13-Inch Retina MacBook Pro, Side View
The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro has a great screen and performs well. But is it good enough to justify the price tag?
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In June, Apple released its first Retina display-capable laptop, the phenomenal 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Last month, the company unveiled the next member of the high-resolution family, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina.
Apple boasts that the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina has the second-highest resolution screen on the market, a jaw-dropping 2,560 x 1,600 pixels (compared with 2,880 x 1,800 for the 15-inch beauty). Like the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, the 13-inch model loses the optical drive –- a decision that both saves weight and allows for a larger battery.
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Similarly, the machine is also decidedly upgrade-unfriendly. The RAM chips are soldered into the computer and are fixed at 8GB. And while the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina comes with a solid-state drive (SSD), its capacity cannot be changed after purchase.
With the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, those limitations were worthwhile trade-offs, as the machine's performance, screen and overall usability simply tower over anything else on the market. With the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, the situation is more complicated.
The Rub: Price
First, there’s the price. For the base model, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is $1,699. That gets you a 2.5GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 chip, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. For $1,999, users can upgrade to a 256GB hard drive. Other configurations with more storage space or a faster processor are also available.
Make no mistake –- $1,700 for a 13-inch laptop is expensive. Very expensive. Comparatively, the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is a bargain. It starts at $2,199 but includes a quad-core Intel Core i7 chip, discrete graphics and has a base 256GB SSD. The fact that there's only a $200 difference between a 256GB SSD-equipped 13-inch and the base model with a 15-inch display is problematic because for that $200, you simply get much, much more computer.
The price gets more reasonable when you account for what an upgrade to an SSD drive does to the price of non-Retina MacBook Pro 13-inch computers, but it’s worth noting that those models are also user-serviceable, meaning that an aftermarket SSD, such as Samsung’s excellent 840 Pro Series, can be added later for less money.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple’s best-selling computer, and has been for a number of years. Until the price is lowered, I have a feeling the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina won’t be taking its crown.
The reason that Apple can demand $1,700 for its 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina is simple: The screen. It’s simply stunning.
Apple has scaled the resolution so the 2,560 x 1,600 screen displays objects at the same size as 1,280 x 800 (the standard 13-inch MacBook Pro resolution), only now with much more clarity.
If you’ve used a third- or fourth-generation iPad or played with the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, you know how good a Retina screen can look. Text is pixel-free. Images pop. Icon details are more enhanced. It’s almost unworldly.
Of course, this does come with some trade-offs. Not all apps are Retina-ready, meaning they appear pixelated and fuzzy. Fortunately, these apps are fewer and far between, as Mac app developers have embraced Retina with aplomb in the last six months. Even apps that aren't Retina-enabled, such as Adobe Photoshop CS6, usually work fine. In the case of Photoshop, the chrome around the application and the menu buttons aren't optimized. However, documents (i.e. photos) can fully take advantage of the Retina resolution.
Microsoft has updated its Office for Mac 2011 suite to support Retina displays, and major web browsers -- including Google Chrome -- have followed suit.
Speaking of the web, this is where the jarring nature of pre- and post-Retina worlds is more clear. Websites that haven’t optimized for Retina look pretty bad. For images, this is often OK, but for icons and images such as logos and other text components, the jagged renderings can be an eyesore.
Fortunately, the state of the web is such that a number of larger sites (including Mashable) have started to shift to Retina optimization. It just makes sense. After all, devices such as Google’s Nexus 10 sport high resolutions and display densities, and virtually every high-end smartphone on the market has what one might consider a Retina-class screen. The Retina transition won’t happen overnight, but it’s already improved more than I could have imagined just six months ago.
My only real complaint with the display on the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is that it is, by default, scaled for 1,280 x 800. This resolution is fine for users coming from a 13-inch MacBook Pro, since every app and program is scaled the same, just with a much higher pixel density.
The problem creeps in for 13-inch MacBook Air owners. The resolution of the 13-inch MacBook Air is 1,440 x 900. That increase in pixel area is actually more significant than one might think. It ends up being about 250,000 pixels, which on a 13-inch display, can mean a notable increase in real estate.
Users can adjust the display scaling within OS X and make it appear to be 1,440 x 900, but in my tests, performance wasn't as smooth. Still, if you're a MacBook Air user, I’d recommend using that setting because those extra pixels are often necessary when multitasking or using lots of apps.
How Does the 13-Inch Retina MacBook Pro Perform
So the display is phenomenal. How about the rest of the computer?
For size (and presumably, cost) reasons, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina uses a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, a step down from the faster Core i7 you get in the 15-inch Retina Pro. This is the latest Ivy Bridge stuff which means USB 3.0 support.
