Apple 13-in. Retina MacBook Pro review: Vibrant screen, perfect size?

Good screens come in small packages

When Apple execs debuted the new Mac lineup for the holidays last month, they noted that the 13-in. MacBook Pro was already the best-selling Mac. Both its power and small size have been key to this success.

After spending some time with the new 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display, I came away quite impressed. I've been a 15-in. MacBook Pro owner for years, and I initially regarded the smaller screen with skepticism, but this machine has quickly won me over. The killer Retina display in concert with the laptop's light weight and processing power make this computer a compelling package.

With this new model, Apple engineers have basically applied the playbook used for the 15-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display, only in the smaller form factor. (Apple loaned me this particular laptop for review.)

Starting at $1,699, this MacBook Pro is a pound lighter and 20% thinner than the previous generation -- it weighs 3.5 lbs. and is three-quarters of an inch thick when the lid is closed. That's a pound less than the regular 13-in. MacBook Pro. The reduction in size and weight comes with a few caveats, but sturdiness isn't one of them. Apple's unibody design -- featuring a frame carved from a single block of aluminum -- feels good to the touch, doesn't flex when the laptop is picked up from a corner, and exudes quality.

That quality is especially apparent in the 2560-x-1600-pixel screen, which is so packed with pixels -- 227 pixels per inch in its native resolution -- that you can't really discern them discretely. It's more like looking at a backlit printed page, with vibrant colors, good contrast and text that is sharp so as to still be legible even in smaller font sizes; you really have to see it in person. If you've seen an iPhone or the screen on this year's iPads, you have an idea of how gorgeous the Retina display is.

Of course, that screen comes with a higher price tag compared to other 13-in. MacBook Pros, which start at $1,199. That's something to keep in mind if this is on your -- or someone else's -- holiday wish list.

Specs and hardware details

Let's start from the outside and work our way in.

This latest MacBook Pro offers several modern connectivity ports, but due to size constraints, not the full retinue of them. On the left, next to the MagSafe 2 power connection, are two Thunderbolt ports (Thunderbolt is the wide-bandwidth I/O technology that allows you to connect everything from a display to a hard drive), a USB 3.0 port and a headphone jack. On the right side is another USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port and a SDXC card reader. There are also two mics, which help with noise canceling now that OS X Mountain Lion has dictation built in, and improved stereo speakers. For a laptop this size, the speakers sound pretty good.

As with other Apple laptops, there's also a 720p camera hidden in the black border at the top of the screen, which is great for FaceTime calls to other Macs, iPhones and iPads, as well as Skype and Vidyo sessions. All of the major 802.11 wireless standards are supported, including a/b/g/n, as is Bluetooth 4.0. The full-sized keyboard is backlit, and the brightness adjusts based on ambient lighting conditions. There's also the now-standard glass trackpad, capable of multitouch gestures.

What's missing? Apple has been pushing for an all-digital future for quite some time, and there have been casualties along the way. This round, Ethernet and the optical drive bite the dust, but this has allowed Apple to shave inches and ounces. If you still use CDs or DVDs, and you want a Retina display MacBook Pro, you'll need to buy one of Apple's external SuperDrives for $79. If you need Ethernet, there's a Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter that goes for $29.

The loss of the optical drive also means a slight change to the keyboard layout. The power button is now located where the Eject key used to be, at the upper right of the of the keyboard next to the volume increase key.

Inside, the system architecture is based on Intel's Ivy Bridge chipset, and there are different options depending on how much speed you need. The entry-level model, as noted earlier, starts at $1,699 and is powered by an Intel Core i5 chipset, which operates both processor cores at 2.5GHz but can use Turbo Boost to push the speed to 3.1GHz when needed. For an extra $200, you can upgrade to a 2.9GHz dual-core i7, with a Turbo Boost speed up to 3.6GHz. If you can afford it, I recommend the upgrade.

The 13-in. MacBook Pro sits on top of an older 15-in. MacBook Pro.

Both the $1,699 and $1,999 models come with 8GB of memory, which should be plenty for today's computing needs. But it's important to note that this memory is fixed; you cannot upgrade the RAM later on (and you can't order 16GB, as you can with the 15-in. MacBook Pro).

