Opinion: MacBook Pro with Retina Display: I wanna love you, but you’re bringing me down

Sad macbook pro retina displayYou almost had me, Apple. A diehard PC evangelist, the kind that drools over GPU tweaks and BIOS settings, right there — in your grasp! And then you had to go and ruin things with your usual anti-consumer antics.

Let me explain. And, um, grab my flame retardant pants.

The stars, aligned

I’ve always been a PC guy, and up until this year, I thought I always would be. Then Windows 8 happened.

Before you start smashing your head into your keyboard and invoking Godwin’s law in the comments, let me say this: I’m not saying Windows 8 is necessarily bad. I’m just saying it’s not really my cup of tea. The Release Preview has some good things going for it, but every time I “swipe the charm bar,” I’m not sure whether to feel like a giggling teenage girl or a giggling, dirty-minded teenage boy.

Either way, I don’t enjoy feeling like a 13-year-old. Or enjoy Windows 8’s lack of customization options. Or the schizophrenic swapping between Metro and legacy interfaces. And where is my Start button, dammit?

Going forward, I basically have two options if I don’t want to jump on the Windows 8 bandwagon. Loading up on Windows 7 OEM discs from Newegg sounds good, except they cost $100 a pop and I am far, far, far from a rich man. Or I could just accept change — but who says it has to be Microsoft’s version of change? Instead, I began fiddling around with various Linux options.

Then the MacBook Pro with Retina display happened, right in my moment of weakness.

Oh my God, it’s full of pixels…

Another disclosure: I am a massive fan of high-resolution displays. The HTC Rezound’s packed 342 pixels-per-inch screen density is one of the big reasons I chose it over, say, the Droid Razr or the iPhone when I was shopping around for a phone a few months back. And looking at the new iPad is like staring into the face of <insert deity here>.

And here was a laptop with twice the resolution of the best-looking Ultrabook. Did I say laptop? The MacBook Pro wouldn’t perform like a laptop. Not with a Core i7 mobile processor, 8GB to 16GB of RAM, the latest Nvidia graphics and blazing-fast flash storage. That, sirs and madams, is a lot of firepower. Plus it’s thin!

I was teetering. That Retina display looked so… damn… good. And I could always run Windows 7 with Parallels or Bootcamp, couldn’t I? I began making the first tentative “This computer’s feeling a little slow, almost time for an upgrade” noises in my wife’s direction.

Then iFixit tore down the Retina display-packing MacBook Pro and it was like Apple spit in my eye.

She ain’t so purdy on the inside

Not just anybody will drop $2,200 on a notebook, and that’s the MacBook Pro with Retina Display’s starting price. At that cost, most potential buyers are probably either graphics professionals or enthusiasts with a need for processing speed. You know, the type of people who want to be able to slap a bigger hard drive into a rig if they need to.

But Apple — in all its glorious, money-grubbing wisdom — basically made the MacBook Pro upgrade-proof. This, folks, is the kind of engineering on which record-breaking profits are made.

Macbook pro retina teardown battery motherboard inside cooling fansMy enthusiasm bubbled away the further I dove into the iFixit report. You’ll need a special screwdriver to even open the case, as Apple uses proprietary pentalobe screws to secure the MacBook Pro’s innards against your probing fingers. Don’t expect to upgrade the proprietary SSD any time soon, either. Or the RAM, for that matter — it’s soldered to the motherboard. Choose wisely between the 8GB and 16GB models at the time of purchase, young Padawan.

Once the battery’s dead, your MacBook Pro is, too; it’s glued to the case so strongly that even the professionals at iFixit couldn’t pry it out. They were worried the battery itself would give before the adhesive did. The trackpad’s cable also runs directly underneath the MacBook Pro’s battery, which would greatly increase the risk of killing your touch-control capabilities while swapping out the battery… if you could swap out the battery, that is.

The display assembly is a cohesive unit, so any issues there mean you’ll have to replace the whole damn thing, Retina display included.

All in all, iFixit gave the MacBook Pro with Retina Display a repairability score of 1 out of 10 — the lowest ever. “This is, to date, the least repairable laptop we’ve taken apart,” iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens wrote on the site’s blog. “Apple has packed all the things we hate into one beautiful little package.”

Initial stages of grief and redemption

I sat staring at my computer screen, slack-jawed with disbelief. How could Apple cripple such an awesome, beautiful, high-end system?

Then I was angry. How could Apple cripple such an awesome, beautiful, high-end system?!

All right (I told myself as I entered the bargaining stage), it’s not so bad. You can whip together a similarly rockin’ Windows notebook for money anyways. Heck, it’d probably cost less, since you’re avoiding the notorious “Mac Tax.”

So I decided to do some sleuthing.

At Maingear — a boutique PC builder — I was able to build a comparable notebook around the company’s 15-inch eX-L 15 Stock chassis. It included the best 1080p screen available, a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 240GB Corsair SSD and even more powerful Nvidia GT 670M graphics — all for $270 less than the base MacBook Pro with Retina.

Maingear X15 laptop apple macbook pro retina display competitor gaming laptopMaingear throws in some free extras, too, like a copy of Just Cause 2, a laptop stand, a Cyborg R.A.T. 5 gaming mouse, a T-shirt and an optical drive — something the Apple computer lacks. Maingear also has a better warranty than Apple, with one year parts and labor, lifetime phone support and a no-questions-asked 30-day return policy.

It was the same deal at AVADirect, another boutique system builder. I configured the “Gaming Laptop Clevo W150ERQ Core i7 Gaming Notebook” to include a 2.3GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of Kingston RAM, a 256GB OCZ Vertex 4 SSD and the same Nvidia GT 650M as the MacBook Pro for only $1,456.

That’s comparable performance to the “entry”-level MacBook Pro, but for $750 less. Using the same AVADirect notebook chassis, I was able to whip together a build that meets or exceeds the high-end, $2,800 MacBook Pro with Retina’s components for just $1,948. Not only is that $850 cheaper than the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, it’s even cheaper than the base version.

Depression and acceptance (kinda)

Even though similar firepower can be had for less money, the rest of the pack doesn’t have the MacBook Pro’s Retina display. And that sucks. Or does it? The more I looked into things, the more I questioned whether or not the Retina display is really all it’s cracked up to be.

Had I ever watched a HD movie on a 1080p notebook display and said to myself, “That really isn’t cutting it”? Nope.

The MacBook Pro’s higher-resolution display doesn’t result in more on-screen real estate anyways, unless you want to scale the image and run into potential quality and performance roadblocks.

Even MG Siegler, the biggest Apple fanboy in the tech world, admits that the display makes non-Retina-optimized programs and websites — you know, pretty much the entire Internet — look blurry and pixelated, especially if you use any browser other than Safari. And I surf the Web a lot.

I’ll admit, I had Apple fever for a few days. But fortunately for me, iFixit’s teardown snapped me out of my stupor. The Retina display may be awe-inspiring, but only if you’re only using native OS X applications… and won’t ever want to upgrade your notebook or change its battery… and don’t mind paying a hefty Mac Tax.

All that being said, I’m still not jazzed about Windows 8. Anybody have any Linux distro recommendations?

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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