Apple 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro review (late 2013)

The ideal laptop for the road warrior

Review
Apple 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro Review

It happened: the MacBook Air has officially been trumped as my recommended road warrior machine. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s another Apple product that’s doing the trumping. Released last month alongside the iPad Air and revised iPad mini with Retina display, the Haswell-infused 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has been my sole computer for the past four weeks. For those who slept right through the announcement, here’s a bit of a refresher: it’s dramatically faster than last year’s model, it’s cheaper, and most impressive of all, it’s thinner.

How thin? At its rear, the 13-inch MacBook Air measures 0.68-inches, whereas the new 13-inch rMBP measures 0.71-inches. (Save your effort reaching for the calculator — this new rig is just 0.03-inches thicker than the MBA’s thickest point.) To boot, Apple dropped the entry price for its smallest pro-grade machine to just $1,299, placing it just $200 north of the baseline 13-inch MacBook Air. For those who spend an embarrassing amount of time in airline seats, Town Cars, and/or questionable-designed hotel rooms, there’s a new champion in town. Read on for my take on Apple’s most fit-for-travel workhorse yet.

Transitioning

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For those who don’t understand the inner workings of my mind, here’s a useful nugget: for the past two years, I’ve relied solely on an (aging) 15-inch MacBook Pro. You know, the big one that shipped before “Retina” was a word that could be applied to notebooks. Meanwhile, I’ve grown increasingly envious of my wife’s far more luggable 13-inch MacBook Air. “This boots up so fast!,” she’d exclaim, forcing a grimace on the face of yours truly as he deals with a 3-minute reboot during some important live-blog. It’s also worth understanding that I barely stand still. I’ve logged roughly 150,000 airline miles for 2013, and put upwards of 25,000 miles across a variety of rental cars. I say all of this to make a point: the weight of a 15-inch machine, coupled with the sluggishness of a mechanical hard drive, has become a marked burden.

The issue with downsizing, of course, is the loss of real estate. I earnestly tried to shove my workflows onto a 1,440 x 900 display (offered on the 13-inch MacBook Air), but I ended up having to compromise in too many ways, costing me precious minutes and seconds in varying degrees of productivity. So, I waited. Even when the original 13-inch rMBP arrived, I wondered if I’d find the display too cramped. Using Apple’s internal scaling mechanism within Mavericks, I immediately tweaked my test unit to ‘More Space,’ which gives the appearance of a 1,680 x 1,050 panel. That’s what I was accustomed to on my outgoing 15-incher, and I knew that if this thing were going to meet my demands as a desktop replacement, that was the only possible avenue.

Design and handling

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I’ll say this about moving to a 13-inch machine: the smaller footprint is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I barely feel the 3.46 pounds floating around in my backpack, and it fits perfectly on the tray table of a coach airline seat. (My 15-incher would routinely hang over a bit, especially on regional jets.) On the other hand, it’s far more difficult to use on my lap. Perhaps I have the world’s worst posture (read: I’m certainly vying for that crown), but I never had to think about how close my knees were together when using a 15-inch laptop. With this bantam replacement, it constantly feels as if it’s about to slide between my legs and into the abyss below. After a few weeks, I’ve largely adjusted to the change, but it still feels more suited for use on a tray table or desk.

I’ve held my wife’s 13-inch MBA up alongside the revised rMBP, and the weight difference is bordering on negligible. To say it another way, if you’re yearning for a speedier CPU, more potent graphics, and a full-size HDMI port, the slimmer, lighter rMBP is now close enough to MBA territory to wholeheartedly recommend. Oh, and that’s without ever looking at the display. Peering at the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display with the 13-inch MacBook Air beside it is probably the only A/B test you need before convincing yourself that the Pro is the way to go. In true “once you see HD, you’ll never want to see SD again” fashion, the Retina panel on the new Pro utterly destroys whatever is still shipping in the Air. Actually, if you’re still a year or so away from being able to upgrade from a non-Retina machine, don’t even wander into an Apple Store. Once you see what you’re missing, you’ll start ogling your current machine with a pinch of consternation.

Longevity — or, surviving travel

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I’ve written before that battery life should become the top concern for every laptop maker on the planet. The reality is that mobile hardware has finally reached a point where even comparatively low-end stuff can handle the bulk of a mainstream user’s needs with some semblance of poise. What’s missing, however, is the ability to do all of that for a period of time that’s so outlandishly long that you aren’t actively wondering where you’ll find your next AC outlet. Much like a stricken druggie constantly evaluates how much time he or she has left before a fix is required, the modern laptop user can barely go 10 minutes without sneaking a peek at the rate of battery drain.

