My quick review of the 2013 MacBook Pro Retina with Iris Pro Graphics

Since Verge didn't seem to cover a lot in their recent MacBook Pro review ("its pretty and can play portal 2" sums up that review), I've decided to write a quick (and probably quite bad) review of the performance, heat and noise of the model most people were wanting, the Iris Pro only configuration. These are only basic performance benchmarks as well as some simple tests. If anyone wants more thorough tests done, just let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Performance

The most important aspect for any truly portable computer is the battery; the combination of a Crystal Well Processor and the already gigantic battery of the previous generation model gives this new MacBook Pro one hell of a long run time. Running on WiFi, using Safari (browsing various websites including Tumblr and the Verge), watching a video on Vimeo in flash, having Skype IM running in the background the entire time along with Activity Monitor, typing in the included version of Pages, the brightness just below halfway and the resolution set to mimic 1920 x 1200, the battery was still reading 99% with an estimated 9 hours remaining after 30 minutes of use. Even after running benchmarks in Cinebench, opening Photoshop several times to either thrash the computer or shrink down funny pictures for friends as well as installing some utilities downloaded from the internet, I managed to squeeze a damn impressive 7 hours and 59 minutes out of the machine before the little battery icon in the top right finally turned red at 3% (and even then it stated it had 20 minutes remaining). This is the kind of life one would expect from a typical Ultrabook and their under-clocked internals - but a full-blown Quad Core i7 and 1800p IPS monitor? Its the technological equivalent of Christmas (Techmas?)

But enough about battery - what of the silicon?

What makes this machine tick and is it enough to handle a crippling session in Photoshop CS 5.5? The short answer to these two question is "very pretty sexy things" and "most definitely". Under the hood is Intel’s new Crystal Well family Quad Core i7 Processor with Iris Pro integrated graphics. Couple that with 8GB of DDR3L memory clocked at 1600MHz and a PCIe SSD and you have a recipe for success.

First there is the obligatory Photoshop run and I always use one particular test. A 300DPI A4 image with a blue, horizontal stripe across the middle of the canvas put through the extrude filter with all its settings maxed out. I find this to be a good test since it can instantly show how bad a computer can be - one job I had supplied me with a first generation Core i3 Fujitsu LifeBook (they expected me to make print ready brochures with it!) The extrude filter took a woeful 25 seconds to complete on that plastic monstrosity. My previous Sandy Bridge 2.0GHz Quad i7 MacBook Pro (with SATA III SSD Drive) only took 7 seconds. This Mac Retina? Well, if you want to know how long it took in seconds someone is going to have to buy me a high speed camera. This thing was done the moment I hit the OK button. I sat there with an eyebrow raised and three words exiting my mouth: "well okay then…"

So thats the extrude test done, with "witchcraft!" written in red pen in the comments box on its school report.

The second test I always perform in Photoshop is to use a single image I drew many, many years ago (and thus it looks ugly as sin with zero understanding of anatomy and things in general). A 300DPI CMYK format poster at 30 inches high and 20 inches wide full of layers. The file size is just over 600MB, which is pretty large for a Photoshop document. The first computer I created it on took 15 minutes just to save the wretched thing (Core2Duo iMac) and almost rendered the computer unusable whilst doing so. That Fujitsu LifeBook? It took so long to open the file I actually used Task Manager to quit out of Photoshop. The Retina MacBook Pro? About 3 minutes. My eyebrow was raised again. Zooming in 100% and using Photoshop’s navigator panel to scrub back and forth through the image as fast as possible made both my eyebrows raise. On every other computer bar my 6-core MacPro tower, fast scrubbing lead to quick stutters in the user interface and a noticeable delay as the data for that particular memory block was loaded in from scratch-space. The Retina, just like my MacPro, didn’t even flinch. Less than a second to render what block I was looking at and no UI slow down at all, not even fan noise which was very impressive.

