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Late 2013 Retina MacBook Pro review

The late 2008 MacBook Pro I had been using since early 2009 had started to show its age. Adding 8GB of RAM and an OWC Mercury Electra SSD extended its life for a bit longer, but it was time.

I was tempted by the first generation Retina MacBook Pros, but talk of laggy UI performance and my old laptop performing well enough for Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign — my main programs — kept me from pulling the trigger. (OSX Mavericks has supposedly alleviated much of that lag.) But I’ve been doing more and more video and animation work in grad school, and that’s where my late 2008’s performance really suffered.

So I waited for the second generation, and when it was announced and released, I jumped. (Thanks for the Apple Friends & Family discount, Andy. My student loans are paying for this guy, but it was nice to save a couple hundred bucks.) Here are the specs of the model I got:

• 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display
• 2.6GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 processor (upgraded from the stock)
512GB SSD for storage (stock)
• 16GB of RAM (stock)

It’s in my greasy little hands now, of course — or, rather, sitting on my desk — and I’ve used it for a couple of months, so here’s how it’s been doing for me so far:

The Finder, Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign are all noticeably snappier. I mean, duh — my old computer was a five year old laptop. General usage feels about the same, but the more processor intensive stuff sings. Paging through files for Multiplex: There and Back Again in InDesign’s “High Quality Display,” for instance, now only has a brief delay as it loads the higher res images. Final Cut Pro is actually fast enough to be usable, which has been a great help for the video stuff I’ve been doing for school.

My one big gaming vice is Civilization V. On my old machine, either the Mac port of the game or OSX’s graphics drivers were clearly inferior to Windows’s. The game simply performed significantly worse at the same settings. So, I ended up kept Boot Camp and Windows 7 installed solely to play Civ. With the new computer, Civ runs rather well. Not as well as a top of the line Windows gaming rig, of course, but well enough that I didn’t need to install Windows just for Civ. Hooray.

The Headaches

There were a couple of headaches when I set up the new computer, though: one that I think was Apple’s fault, one not.

Like any professional production artist/designer/illustrator/whatever, I have a ton of accessories: a laser printer, an oversized inkjet printer, an oversized scanner, an Intuos 5 graphics tablet, etc.. When adapting to using my late 2008 as my primary laptop, I got a USB 2 hub and used a slew of  external drives — all OWC Mercury Elite Pro enclosures with Western Digital drives connected via Firewire 800. (I have the previous generation from the one on the other side of that link; mine have USB 2, not USB 3.)

The new Retina MacBook Pro doesn’t have Firewire 800, though. It does, however, have Thunderbolt, which supports Firewire 800. And because it had audio ports, Firewire 800, and USB 3, I opted for the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock. I regret this now. The audio port simply did not work out of the box. After some poking around, I could get sound to come out… from one of the speakers, but not both. Perhaps this issue isn’t Belkin’s fault; maybe it’s a defective audio port. I don’t know.

But I learned that this dock didn’t provide any power through the bus to connected USB drives. So the one USB 3 enclosure I have didn’t work with it. This, despite the fact that the dock uses a power supply! So basically that’s Belkin’s fault for making a crappy, overpriced ($300?!) product.

I purchased a CalDigit Thunderbolt Station to replace the Belkin dock. So far that works great, though it’s not exactly the speediest at waking the monitor from sleep. Worse, my external hard drives are unceremoniously ejected when I put the computer to sleep. Previously, they wouldn’t really care if I did that; now, I have to eject and remount them. This isn’t a big deal, and I don’t know if this is because of CalDigit’s dock or a bug with Thunderbolt or something else, but it’s a mild nuisance, any way.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have Firewire 800. And supposedly people have had issues with daisy chained devices using Apple’s Thunderbolt–Firewire 800 adapter, so I also had to order one of the newer USB 3-sporting OWC Mercury Elite Pros to hold my main data drive and will live with USB 2 speeds for the others. (They’re backups, so speed isn’t really very important for those.)

The other headache — the one that really comes down to Apple — is that when I plugged my ASUS ProArt PA238Q monitor into it, it seemed fine. I noticed a couple of  blurry areas once or twice, but nothing too bad. I shrugged it off until I opened up InDesign for the first time and things immediately looked wrong. Things were being rendered very, very badly. Colors weren’t quite right. It basically looked like shit. Some quick Google Fu lead me to this thread in Apple’s discussion area about poor image through HDMI (which sounded close enough to my issue that they might have been the same), and that sent me to this EmbDev.net thread.

Apparently what was happening was  that my new MacBook thought my monitor was a TV, so it was using the YCbCr color space (and some additional processing, maybe) instead of RGB. It IS a 1080p monitor, but why would my late 2008 would recognize it as a monitor and my new MacBook Pro not? It has to be a mistake on Apple’s part.

Anyway, the EmbDev thread provided a Ruby script that generated an override file I could drop into my System/Library folder to tell it to use RGB instead. I restarted the computer, and it’s gorgeous again. So, this headache was resolved — but it was still a headache.

The Summary

I love this machine. It’s a massive step up from my old computer, which I’ll probably sell off soon. I wish I could take advantage of the retina display more than I do; at home, I just have this hooked up to an external monitor, so it doesn’t really seem different than my last set-up. But when I’m at school, it’s a godsend.

It wasn’t cheap, of course, but I need something that will last me another five years (knock on wood), and I need enough power under the hood that I’m not staring at my computer chug away when I’m working in large files.


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