A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and rated it as the best Ultrabook I’ve ever seen. However, even that laptop wasn’t enough to drag me back to Windows, yes, even Windows 8. Ultimately, I prefer to work with OS X, but with my first generation 11in MacBook Air struggling, I still needed an upgrade. Luckily, the upgrade I’d been waiting for finally arrived last week – the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display.
Apple applied its Retina display moniker to a laptop for the first time back in June, when it launched the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display. This was an undoubtedly amazing machine, with native screen resolution of 2,880 x 1,800. Apple also pared down the MacBook Pro chassis by removing the optical drive, making the 15in Retina model surprisingly light and slim – but it was still a bit too big and heavy for me to carry around with me every day.
The 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display looks like the perfect compromise – it’s not quite as powerful as its 15in sibling but it’s smaller and lighter, and while it’s not quite as light as the 13in MacBook Air, but it is more powerful and has a much better screen.
Few would argue that Apple designs some of the most mouth wateringly desirable tech products on the market, and the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display is no different. Apple’s trademark uni-body aluminium case is in evidence once more, but the lack of optical drive means that this machine looks more like an Air than a Pro.
The new MBP measures 314 x 219 x 19mm (WxDxH) and weighs in at 1.62kg – that’s actually smaller than the 13in MacBook Air in two dimensions, which itself measures 325 x 227 x 1.7mm (WxDxH). Of course the Air is lighter at 1.35kg, but it’s not like the Pro could be described as heavy.
Open up that aluminium clamshell and you’re greeted with a full size isolated keyboard, with a large glass touchpad mounted in the middle of the wrist rest. There’s also a 720p webcam mounted above the screen, giving you the option of making FaceTime calls to other Macs, iPads or iPhones.
Despite the 13in moniker, the screen is actually 13.3in, much like the vast majority of Ultrabooks on the market. Native screen resolution is slightly lower than the 15in model, at 2,560 x 1,600, but pixel density is slightly higher at 227 pixels per inch, compared to 220 PPI.
It is, however, worth remembering that you can’t run the screen at its native resolution on the desktop (at least not officially). The default (best for Retina) resolution is 1,280 x 800, or one quarter the native resolution – this will give you the smoothest scaling, since four real pixels are making up each virtual one. Thankfully you can push that resolution up to 1,680 x 1,050, which still looks great, and suits the 13.3in screen size well. That said, I’d have liked an option to push the resolution up to 1,920 x 1,200 like the 15.4in Retina model.
You need to remember that the Retina display doesn’t result in significantly increased desktop real estate, in fact if you choose the Best for Retina setting, you’ll be looking at less real estate than a non Retina display MacBook Air. However, there are apps available that will allow you to drive the screen at its native resolution – just bear in mind that you’ll need good eyesight to see those tiny icons and menus.
I downloaded the SwitchResX app, which lets you drive the internal screen at pretty much any resolution you like, including the native 2,560 x 1,600. Opting for that native resolution gives you a ludicrous amount of desktop real estate, and although it does mean that certain apps and icons are particularly small, that’s something I’m willing to live with. It also means that apps don’t need to be Retina optimised for them to look razor sharp.
While on the subject of optimisation, it’s worth remembering that not all Mac applications are optimised for Retina display, which can result in them looking a little fuzzy on anything below native resolution. That said, the number of optimised applications has grown considerably since the 15in model was launched. Unfortunately Adobe still hasn’t released an update for Photoshop, but hopefully we won’t have to wait too much longer.
Resolution aside, there’s a lot to like about the screen. Like all MacBook Pros, this one has edge-to-edge glass, giving it a sleek and stylish look – one of the things that I didn’t like about my MacBook Air was the aluminium bezel around the screen. Apple claims that this new screen reduces glare by 75 per cent, which is no doubt an attempt to appease those consumers that dislike glossy displays. In practice, the screen certainly appears to be less affected by ambient light sources, but this is a fairly subjective topic, since some users are more affected by screen glare than others.
Despite the claimed glare reduction, Apple also claims that contrast is improved – something that I wouldn’t argue with. Blacks are beautifully deep and rich, but not at the expense of detail. That impressive contrast also results in vivid colours, but those colours are never oversaturated, maintaining a natural, lifelike appearance.
It’s an LED backlit IPS screen, so viewing angles are impressive too – handy if you’re showing something off to colleagues. That goes for watching video too, that great contrast makes for excellent detail resolution in low light scenes, and with the wide viewing angle, enjoying video won’t be limited to a single viewer.