Benchmarks are, of course, required to try and quantify this mind-bending speed for our feeble minds to comprehend. Novebench clocked in at 265,928,096 floating point operations per second, which is a large number by any means. Cinebench chimed in with a score of 562cb on its CPU test, only 28 points lower than the Core i7-3720QM which is clocked a full 600MHz higher.

So the Central Processor is fast and alarmingly so. What of the graphics? My wallet is more toned than fat, so the notion of buying the model with the 750M graphics processor was insane. Its over GBP£2000 (double what I paid for my first car! A delightful little Nissan Micra, incase you’re wondering) and several hundreds more than my Credit Limit. Plus, when I sat down and evaluated how I used my laptop, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need a discrete GPU, at least one as powerful as the 750M. So bottom of the barrel Iris Pro 5200 it was.

The usual glut of nerds on forums are quick to remind us that the Iris Pro falls short in some areas when compared to last years 650M. What Apple was quickly to remind us, however, is that the Retina range now has a lower entry price. $200 off in North America and £100 off in the United Kingdom. The Iris Pro is slower (but not by much) than the 650M, but its cheaper. The 750M is more expensive than the 650M, but its faster. It makes having only an Iris Pro easier to swallow as it slots nicely below both of the discrete options at a lower price.

I say "having only an Iris Pro" lightly. Although the nerdlingtons will once again be quick to remind us that the Iris Pro can’t play XYZ game at 1080p at 60fps, the little chip when used with applications such as Photoshop and Aperture is amazingly competent and comfortable with the task at hand, all whilst pushing a 3840 x 2400 image, as seen when taking screen shots, to a 2880 x 1800 display (my guess is over sampling to keep even the smallest details pin sharp).

Although not really relevant to the Macintosh operating system, given its small library and lack of DirectX, gaming benchmarks of the Iris Pro put it surprisingly close in quite a few titles to the 750M. The 750M achieves 34 fps in Metro Last light on medium settings, the same as the Iris Pro. Company of Heroes 2 achieved 29fps on the lowest settings on the 750M and 25fps on the Iris Pro. On games that recommend 1.5GB of Graphics RAM or more, the gap widens quite considerably. Tomb Raider (2013), for example, achieves 44fps on high detail settings using the 750M, where the Iris Pro only manages 35fps - this will be in thanks to only having half the graphics RAM (1GB) of the 750M. It does show, however, that the Iris Pro has some real push and grunt behind it, thanks in part the 128MB Level4 Cache (shared with the Central Processor) - I imagine an Iris Pro with 2GB of RAM would be quite the formidable foe.

The interface is as smooth as butter with even full screen transitions being dealt with easily and the previously mentioned Photoshop CS5.5 having absolutely no trouble at all keeping up with very complex filters that require a good degree of involvement form OpenGL. The Iris Pro also Supports OpenCL 1.2, meaning even more performance can be squeezed from it when using an application that utilises the technology (such as Photoshop CS6).

What about a benchmark? Well for that we turn to Cinebench again. Since OS X now has OpenGL 4.1 it stands a fighting chance, and the results show that, with a result of just under 28 frames per second, its surprisingly good - the 28fps was a sub 5 second blip at the beginning of the test as well. The rest of the test was as smooth as butter, sitting neatly in-between the 640M and 650M in terms of power whilst, again, being cheaper then the 650M it replaces.

Heat and Noise

The question to ask here is not "what is the heat and noise output?" but "what heat and noise!?" - The flip side to Iris Pro only is that you decrease the heat and noise of the system by a considerable margin. Sitting at my desk in dead silence at midnight, I struggled to hear the fans inside the machine as I engaged in general browsing tomfoolery (read: funny gifs), to then only be interrupted by the sound of a hard disk in a satellite TV box spinning into life at the other side of the room. I have sensitive hearing, but I had to really concentrate and press my head against the chassis to hear anything at all.

