Earlier this year Apple introduced its first Mac equipped with a Retina Display. The 15.4-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (henceforth rMBP) introduced a brand new, thinner and lighter chassis to the MacBook family while serving as the launch vehicle for the world's first 2880 x 1800 notebook display.

Although the 15-inch rMBP was significantly more portable than its predecessor, the number one question asked after its release was when the MacBook Air would get similar Retina Display treatment. As the first Mac with an ultra high resolution IPS panel, the value of the 15-inch rMBP was obvious, but these days the market demands extreme portability.

Over the past few years, the 13-inch notebook form factor emerged as a great balance between functional size and portability. Although many hoped for a MacBook Air equipped with a Retina Display, for the follow on to the 15-inch rMBP Apple made the logical progression and brought a Retina Display to its 13-inch MacBook Pro.

In doing so, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display gets all of the chassis improvements that were first introduced with the 15-inch model this summer. Apple ditched the optical drive, slimmed up the notebook, and integrated Intel's 22nm Ivy Bridge silicon. Better speakers, a larger battery, USB 3.0, and an extra Thunderbolt port are all a part of the next-gen package.


13-inch MBA (left) vs. 13-inch rMBP (right)

By virtue of the smaller display size and the next-gen MacBook Pro chassis, the 13-inch rMBP does a lot to blur the line between the Air and Pro lines.

13-inch rMBP: Form Factor Perfection?

I always liked the 13-inch form factor of the MacBook Pro, but I never liked the laptop itself. It always had too low resolution of a screen to be productive and it was too big and heavy to make sense compared to the MacBook Air. Once the 13-inch MacBook Air got Sandy Bridge, I pretty much stopped recommending the 13-inch MacBook Pro. You got a lower resolution display, and didn't gain enough to make the tradeoff worthwhile. Upgradability was a definite advantage, but most of the time when I'm making a personal recommendation to someone it's a person who isn't going to upgrade their machine regardless. When Apple revealed that the 13-inch MacBook Pro was still its best selling notebook, I was a bit surprised - although it did make sense.


From top to bottom: 11-inch MBA, 13-inch MBA, 13-inch rMBP, 15-inch rMBP

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display changes all of that entirely. I'm now finding it more difficult to recommend the 13-inch MacBook Air, and have almost every reason to recommend the new Pro. The reduction in chassis thickness and weight give it an almost ultraportable feel. At 3.57 pounds, the 13-inch rMBP is light enough that traveling with it isn't a problem. Thanks to the smaller display, pulling it out on a crowded airplane in coach and getting work done isn't an issue either. The larger 15-inch rMBP still struggles in the airplane use case, although the reduction in thickness made it a bit better than its non-Retina predecessor.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display Comparison
  15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display 13-inch MacBook Pro 13-inch MacBook Air
Dimensions 0.71 x 14.13 x 9.73" 0.75 x 12.35 x 8.62" 0.95 x 12.78 x 8.94" 0.11 - 0.68 x 12.8 x 8.94"
Weight 4.46 lbs (2.02 kg) 3.57 lbs (1.62 kg) 4.5 lbs (2.06 kg) 2.96 lbs (1.35 kg)
CPU Core i7-3615QM Core i5-3210M Core i5-3210M Core i5-3427U
CPU Cores/Threads 4/8 2/4 2/4 2/4
L3 Cache 6MB 3MB 3MB 3MB
Base CPU Clock 2.3GHz 2.5GHz 2.5GHz 1.8GHz
Max CPU Turbo 3.3GHz 3.1GHz 3.1GHz 2.8GHz
GPU Intel HD 4000 + NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M Intel HD 4000 Intel HD 4000 Intel HD 4000
GPU Memory 1GB GDDR5 - - -
System Memory 8GB DDR3L-1600 8GB DDR3L-1600 4GB DDR3-1600 4GB DDR3L-1600
Primary Storage 256GB SSD 128GB SSD 500GB 5400RPM HDD 128GB SSD
Optical Drive N N Y N
Display Size 15.4-inches 13.3-inches 13.3-inches 13.3-inches
Display Resolution 2880 x 1800 2560 x 1600 1280 x 800 1400 x 900
Thunderbolt Ports 2 2 1 1
USB Ports 2 x USB 3.0 2 x USB 3.0 2 x USB 3.0 2 x USB 3.0
Other Ports SDXC reader, HDMI out, headphone out SDXC reader, HDMI out, headphone out GigE, FireWire 800, SDXC reader, headphone out SDXC reader, headphone out
Battery Capacity 95 Wh 74 Wh 63.5 Wh 50 Wh
Price $2199 $1699 $1199 $1199


