The first generation of Retina display Macs lived in the cracks between the MacBook Air and the old MBPs. They were deliciously thin, yes -- especially compared to the legacy models -- but you would never have mistaken the 13-inch one for an Air. To be honest, you still wouldn't, but on the continuum that separates the Air and MacBook Pro, the 13-inch Retina model is starting to look more and more like an Ultrabook. Mostly, it's the thickness. It measures 0.71 inch thick, down from 0.75 inch on last year's model. That puts it within spitting distance of the 13-inch Air, which measures 0.68 inch at its widest point. Really, if you were to stack them one on top of the other, you'd only be able to tell the difference because of the Air's signature wedge shape. And that's more of a cosmetic flourish than anything else; it's not like the MBP is a fatso or anything.
Well, not a fatso, but it is noticeably heavier at 3.46 pounds, compared with 2.96 for the Air. Still, it's a clear improvement over last year's model, which weighed 3.57 pounds. All told, the new Pro is light enough that I was easily able to tote it around in my pack for a weekend without any strain. The build quality is also just as sturdy as you'd expect from a Mac. At the same time, it's still noticeably heavier than the Air, both in a backpack and in the hand. We know, we know: This all sounds dreadfully obvious. But listen carefully because this trade-off is ultimately going to decide your purchasing decision: Given that these two machines cost about the same and each deliver long battery life, you're only going to pick the heavier one if you need the spectacular graphics performance.
That, or the wider port selection. Step up to the Pro and you'll get two USB 3.0 ports, along with a full-sized HDMI socket, SDXC card reader, a headphone jack, dual Thunderbolt 2 ports and a MagSafe 2 connector. Aside from the move to Thunderbolt 2 from regular, old Thunderbolt, this is the same selection of ports as on last year's model. As ever, too, the port selection is exactly the same on the bigger 15-inch version, so it's not like you gain anything by moving up in size (except for, you know, more screen real estate).
Lift up the lid, and you'll see the MBP sports the same island-style keyboard as the last generation, with springy, well-spaced buttons and a strong white backlight emanating from underneath. As ever, too, the Pro's glass trackpad is smooth and flawless, with precise tracking and fluid handling of all your favorite multitouch gestures. Incidentally, when we installed Windows 7 on a separate partition, the trackpad worked just as well in Windows as it did in OS X.
Display and sound
Although the MacBook Pro's Retina display is important enough that it belongs in the headline, it's nothing you haven't seen before. This is the same 2,560 x 1,600 IPS display used in last year's model, and it's as lovely as ever. Color reproduction is good; viewing angles are wide; and individual pixels are, indeed, impossible to make out when you're sitting a natural distance from the screen. Even if the resolution was lower and we could spot some pixels, it would still be a nice panel, thanks to the very low-glare finish. Throughout testing, I used the MBP in a variety of lighting conditions, from a harshly lit office to an airplane seat, with sunlight streaming through the window next to me. Regardless of the situation, I could easily read the display. And when I found myself dipping the lid forward while working on an airplane tray, I could still follow along with everything on the screen.
There's nothing we'd change about Apple's Retina display. We just can't pretend it's alone in its class.
When we reviewed the first generation of Retina display MacBook Pro, we complained that not all applications were optimized to take advantage of that 2,560 x 1,600 experience. While we've hardly surveyed every program in the Mac App Store, we found that every app we installed scaled gracefully to full-screen so that they weren't blurry, and none of the objects looked disproportionately tiny (two different problems we've found with super-high-res screens). Everything here looks sharp and, for lack of a better term, "normal-sized" at full-screen. That means you won't get any additional screen real estate because of those extra pixels, but at the same time, most apps look like they belong there.
All in all, this is still a stunning screen, though it feels less novel than it used to. That's partially because it's the exact same screen as on the last generation, and partially because Apple's competitors have started to catch up. Take Samsung, for instance. The company's new ATIV Book 9 Plus Ultrabook rocks a 13-inch, 3,200 x 1,800 screen that rivals the Retina display in both resolution and viewing angles. Lenovo's new Yoga 2 Pro has a 3,200 x 1,800 panel as well. Acer's Aspire S7 is also available with a 2,560 x 1,440 display option, albeit not in the US. And that's not even counting models that haven't come out yet. All that being said, there's nothing we'd change about Apple's Retina display -- it's simply a gorgeous screen. We just can't pretend it's alone in its class.
As before, the speakers sit beneath the keyboard, with no obvious openings. The volume itself still gets decently loud, and the quality is balanced enough for casual listening (I had Pandora to keep me company as I wrote most of this review). Still, being the thin-and-light laptop it is, it's still predictably a bit weaker with bass notes than a heartier system would be.
While the 13-inch Retina display MBP starts at $1,299, we tested the $1,499 version, which packs 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a dual-core, fourth-generation Core i5 processor, clocked at 2.4GHz. Additionally, it's one of relatively few systems to make use of Intel's new Iris graphics, which promises to be a touch stronger than the Intel HD 4400 chipset usually found in Haswell laptops. Indeed, the graphics are robust enough that we were able to play Batman: Arkham City (the Game of the Year edition) at max resolution with relatively little stuttering.
With the detail level set to "medium" and anti-aliasing at a medium setting of 4x, we logged an average frame rate of 24 fps, with frame rates running the gamut from 18 fps to 31 fps, depending on what scene we were playing. Even then, the action was fairly smooth, though there were a few instances when we noticed gameplay briefly slowed down. Fortunately, disabling anti-aliasing more or less solved the problem: Once we did that, average frame rates climbed to a more playable 32 fps. So, our outlook for gaming is good, given that this is actually one of the more graphically demanding titles and it still managed to run decently well.