So I went back to Cinebench and ran the CPU benchmark, keeping my eyes firmly fixated on the temperature (via SMC Fan Control) and the CPU Frequency (via Intel Power Gadget). What I really wanted to know was how badly this processor throttled itself under extreme load, and with Cinebench pushing all threads to 100%, its as good as I’ll get without subjecting the machine to Prime 95.

What I actually saw was nothing short of brilliant. Where Dell’s previous generation XPS15 with a Core i7 Ivy Bridge and 640M graphics throttled itself quite badly (as far down as 1.2GHz), the MacBook Pro actually clocked itself to a whopping 2.8GHz and just stayed there like an immovable wall. The fan didn’t start revving until it hit 90˚C, but it took a while to get there and only got to a max of 2500RPM before Cinebench finished and the load disappeared. So I ran it again, this time manually forcing the fans up to 4000RPM. Was is terribly loud? Not really, I didn’t feel the need to turn up my TV. Did the processor stay at 2.8GHz? Yes. Did it get very hot? It hovered between 72˚C and 76˚C. Did the case get hot? Not in the absolute slightest. It gets warm-ish, but thats about it. I’d imagine longer runs at 100% (3D ray-tracers, I’m looking at you!) would heat the case up quite a bit, but from what I saw here? Nothing even remotely uncomfortable in short bursts. The fans do a superb job at keeping the processor cool and its not hard to see why. Two fans are typical in a 15" MacBook Pro - one for the CPU, one for the GPU, easy - but missing the discrete GPU means that both fans work together in harmony like a weird 80s synth-pop duo to stop the i7 from turning your desk into ashes (or your downstairs region into "great balls of fire").

Verdict

Mobile computing is all about compromises; give with one hand and take with the other, and I think Apple have made the right compromises in this 2013 model to make the MacBook Pro Retina a serious contender for one of the best all-round portable computers available at time of writing. Its the VW Golf of technology. Ubiquitous, recognisable, respected.

Its lack of a dedicated GPU is offset by the Iris Pro’s impressive real world performance (including the ability to output 4k video from the HDMI port) and increased battery life. The system’s high price tag is offset by the gold standard fit and finish and mind-bending display. Its lack of status lights and slightly compromised low end bass output is offset by the fact that its so incredibly thin and weighs only 1.8kg. Its lack of ports is offset by the inclusion of not one, but two 20GB/s Thunderbolt 2 ports. One Thunderbolt 2 port could run a 16-Lane PCIe 3.0 Graphics card at full speed (16GB/s). Once compatible chassis become available you could very easily pick one up and shove a FirePro or Quadro graphics card inside; battery life on the go with the Iris Pro but workstation power when at your desk, it can only be a good thing.

Overall, though, the 2013 the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is as premium a notebook as you can get. Although the Iris Pro CPU wont match the 750M available in higher spec models for performance, its priced downwards accordingly (even from last years models) and still gives you an abundance of real world power in many applications. Couple that with its unbelievably thin chassis, well engineered and very effective cooling system, stellar display with near perfect sRGB colour spectrum reproduction and easily obtainable 8 hour run time and you are left with one of the best notebooks on the market without question.

SCORE: 9/10

What’s good:

  • Insane display
  • Amazing CPU power on tap
  • Iris Pro is surprisingly powerful
  • Optimisations in OS X Mavericks make this computer scream
  • Excellent speakers
  • Industry leading trackpad
  • Still one of the best typing experiences around
  • Cool and Quiet with no throttling
  • Mind bending SSD speeds
  • Solid Construction
  • 2x Thunderbolt 2 ports included for serious power users and expansion
  • 8 hour battery life is realistic and easily obtainable in casual use

What’s bad:

  • Missing sleep and battery status lights an inconvenience
  • Idle sleep timeout is out of the user’s control
  • Shallow key travel takes some getting used too
  • Speakers lack the bass of the older "fat" MacBook Pro
  • 2013 Dell XPS 15, when released, may completely destroy this computer in terms of value for money