Unfortunately, the Haswell-powered 13-inch rMBP isn’t an all-day machine. Not quite, anyway. For as tremendous as Haswell is, we’re still a few years out from having access to a portable workhorse that’s capable of being used from clock-in to clock-out in untethered fashion. But here’s the silver lining: this is the first ultra-compact, “pro-grade” machine from Apple that can last nine hours with the display on. For a huge swath of humans, that’s good enough.

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I began one particular Saturday during my testing with a full charge and a mind to not plug the machine in regardless of how unnatural it felt. The challenge was started as I opened the lid at 9:30AM, set the brightness to 75 percent, and fired up the following apps: Photoshop CS6, Evernote, Microsoft Word, Skitch, Messages, Firefox, Chrome, iTunes, TextEdit, Mailplane, TweetDeck, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, and MOG. Wi-Fi was used for the duration of the test. I began by wading through my inbox, streaming a bit of music, and losing track of time while exploring uninhabited Alaskan islands on Wikipedia. Finally, I figured out that I really needed to fire up Max Cardio Conditioning if I planned to exercise and shower before departing on a 3.5-hour road trip. After Shaun T. had his way with me for an hour of video playback, I left the machine idling for another half-hour of so. (All of my Insanity cohorts will recognize that as unavoidable recovery time.)

Whilst riding shotgun down south, I had to jack the brightness to 100 percent in order to counter the sun’s almighty power, and I also used the laptop’s battery to juice up my iPhone for 180 minutes. During the ride, I edited a few hundred photos, continued to respond to email, and did my darndest to keep up with the deluge of news that never stops pouring from TweetDeck. Such shenanigans continued until 6:30PM, at which point I saw the battery reach the 3 percent mark and I intentionally shut it down to avoid any unforeseen calamities. That’s an 8.5 hour period, and the machine was only sleeping for 1.5 hours. That’s 7 honest-to-goodness hours of intense use with brightness between 75 percent and 100 percent, and had I not borrowed some of that power to rejuvenate my iPhone, it could’ve lasted even longer.

Real-world performance

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Look, I’m a power user. So much so, in fact, that the mere thought of using an iPad for more than catching up on longform content through Pocket gives me all sorts of chills. My goal was to push the baseline 13-inch rMBP to its limits, and figure out exactly what I’d have to do before I began to long for more than 4GB of RAM and a more capacious SSD. I’ve heard from others that Apple did itself a disservice by offering a $1,299 edition of this here machine with a paltry 4GB of system memory and a 128GB SSD. It’s understandable for the MacBook Air to ship with such a configuration — after all, that’s the company’s entry-level laptop by default. But the “Pro” moniker should actually stand for something. No professional is going to be satisfied with 4GB of RAM on a laptop that’s built in 2013, nor should they be.

That being said, I’m actually glad that I was tasked with evaluating the bottom-end SKU. I knew by looking at the packing slip that it was going to be underpowered and ill-equipped to handle my daily abuses, but in more ways than I expected, I was wrong. I managed to have all of the aforementioned apps opened up while also batching 200 photos in Lightroom and exporting a 4 minute video through Premiere Pro. All the while, I was able to Cmd+Tab between programs with minimal stuttering — a feat that was legitimately impossible on the 15-inch HDD-based MacBook Pro I was using a month ago. Apple claims that the PCIe-based flash storage arrangement in the Haswell-powered rMBPs can operate up to 60 percent faster than last year’s units, and frankly, I have little choice but to believe said claim. The speed at which this system can hop from one task to another while under absolute duress is nothing short of astounding.

The only time I could get this unit to hang for an unreasonable amount of time was by previewing a number of full-resolution JPEGs from the 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800 camera. I’d select a photo, hit the Space bar, and wait for 1-2 seconds for the photo to fill up the screen. (For the record, trying this same task with images out of the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D3S led to near-instantaneous previews.)

My approach to this review was one of real-world use, but if you’re interested in seeing how this particular machine fares in benchmarks, have a look at the reviews from my pals at CNET, Engadget and LAPTOP.

