A Week With The Retina MacBook Pro

I had for some time been eagerly awaiting Apple’s update to its MacBook line of computers having managed to resist the allure of a new machine for quite a few years.  My 2.4 Ghz Core 2 Duo MacBook is still working well but it’s a looking a little sad what with the broken plastic at the edge of the right hand wrist rest (apparently quite a common failure), the self inflicted white spots on the LCD and the general misalignment of the lid following a couple of drops.

Unboxing the Retina MBP

If these issues weren’t reason enough my wife has been using the MacBook for a while (invariably forgetting to charge it) and for her requirements, mainly web browsing and mail it’s still perfectly adequate.  Quite frankly that’s the only green light I needed, so having attempted to justify my extravagance let’s talk about the Retina MacBook Pro.

Not cheap is it, especially here in the UK where the base model comes in at £1799 or roughly $2795 at today’s exchange rate.  Still I suppose that’s what you get when you are, as Stephen Fry put it, ‘an early adopting sillyhead‘.  I ordered my 2.3 GHz model with 8 GBs of RAM as soon as the UK Apple Store came back online following the WWDC Keynote.  Months of pent-up desire for a new machine meant there was no hovering over the confirmation button as with previous purchases, my blood was up, resistance would have been futile.

Apple Packaging

My shipping notification duly arrived on the 13th of June and I watched with some bemusement over the following days as my MacBook winged its way to old Blighty via China, Korea, Kazakhstan, Poland, Germany and… Castle Donnington.  The packaged arrived, earlier than estimated, on the 18th June.  Having seen the subsequent shortage in supply it seems I was very lucky to receive it so quickly with some who ordered at similar times to myself still waiting.

Retina MacBook Pro

Coming as I was from the aforementioned MacBook the first thing that struck me was just how thin and relatively light this new model is and yet it manages to avoid feeling flimsy or insubstantial, quite a trick to pull off.  Of course the thing that demands your attention next is the screen, impossibly thin and extraordinarily clear, bright and sharp.  Gorgeous blacks on pristine whites and vivid colours all rendered with superb accuracy.

In terms of performance, I’ve had experience of SSDs having upgraded my Mac Pro but there they are restricted by the ageing SATA II interface so it was pleasing to see them operating nearer their full potential in the MacBook.  Blackmagic Disk Speed Test showed write speeds averaging around 390 MB/s with Read speeds at 435 MB/s.  Both results based on 1 GB file sizes.

Geekbench

Geekbench returned a score of 11065, pretty impressive for such a light and compact machine.  I decided to try a game which I had previously downloaded for the Mac Pro via the App Store, namely Dirt 2.  It’s not the most up to date game but I have no desire to install Windows on the MacBook as I will not be doing a great deal of gaming on it.  The game ran at 2880 x 1800, the native Retina resolution, although it was stuttering slightly.  The fans did get noticeably louder as the unit heated up and the battery charge took a severe hit.  All I suppose to be expected, dropping the resolution to 1440 x 900 resulted in silky smooth gameplay, video here.

With two Thunderbolt ports and an HDMI port it occurred to me I could try to hook up three external displays.  I plugged my two 24″ Apple Cinema Displays into the Thunderbolt ports and a Samsung TV into the HDMI and everything worked without a hitch.  Initially I only mirrored the displays although I will also create a single desktop across them and test performance, it would be interested to know what ATI’s Eyefinity under Windows would make of such a set up.

Powering Three Displays

Returning to the Retina display, I have mostly run it at its native resolution where it performs best, although non Retina enabled apps do look quite blurry, particularly when seen alongside those which are Retina compatible.  Clearly Apple is hoping to force the issue and rely on 3rd party developers to release compatible software ASAP, although to be fair even some Apple software is I believe still not Retina optimised.

I’ve also used the ‘1680 x 1050 mode’ which I quite like.  Retina enabled apps still look pin sharp plus you get a little more real estate which can be useful.  In the course of creating this blog entry I’ve used Grab on the MacBook to take some screenshots and when you open these captured images on a non Retina machine it really brings home to you the resolution of simple dialogue boxes.  Click on the image of the Display Properties Pane shown opposite to view it at full resolution.

Retina Display Properties

Choosing non standard resolutions does come with a performance hit as the screens are actually rendered at much higher resolutions and then scaled to fit. A couple of other negative points to consider, firstly battery life.  Apple claims typical life of around 7 hours with light use.  In my experience my machine is not achieving this, I would suggest it’s somewhere between 5 – 6 hours, although to be fair that is only an estimate.  Fortunately the battery seems to charge quite quickly.

The other major issue for me is the sharp edges to the palm rests which results in quite painful indentations in the sides of your hands after only 20 or so minutes use.  I really wish Apple would address this issue, yes the clean lines look lovely but surely it’s not beyond the wit of the designers to soften the edge and maintain the clean aesthetic.

Speaker and Keyboard Detail

So overall I’m very pleased with the new Retina MacBook Pro, it’s light, thin and gorgeous to look at with plenty of power and just a few minor niggles.  I’m fully expecting this thing to truly come alive with the release of Mountain Lion which I’m eagerly anticipating.

