If you're shopping for a new MacBook, do you go for light and thin with a mediocre display resolution – like you'd get from a MacBook Air? Or do you spend more for a thicker laptop with an amazing display, a la the Retina MacBook Pro? Let's revisit the 13-in MacBook Pro with Retina Display, and see if we can lend a hand.
Update: For the latest model, you can hop on over to our 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review.
The newest 13-in Retina MacBook Pro (rMBP) isn't a radical overhaul from the late 2012 model that we last reviewed. It has a very familiar design, very similar (excellent) performance and – best of all – the same mesmerizing display. But that doesn't necessarily mean that this is a minor upgrade, like we saw with the latest MacBook Air. Let's take a look at what's changed.
For starters, there is a minor physical difference here. This late 2013 Retina MacBook Pro has a very slightly lighter and thinner build than the earlier Retina models. And by "very slightly," I really mean it. See for yourself:
The newest model, pictured on the left, is 18 mm (0.71-in) thick, while the older Retina MacBooks were 19.1 mm (0.75-in) thick. That has the latest model coming in at about 6 percent thinner. At 1.57 kg (3.46 lb), the newer model is also 3 percent lighter.
On paper, those sound like pretty minor differences. But what about in experience? Well, it feels pretty minor there too. We have both models in the office here, and when I pick each one up, I can just barely tell that this version is lighter and thinner. It's nice that the late 2013 model shaved off a few grams and millimeters, but I don't think that alone is, by any stretch of the imagination, reason to upgrade from one of the older versions.
The Retina MacBook Pro is still a pretty hefty laptop. Pick up a MacBook Air, and it's almost like picking up an iPad. Even several years after Apple last updated the MacBook Air's physique, it still strikes me as almost unfathomably feathery in hand. But this Retina MacBook feels a lot more substantial. It's 24 percent lighter than the old non-Retina (optical drive-toting) 13-in MacBook Pro, but 16 percent heavier than the same-sized MacBook Air. In that sense, this one is a bit of a 'tweener.
So what does make this latest model stand out from the older Retina MacBook Pro? It's all about its 4th-gen Intel Core "Haswell" processor. Or, more specifically, the all-day battery life that accompanies it. If you spent years putting up with the 3-4 hour battery life that older notebooks typically provided, then Haswell laptops' 7-12 hour uptimes will blow your mind. In fact, I'd say Intel's Haswell is the biggest thing to happen to laptops since the first MacBook Air hit store shelves.
During my time with this Haswell-based Retina MacBook Pro, I've been extremely impressed with its uptimes. Apple estimates 9 hours of continuous web use, and I'd say that sounds about right. Even when spending several hours in Photoshop (along with a few less taxing tasks like surfing the web and typing in iA Writer), with the screen's brightness cranked almost all the way up, it typically lasts around 7-8 hours. That's terrific. It's pro-level power, outstanding display and all-day battery life. What more can you ask for (well, besides a MacBook Air-like build)?
Looking at the entry-level models we reviewed, the Haswell processor in the latest rMBP is slightly faster than the CPU in the older model – at least when you take its overclocking turbo boost into account. On the other hand, the new version also got its RAM cut in half (down to 4 GB from 8 GB in the older version).
How does that play out in the performance department? Well, in benchmark app GeekBench 3, the entry-level version of this newest rMBP scores about 6-7 percent higher than the equivalent early 2013 version. To me, it doesn't necessarily feel 6-7 percent faster. But, then again, the older model was already plenty zippy for everything I used it for. If you do a lot of processor-intensive tasks like bulk video-editing, then maybe you will notice. Either way, this also probably isn't reason to upgrade from the older model.
As for the things that haven't changed, well, there's still a lot to love here. And it all starts with that Retina Display. The 13.3-in 2,560 x 1,600 screen is nothing short of mind-blowing.
If we were looking at smartphones or tablets, then the Retina MBP's 227 pixels per inch wouldn't be anything special. But on a laptop, which typically sits much farther away from your eyes, it's awesome. You won't have to strain your eyes one iota: text is razor-sharp, images are lush and even the simplest tasks, like browsing the web, become a treat for your eyeballs. The brilliant screen is still the biggest – perhaps only – reason to throw down for this Retina MacBook Pro instead of a lighter, thinner and cheaper MacBook Air.
All of the other advantages are the same as they were before. Apple's keyboard and trackpad are still among the best you'll find in any laptop. It gives you two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, an SDXC slot and an HDMI port. Its aluminum unibody build has a high-end, premium allure. And OS X 10.9 Mavericks is a smooth, intuitive and power-user-friendly operating system.
The Retina MacBook still isn't cheap. Starting at US$1,300, it carries a $300 premium over the equivalent 13-in MacBook Air. My biggest complaint, though, is the relatively skimpy amount of internal storage that $1,300 gets you. If you store lots of photos, videos or games – or if you want to install Windows alongside OS X – then this base model's 128 GB solid-state drive could fill up quickly. And upgrading it after the fact isn't an option: I couldn't find any compatible third-party replacement drives for this model. Even if there eventually is one, replacing it won't be officially supported by Apple (so long, warranty, nice knowin' ya).
If you only want to pay for the entry-level model, but are worried about that 128 GB of storage running out quickly, then your best bet might be an SD expansion accessory. PNY's StorEDGE and Transcend's JetDrive Lite both slip discreetly into the MacBook's SD card slot, without jutting out like standard SD cards do. The idea is to leave them in there, as a sort of permanent external storage. Transcend even sells different versions for each MacBook, which lets them each fit more flushly against the laptop's side. You can buy StorEDGE in 64 GB and 128 GB models and the JetDrive Lite in a 64 GB model. That's a 50-100 percent storage boost – for just $40-75.
If you can live with the storage situation, or at least don't mind paying more upfront for a bigger SSD, then the Retina MacBook Pro is still one hell of a laptop. If you aren't as worried about having a razor-sharp screen or pro-level performance, then the 14 percent lighter MacBook Air will probably be the better buy. And if you can wait a few months, there's also a chance that we'll see the MacBook Air finally get a high-resolution display. That's a big and unconfirmed "if," but some rMBP buyers could end up kicking themselves if Apple indeed launches a Retina MacBook Air later in 2014.
But if, right now, you want a terrific MacBook with an amazing screen, smooth software, pro-level power and excellent battery life? Well, then there are much worse things you could do with $1,300. This is an expensive – but outstanding – laptop.
Any Haswell Retina MacBook Pro owners out there? Drop us a line in the comments to let us know if you like it as much as we do. And if you're leaning more towards the Air, you can check out Gizmag's review of the 2014 (11-in) MacBook Air.
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