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Laptop Week Review: The 13-Inch MacBook Pro With Retina Display

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Features:

  • Ships with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion
  • 2560 x 1600 13.3-inch at 227 PPI
  • 128GB SSD
  • 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 Processor
  • MSRP: $1,499

Pros:

  • Portability combined with high-quality display
  • Super speedy sleep and resume
  • Good battery life

Cons:

  • Just two USB ports
  • Non-upgradeable RAM

If I could only have one MacBook (which is usually the case for your average laptop-buyer), this is the one I’d pick without hesitation. Fewer issues than its 15-inch cousin, which pioneered the Retina line, combined with a much lighter design with a smaller desktop footprint for a display that can still give you crazy amounts of screen real estate all add up to a sure-fire winner.

The Most Flexible Mac

I’ve owned a lot of Macs. To find myself so ready to claim any single one a clear “winner” seems crazy, but the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is it. The smaller Retina notebook has proven itself through trial by fire and continues to be the Mac I pick for nearly every situation.

For example it’s my constant companion at every travel event I ever go to. The 15-inch is just a hair too heavy and unwieldy, but the 13-inch Retina hits the sweet spot. It slides easily into any bag, takes up an amount of desk space that’s better for your peripherals and for those seated around you, and yet can stil provide you with one of the best screens in the business.

Screen Shot 2013-05-21 at 3.21.58 PM

True Retina-quality graphics isn’t the reason to own this notebook. Apple’s “Best for Retina display” radial button in the Displays settings menu is something you can go ahead and forget about right now; instead, select “scaled” and crank that sucker up to the “More Space” maximum. But if that’s not enough, go grab DisplayMode from the Mac App Store and enjoy up to 2560 x 1280 resolution, which is beyond that supported by Apple’s official settings. My eyes suffer after 2048 x 1280, so that’s where I keep it, but even there you get so much screen real estate it feels positively sinful. If you’re used to a Cinema display or two at home, there’s nothing else that compares.

The hardware is up to Apple expectations, and while I’ve experienced case creak on the 15-inch version (a widely reported issue), I’ve never had a problem with the 13 inch’s fit and finish. It feels as sturdy as a laptop can (with the possible exception of Google’s leaden Chromebook Pixel) and it withstands rough treatment with gusto, as a busy blogger can attest.

IMG_8877

IMG_8876

In terms of Geekbench, the base Core i5 13-inch, which is the version I’m reviewing here, consistently scores between 6,000 and 7,000. That’s not a chart-topping number, but the machine hardly stutters, even under fairly demanding conditions. I thought I’d miss the dedicated graphics card or upgraded RAM from my 15-inch model, but I don’t, at least not for anything short of using Final Cut Pro X.

Another nice win for the 13-inch is battery life. The Pro can stretch itself to around seven and a half hours if I need it to, but even with my incredibly sloppy, multi-app setup with tons of things going on in the background and about a thousand Chrome tabs open, it seems to average around five.

Who is it for?

Designers

artist

Yes. The one complaint that designers might have with the Retina MacBook Pro is that its screen is still glossy and that the color rendering and contrast are a little exaggerated to make photos pop. But if you need a device for running Photoshop or Illustrator, the Retina scratches that itch, even with the minimum specs at the $1,499 level.

Plus, you can always power up to three external displays via Thunderbolt and HDMI out, but I’d only recommend doing this if you’re very cold and also enjoy the sound of a fan operating at maximum power. Still, in a pinch the Retina Pro becomes a solid companion for a 27-inch Cinema Display, giving designers even more flexibility.

entrepreneurFounders

Yes. John pointed out that entrepreneurs love MacBook Airs in his review of the Dell XPS Developer’s Edition, but that’s actually outmoded. If you’re a modern entrepreneur, and keeping a close watch on your company’s design and suitability for the future of HiDPI devices and displays, you’ll want the 13-inch Retina. It’s still light enough to carry with you everywhere, plus you can pile on the open applications thanks to the screen real estate benefits I mentioned above.

The 13-inch Retina is pretty much exactly like the successful entrepreneur: flexible where it needs to be, rigid when it doesn’t; equally comfortable doing their thing in the boardroom or working out of the small local coffee shop; equipped with enough endurance to keep producing through the day.

programmerProgrammers

Yes. Programmers love Macs, and this is a Mac that’s easy to fall in love with. You want to run Xcode next to the iOS Simulator and still have room to keep a team chat window open? You can do that with the 13-inch Retina Pro, so long as you’re okay with squinting. You can build websites and watch them output and tweak on the fly without squishing anything inordinately. If there’s a development flaw on the Pro, it’s not an apparent one.

Bottom Line

MG said this laptop was near perfect back when he reviewed it at launch, and it’s pretty hard to disagree. There are support threads filled with growing pains and other issues experienced by the inaugural 15-inch Retina Pro, but Apple seems to have worked out any kinks with this one, and the added portability is a big benefit besides. It’s still a pricey beast, but the use value to cost ratio is through the roof regardless.

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