Keyboard & Touchpad
Despite popular opinion, Apple did not invent the isolated keyboard design with the original MacBook Air. Sony’s super-svelte VAIO X505 debuted this type of keyboard four years earlier on a notebook that weighed under 900g courtesy of its carbon fibre chassis. That however, doesn’t change the fact that Apple equips its laptops with first rate keyboards.
The keyboard on the latest MacBook Pro is every bit as good as I’ve come to expect from Apple. Each key has a surprising amount of travel and a very solid break – the upshot being that you can achieve a fast and efficient rate of typing, making the creation of even very long documents a breeze.
The keys are all a good size, and the cursor keys are thoughtfully separated from the pack, making it easy to find and use them. The keyboard is also backlit, so you’ll have no problem typing in a dark room – particularly useful when you’re taking notes during a presentation or keynote.
The top-row function keys all double up as shortcut controls. Here you can quickly adjust screen brightness, keyboard backlight brightness and audio volume. You can also control media playback and quickly access Mission Control and Launchpad.
The touchpad is, as always with Apple laptops, an absolute joy to use. Apple pioneered the use of large, glass touchpads complete with multi-touch support. Although most Windows notebooks sport similar touchpads – the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a particularly fine example – OS X is designed to make far better use of the hardware.
The real beauty of Apple’s touchpads is the multi-touch support. The two-finger scrolling is smooth as silk, while the three-finger swiping between virtual desktops is a real productivity boon. And then there’s the three-finger upward swipe to activate Mission Control – an incredibly useful shortcut for anyone working with many virtual desktops and a plethora of applications.
The touchpad itself is supremely accurate and incredibly tactile. Pointer manipulation is fast and fluid, while pinching and rotating in a graphics or map application is also silky smooth. Believe me, once you get used to Apple’s multi-touch touchpad on a notebook, you’ll want to buy a Magic Pad for your desktop machine – that’s what I did.
Under the hood
The 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display isn’t as well endowed as its 15in sibling when it comes to components, but it should still be able to deal with most tasks you’re likely to throw at it. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a dual-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 CPU – oddly, there’s no quad-core option, although you can upgrade to a dual-core 2.9GHz Core i7 for £160.
There’s a healthy complement of memory, with 8GB as standard, but there’s no option to upgrade. Again, if you need 16GB of RAM you’re going to have to opt for the 15in model and put up with the extra size and weight. Given the choice I would have gone for 16GB, but it’s not like it feels sluggish with only 8GB.
The other big component difference between the 15in and 13in models comes in the graphics department. The larger model features both Intel HD4000 and Nvidia GeForce 650M graphics options, the latter sporting 1GB of dedicated video memory. By contrast, the 13in model makes do with just the Intel HD4000 graphics processor, which is actually part of the Ivy Bridge CPU itself.
The Retina display MacBook Pros come with flash storage only, which reduces boot time, saves weight, and conserves battery life. Unfortunately flash storage is also far more expensive than traditional hard disk storage, especially if you’re buying it from Apple!
The standard configuration seen here ships with 128GB of flash storage, and if you upgrade that to 256GB it will cost you an extra £250! By contrast, a similar upgrade on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon costs only £96. You can actually upgrade a Retina MacBook Pro to 768GB, as long as you have £1,050 burning a hole in your pocket!
There’s no shortage of connection options on the Retina MacBook Pro, although many might still be annoyed by the lack of Ethernet port – yes it’s pretty slim, but there are thinner laptops out there, which still have Ethernet ports.
Of course Apple will happily sell you its Thunderbolt Gigabit Ethernet adaptor, but I figured I didn’t need it, seeing as I have two USB to Ethernet adaptors already. Bizarrely though, the USB to Ethernet adaptors don’t work, even though there’s no technical reason why they wouldn’t. The rumour around the web is that Apple has now limited the driver to make sure they only work on MacBook Airs, meaning that I’m not going to have to buy a Thunderbolt adaptor instead!
Talking of Thunderbolt, there are two Thunderbolt ports on the left of the chassis. Not only do these ports offer high bandwidth data transfer, they’re also mini-DisplayPort connectors for driving external monitors. I work most days on a 27in 2,560 x 1,440 monitor, which plugs straight into my laptop via a mini-DisplayPort to DistplayPort cable.
Unlike my old MacBook Air, the 13in Retina MacBook Pro can drive two external monitors up to 2,560 x 1,600, but you won’t be able to use the Retina screen at the screen at the same time. By contrast, the 15in Retina MacBook Pro can drive two 2,560 x 1,600 displays as well as its internal Retina screen thanks to its Nvidia Kepler GPU.
