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MacBook Pro, just one point short of perfection

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The new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, in New York.

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, in New York.

REVIEW

If you could design your dream laptop, how would you describe it?

Superfast. Superthin. Superlight. Superlong battery life. Immense storage. Enough memory to keep lots of programs open at once. Stunning screen, comfortable keyboard, terrific sound. Fast start-up, rugged body, gorgeous looks.

And, of course, inexpensive.

The new Apple laptop that went on sale Monday hits an impressive number of those high notes in one radical swoop. As you might guess, the one it misses by the biggest margin is "inexpensive."

Then again, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is intended for professionals — photographers, video editors, musicians and other people whose laptop is the heart of everyday work. If they can scrounge up $AUD2499 (for the base model) to $AUD4299 (for the died-and-gone-to-heaven model), they'll be well rewarded. And if the early online reaction is any indication, a lot of them are already scrounging — if they're not mopping the drool from their chins.

It's been four years since Apple last redesigned its laptops. In that time, a funny thing happened to the computer industry: the MacBook Air. It's a crazy thin aluminum wedge, two-thirds of an inch at its thickest point, that weighs very little, starts up very quickly and turns a lot of heads.

Apple achieved those goals by throwing out some then-standard features. A DVD drive. An Ethernet jack. And, most alarmingly of all, a hard drive.

Instead of the traditional spinning platters of a hard drive, the MacBook Air has flash storage — that is, memory chips that store all your programs and files even when the computer is turned off.

Flash storage has a number of benefits. It's rugged, because there are no moving parts. It's fast, especially in starting the computer and opening programs. It saves battery power, because there are no mechanical discs to spin. It's silent. And it's tiny, so the laptop itself can be thinner.

But flash drives are much, much more expensive than spinning hard drives. The prices are falling steadily, but flash storage won't match the capacity of a hard drive for the same price any time soon.

Anyway, despite its price (now $AUD1099 and up), the MacBook Air eventually became popular, and now you can get beautiful, thin Windows laptops, called ultrabooks, built on the same concept.

All of this brings us to the new MacBook Pro. Apple evidently felt that the price and capacity of flash storage had finally reached a point where it could replace hard drives in the company's pro laptops; indeed, for $AUD600 above the base price, you can get the new machine with a 768-gigabyte flash drive. That's not quite as much storage as you can get on the existing MacBook Pro in hard drive form (1 terabyte), but it's not cramped.

Since there's no hard drive or DVD drive, Apple could make the new machine much thinner and lighter than its predecessor, which Apple still sells (for $500 less). The new laptop is only 0.7 inch thick — about the same as the fat end of a MacBook Air — and weighs 4.5 pounds. It's not the thinnest or lightest 15-incher (the Samsung Series 9 is fractionally thinner and 0.8 pound lighter, for example), but it's easily one-handable.

Apple calls the new machine the "most beautiful computer we've ever made." The MacBook Air begs to differ. Even so, this new laptop certainly is pretty; it wouldn't even make it past the lobby of the Ugly Museum Hall of Fame.

The guts are top of the line and sizzling fast: the latest quad-core Intel processor, Bluetooth 4.0, a memory card slot and a cooling fan that has asymmetrical blades. That's to make the fan quieter, since irregular blades spread the air noise over multiple frequencies. (Wow, Apple — perfectionist much?)

I didn't sit there with a stopwatch, but I can attest that the "7-hour" battery easily lasts a full day of work, provided you break for lunch and a couple of phone calls. An HDMI jack appears on this Mac for the first time, for one-cable connection to TV sets and projectors (there is no traditional video jack).

It also has terrific-sounding, powerful stereo speakers and dual microphones. Why dual? Because dictation — talk-to-type — is a new feature in the coming version of the Mac OS, Mountain Lion. Apple says that two mikes offer better background-noise elimination when you're speaking.

But you know what? Innards, schminnards. The headline component of the new MacBook Pro will hit you between the eyes the minute you open its lid: a Retina display.

That's Apple's term for a screen with such high resolution — so many tiny dots — that you can't make out individual pixels, even if you smash your face against the glass like a loon. Retina displays already distinguish the latest iPhone and iPad models, but this is the first real computer to get one, and it really is eye-popping.

The resolution of this screen is 2,880 by 1,1800 pixels. That's 5.1 million tiny dots, compared with 1 million or 2 million on a typical 15-inch laptop. It's the highest-resolution laptop screen in the world.

Videos, photos and text benefit from this astonishingly sharp screen. However, keep in mind that the programs you use won't look any sharper until they're updated for the Retina screen. The standard Apple apps have been updated or will be shortly: Safari, Mail, Aperture, iMovie, Final Cut, iPhoto. Updates for Photoshop and Autodesk are on the way.

Even in most nonupdated programs, menus, dialogue boxes and typed text get sharpened automatically. But in a few programs, text looks jagged and awful on the Retina screen. Amazon Kindle Reader, the Barnes & Noble reader and Chrome fall in this category. (Amazon says an update is on the way; the other two haven't promised anything, but it's a good bet.)

That wait-for-updates business doesn't add up to much of an objection to this dream machine. But other disappointments may.

For example, this laptop has only two USB jacks. True, they're combination USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 — you can plug in either kind of gadget, and the laptop automatically gives you the best possible speed and power. But rival laptops have more USB jacks.

As though to compensate, you get two Thunderbolt jacks, which are supposed to be high-speed miracle connectors for hard drives, screens and other add-ons. Unfortunately, there aren't many yet.

Remember, too, that this MacBook Air-inspired laptop lacks both a DVD drive and an Ethernet jack. Apple says that Wi-Fi is everywhere now, and if you want to watch a movie, you can stream it from the Internet.

Frankly, that's a typically too-soon Apple conclusion. Wi-Fi isn't everywhere, and lots of movies aren't available legally for streaming. (Besides, ever fly on a plane? You can't stream any movies at all if the flight doesn't have Wi-Fi.)

As a workaround, you can buy an external DVD drive ($89) and Ethernet adapter ($35).

Final bummer: The new MacBook's svelte figure demanded a new power-cord design. Apple's MagSafe connector has always been a perk of Apple laptops: The power cord attaches magnetically, so you don't drag the computer off the desk when you trip on its cord. Until now, all MacBooks had the same MagSafe connector.

Not anymore. The new MacBook (and this week's updated MacBook Air) requires a narrower MagSafe connector. Earlier power adapters won't fit this laptop (at least without Apple's $11,99 adapter), and vice versa — a crushing disappointment to anyone who's paid $89 each for power cords to keep in different places.

Overall, then, how does the new laptop fare on the Ultimate Laptop Wish List? Extremely well. It tops the charts on screen, keyboard, sound, start-up time, looks, battery life and fast/thin/light. It can have copious memory (up to 16 gigabytes) and storage, for a handsome fee.

And inexpensive? Not even close. But as with cars, homes and partners, you can't have everything. Professionals, commence your scrounging.

The New York Times

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