Windows Programming on the MacBook Pro Retina

Windows Programming on the MacBook Pro Retina

A few months ago I bought the 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina laptop planning to run Windows on it almost exclusively since I work on the .NET platform (and I’m also not crazy about Mac OS).

I found that running Windows on the MacBook has quite a few quirks, an aspect rarely touched by the existing reviews, so that’s what I will be talking about.

The Retina Display

Let’s start right away with the retina display: its greatest strength and also greatest weakness. The 2880×1800 resolution is stunning but the UI elements are very tiny. And by tiny I mean literally unreadable – even with perfect vision.

Running Windows on the MacBook Pro Retina makes all UI elements very small

Rather than decreasing the resolution – which causes a loss of quality – the recommended way to enlarge UI elements is to increase the DPI leaving the actual resolution at the native 2880×1800. The DPI settings can be found in the Control Panel’s Display section and out of the box Apple’s Boot Camp sets it to 150%, but even with that you will quickly find out the text is too small. I found the optimal DPI to be 168%: the text is big enough to be read and small enough to not take up too much screen real estate.

Unfortunately a surprising large number of applications have problems with high DPI, varying widely in severity. Usually the higher the DPI the more severe the problems, which is why I don’t recommend going higher than 168%.

Many applications, such as Visual Studio, do not fully support high DPI

Most of the serious problems can be fixed with some tweaking; an example is Firefox. Firefox doesn’t support DPI scaling at all and greets you with unreadable tiny text, but this can be resolved using the Default FullZoom Level addon. Not everything can be easily fixed though: the address bar will remain very tiny, and so will FireBug.

Another problem is if you attach an external screen the increased DPI will stay in effect and changing it back to 100% requires you to log off for some reason, even in Windows 8.

Widespread lack of support for non-default DPI is a big deal; do not underestimate it. A lot of applications won’t “just work” out of the box anymore. Even after tweaking the settings, it usually won’t be perfect.

Fortunately extremely high resolution displays are becoming more and more widespread and developers have begun working to fix the issues in their applications. Skype and Chrome had serious problems back when I bought the laptop but now work perfectly.

Battery Life

The MacBook Pro comes with two graphics cards:

  • The power-saver Intel HD Graphics 4000, integrated into the motherboard, which is used when you are not running any graphics intensive applications.
  • The powerful, power-hungry Nvidia GT 650M.

On Mac OS the laptop automatically switches between the two graphic cards but Windows always uses the power hungry Nvidia card, eating up your battery very quickly. In fact on Mac OS the battery lasts almost twice the time it does on Windows.

The battery on the MacBook Pro lasts much longer on Mac OS than it does on Windows

The Nvidia card also runs considerably hotter. Even while simply browsing the internet the laptop can get really hot to the point of being actually painful to touch in certain places.

We can only hope Apple will work on a bootcamp update to support graphics cards switching under Windows.. But I’m not holding my breath!

The Keyboard

The Alt and Windows keys are swapped on the Mac keyboard with the windows key (labeled as ⌘) to the left of the alt key rather than to the right. This can be easily fixed using AutoHotkey and a script to swap the Alt and Windows keys.

The Good

I focused mainly on the bad but the MacBook has plenty of good – even when using Windows:

  • The performance is really great. Compile times are fast, Visual Studio runs smoothly, and overall as far as performance is concerned it beats all the other laptops.
  • The trackpad is the best in the world. You can do some serious programming even without a mouse, something that I cannot say for any other trackpad I have ever used.
  • Even with all its problems, the retina display is great. It’s smooth and crisp, it has great colors and watching movies on it is a pleasure.
  • The looks: with its unibody alluminium enclosure and the attention to detail only Apple is capable of, the laptop looks modern, simple, elegant and robust. It’s just beautiful.
  • BootCamp works well and is very simple to set up. It works with Windows 8 too, although you need some tweaks to run its control panel.

Conclusions

The MacBook Pro is not necessarily a bad choice for Windows programmers but don’t underestimate the problems you will run into. The experience is not seamless and not everything will “just work”. If you can deal with some tweaking and accept some minor problems and annoyances go for it, otherwise there are plenty of other laptops to choose from.



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