Retina MacBook Pro: The Best Worst Laptop I’ve Ever Owned

Retina MacBook Pro: The Best Worst Laptop I’ve Ever Owned

A couple of months ago, I had a life-altering experience: I bought a new iPad. I use the term “life-altering experience” because before that day, I was a staunch opponent of all things Apple. I was a devout Linux and Android devotee, and I only really used Windows because I had to, and because I would never, ever be caught dead using a MacBook. I only bought the iPad because I needed a retina device to use for testing. At least that was my intention.

But something happened, something that this fervent Apple-hater did not expect: I fell in love with the device. As someone who stares at screens on a daily basis, I was amazed at the screen. It was one of the most beautiful displays I had ever seen. Text was crystal clear; My eyes no longer strained when reading small print. I wanted this in my laptop.

Matthew MacMillion is a developer, designer, and recent Apple convert who recently experienced the frustration of dealing with Apple’s occasional Genius caprice. But at least his story has a happy ending.

At the time, my primary machine was a Dell XPS 17. It was my pride and joy. It was huge, but it was powerful, and I had spent a decent chunk of change (nearly $US2,000) to get it decked out: 16GB of RAM, an SSD, the fastest i7 available at the time, everything. This beast was my life, and it was turned on almost all day long, every day. It wasn’t without its faults, of course. Most notably was the screen. It came with the absolute worst screen I had ever laid eyes on. Rough, dull, scratchy–It looked like someone had rubbed it down with sandpaper just before packaging it up and sending it to me. I remember my expression when I first opened it up and turned it on. My heart sank. I knew I was a stickler for things being perfect, but surely this isn’t what two grand bought you.

I called Dell. I waded through an hour of overseas tech support, people telling me to “just reboot my computer”, people telling me it was normal — your typical run-of-the-mill phone support responses. I fought my way gallantly up the chain until I reached Dell’s XPS preferred support. I remember his words exactly. “That screen should be flawless” he said. “If it’s not up to your expectations, we’ll get it fixed.” This is where Dell blew my mind. A replacement screen was overnighted to me. The next day, a certified Dell technician came to my office, and within fifteens minutes, I had the most beautiful laptop screen I had ever seen, shining brightly and ready to be used. “Wow,” I thought, “this is what Dell tech support is capable of?” I was impressed.

One of my co-founders has been a Mac guy for what seems like most of his life. He never said much when I went on my anti-Apple rants, but I could tell he was just sitting by patiently, waiting for me to come around. In secret, I wanted to as well. I had seen all the shiny web development tools that were available for OS X, and I was jealous. Linux was good, but I needed Photoshop and Illustrator to run flawlessly. Now running my own business, I didn’t have time to spend hours a day fiddling with my OS. I just needed it to work. A MacBook Pro and OSX were looking rather tempting, but I just had to resist. Apple had a trick up their sleeve, though. A sneaky, seemingly direct attack at my biggest weakness: Apple announced the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

I caved. Those around me saw it as more of an avalanche: first the MacBook, then a Time Capsule, then all the peripherals, an iPhone, a Thunderbolt Display. I was in a downward spiral of tech, and I was hooked. I quickly grew to love OS X. It had everything I needed, and it ran beautifully. I willingly gave up the customisation and geek factor that Android gave me in exchange for getting the things I needed quickly on my phone and tablet. The people at the local Apple Store knew me and my business by name. I even got a business discount on my Thunderbolt Display. I had all but forgotten my pleasant experiences with Dell’s support. That was, until I started having issues with the new MacBook. The dreaded image retention issue.

I wasn’t the only one, of course. In fact, there’s an enormous thread regarding the issue on Apple’s discussion forums. I was one of the lucky few who found the issue within their original fourteen-day return period. Unable to comprehend how a display this gorgeous on a machine that I paid almost thirty-five hundred dollars for would be having issues like this, I took the device back to my local Apple Store. I sat patiently at the Genius Bar, waiting to be helped. I was excited. I had heard the tales. I had been told before just how helpful Apple was when it came to getting things right. I wanted to see this in person.

At the time, the issue was still fresh. Some blogs had been reporting it, and the aforementioned thread existed. Those of us participating in the thread had narrowed the culprit down to LG manufactured screens. Those lucky few that had Samsung screens were not having the problem. The Genius I talked to had not heard of the issue, but I was able to easily reproduce it. He claimed that it was “within spec”, but since I was still within my fourteen-day window, I was allowed to walk out with a new device. It was the last day of my return period, and given that finding a rMBP with a Samsung screen was essentially a lottery, I opted for a standard MacBook Pro, thinking that I would try the Retina again after the next iteration. I was leaving that afternoon for a trip, and I needed a device that worked.