Taken for granted

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As a critic, my job is to use and evaluate a product with a skeptic’s eye. If a benefit of a doubt is given, I’m going about it the wrong way. After hammering the 13-inch rMBP for weeks on end, however, it dawned on me just how much this entire range of computers has going for it. The buttonless, multi-gesture trackpad is reason enough to select a Mac over a Wintel machine. (After all, these machines can run Windows 7 and Windows 8 alongside OS X Mavericks.) It’s thoroughly baffling that manufacturers of Windows laptops still haven’t figured out a way to produce trackpads that are as sizable and functional as those on the MacBook line. It’s simply a joy to mouse around using the rMBP’s trackpad, and just like last year’s model, the backlit keyboard is amongst the more comfortable and accurate in the industry.

It’s also incredibly easy to forget a time where every pro-grade machine on the market could be transformed into an unnervingly loud desk ornament by even thinking of launching two Adobe apps at the same time. Plus, its underside became a legitimate health hazard within a matter of minutes if you ever dared fire up Steam. The 13-inch rMBP is the coolest, quietest laptop I’ve ever used regardless of operating system or price point. Even while Lightroom batched hundreds of 36.3-megapixel images and Premiere Pro crunched a 4-minute HD video into a file just 90MB in size, I barely heard a whisper from the fans. And, mercifully, no portion of the machine became anything more serious than “mildly warm,” even while taxed. These data points won’t show up in benchmarks, but they matter. A lot. The level of comfort when using a portable tool such as this makes a huge difference, and it’s a meaningful way for Apple to build brand loyalty by addressing issues that can’t easily be ranked or shown in a bar chart.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge the fact that there’s no optical drive here. I (strongly) questioned Apple’s logic on this back in 2011. As 2014 inches ever closer, I’m happy to report that I no longer think that compact laptops should be burdened with an optical drive. I didn’t miss it one bit while testing this guy, and if you think you will, just spring for the $79 USB SuperDrive. It doubles as a gorgeous coaster when you aren’t burning DVDs of impromptu off-roading events.

Missed opportunities

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For as impressive as this $1,299 hunk of aluminum is, there are no doubt a smattering of typical Apple holdbacks. I’ve been using Apple laptops for years now, and every new machine has a couple of token hang-ups. These are best described as senseless changes or exclusions that were almost certainly done intentionally in order to provide an obvious reason to upgrade at a point in time in the future. On this particular rig, around two-thirds of each edge is blank. Meanwhile, we’re given a single USB 3.0 port on each side. Look, I realize that not everyone will find a reason to connect more than two peripherals at once, but given the Pro moniker, why not include three USB ports? I’m not an engineer by trade, so I’ll assume it’s harder than I’m imagining it to be. Still, more should’ve been there.

Obviously designed with road warriors in mind, I’m left wondering why Apple doesn’t continue to make an excellent keyboard even better by building it to resist spills. My hunch is that such a change would require the chassis to thicken up, but a bit more effort on the ruggedness front, and it could seriously threaten a few ultrabooks being produced by the fine folks at Lenovo.

Oh, and there’s so much room on the palm rests for a huge helping of stickers — who ever thought clean was beautiful?

Wrap-up

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I’m reminded of a quote from Craig Robinson in one of this century’s finest works, ‘This Is The End.’ Amidst a great deal of profanity and nonsensical chatter, he musters: “I’m straight-up lovable, son.” If the 13-inch rMBP could speak, it’d probably say something similar. I had huge expectations for Apple’s cheapest, least-equipped Pro-level machine, and with few exceptions, it met those expectations with aplomb. If you’ve been clinging tightly to your 15-inch notebook, fearing that a move to a 13-inch Retina display wouldn’t sustain your workflows, I’m here to tell you that your fretting is in vain. While you may have to adjust your leg-table approach, almost every other aspect is a plus: it’s lighter, it fits into more briefcases, and it won’t creep onto the tray table beside you in a coach airline seat.

Unless you’re planning on cutting video on a daily basis (or similar), the $1,299 base configuration will suit you just fine. I store way too many home videos and photos to make do with a 128GB SSD, but considering just how affordable Google Drive storage is, you’re probably better off putting those kinds of memories into the cloud. To me, the $1,499 model is the one to get; the extra $200 doubles your RAM to 8GB and doubles the SSD to 256GB — remember, you can’t upgrade these after the fact, so choose your base machine wisely. For now, at least, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the 13-inch machine to get if you’re in the market for a mobile Mac. The lack of a Retina option on the Air simply takes it out of consideration for me, and the new 13-inch rMBP is so thin and light that you probably won’t notice the extra heft. This machine has built a great case for replacing the 15-incher altogether; I’d rather spend less on this form factor and use the savings on an HD panel… you know, for those fleeting moments where you actually get to enjoy your home office.

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