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Originally published June 20, 2012 at 9:47 PM | Page modified June 22, 2012 at 6:07 PM

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Retina MacBook Pro: a treat for the eyes, maybe not for the wallet

In the same 15-inch space occupied by Apple's other MacBook Pro (also available, with some upgraded specs), the Retina model squeezes a display that measures 2880 x 1800 pixels. That's more than 5 million pixels to render text, photos, videos and other elements sharper than you've seen on a computer.

Special to The Seattle Times

MacBook Pro with Retina display

APPLE'S NEW laptop comes in two versions with similar specs except as noted below.

Processor: Intel 2.3 GHz i7; 2.66 GHz i7

Memory: 8GB

Storage: 256GB; 512GB

Display: 15.4-in., LED-backlit

Dimensions: 14.13 x 9.73 x 0.71 inches

Weight: 4.46 lbs.

Price: $2,199; $2,799

Source: Apple

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During a briefing about the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, one of Apple's PR folks mentioned the high-resolution screen is so nice that I won't want to go back to a regular one.

"That's too bad for me," I replied, "since I have to send this loaner back."

Awkward silence.

I'm steeling myself for the day coming soon when I have to send the MacBook Pro back to Apple, because the screen really is that great. In the same 15-inch space occupied by Apple's other MacBook Pro (also available, with some upgraded specs), the Retina model squeezes a display that measures 2880 x 1800 pixels. That's more than 5 million pixels to render text, photos, videos and other elements sharper than you've seen on a computer.

Most elements, anyway. Developers need to update their applications to support the new resolution, leading to the current situation where some apps look fantastic and others look blurry or pixelated because the operating system is scaling them up.

Text in Safari looks crisp (even though most graphics don't — websites also need to be updated to look good on such a high-resolution display, a thornier problem than applications), while the same text in Chrome looks chunky. (Google has promised Retina support in an upcoming update, perhaps spurred by the fact this is the most obvious comparison to make.)

Or take Adobe InDesign. All text in my InDesign CS5 documents appears slightly fuzzy (flashing me back to the early days of desktop publishing before PostScript fonts rendered smooth type).

Adobe is working on an updated version of Photoshop, and I presume its other apps will trickle Retina support in over time.

Increased resolution, however, usually makes everything tiny. Text and icons appear smaller on the 2010 MacBook Pro I own, which has a high-resolution anti-glare screen (a build-to-order option) measuring 1680 x 1050 pixels.

Fortunately, adding more than 3 million pixels doesn't render all items microscopic. The Displays preference pane now includes five resolution choices that approximate other sizes, from Larger Text (like 1024 x 640) to More Space (like 1920 x 1200).

This screen is still glossy, but not as reflective as the standard MacBook Pro screen, which is a big improvement. Apple attributes the change to removing a front pane of glass in the lid design and using a better material for the glass that remains. I've barely noticed the reflectivity.

So, clearly, I like the screen. But in my situation, it makes the option of replacing my current laptop more difficult because most of the time I'm parked at my desk with a decidedly non-Retina external display connected and in use as my main screen. (Cue an army of designers and photographers now salivating over the possibility of a Retina resolution Thunderbolt display.)

What impresses me more about this new machine is the speed. InDesign, to return to that example, launches in about three seconds; I didn't leave out one or two zeros there — I did mean three seconds. My MacBook Pro, which was cutting edge two years ago, launches InDesign in about 25 seconds.

Part of that speed comes from the processors: 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7 in this review unit, 2.6 GHz on the high-end configuration (or 2.7 GHz as a build-to-order option), with a Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics processor.

But much also comes from the solid-state flash storage, 256 GB in the standard configuration, 512 GB in the high-end configuration, with an optional 768 GB capacity available for an extra $500. And data transfer is better now that the two USB ports work with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 devices.

The MacBook Pro makes a few other departures from its brethren. It's thinner (at 0.71 inch) and lighter (4.46 pounds) than the other 15-inch MacBook Pro. It's not a thin sliver like the MacBook Air, but those reductions are appreciated if you carry the machine much.

The memory is not upgradeable, so I recommend buying the maximum 16 GB of RAM if you order one. The flash storage is similarly not accessible, although Apple would not comment as to whether a third party could offer storage upgrades, as some companies do now for the MacBook Air.

There are also notable omissions and additions.

The optical drive is gone, along with dedicated Ethernet and FireWire ports. Apple sells a USB-based CD/DVD drive and adapters for the other two ports that plug into the machine's two Thunderbolt ports. It also added an HDMI port.

The SDXC memory-card slot is still there, but the power connector is now a slimmer MagSafe 2 connector, which fits only the new power cable. (A MagSafe adapter is also for sale, so you can use an extra now-older MagSafe connector, or the ones included with Apple's Thunderbolt or LED Cinema Displays.)

Lastly, Apple has increased the quality of the internal speakers and built in two microphones (to take advantage of the Dictation feature of OS X Mountain Lion. Buyers of the MacBook Pro, which ships with OS X Lion, can upgrade to Mountain Lion free when it's released next month.).

And in an extra bit of engineering oomph, Apple also designed a clever internal fan system that uses asymmetrical blades to minimize the noise when the computer is chewing on something particularly processor intensive.

Although I do highly recommend the Retina MacBook Pro, it's not cheap, at $2,199 for the 2.3 GHz model or $2,799 for the 2.6 GHz model.

To be honest, that's not exorbitantly expensive — I've spent more for laptops in the past — and this is the current state of the art. But it's also not insignificant, especially when you can still buy a regular 15-inch MacBook Pro starting at $1,799.

Now, my question becomes: Can I go back to my 2010 MacBook Pro? For the time being, yes — but my eyes are going to be disappointed for a while as they adjust to my non-Retina screen.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at seattletimes.com/practicalmac.

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