Mac Pro 1,1 Processor Upgrade

Following the previous upgrades to my 2006 Mac Pro I finally decided to take the plunge and swap out the original dual core Xeon CPU’s for some quad core ones.  A matched pair of Xeon 5355’s came up on Ebay at a sensible price and from a reputable seller so I snapped them up.  The seller actually had four pairs for sale and they were sold pretty quickly so there is clearly still some demand for 5355’s.

Heatsinks Removed

There are a multitude of videos available on Youtube detailing the relatively simple procedure of removing the old Xeons and replacing them.  All you need are the new processors, some good thermal paste, a couple of Phillips screwdrivers and a 3mm Allen/Hex key which needs to ideally be at least 6″ long.  You’ll also need something to clean the old thermal paste off of the heat sinks, isopropyl alcohol is ideal, anything else risks leaving residue which will negatively impact on the heat transfer between CPU and heat sink.  Optional extras are a can of compressed air for cleaning out any dust build up and an anti-static wrist strap.

I won’t go into the full procedure here as others have already documented it well.  A couple of points I would make are firstly many who have performed the upgrade refer to issues removing the memory cage screws, I had no such problems but did use a small jeweller’s screwdriver which allowed vertical orientation and full purchase with the screw head.

Original Xeon 5150’s

Secondly, I was surprised by how thick the factory application of thermal compound was when I removed the heat sinks, I had expected a thin veneer but it was definitely thicker than that.  This rather threw me as to how much compound I should apply on re-installation.

In the end I decided to apply a thin line horizontally across the CPU’s with an additional smaller vertical line making a cross.  I didn’t spread out the compound but instead allowed the pressure of re-attaching the heat sink to flatten it out.

Reassembly was straightforward, I even managed to complete the whole operation without dropping one screw.  The machine promptly booted up and I ran Geekbench to assess what performance improvement the new Xeons were giving.

Geekbench Score Shows Huge Improvement

With the original Xeon 5150’s Geekbench would typical return a score in the low 5000’s.  With the 5355’s the score has leapt to 9456, a very useful improvement in performance bringing my 2006 Mac Pro within touching distance of a 2012 iMac Core i7.

The only thing left to do now is monitor the CPU temperatures for a while to ensure the thermal compound is working well.  There are a number of different apps out there that claim to give accurate read outs of the Pro’s thermal sensors, however in my experience they all seem to give different results.  I’ve therefore decided to trust the software that I’m familiar with, namely Marcel Bresink’s aptly named ‘Temperature Monitor”.

Temperature Monitor

This is showing the cores running at an average of about 40°C under light load* which is around 30% higher than the previous processors. Considering there are twice as many cores and that the thermal compound has not broken in yet this seems pretty reasonable to me.  Also a considerable upswing in the ambient temperature that has coincided with the upgrade must be taken into account.

I decided to download SMC Fan Control and crank the systems fans up by a couple of hundred RPM just to be on the safe side, they are still whisper quiet.  There is one last issue that needed resolving, when you perform this upgrade and click on About This Mac you’re likely to get a processor unknown reading although System Report will show the correct number of cores.

There are a couple of solutions to this, you can try upgrading the 1,1 firmware to 2,1 using this utility.  Or you can do what I did which was download the CPU injector Kext from here (updated with new link, see original article here) and install it with a kext utility, I used Kext Helper b7 here (updated with new link.)

*After three months of running smoothly the CPU temperatures under light load are now averaging around 32°C so clearly the thermal compound has bedded in well and I’ve been able to leave the fans running at factory settings.  I recently installed Windows 7 and have been enjoying a number of games, the machine remains stable and reliable.

*More than 12 months have now passed since this upgrade and I’m pleased to report the machine is still running smoothly.  Despite very hot ambient temperatures here presently, the Mac Pro remains whisper quiet.

*Update (08 December 2013) Following John’s post in the comments section below I returned to find some of the links in the original post broken.  I have therefore hosted the CPU Injector Kext and the Kext Help B7 utility myself and updated the links.  The original article covering the CPU injector Kext can by found at the Internet Archive.  With regards to the machine itself it is still running perfectly.

*Update (19 December 2013) I’ve installed OS X Mavericks using the target disk mode method.  Running Geekbench again under Mavericks yields a result of 9841.

*Update (11 October 2014) Another reader has pointed out that the links in the original post are broken again.  I have therefore reolcated and hosted the CPU Injector Kext and the Kext Help B7 utility myself and updated the links.

*Update (7 May 2018) I have noticed that this post is still quite popular and thought therefore that those reading it might be interested to know that this Mac Pro is still running without fault.

View iTunes Cover Art For Shared Libraries

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it frustrating that when accessing an iTunes shared library from a second machine the only available view option appears to be the text list, with no way of viewing cover art.  I’m equally sure I’m not the first one to discover this but never the less I found a way around this problem.

On the host machine whose library you are sharing simply create a playlist, I named mine AirPlay, and then add your entire music collection to it.  Now on the second machine connect to your shared library, expand it if necessary by clicking on the triangle and scroll down to and select your newly created playlist.

The good news, grid and album list view are available when viewing shared playlists allowing you to finally see your cover art from your shared library, the bad news, Coverflow is still not available.