Also on the left of the chassis is the new MagSafe 2 power connector, so if you have a spare power supply from an older MacBook Pro, you won’t be able to use it with this one. Okay, that’s not entirely true, you can buy a MagSafe to MagSafe 2 converter, swelling Apple’s coffers by £9 in the process.
You’ll also find a high-speed USB 3.0 port on the left – it’s sleep and charge compliant, so you can use it to charge your phone or tablet while the notebook itself is sleeping. And finally there’s a headphone socket that doubles as an optical digital output.
On the right there’s another USB 3.0 port and a full size HDMI port. The latter is something of a surprise, since Apple has long favoured reduced-size media ports, ensuring that extra revenue was made through the sale of adaptors. Finally on the right there’s an SDXC card slot, pretty handy if you’re regularly pulling photos from a digital camera. Also, the SDXC standard supports capacities up to 2TB, so you’ll have no problem using new, high-capacity cards as they appear.
The lack of an Ethernet port means that you’ll be relying on the integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi. In use the wireless connection proved to be both reliable and fast, but I’ll probably still be investing in the Thunderbolt to Ethernet adaptor at some point. You also get Bluetooth 4.0 for hooking up wireless peripherals transferring files.
My old MacBook Air was getting worryingly slow under heavy workload, which is hardly surprising considering its Core2Duo CPU and 4GB of RAM, so the switch to the new MacBook Pro has been very refreshing. You’ll be up and running from cold in under 15 seconds, and if you leave the machine in sleep mode it will resume almost instantaneously – one of the benefits all flash storage.
Apple quotes a battery life of seven hours, but I’ve managed slightly better than that so far. Safe to say, you’ll be able to work for a full day without the need to find a power socket, which is good since the MacBook Pro uses a larger and heavier 65W power supply, compared to the 45W unit that I used with my old MacBook Air.
Running Cinebench 11.5 turned in a CPU score of 2.80, which trumps the ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s 2.58 – although that’s not surprising given the latter’s lower clocked CPU. The OpenGL score of 18.4 is about average considering the Intel HD4000 graphics, but you’re not going to be whiling away the hours playing 3D games on this laptop.
In general, this is a very fast laptop that will fly through most applications. However, if you’re looking to do excessive amounts of video encoding, 3D rendering or other CPU and memory intensive tasks, it may be worth considering the 15in model and accepting the extra size and weight.
There are some great Ultrabooks out there, but if you’re like me and would rather use OS X on a daily basis, your choice of hardware is considerably more limited. But despite that limited choice, the new 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display is one of the best thin and light laptops on the market.
The build quality is up to Apple’s usual solid aluminium high standards, and it looks as sleek and stylish as ever. This is also the thinnest, lightest MacBook Pro ever built by Apple, and puts the longevity of the 13in MacBook Air into question.
Obviously the stand out feature is the Retina display screen, and it’s a real beauty. As long as you’re aware that you’re not getting a massive amount desktop real estate, and that you need to be using applications that are Retina optimised. Downloading an app like SwitchResX will increase your resolution options, but running the screen at its native resolution won’t suit everyone.
It’s not just the resolution of the screen that’s impressive though. Black levels are truly stunning and colours are incredibly rich and vibrant – video looks simply stunning on this laptop. Regardless of Apple’s claimed 75 per cent reduction in glare, the screen is still reflective, but noticeably less so than older models.
There’s an impressive amount of connection options including two USB 3.0 ports and two Thunderbolt connectors, while the full size HDMI port will please anyone who wants to hook their laptop up to an HDTV.
The keyboard and touchpad are up to Apple’s usual high standard, and the multi-touch support makes navigating Mountain Lion an absolute pleasure. And the Power Nap feature means that you’re receiving emails and updates even when the laptop is sleeping.
It’s not all good news though. The lack of an Ethernet port is a disappointment, but the fact that Apple’s USB to Ethernet adaptor doesn’t work either is downright annoying. Power users might also cite the 8GB memory limitation and lack of discrete graphics as issues. It’s also hard to ignore the ludicrously expensive storage upgrades, especially considering how affordable aftermarket SSDs are these days.
But despite the points above, the 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display is a fabulous laptop, stuffed with some truly great features. At £1,449 it’s not cheap, but that Retina screen really does set it apart from the competition.
Manufacturer and Product
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display 13in
2.5GHz Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge
8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 4000
Apple Retina Display 2,560 x 1,600
802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
2x Thunderbolt, 2x USB 3.0, 1x HDMI, SDXC slot
Width x Depth x Height
314 x 219 x 19mm