MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

Look down the aisles at any Apple launch event, across the laps of dozens of journalists liveblogging or in some other way documenting the goings-on, and it's inevitable that you'll see MacBooks. A lot of MacBooks. And, since many of those laps are irrevocably linked to owners who spend their days jetting around the globe to other companies' events, those laptops are quite often the travel-friendly MacBook Air. So, while we were excited to see a thinner, lighter 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display unveiled earlier this year, many of us were left asking one question: "Where's the 13-inch version?"

Now, a little over four months later, here it is. Why the wait from one to the next? That's for Apple to know and us to speculate about (supply chain concerns? engineering issues?), but the important thing is that it's available now and it is, in many ways, an uncompromised, slightly smaller rendition of the 15-inch version that came before. It's thinner and it's lighter than the current 13-inch Pro but promises better internals and the same battery life as the 13-inch Air. Perfect portions of portability and performance? Let's find out.

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Hardware

The 13- and 15-inch Retina models are, save for size, nigh identical.

If you're familiar with the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display that Apple shipped this past June, you're already ahead of the learning curve on this model. With the exception of size, these two are nigh identical, starting with the port configuration. On the left side you'll find a new MagSafe 2 connector, dual Thunderbolt ports, a USB 3.0 port and the headphone jack -- just like the 15-inch model. On the right it's the same again, with another USB 3.0 port joined by a full-size HDMI output and built-in SDXC reader.

So, when it comes to physical connectivity, you're giving up exactly nothing compared to its big brother -- but you're not gaining anything, either. There's still no Ethernet jack (an optional $29.99 Thunderbolt adapter is available). Also absent is an optical drive, left in the dust as progress motors ever onward. There's also still no option for cellular connectivity of any kind, so go ahead and re-up that contract on your MiFi. You're going to need it.

MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

That sameness in connectivity options extends over to the wireless side, too. You have dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n support as well as Bluetooth 4.0 on tap for your shorter-range broadcasting needs. There's a 720p FaceTime camera plus dual microphones, stereo speakers and a display with a native resolution that's far, far greater than 1080p.

So what's different? The first is that display, now a 13.3-inch unit lined up in a 2,560 x 1,600 grid. While this doesn't quite match the 2,880 x 1,800 of its 15.4-inch elder, it comprehensively trounces the 1,280 x 800 panel in the older, chubbier, optical-endowed Pro. Also, what powers that panel has changed, with the 13-inch Pro with Retina relying exclusively on integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. The 15-inch Retina Pro gets a much healthier NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M Kepler assembly with 1GB of GDDR5 memory.

Other hardware configurations differ, too, which we'll detail a little later in the review. But it's safe to say that overall the 13-inch Retina Pro makes do with components that mark this as a slightly lower-rent machine than the 15-inch. Dual-core chips are found rather than quad-core beasts, and of course there's the reliance on integrated graphics that some power users will find simply distasteful.

Taken on its own, what you have is a comprehensively powerful little machine, a beautifully engineered one to boot.

Taken on its own, what you have is a comprehensively powerful little machine, a beautifully engineered one to boot. The aluminum MacBook Pros have always impressed us with their seemingly bulletproof unibody construction and this latest member of the family certainly inherited healthy DNA. Try to twist and turn the machine with all your might and you'll get no sign of weakness. Barely a hint of flex is evident.

MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

The same stiffness can be found in the lid, despite its thinness. The 13-inch panel here uses the same bonding techniques used in the Air and the 15-inch Retina Pro to reduce the overall size of the panel assembly, meaning there's less junk up top -- and less reflection, too. Yes, it's still a gloss display. No, you still can't request a matte one, but glare has been greatly reduced over the standard Pro models. That's a boon for those who work in offices put together by sunglasses-wearing interior designers who mandated painful, ceiling-mounted fluorescents as far as the eye can see.

than the 15-inch Retina Pro.thicker Curiously, and somewhat unfortunately, the 13-inch model is actually

Of course, the new Pro 13 is slimmer than the old one and, like the 15-inch Retina vs. its predecessor, it's slightly smaller on all the other dimensions, too. It's 12.35 inches wide and 8.62 inches deep (314 x 219 mm), compared to 12.78 x 8.94 inches for the one with the optical drive. Of course, the big talking point is thickness, and the new model is about 20 percent thinner than the old one: 0.75 of an inch compared to 0.95 for the previous model. Curiously, and somewhat unfortunately, that's actually thicker than the 15-inch Retina Pro, at just 0.71 inches.

It is, at least, comprehensively lighter than either of those two, tipping the scales at 3.57 pounds (1.62kg). That's nearly a full notch lighter than the 4.5-pound non-Retina 13-incher and the 4.46-pound 15-inch Retina. It's actually closer in heft to the new Air, which weighs 2.96 pounds (1.35kg). The Air is thinner, though, at 0.68 inches.

MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

Still, the design is quite familiar. The wide, black plastic hinge is present, as you'd expect, still offering just the right amount of tension. The four hard rubber feet still protrude from the corners on the bottom of the machine, working equally well at keeping this from sliding across your desk or your lap. The keyboard backlight is as effective as it is dimmable, and the island layout itself has the same great feel we've come to expect from the entire MacBook line. As this is a Pro model, the keys are slightly deeper and more responsive than those on the Air. Users of any MacBook model will be typing at maximum WPM right out of the box.

Speakers now reside beneath the keyboard and offer plenty of volume and decent tone for your occasional usage. You can play music through them in a pinch, like when you need to step out of headphone range to iron a shirt or rummage through the mini bar in your hotel room, but we'd recommend sticking to other means of audio delivery if you're concerned with accurate sound reproduction. The sound quality is decent, but lacks a bit when it comes to lower-frequency reproduction.

Display

We were guilty of gushing a little bit about the new Retina display in the 15-inch Pro, but frankly we'd never seen a laptop panel anywhere near that good before. Now, we've seen another.

We were guilty of gushing a little bit about the new Retina display in the 15-inch Pro, but frankly we'd never seen a laptop panel anywhere near that good before. Now, we've seen another, and it's here in the 13-inch model. The native resolution of the panel is necessarily reduced, falling to 2,560 x 1,600 from the 2,880 x 1,800 on the 15.4-inch unit that we called "gorgeous." This 13.3-inch version is no less a looker.

Brightness is rated at 300 nits, not world-record territory more than adequate, especially with outdoor viewing augmented by the glare-busting reduction of layers in the panel. Contrast and viewing angles are about as good as they get and the color temperature looks mighty close to natural out of the box. But, should you need to make things warmer or cooler you have a comprehensive calibration tool built into Mountain Lion that will let you tweak your machine's white point to your little heart's content.

MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

What you still can't do, though, is force apps to run at the panel's native resolution. There's a lot of scaling going on here, the default setting in Mountain Lion blowing apps up so that they take the same amount of space on the screen. This is great for pixel-perfect app compatibility, but not so great if you were hoping to get a boost in screen real estate.

As on the 15-inch Retina, you can go in and manually tweak that scaling to some degree by dragging a little slider about. Here, the "More Space" option, where things are smallest, is said to look like 1,680 x 1,050. This effectively slots the 13-inch Pro with Retina between the amount of workspace you'd have at your disposal on the 15-inch non-Retina Pro and the now dearly departed tall 1080p 17-incher.

As before, apps need to be optimized to take advantage of the Retina display. There are, we're happy to report, a whole lot more now than there were in June when the 15-inch model dropped.

Performance and battery life

MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

Predictably, the new 13-inch Pro with Retina display offers performance very close to that found in the 13-inch non-Retina model -- appropriate given the similar internal configurations. Our model was the lower standard config, the one we think most people will opt for, with a dual-core 2.5GHz Core i5 processor from Intel paired with 8GB of DDR3 memory and a 128GB SSD.

It didn't disappoint when it came to crunching numbers, but it's the SSD that really sets it apart from its Retina-less brethren. We routinely found disk read speeds of 430 MB/s and writes of 310. That's a hair slower than we saw on the 15-inch Retina Pro, which read at 440 MB/s and wrote at 390, but that delta is close enough to be unnoticeable in daily use. Apps spring to life after just a few bounces in the Dock, files load promptly and a cold boot to a log-in prompt takes just 15 seconds, which means you might need to hurry a bit more when running to the coffee maker in the morning.

In fact you might have a hard time noticing the difference between this model and its bigger Retina-endowed sibling in typical usage -- unless your typical usage entails a lot of video rendering, photo editing or hunting for extra-terrestrial intelligence, of course. So, we turned to some synthetic benchmarks to quantify the speed differential between this and the bigger Pro.

OS X benchmarks Geekbench Xbench Battery life
13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (late 2012, 2.5GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 6,812 378 6:07
13-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2012, 2.5GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 6,817 368 6:51
13-inch MacBook Air (mid 2012, 1.8GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 6,195 321 6:34
13-inch MacBook Air (mid 2011, 1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,373 N/A 5:32
15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.6GHz Core i7) 11,591 486 7:49
15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (mid 2012, 2.3GHz Core i7) 11,082 457 9:22
MacBook Pro (early 2011, 2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M / Intel Graphics 3000) 9,647 340.1 (Radeon) / 157.78 (Intel) 7:27
MacBook Pro (early 2010, 2.66GHz Core i7-620M, GeForce GT 330M) 5,395 228.22 5:18
13-inch MacBook Air (late 2010, 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M) 2,717 117.38 4:34
Note: higher scores are better.