Storage is a different story, as you have more options here, either through Apple or a third party. The $1,699 comes with a 128GB SSD, eliminating the traditional hard drive as a bottleneck on speed; the $1,999 version comes with twice that, 256GB, which accounts for the $300 difference in price. If that's not enough, you can opt for more storage when buying from Apple's online store, but it'll cost you. Apple's storage options add up quickly, with the top-end 768GB capacity costing an additional $1,300 on the base model.

More on the Retina display

To power the Retina screen, Apple uses an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip, which handles graphics pretty well. Scrolling was smooth in regular use, for the most part. Built-in animations such as swiping through Spaces, activating Mission Control, zooming into pictures, or calling up Launch Pad played smoothly. Some animations did become a bit choppy specifically on a few code-heavy websites -- such as theverge.com and bgr.com -- especially as content was loading. But in general, the Intel graphics card isn't the hindrance it once was. I found that it performs quite capably.

Better yet, this laptop can output video to two external displays using the Thunderbolt or HDMI connections. (Yes, there are three such ports -- two Thunderbolt and the single HDMI -- but you can only power two external screens. The limitation is the graphics card.)

Of course, the main draw here is clearly the Retina display. The display's native 2560-x-1600-pixel resolution crams more than four million pixels into a 13.3-in screen -- two million more than on a typical HDTV. This makes it one of the highest resolution notebooks on the market, second only to the 15-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display. (That one features three million more pixels than an HDTV.)

Note: That native resolution isn't the same resolution you see when you fire up the MacBook Pro. If it were, everything on screen would be very tiny. The maximum supported resolution in the Displays preference pane is 1680 x 1050 pixels. That, and lesser resolutions, are achieved by downscaling the native resolution, though some third-party apps like SetResX and ChangeResolution will likely allow you to go higher ( as they do on the 15-in. model). But you better have really good eyesight. Apple offers more information on Retina display resolutions online.

Apple claims this screen has a 29% higher contrast ratio with a reduction in reflections on the non-matte screen. I definitely noticed that the reflectivity of the screen has been reduced when I realized a kitchen light that used to bug me when using my own 15-in. MacBook Pro was no longer an issue with this laptop. This isn't to say reflections aren't there, mind you, but I was not distracted by them. Your mileage may vary.

Setup and day-to-day use

Initial impressions out of the box? I love the size and weight of this computer; it makes the previous-generation 13-in. seem archaic -- which is impressive, given the praise that's been showered on that model in the past. The minimalist glass and unibody aluminum design is as good as it gets -- so good that competitors aren't ashamed of outright copying it.

I thought I'd have issues using this computer because I am used to the larger 15-in. MacBook Pro, but the smaller wrist area flanking the glass trackpad was enough space to operate comfortably. It really, really helps that the keyboard and trackpad are the same size as on the larger model, which, to me, is perfect. I love that the 13-in. version doesn't compromise on the quality of the keyboard or trackpad.

As for the keyboard, while the unit feels good to type on -- the throw is short and the keyboard springs are reactive -- the keys themselves feel a bit flimsy compared to the sturdiness inherent to the rest of the machine. It's an admittedly minor complaint, though; the keys are pretty much the same as those used in other Apple notebooks.

On first boot, I approached setup as a typical new owner would: without being able to take advantage of the only supported direct connection, Thunderbolt, for transferring data from my old laptop to the new computer. (Read: I didn't purchase any Thunderbolt accessories, so I didn't have a Thunderbolt cable to connect them.) Unlike the MacBook Pros I've been using, the Retina MacBooks have no FireWire or Ethernet ports for direct transfers, and you can't use Target Disk Mode via USB.

The Migration Assistant, which is an option offered during the initial setup, does allow you to transfer data from a Time Machine backup drive over USB. Or you can do a wireless transfer, which is what I ended up doing.

One thing to keep in mind: If you've already run through the initial setup and created your account using your old account name, you can't be logged into that account and use the Migration Assistant in the Utilities folder to transfer data from your old computer. You have to create an account with a different name, log in to that account, and then run Migration Assistant to set up your new computer using your old account name and password. It's a surprisingly kludgey move from Apple.

