Editor's update, Nov. 2016: read and watch our review of the late 2016 15" MacBook Pro that replaces this model.
Perhaps if I win the proverbial lottery or we reach our 10 millionth YouTube subscriber, I'd be able to buy the 15" MacBook Pro with Retina display dressed to the max with upgrades without sweating blood. I use a 13" Retina MacBook Pro for work, and as someone who spends a great deal of time editing photos and video, the 15 inch model's big screen and powerhouse quad core processor would be perfect. Priced at $1,999 with integrated graphics to our $3,200 review unit with the new AMD Radeon R9 GPU and a 1TB SSD, the big Mac isn't for everyone. Of course, the same could be said of the Dell XPS 15 that's the 15" Retina's Windows counterpart and is priced similarly. Both sell pretty well despite the price, because in part you do get what you pay for: classic and quality designs, excellent materials and finish, reliability and strong performance.
We're not here to debate the 15" Retina Mac's position in the world. It's actually the same overall design as the 2012 model, and the pricing has remained largely the same since 2013--these aren't new issues for the Mac. And if you're a Mac person and want a 15" display and/or a more powerful CPU in your laptop, you don't have a choice. What 's new for the mid-2015 model? Apple switched to the Force Touch trackpad first introduced a few months back in the latest generation 13" Retina MacBook Pro. The PCIe SSD storage is up to 2x faster, and is indeed insanely fast. The CPUs and integrated graphics? They're still at Intel 4th generation Haswell with Iris Pro graphics because Intel still doesn't have quad core mobile 5th gen Broadwell chips available. In fact, we suspect that manufacturers might skip Broadwell at this point and go with 6th generation Skylake some time in 2016.
AMD Radeon R9 M370X Graphics
For those interested in the $2,500 dedicated graphics model, things have changed. Gone is the now 2 generation old NVIDIA GT 750M graphics, and it's been replaced by AMD Radeon R9 M370X 2GB DDR5 graphics (Apple has been using AMD lately, and they tend to switch between NVIDIA and AMD every few years). We're thrilled that Apple has refreshed the aging dGPU, but like many of you, I was a little disappointed that they didn't go with NVIDIA's new 900 series Maxwell graphics that have a very large boost in performance while reducing heat compared to older NVIDIA graphics. AMD meanwhile has fallen from the limelight and gained a reputation for making hotter and slower graphics cards. That said, Apple's done decently with AMD graphics in the 5K iMac and they're anything but stupid--you can be sure they wouldn't upgrade the GPU unless it was indeed an upgrade in terms of performance. We also suspect that AMD was able to deliver 5K monitor support, and that Apple might have a 5K Thunderbolt display in the works. Apple states that the M370X 15" MacBook Pro can handle a single 5120 x 2880 display at 60Hz, including Dell's 2-cable 27" 5K display. The M370X can also drive single cable 4K 4096×2160 displays at 60Hz-- both the 5K and 4K 4096×2160 single cable @ 60Hz are firsts for an Apple laptop.
We're spending a lot of time looking at the new M370X here because it's one of the few significant updates on the mid-2015 15" Retina MacBook Pro, and because it's a GPU that's appeared out of nowhere--no AMD announcements, no benchmarks... there's simply no info on the M370X. So we've thrown a boatload of Mac OS X and Windows benchmarks at it, and it is indeed faster than the 750M while getting no hotter. Apple claims it's 80% faster (a vague claim), and we've yet to see it manage that in any benchmark. Depending on the test, it's anywhere from 40% faster to 10% faster, which is a healthy jump. The only test where it scored the same as the outgoing 750M is Cinebench R15. When only one benchmark stands out among 10 or more, we consider that benchmark to be the weak link rather than the hardware being tested. Below in the Benchmarks section you'll see the results from our tests with the high-end model that has a 2.8GHz rather than 2.5 GHz CPU and a larger SSD (SSD size doesn't affect benchmarks). In our video review we show you the results on-screen, and we also test the Mac with Tomb Raider at 1920 x 1200 resolution under Windows where it did quite well.
That said, I've never thought of the 15" Retina MacBook Pro as a gaming machine. I don't think Apple does either, and they've clearly avoided higher end gaming GPUs in the 15" Mac because it would push the power and heat requirements beyond the limits of the machine's design. The 15" model is geared towards Pro apps like Final Cut, Adobe Photoshop and Premiere, with a little gaming on the side. The machine can play Tomb Raider and Battlefield 4 nicely under Windows at medium settings, but I wouldn't want to play 6 hours a day for months on the Mac under Windows where thermals aren't as well handled as on the OS X side of the house; I have a feeling the GPU might die prematurely. The AMD Mac doesn't get any hotter or noisier than the NVIDIA GT 750M model. You won't hear the fan often unless exporting long full HD or 4K videos or when playing games. Demanding games under Mac OS X and Windows get the fans going on high and the keyboard temperature reaches 110F as does the hottest spot on the underside.
So What Do you Get with the 15" Retina Macbook Pro?
The Mac retains the same slim and sleek 4.49 lb. chassis that's 0.71" thick. The rigid unibody aluminum casing feels robust and dense. There's no flex, no unsightly seams and the lid opens and closes with just the right amount of resistance. For a 15" performance oriented laptop, it's quite thin and light. In the world of Windows, only the Dell XPS 15 dared to put as much performance into such a thin and light package back in 2012. After 3 years we have a strong handful of Windows contenders, and some are gaming oriented like the MSI GS60 Ghost Pro, Razer Blade, Asus Zenbook Pro UX501 and the HP Omen 15. None of these competitors is cheap, but a few are considerably less expensive than the Mac.