I was miserable. I spent the entire weekend yearning for that gorgeous screen. Everything I looked at was fuzzy. My eyes strained. I couldn’t take it. I got back early Sunday afternoon and headed straight for the Apple Store. I marched in and immediately swapped the MacBook again and rushed out with another Retina. When I got home, I was almost afraid to open it. I booted it up, let it restore from my Time Capsule, and logged in. I opened the terminal, and ran that all-important command to check the display model.

It was a Samsung screen.

I almost leapt out of my chair. I was ecstatic. I had hit the jackpot. I almost felt bad for the other users when I posted on the thread that I had managed to find one with a Samsung screen. But I was happy. I bragged about my machine. I loved it. It did exactly what I needed. It looked fantastic. The screen was exceptional. It was by far the best laptop I had ever owned. Apple had completely won me over. It was the best month of my life.

And then I noticed a small white blotch on the screen. A “mura” it was called, and it drove me crazy. It was glaring. It got in the way of my work, and on a device that was heralded as “a break-through in display engineering” and having “the best quality display Apple has ever made”, it wasn’t acceptable, right? If it wasn’t good enough for my Dell, it surely wasn’t good enough for a MacBook.

I was well out of a fourteen-day return period, but I had bought Apple Care. I felt safe. I made an appointment at the local Apple Store, and reluctantly took my pride and joy in for a checkup. I explained the issue to the Genius, who happened to be the same guy I talked to when I had issues with my first MacBook. I showed him the spot.

“I don’t see it”, he claimed. Surely he was bluffing. I pointed again. That was when he started feeding me the bullshit. “You see,” he clamored, “all screens are different.”

Yes, and this one is defective. I spent the next 10 minutes trying every possible way I knew to get him to agree with me, but all I received was the cold shoulder. He even went as far as to tell me that the original problem I had experienced with image retention was actually caused by my eyes, not the screen. I eventually accepted that fact that I wasn’t getting a replacement.

“So you’re not going to help me out here?” I asked.

“I don’t feel comfortable doing a replacement.” he quipped.

I felt my face turn red with anger. “Then why did I pay extra for Apple Care?”

“Well, we replaced the first two machines, didn’t we?”

I didn’t know how to respond. I paid a lot of money into this ecosystem, and I expected to be treated like it. I know it’s not a lot, but my small company had given almost 20 grand to Apple over the past couple of months, and I felt like I deserved more. I was angry, of course, but more so I was hurt. I couldn’t believe that my only option was to just accept it and move on. I’m not sure whether I sat there for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, but I eventually just shoved my MacBook back into my bag, uttered “thanks” and trudged out of the store.

That was three days ago. Since then, I’ve had time to collect my thoughts, and my nerves have settled down a bit. I’m angry, but I’m not irrational. I enjoy my MacBook, and I still think it’s one of the best laptops I’ve ever owned. I am, however, upset with the way Apple has treated the issue. We understand that this is new, cutting-edge technology. We understand that there will be problems. We just want to be treated like human beings.

I’m not asking for much. I’m not asking for freebies. I’m just asking for one of the best laptops I’ve ever owned to become the best laptop I’ve ever owned. I’m asking to be treated like a paying customer that wants to remain a paying customer. I’m asking Apple to uphold their supposed commitment to being the best. If Dell could do it, surely Apple can.

Steve would.

You Win, Apple.

So, in the past week, I’ve learned a few things. First, no matter what you do or say, people on the internet will hate you, some will praise you, and most will call you a whiny, distasteful idiot. Second, being a whiny, distasteful idiot will get you what you want.

Apple came through for me and my company and fixed the laptop. Upon reading my letter, I was contacted by Zainab from Apple’s Corporate Executive Relations department. Zainab was ridiculously helpful. She got me in touch with some of Apple’s engineers, who agreed that the defect I had did indeed qualify for a replacement, and set me up to get my rMBP’s screen replaced. A day later, I had my rMBP back with a flawless new (Samsung built) screen. colour me impressed.

Can I trust Apple? Of course not. Not any more than I can trust Google, Microsoft, Dell, Samsung or any other major technological leviathan. What I can attest for is that if you push hard enough, Apple will take care of you. That being said, there are still major issues with the MacBook Pro Retina that need to be resolved. I know that profits are what matters, but shelling out subpar displays in hopes that most of your buyers won’t notice is bad karma. Most everyone is guilty of such things, of course, and throwing pebbles isn’t going to bring the beast to its knees. It’s still good to grab their attention every once in a while, though.

In the end, I’m pleased. I received what I had originally paid for, and I’m relatively certain that if the need arises, Apple will come through for me again. This may have been my first MacBook, but it won’t be my last.

Matthew McMillion is a professional developer, full-time nerd, and part-time angry-letter-writer. Follow him on Twitter @MLMcMillion.

Teardown image credit: iFixit