From top to bottom: 11-inch MBA, 13-inch MBA, 13-inch rMBP, 15-inch rMBP

The dimensions are very surprising. The 13-inch rMBP maintains a uniform thickness of 0.75-inches, 5.6% thicker than the 15-inch model (but obviously with less total volume thanks to a smaller planar footprint). Compared to the thickest point on the 13-inch MacBook Air however you're only gaining 0.07-inches. The weight difference is marginal as well. The 13-inch MBA shaves off only 0.61 lbs. The 15-inch rMBP is less than a pound heavier as well (0.89 lbs). Apple has done its best to make your decision about picking the right screen size and internals, almost entirely removing things like weight from the discussion. While the 13-inch MBA is still clearly a more portable device, I believe with the 13-inch rMBP Apple has built a chassis that's truly an alternative.

The downside to all of this is a machine that really can't be upgraded. Apple outfits all of the 13-inch rMBPs with 8GB of DDR3L-1600, although there's no BTO option for 16GB of RAM (which is availble on the 15). The integrated SSD module is removable, although it's not intended to be user serviceable. I don't believe the 8GB memory limitation will be much of an issue over the useful life of the system. If we assume 8GB is enough for the foreseeable future, providing more (or easily upgradeable) storage is my biggest complaint about the fairly fixed configuration. The good news is the SSD module can be upgraded and some companies do offer an upgrade path for it. We've already grown used to having notebooks with integrated batteries and CPUs soldered down to the motherboard, which makes the rMBP pill a lot easier to swallow.


13-inch MBA (left) vs. 13-inch rMBP (right)

I appreciate the fact that there's no reduction in IO when moving between the 13 and 15-inch rMBPs. The 13-inch model retains the two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, headphone/mic jack, SD card reader, and HDMI out of its bigger brother. Apple's MagSafe 2 connector makes an appearance as well.

The keyboard and trackpad remain very similar to the 15-inch model, although I feel like there's slightly more key travel on the 13. Neither system has the key travel of the older, non-Retina MacBook Pros but that's a sacrifice that seems like we'll be making more of as we pursue even thinner designs. I do believe that despite Apple's pursuit of a very thin chassis that it continues to deliver a very usable keyboard with great feel. I've typed tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of words on Apple's current crop of keyboards, and they still manage to hold up quite well.

The trackpad shares a similar story. The glass covered trackpad of the 13-inch rMBP is similar in size and identical in feel to the trackpad on the rest of Apple's mobile lineup. The 13's trackpad performance and behavior remains among the best in the industry.

Silicon: Dual-Core Only
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  • nerd1 - Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - link

    I just cannot understand Apple's spec selection for this laptop.

    They are selling this as 'Pro' laptop, with fixed 8GB ram, 128GB starting storage space (and HUGE overcharge for slightly more useful 256GB) and no external graphics.

    I don't think this is any better than recent full-HD ultrabooks from other brands, usually around $1000 price tag recently. 1080p is more than enough on 13" screen, and they provide cheaper storage upgrade option (256GB mSATA drives are now cheap around $200), and some even has external GPU. And face it - 2.5Ghz i5 won't give a huge performance edge over 1.8Ghz i7 ULV with turbo boost for most applications.

    Yes, I know it will still sell like hotcakes.
    Reply
  • lukarak - Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - link

    That`s the only problem. Simply put, a dealbreaker, especially for mac users , that inherently have an above average need for virtual machines.

    Everything else is expected.
    Reply
  • bji - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    Anand - the image retention flaw on the 15 inch rMBP is a real issue. I have written you several emails asking if you'd like to address this using your testing tools but never received a response. You haven't acknowledged this issue in this review either.

    Is the 13 inch rMBP subject to the same image retention flaw?
    Reply
  • bji - Thursday, November 15, 2012 - link

    WHOOPS - I am wrong. You did address this, I just didn't see that paragraph somehow.