As it happens, it was only when we were playing games or running graphics benchmarks that we heard any fan noise. Even then, we couldn't hear the sound over the music from our game, though if you're attempting to, say, edit video in silence, you might notice the machine getting a bit loud. Thankfully, even when the fans started to spin, they quieted down again just a minute or two after we closed out of our full-screen gaming session. What's more, though the keyboard and bottom side started to heat up, they never got more than lukewarm. So at least you know that fan noise isn't for naught; the ventilation system does a good job of keeping the system cool.
The other big change here, aside from that big graphics bump, is the move to solid-state drives based on the PCI Express standard. Compared with the mSATA drives used in last year's models, Apple is claiming up to a 60 percent boost in disk speeds, with transfer rates as high as 775 MB/s. Sure enough, using the Blackmagic disk benchmark, we saw average reads of 731 MB/s and average writes of 673.5 MB/s (note: We ran the test with workloads ranging from 1GB to 5GB, and repeated the test around 10 times on each setting). Additionally, after installing Windows 7 on a separate partition, we ran ATTO, the benchmark we use to test transfer speeds on Windows machines. On that test, we actually got even higher read rates, with rates climbing as high as 823 MB/s. However, write speeds were more consistent with what we found on the Mac side, with a high of 686 MB/s.
Also, between adding a Haswell processor and PCIe SSD, Apple was also able to shave a few seconds off the boot time -- the MBP now takes 11 seconds to cold-boot into OS X, down from around 15 last year. Otherwise, CPU performance isn't much better here than it is on the current MacBook Air, or any other Haswell Ultrabook, for that matter. Which makes sense: We already know that Intel's fourth-generation Core processors provide a bigger boost in battery life and GPU strength than they do on CPU performance. You can see that in the modestly better Mac benchmark scores (see that first table above), which show just a small improvement over the Air on CPU tests.
Additionally, as we said, we installed Windows on a separate partition, where we ran the same tests we normally run on PCs (precisely so that we could compare the performance more directly). As you can see in the table directly above, the CPU performance is strong, but not out-of-this-world strong; the Acer Aspire S7 turned in similar scores, and some other machines like the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus are only a few hundred points behind in PCMark 7. All told, the biggest difference is in graphics performance, but you already knew that.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is rated for up to nine hours of battery life, compared with seven hours on the non-Retina model. As it turns out, though, that's actually a rather conservative estimate: We were able to eke out an impressive 11 hours and 18 minutes of continuous video playback. Mind you, that was with some pretty taxing system settings, including auto-brightness off, display brightness fixed at 9/16 bars (no dimming), the screen saver turned off and instructions to never put the disk to sleep.
So, the battery life is even better than expected -- not to mention, better than on last year's model, which only managed 6:07 on the same test. Then again, we can't say we're that surprised: Haswell has been known to dramatically improve battery life. Also, Apple has a history of making conservative battery life claims on its website (see: the original iPad mini and the most recent MacBook Air, both of which lasted longer than expected).
In case you were wondering, we also ran the same video-looping test on the Windows partition, with the power-management settings set exactly the same as on any PC we test (brightness at 65 percent, no dimming, WiFi on, machine never goes to sleep, et cetera). Under those conditions, the battery lasted seven hours and 47 minutes. This, too, is unsurprising: Macs are obviously optimized for OS X, and indeed, the battery life is always better on that side.
Software and warranty
The new MacBook Pros went on sale the same day OS X 10.9 Mavericks became available to download in the Mac App Store. Obviously, then, our review unit came with the new software installed, and whatever machine you buy will too. For a full rundown on what the (free) OS update brings, we encourage you to check out our full review. (Spoiler: We recommend you download the upgrade. It is free, after all.) For those who don't have time to read 4,000 words, though, here's a recap: The update brings desktop versions of iBooks and Maps, tabs and tags in Finder, improved support for external displays and battery life-saving features like App Nap. Additionally, iLife and iWork are now free with the purchase of new Macs (you'll still have to download them, though).
Apple's never had a particularly generous standard warranty, and the new Retina display MacBook Pros are no exception. Included with your purchase, you get one year of coverage, along with 90 days of free telephone support (compared with at least a year on most Windows PCs). For $249, you can extend the warranty to three years. This stretches the free-phone-support period to three years as well.
The 13-inch Retina display MacBook Pro sells from $1,299 -- a big drop from last year's models, which started at $1,699. On the base model, you get a 2.4GHz Core i5 processor (the same one we tested), along with 4GB of RAM, Intel Iris graphics and a 128GB PCIe SSD. For $1,499, it comes with the same processor, but double the RAM and storage space (so, 8GB with a 256GB SSD). Finally, the top-end model retails for $1,799 with a slightly faster 2.6GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.
If you're upgrading from the lowest-end model, you can opt for that 2.6GHz Core i5 processor we mentioned ($100) or even a dual-core 2.8GHz Core i7 CPU ($300). Other add-ons include 8GB or 16GB of RAM. (The eight gigs of RAM is a $100 upgrade; the 16GB either costs $200 or $300, depending on whether you're upgrading from the lowest-end model or one of the higher-end ones.) You can also step up to 1TB of solid-state storage, but you can only do that if you select the top-end, $1,799 model. In that case, it's a $500 upgrade.
While we're at it, we may as well break down the 15-inch Retina display MacBook Pro too. As ever, this guy's significantly more expensive, with a starting price of $1,999. For the money, at least, you get much-improved specs: a quad-core 2GHz Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of solid-state storage and Intel Iris Pro graphics. For $2,599, it comes with a faster 2.3GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and dual graphics: Intel's Iris Pro chipset, along with a 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU.