I’m particularly interested in your views on speed/performance enhancements in the new MacBook, as my late-2008 MacBook Pro is noticeably slower opening and processing NEF images and frequently hangs since upgrading to Mountain Lion and the Retina-optimized version of Aperture.

Tom Thomson

I recently switched from a two year-old MacBook Air (Core 2 Duo) and a 3.5 year-old iMac to a 2.6 GHz MacBook Pro Retina plus the 27 in Thunderbolt display. The performance difference is huge. I use Nik and OnOne plugins a lot and this machine makes experimentation much more inviting, since the wait for the result is much shorter. The screen is, as you say, amazing and the weight is about halfway between a 13 inch MacBook Air and the last generation MacBook Pro. The one downside is that my new setup was pretty expensive. On the other hand, my daughter is loving the Air that I passed on to her!

I own a Retina 2,3Ghz i7 with 16Gb and use it daily with Aperture. After a soccer match, with about 1100 Nikon D4 RAW files, scrolling full-screen is sometimes very slow because of loading the pictures. Something I didn’t had with my 2,6Ghz i7 quad core 2011 macbook pro…

I totally agree with your review. Aperture on my 15” Retina MBP looks great but the concern is that I will see a much better image than anyone else. I copied some edited photos from by Retina MBP to my old iMac and they just looked flat. Maybe I need to do some calibration but the Retina screen has such deep blacks.

I have the Nik suite. It doesn’t look fantastic and is always nice to get back into Aperture to see the real effect. It has left me a little confused though … how should I sharpen?? 72ppi for screens but not this one??

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