13-inch Retina MacBook Pro Review: So Good, But So Not Worth It

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As soon as Apple announced the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, the countdown started for the 13-inch version. Well, here it is. A slim, trim, portable little MacBook with a gorgeous retina screen and a gut-punch cost. And another reminder that sometimes wonderful things don't live up to their price tag.

Why It Matters

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has been the most popular Apple laptop for some time now, and rightly so. It just feels like exactly the right size, without the premium pricing for the anorexic thinness of the MacBook Air. Plus, it can handle heavier loads. And now it's got a gorgeous new retina screen.

But hold on. Slapping a retina screen on the Apple's most popular laptop is a recipe to sell a zillion laptops, sure, but the 13-inch MBP also has some Cialis-level performance issues that can't be glossed over with just an SSD and a bunch of pixels.


So why does it matter? Because a whole lot of people think this will be the exact right laptop for them, and there's some evidence that maybe it isn't quite.

Using It

As soon as you turn on the 13-inch retina MacBook Pro, its retina screen will ruin every other laptop screen for you. It's gorgeous. Everything—icons, text, even menu interfaces and notifications—absolutely everything looks like it got a full-body manicure from a rotary saw. Text, especially, is pristine.

If you haven't used a Retina MacBook Pro 15 before, you might end up confused. There are lots of pixels, right? So why isn't everything very, very tiny? In its default (Apple calls it "best") settings, the retina screen is tuned to scale to the same workspace size as a 1280x800 display of the regular 13-inch MacBook. That means for every "pixel", there are four actual pixels powering the display You can also select from four different scaled sizes, if you want to take advantage of the magnitude of pixels in the retina screen.


The Retina 13 still feels more like the Pro than the Air—especially when it comes to looks. It's a good bit thicker than a 13-inch Air, but also a tiny bit smaller than the previous Pro. The difference isn't as dramatic as it was for the 15-inch retina, though, so you don't get the sense of this being a radical new thing as much as an intermediary between the incumbent 13-inch Pro and Air.


To test graphics performance, we rendered the same video project—a small, random video file with some heavy effects added—on four separate machines. The Retina MacBook Pro 13, the Retina MacBook Pro 15, an older-but-souped-up Mac Pro, and a 2012 MacBook Air 11-inch. The results (full specs as tested below) were telling.

The older Mac Pro was the slowest, finishing each render just above 2 minutes. The Air was next, coming in just over a minute (1:05 average). That's where it gets interesting. The Retina 13 was just a few seconds ahead (54 seconds exactly, all five times), and the Retina 15 was 34 seconds. That's what you would expect going in, more or less, but with the Retina 13 costing $850 more than the tested Air, and just $200 less than the Retina 15, those gaps in performance are concerning.


Gaming was much the same. Running Diablo 3 at native resolution with effects on high was playable, sort of, but fps was consistently falling under 30. Things improved at lower settings (1866x1166 fixed most of the video lag), but to be clear, in no uncertain terms: You do not want this to be the computer you play games on if you care about gaming.


The build is a goddamn idealized MacBook. And there's a reason that most other laptop makers have been trying, with various degrees of success, to catch up with Apple's aesthetic for the past several years. It's not just the screen, though that's the central, wonderful part of it. It's the sum of many advanced parts—from the compressed unibody design to the still-awesome keyboard and trackpad to the blazing fast SSD. This is how computers should be.


No Like

The guts-based, pixel-chewing performance simply doesn't measure up. It's not just the graphics performance being too similar to a MacBook Air, or the minor but perceptible systemwide slowdown when you use a higher resolution setting. It's the way that you have to throttle back your expectations of what your laptop can crank out, the way you would while using a limited ultrabook. And for a lot of people, that's just unacceptable from a computer pushing three grand.


This Is Weird

The color, though, was a little off in hi-res photos. Out of the box it was displaying a little too dark, and colors were too deep and saturated. Messing with color calibration cleared it up, but it's a definite annoyance in a machine aimed so squarely at visual professionals.


Test Notes

  • Here are the specs of the machines used in our render test: Retina 15: 2.3GHz Quad Core Ivy Bridge Core i7, 16GB 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, 251GB SSD, 122.47GB free, OS X 10.8.2; Retina 13: 2.9GHz Dual Core Ivy Bridge Core i7, 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3, Intel HD Graphics 4000 768 MB, OS X 10.8.2; MacBook Air 11: 2GHz Dual Core Ivy Bridge Core i7, 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, Intel HD Graphics 4000 512MB, OS X 10.8.2; Mac Pro: (Early 2008) 2x 2.8GHz Quad Core Intel Xeon, 34GB 667MHz DDR2 RAM, ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB, OS X 10.7.4
  • Battery life in our gravel-chewing battery test (60 percent brightness, 20 Chrome tabs, half of which self-refresh, last one is a 100-hour Nyancat YouTube video) was 3 hours 15 minutes, which is a good number compared to 13-inch ultrabooks.
  • Sound from the laptop's speakers was fuller than what you'll get from a small laptop most of the time, but it's got an echo to it that seems to be more prevalent while listening to dialogue than music.
  • I use favicons as my Chrome bookmarks, and within minutes I'd started despising sites that still haven't updated to retina. Little things like that, or pixelated website logos or images, will take you out of your retina euphoria.
  • If you've never used a MacBook before, the chiclet keyboard is extremely comfortable to type on (and remains slightly different form the Air keyboard, despite the smaller imprint), and the trackpad is still the best on any laptop.

Should You Buy This

This is probably the best 13-inch laptop you can buy right now, for all the good it'll do you. Sure, this computer makes some sense for a photographer or designer, but the 15-inch Retina offers almost all of the same benefits, plus a lot more if you can stomach a little less portability and a fractionally higher cost. Here's the thing about the 13-inch MBP's price: It would make sense if the 15-inch retina MBP weren't so much better. But it is. And for literally the exact same price as a moderately upgraded 13-inch (2.9GHz dual core i7, 256GB SSD), you can get a 15-inch rMBP with near-identical-but-also-way-better specs (2.3GHz quad core i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, GT 650M discrete graphics card). At the cost of some portability. That's it.


Or you could go with a Zenbook Prime, which has a drop dead gorgeous 1080p screen for two thirds the price and a lot of the performance (and also some trackpad issues, but hey!). Not to mention that the Air is due for a refresh on its displays soon. Maybe resolutions won't be doubled, as Apple has been doing, but if not retina, they'll be 1080p at least. The point is, the rMBP 13 is wonderful, but it's not that much more wonderful than everything else. And certainly not as sky-high as its price would indicate.

All of which is to say, there are better, or just more sensible options either out now, or just off the horizon. So unless you've got an extra grand to blow on a screen upgrade for a MacBook Air, it's probably prudent to hold off on this for now.


Retina MacBook Pro 13-Inch Specs

Processor: Intel Ivy Bridge 2.5GHz Dual Core Core i5 or 2.9GHz Dual Core Core i7
Display: 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 (scaled to 1280x800 by default)
Memory: 8GB RAM
Storage: 128GB-776GB SSD
Ports: HDMI, 2 Thunderbolt, SD Card slot, 2 USB 3.0
Price: $1700-$3200
GizRank: 3.5