The machine has two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI port and an SDXC card slot. It’s great to see Apple finally including HDMI ports on its laptops.
Apple says the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina can power two external displays, and in my tests, this proved to be true. The one caveat is that because the system is fixed with 8GB of RAM and it has an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset, the video power for high-end work isn’t up to snuff, especially when comparing against the much more powerful 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina.
I have a 2012 13-inch MacBook Air (base model), and I was curious to see the performance difference. While certain tasks, such as rendering video in iMovie and handling large Photoshop files, were noticeably better on the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, I can’t say I noticed a substantial speed or performance improvement.
This might be a testament to just how good of a computer the MacBook Air already is, but for something that costs $500 more, I wish I had seen a more tangible benefit.
I understand why Apple has to use the integrated graphics chips for the 13-inch MacBook Pro devices, but the impact this has on overall performance is visible, especially when dealing with such a high-resolution display.
Battery life, while decent, isn’t as good as what one will find on a MacBook Air. Still, I’d compare it favorably with the rest of Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro line, where you can expect about 5 hours of regular use per battery charge.
I do wish Apple had at least made 16GB of RAM an option. Eight gigs is fine for 2012 but in a few years, especially with the resolution of the display, I can see it not being enough. If someone is making the investment required by the 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina, it’s hard to feel good about how well the machine will perform two years from now.
The State of Apple’s Laptop Line
Apple’s portable computer lineup is in a state of transition. The low and high ends of its lines are very strong –- they're the best in class in everything from build quality to price/performance ratio.
I firmly believe the 13-inch MacBook Air is the best computer in its class and the best Ultrabook on the market (if that term can technically be applied to Macs). For 90% of Mac users who don’t have very specific needs, this is the portable I heartily recommend.
On the high end, it’s the same story. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, especially if configured with 16GB of RAM (since it can’t be upgraded later) is one hell of a machine. It boasts specs that rival and exceed those of my high-end 27-inch iMac, it has the best screen in the business, and it can be used for serious photo and video editing.
Where things break apart are the middle parts of Apple’s portable lineup. Apple still sells non-Retina MacBook Pros in 13- and 15-inch sizes. That in and of itself would be fine, except that these models all still ship with slower platter-based hard drives. Most users don’t realize it, but the reason that machines such as the MacBook Air and Samsung Series 9 seem so much faster than even last year’s best device isn’t because of the processor, but because of the SSD drive. It makes a tremendous difference.
The issue is that once you throw in an SSD at time of purchase to Apple’s non-Retina MacBook Pro machines, the cost gets incredibly close to the price of just upgrading to Retina. I can’t see recommending a non-SSD 13-inch MacBook Pro to someone over a 13-inch MacBook Air –- the performance differential is just too slight. Likewise, I would recommend that anyone serious about a 15-inch MacBook Pro just save up to go for the Retina model. It’s a better investment.
This puts the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina in a precarious position. In a few years (or even in six months) the component prices and specs might be good enough to justify its price. Eventually, the classic 13-inch MacBook Pro line will disappear (with the 13-inch MacBook Air taking its place for those users) and the Retina model will be for more serious power users.
While this transition is clearly happening, it hasn’t happened yet. As a result, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, while a fine machine, feels a little out of place.
Who Is This For?
Judging from my Twitter stream and conversations with prospective buyers, I would say the majority of would-be 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina owners already own a 13-inch MacBook Air.
These are the users who are looking to see if the great display is worth upgrading to a pricier machine and slightly heavier frame.
Unless those users depend on a Retina display for graphics or web work, my recommendation is that at least right now, this isn’t the machine to buy. Overall, I think the price/performance ratio of the 13-inch MacBook Air is just better.
Having said that, with a few revisions and hardware upgrades, I could see the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina being the high-end MacBook Air. Think of it as a MacBook Air Pro.
For users looking at getting a 13-inch Macbook Pro and not a MacBook Air, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a better value (once the price of the SSD is added into the equation).
Is It Worth It?
I’m ultimately conflicted about the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. On the one hand, it’s a nice machine with a fantastic screen. After using the Retina display for a few weeks, moving back to my 13-inch MacBook Air was difficult. The screen is exquisite. It’s almost worth the price of admission. Almost.
What's inescapable is that this first version of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro isn’t a winner when it comes to price and performance. It’s just a bit too expensive.
If you buy the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a great machine. Still, I have to think it’s the next revision that will better fit into the budgets and requirements for most buyers.
The upside is that the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display gives us a glimpse at the future of Apple’s portable lineup -- and that bodes well for Mac fans everywhere.
Photos by Mashable
This story originally published on Mashable here.