    It would still be great if you used the tools at your disposal to analyze this. There are reports that the heat of the display (air conditioned versus warm room) have an impact, and of course it's well known that only LG displays suffer this issue. Having all of that confirmed by a reputable reviewer would be great.
    Reply
  • edgarperez - Saturday, November 24, 2012 - link

    I am trying to decide on a replacement for my 2gb mba 13" . The UI references including "Also if you're looking to minimize UI frame rate issues as much as possible you're going to want the upgraded CPU (although that still won't eliminate low UI frame rates)." truly scar me away from the rMBA. I am on my machine 12 hours a day regularly. the thought of the UI lagging scrolling on applications This is not something i noticed when i looked at the machine in the store but certainly something that would drive me batty once i have noticed it. I think I am going to have to think more about the MBA vs. the MBP non retina and pass on the retina for now. Reply
  • Zink - Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - link

    It's not really lag, just low frame rates. It works just as fast as it should but looks a pit more choppy while moving. Reply
  • marioyohanes - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    Well, I'm one of those people who always complaint about "Pro" in 13" MBP/rMBP, it should be named MacBook, without Pro because it is not a Pro machine. And maybe we could get lesser complaint on Mac App Store comment section for 3D games just because they thought 13" MBP can do 3D game.

    As for 13" rMBP, here my two cents after using this thing for a month (I got it for free anyway, so...):
    - 8GB RAM is not an issue, period! You just trolling saying it needs 16GB! You just don't run 2 VM, 100megs AI files while running FCPX on this machine, you just don't do that.
    - 128GB SSD for $1799 laptop? This is annoying! Seriously? 128GB? And yet you still calling it a Pro? I'll be damn!
    - Display is awesome, super awesome, even though, I prefer to have 1440x900 resolution over native retina. The only thing I hate from 13" MB/MBP is the resolution barely usable for professional work. However, if you're iOS app developer or UI designer, this thing rocks! No more scrolling madness for testing app on retina simulator or designing retina artworks in Adobe!
    - UI performance is not an issue, at all, some websites simply just another prove of bad programming. And retina aware apps are widely available, if they're not updating their app to be retina aware until first half 2013, it means the app is either no longer under development or its developer simply not serious selling Mac apps.
    - Gaming or anything 3D? Forget about it. Unless of course, by gaming you meant Angry Birds, but for me, gaming is stands for Steam, AC3, Diablo 3 and the list goes on.

    So who is this for? Professional who does a lot of work developing or designing retina UI but hates 15" rMBP portability. Or, it could be great for business professional, you'll be thank to its retina display for saving your eyes for working too long in front of your computer.

    This is not for me, obviously, I switched back to my 15" rMBP after a month. This is well overpriced on my opinion, but then again, no competition whatsoever. And yes, please stop telling me ultrabooks $1000 etc, the closest ultrabook price with this thing is cost more than $1400! But then again, if you're making money with your laptop, why bother with price, as long as its beneficial for you to have this rMBP (also works for boosting confidence), just buy it and don't look back. Haters will be haters, don't listen to them.
    Reply
  • .Chris. - Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - link

    Grate in-depth review wish I found this 2 weeks ago
    I bought a maxed out air then sent it back after seeing the retina display in store.
    Since then I’ve been trying to decide if the upgrade to the faster cpu is worth it for the rMBP. Sounds like it is and as I am paying education prices which brings it in at £1383 (which still hurts but not as much as £1609)
    Reply
  • AirieFenix - Monday, March 25, 2013 - link

    I would love to see a 13-inch "non-Retina" Macbook Pro with some of the goodies of the rMBP. For instance, I need the Ethernet port (yes, there is an adapter, but I'd rather prefer o have it out-of-the-box); I also like the battery life on the non-Retina model, and to have upgradable hardware is almost a must-have for people that don't buy a new notebook every year (for instance, me).

    In the other hand, I don't use the DVD drive on my computers since... I don't even remember. And the 1280x800 is a low resolution right now.

    But most important, I'd rather prefer to have a consistent fluidity through all the UI than more than a lot of pixels (yes, it's a nice display, but I'm not a photographer, it isn't a must-have to me) and the price. The price of the Retina model is just too absurd.

    Why don't make a 13-inch Macbook Pro with Air's display (a not Retina, but still good) and without DVD-tray (although I can live with it, would be nice to have more space for battery life)? That would be my dream machine.
    Reply

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