We launched Geekbench first and netted an average score of 6,812, nearly identical to what the most recent 13-inch MacBook Pro scored when we reviewed it back in July. That's no surprise, since it's running the same CPU. In Xbench, meanwhile, it averaged a score of 378, again within spitting distance of the 368 the non-Retina Pro of the same size put down, but substantially slower than even the lowest-spec 15-inch Retina machine.

When it comes to battery life, Apple promises the same seven hours it rated the 15-inch Retina Pro, but in our testing the hew 13-inch Retina pro comes up short of what its bigger brother managed on the same test. Playing a looping video with the display brightness fixed and WiFi enabled, the 13-inch Retina Pro clocked in about 20 minutes short of the 13-inch Air and 45 short of the non-Retina 13-inch Pro. We ran the test three times to be sure, getting similar results with each iteration. We'd hoped for an increase like we saw with the 15-inch Retina over the base Pro, but no such luck.

Configuration options

There are two standard configs for the 13-inch Retina Pro, starting with a dual-core, 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of DDR3L memory, which is the maximum amount of RAM this system can be configured with. The starting price for that model is $1,699 and for that you get 128GB of flash-based storage, upgradable to 256, 512 or 768GB -- if you have the cash. It's $300 to step up to 256GB, $800 for 512 gigs and a cringe-inducing $1,300 for 768GB. As painful as these prices are, they're at least slightly cheaper than adding the same SSD capacities to the non-Retina 13-inch Pro.

The other standard config differs only in disk space, $1,999 for 256GB. So, while the 13-inch Pro with Retina is a fair bit more affordable than the 15-inch model, it's considerably more expensive than the non-Retina 13 and the 13-inch Air, both of which can be had for as little as $1,199.

The competition

As is often the case with Apple's product lineup, the stiffest competition the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display faces comes from within its own family.

As is often the case with Apple's product lineup, the stiffest competition the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display faces comes from within its own family. Starting on the lower end is the non-Retina 13-inch, which can be had, identically configured, for $200 less. That's a significant savings that nets you an extra two-tenths of an inch in thickness, a pound in weight and, of course, a display that isn't nearly as good as the one found here. As mentioned above, performance-wise, the two machines are nigh identical.

And then, of course, there's the 13-inch MacBook Air. This, we think, is a quite compelling alternative as it, too, can be had for less money ($1,199 to start), but maxes out with a 2.0GHz Core i7 processor. Of course, it's also thinner, lighter and very nearly as quick when it comes to overall performance. It's really the comprehensive selection of ports here that sets the Pro apart (though, sadly, still no Ethernet) and, again, that pixel-dense display. The decision between these two machines is not one to be made lightly, the strongest factors being portability and budget sensitivity.

Finally, on the Apple side, you can't rule out the 15-inch Retina Pro either. If you're considering the $1,999 model here with 256GB of flash storage you're $200 away from the 15-inch model with 256GB of storage and a much faster processor. But, with that extra cost comes an extra pound in heft -- a deal-breaker for some.

Looking to the PC side of things, the choices are far more numerous, many being every bit as compelling. Our recent favorite in the 13-inch size is the Samsung Series 9, which has a lower-res screen (1,600 x 900) and an occasionally flaky trackpad, but even higher I/O performance (boots in 12 seconds, 500 MB/s writes to its SSD) and over seven hours of battery life. It's also thinner (just a half-inch thick), lighter (2.55 pounds) and cheaper (starting at $1,250), but its CPU performance is definitely more in line with the Air than this Pro.

There's also the HP Envy 14 Spectre. It's slightly thicker and heavier than the Pro, has slower CPU options and again offers a 1,600 x 900 resolution, but offers a similarly comprehensive selection of ports (plus Ethernet) and can be had with 512GB of SSD for $1,699. It's also covered in glass, and that's got to count for something.

Wrap-up

MacBook Pro with Retina display review 13inch, late 2012

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, the one we really wanted to see earlier this year when the 15-incher was unveiled, is finally here. But, it isn't quite the perfect blend of Pro performance and Air panache we'd hoped for. That it's actually thicker than its big brother, the 15-incher, is a bit of a bummer but, with its weight falling closer to Air territory than the Pro, the decision between the two models will be a tough one for frequent travelers who need a little more oomph.

However, it's a tough decision because there are so many stellar options, and that's ultimately a good thing. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is impeccably engineered and manufactured, but as such, features an MSRP well higher than the less-expensive models in the lineup. Those on a budget may find the premium hard to swallow, but those with the cash to match the asking price here won't be disappointed after they get a taste of Retina.

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Apple

MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, late 2012)

Pros

  • Thinner and lighter than the other 13-inch Pro
  • Near-comprehensive selection of ports
  • Great I/O performance

Cons

  • Thicker than 15-inch Retina Pro
  • No discrete graphics
  • Price
Conclusion

Apple's new 13-inch MacBook with a Retina display effectively crosses the divide between Air and Pro, but at a premium cost.

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MacBook Pro with Retina display review (13-inch, late 2012)