The Mac has two Thunderbolt 2 ports that also function as mini DisplayPorts, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 3.5mm combo audio, HDMI and an SD card slot. It has a 720p FaceTime HD webcam and dual mics on the left side. If you wish to tinker inside, you'll need a pentalobe screwdriver and you won't find much that's user upgradeable beyond the SSD drive. The Mac has very full-sounding stereo speakers that flank the keyboard, and a very good backlit keyboard. The new Force Touch trackpad allows for more precise clicking and provides actions when you "deep click"--do that on a link to get a web page preview, do it on a word to get a definition in some programs. It's a lovely trackpad under Mac OS X Yosemite and all 4 corners move and click unlike traditional trackpads that are hinged at the top and only move at the bottom. When running Windows via Boot Camp on the Mac, the trackpad is more pedestrian since the drivers aren't as good as the Mac version drivers. Speaking of Windows, battery life and heat will be less well managed because the machine will only run on the dedicated GPU (obviously this isn't an issue if you own the $1,999 integrated graphics model).
The Mac has Broadcom dual band WiFi 802.11ac, and it was one of the strongest performers we've seen to date on our AC network. Bluetooth 4.0 is standard. If you need 4G LTE, you'll need a USB LTE stick or you can use your phone's mobile hotspot feature.
Deals and Shopping:
2015 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display Video Review
15" MacBook Pro vs. Dell XPS 15 Infinity Comparison
15" MacBook Pro Retina vs. 13" Retina MacBook Pro Comparison: Which Should You Buy?
The Mac's 15.4", 16:10 display is unchanged from previous generations. It inspired a generation of high DPI laptops in the world of Windows, and it's still one of the better panels on the market. The 2880 x 1800 gloss IPS display has excellent factory color calibration: we couldn't see the difference between our Spyder 4 Pro calibration and the factory calibration because it's so close. Color gamut is excellent at 99% of sRBG and 74% of Adobe RGB and at 300 nits it's pleasingly bright. The real star here is how well Mac OS X handles display scaling, which is a sore point for Windows 8.1 and third party Windows programs. You'll never see fuzzy text or insanely tiny text on the Mac thanks to the way it handles scaling universally (for both the OS and all programs). Retina optimized programs look particularly sharp and Photoshop is wonderful for viewing and editing today's high megapixel photos.
Performance and Horsepower
We're still looking at Intel quad core 47 watt CPUs from the Haswell generation here. Honestly, Broadwell 5th generation CPUs were more about reducing power consumption than improving power, so you're not losing on performance in terms of CPU prowess. Intel's 5th generation graphics do show a 7 to 10 percent improvement, and that's where the lack of Broadwell hurts a bit if you're buying the base model with Intel Iris Pro graphics. The 15" Retina Mac, regardless of configuration, comes with a Core-i7 quad core CPU, 16 gigs of RAM (soldered on, not upgradable) and a wildly fast PCIe SSD drive. The base model has 256 gigs of storage, while the $2,500 dedicated graphics model has 512 gigs. For a painful $500 you can double that to 1TB. The base model has a 2.2 GHZ CPU while the $2,500 model has a 2.5 GHz CPU. For $200 you can upgrade from the 2.5 GHz to a 2.8 GHz CPU with Turbo Boost to 4.0 GHz.
This is a fast machine in terms of computational performance, and it's as fast as any Windows workstation class laptop since it uses the same Intel quad core CPUs. If you do serious work with your laptop such as professional video editing, photo editing with large RAW files and advanced filters, compile large programs, or do scientific data analysis or math, this is your laptop.
Though Apple wasn't able to move to the more power-frugal Broadwell CPU line, they increased battery life estimates to 9 hours for the AMD graphics model. The integrated GPU model has a battery life estimate of 10 hours wireless web and 12 hours of iTunes movie playback, which is insanely high for a 15" quad core with a high-resolution display. That 9 hour estimate is when mostly using integrated graphics, and even if you buy the dedicated graphics model you can set the Mac to use integrated graphics when battery life is more dear than a graphics boost. In our real world tests with the high end AMD model, we've averaged 8 hours of use when doing productivity, photo editing and streaming video with brightness set to 50%. It's likely that one could achieve the 9 hour claimed runtime with brightness at 40% and little use of programs that use the AMD GPU.
The 85 watt charger with MagSafe 2 connector and the beefy 99.5 Whr Lithium Ion polymer battery remain unchanged. That's a very high capacity battery, particularly for such a thin and light machine.
The 15" Retina MacBook Pro isn't for everyone given the high price tag, and it's hard to deny that the "Mac tax" is alive and well here, while the 13" Retina MacBook Pro actually offers good value for the money. That said, it's one of the best put together, powerful and reliable 15" workhorses on the market. Apple's support is top notch, Mac OS X Yosemite is a pleasant and powerful operating system and Apple's handling of high-resolution displays (aka Retina in Apple-speak) is outstanding. If you're a Mac person and need the larger display or the 2x speed bump vs. the 13" model, this is the Mac for you. The refresh here is minor if you're considering the integrated graphics model for $1,999, but the graphics bump from the AMD Radeon is sufficient to make the dedicated graphics model look good. If you have a 2014 edition with the NVIDIA GT 750M, the improvements aren't strong enough to warrant an upgrade, but if you're coming from a smaller or older Mac, it's a solid choice. If you're a Windows person thinking of switch-hitting with OS X or using Boot Camp, there are a variety of competing machines at lower prices that are also worth a look, including the just-released Asus Zenbook Pro UX501, HP Omen 15 and for you gamers the MSI GS60 and Razer Blade. Lastly, there's the Dell XPS 15 that isn't cheaper than the Mac, but it is more upgradeable and offers a 4K touch screen.