Katherine Boehret

A Laptop Screen That Promises an Eyeful

Are you intensely disappointed by the resolution of your laptop screen? Didn’t think so. Yet, Apple thinks it could be better. This has long been a theme for the famed technology company: Find a product that people don’t think is all that flawed (early MP3 players) and replace it with a product so captivating (iPod) that they forget whatever came before it.

The company continued its pattern last week with a new addition to the MacBook family: the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. This isn’t a laptop for average, mainstream consumers, but for pros and enthusiasts. (The MacBook Air, once an exotic niche, has taken over the mainstream role.)

I’ve been using this laptop over the past week, and my retinas are properly impressed, if that’s scientifically possible. Apple describes its Retina Display as such a high pixel density that a user’s eyes can’t see individual pixels on it. On this screen, colors pop, text seems crisper and image details — like light catching on water droplets — seem more pronounced. Its screen makes others look muted, including my regular MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air and two Windows PCs that I set up near it. On the downside, its battery life came up short in my tests, and its 15.4-inch-diagonal screen size is too big for some people’s taste.

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the first MacBook Pro to rely solely on flash storage and has an improved processor and graphics. This new build makes it thinner and over a pound lighter than a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a hard drive. It is only 0.03-inch thicker than the thickest edge of the slender MacBook Air. And its speakers sounded remarkably good as I blasted Latin and classical tunes throughout my living room.

Beauty and power like this come at a price. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display costs $2,200 for 256 gigabytes of flash or $2,800 for 512 gigabytes of flash, making it one of the most expensive MacBooks.

Meanwhile, prices have dropped for three of the four MacBook Air models, which, since their 2008 debut, have been thought of as the gold standard in ultra-thin laptop design. The least expensive, 11-inch MacBook Air remains at $1,000, while the other 11-inch and two 13-inch MacBook Airs have come down by $100 each. All MacBook Airs were updated with improved processors, graphics, faster flash storage and larger amounts of memory.

Apple says its MacBook Pro with Retina Display has such a high pixel density that a user's eyes can't see individual pixels on it.

Regular MacBook Pros without new screens were upgraded with features like new processors and faster graphics, and they start at $1,200 for a 13-inch or $1,800 for a 15-inch.

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is the first MacBook Pro without a disc drive slot, though MacBook Airs never had one. The ports that remain include two USB ports (compatible with both USB 2 and the faster flavor, USB 3); an HDMI port for directly connecting this laptop to a TV; two Thunderbolt ports, which provide fast connections to external screens or data devices, and an SDXC memory card slot.

I don’t normally run half of the programs that a power user might, but this MacBook zoomed along as I used it for tasks like downloading music, importing dozens of high-resolution photos, opening over 30 tabs at a time in my Web browser and editing images in iPhoto and Aperture, Apple’s high-end photo editing software.

I also used it to record songs in Apple’s music program, GarageBand. It took less than seven seconds to open iPhoto and generate high-resolution thumbnail images for 183 12-megapixel images. In five seconds, it imported 42 of those images onto the computer. Using Aperture I edited a 43.6-megabyte, RAW (unprocessed) image with instant results. It started up in just a few seconds.

In my standard battery test, which I performed twice for accuracy, I got just over four hours each time, though Apple claims up to seven hours. My test taxes the computer more than a normal user and involves keeping Wi-Fi on, cranking the screen to full brightness, turning off all power-saving features, keeping email retrieval going in the background and playing an endless loop of music. Four hours of juice with this test likely means that a person using it more regularly would get 5 or 5 ½ hours of battery life.

When I used my own MacBook Pro after using the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, its screen appeared as if a thin, hazy film was floating on top of it. Apple says the 2880-by-1800 resolution of the Retina Display has more than five million pixels, or over four times that of the previous MacBook Pro and over three million more than an HDTV. Apple claims this computer’s screen cuts down on reflective glare by 75 percent. While I did notice less glare when I compared it to other glossy screens, sunlight did affect it.

It’s no surprise that Apple’s newest product improves on its last. This move to a better screen, all-flash storage and the elimination of a physical slot for discs shifts the company ahead in its typical, pack-leading style. Power users will be thrilled by the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Average users will now consider the MacBook Air more seriously.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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