Migration Assistant finished a 235GB wireless transfer in six hours and 24 minutes. (When I was finally able to connect the two laptops, using a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, I restored the laptop and ran that setup again. This time, that same 235GB transferred in an hour and seven minutes.)

Better than the 15-in. model?

Initially, I was skeptical that the 13-in. screen would be enough for me. I've been using one variant or another of the 15-in. PowerBook/MacBook Pro for most of my professional life. And even with the larger screen, I have to use the pinch-to-zoom feature of OS X to read some text-heavy sites. From past experiences, I wasn't convinced that the 13-in. display would be better, Retina display or not.

The first time I turned the new computer on, text jumped out right away; it's very smooth and crisp. After a few weeks, I noticed that I didn't really need to zoom in on text-heavy sites like I used to. That's entirely due to the Retina display. It didn't take long to see that the sharp text and graphics make it easy to love the 13-in. screen. Even better, the size/weight combo is perfect for sliding into a backpack or briefcase. I find myself now wondering: Do I really need the 15-in. MacBook Pro anymore?

It's not all roses, though. In real life, the arrival of Retina displays means one of two things: content looks great, or it looks like crap. Why? Because, while some content and apps have been designed for high-res displays, many other things have not. Photos that would look fine on a normal display might look pixelated here; the same is true for video, apps and even webpages that don't yet support high-resolution graphics.

Sure, text is crystal clear, but other elements depend on the quality of the source. So, while the display is great, as with the iPhone and iPad before it, if your day-to-day apps haven't been updated to take advantage of the technology, you'll notice the lower quality.

Even so, it's safe to say that the Intel chipset inside the computer will show its age long before the display will.

I'm accustomed to the i7 processor in my own MacBook Pro, so I really wanted to put this machine's i5 chip through its paces. In the end, I was impressed. Performance-wise, the 13-incher had more than enough horsepower to run Windows XP using Parallels, along with Office and other programs in both the Windows and Mac operating systems at the same time without lagging. I usually had about a dozen programs running in the background at any given time, and switching among them and operating the computer didn't cause any obvious slowdowns.

One thing that surprised me was how eerily silent the 13-in. MacBook Pro ran. Actions that cause the fan to rev loudly on my own laptop merely warmed up the new laptop. (I could feel some heat escape from around the keys, but that was it.) Even when I had a dozen apps open, including XP in Parallels and Handbrake exporting different versions of an iMovie video, this machine was quiet: No clicking and clacking of hard drives, and no whir of fan noise. I had to double-check to see if the 13-in. MacBook Pro even had an internal fan. (It does, by the way; two of them.)

Battery life is impressive. Although I run this computer plugged in at work all day, when at home, I tend to leave it on the coffee table beside me, unplugged. Apple's estimate of seven-hour battery life isn't far off the mark. I got about six hours of use before receiving the 10% left warning.

Final thoughts

In terms of actual performance, the Intel i5 processor isn't as fast as the quad-core i7 I'm used to -- which is obvious, but it was interesting to see the difference. Encoding a two-and-a-half hour video took an hour longer than on my own laptop. So while the 13-in. Retina MacBook is not the fastest laptop you can buy from Apple, it more than holds its own in everyday tasks.

And that's the tradeoff, really. You give up an optical drive, some legacy ports and customization in exchange for less weight, a smaller form factor and a stunning screen. At $500 more than a standard 13-in. model -- and $100 less than the low end 15-in. model -- the decision right now on whether to buy one depends on your priorities and your pocketbook.

My take is that the Retina display MacBook Pro offers a compelling bundle of features housed in an impressive chassis, with plenty of horsepower and, of course, the screen that makes it special. In short, this machine has won me over. It scores high marks everywhere it counts: performance, battery life, stability, quality, weight/portability and design. There are tradeoffs, but if you can live with them, you can't go wrong with this MacBook Pro.

The 13-in. Retina display MacBook Pro (left) and the larger 15-in. Retina display MacBook Pro (right). (Image: Apple)

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

Read more about macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.

Tags Applehardware systemsMacintoshlaptops

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