Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro, recently updated to current-generation Intel CPUs (just in time for the holiday shopping season), retains its position as a favorite premium laptop for power-users. But that long-awaited upgrade, introduced at an Apple press event in October 2013, happened just in time.
The high-end, high-price Retina Display versions of the previous MacBook Pro were stuck in an unusual position. While other systems, from budget laptops to premium hybrids, had all moved onto Intel's latest CPU platform, known as either the fourth-generation Core i-series or by the code name Haswell, the MacBook Pro used last year's processors, until now.
The first Mac systems to get Haswell were the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air back in June 2013. The iMac all-in-one desktop followed. That left the more expensive MacBook Pro a generation behind its less expensive Air counterpart in CPU power and battery life. That's important because our Labs testing has shown that Haswell offers significant improvements to battery life in PC and Mac systems.
Note, however, that this CPU update applies only to the thinner MacBook Pro models with Retina Displays. Currently only the 13-inch version of the "classic" MacBook Pro is still for sale. The 15-inch version is presumably relegated to the same lonely afterlife as its long-gone 17-inch relative. For the sake of expediency, we'll now refer to the current 13-inch and 15-inch Retina Display models simply as the MacBook Pro.
Updated components and a lower price
The flagship MacBook Pro retains its very high screen resolution, which results in crisper text and clearer photos (2,560x1,600 pixels for the 13-inch model, 2,880x1,800 for the 15-inch model). Unlike some Windows PCs with higher-res screens, OS X is more interested in scaling your onscreen content to look its best (or what Apple thinks will look best), rather than giving you full unfettered access to that very, very high resolution. However, the tile interface view in Windows 8 does something similar with the handful of higher-res PCs now available.
Like the recent MacBook Air and iMac updates, the new MacBook Pro models also feature 802.11ac Wi-Fi, faster PCIe solid-state drive (SSD) storage, and Thunderbolt 2 ports for data and video output.
We were pleasantly surprised when the 13-inch MacBook Air saw its starting price cut to $1,099 earlier this year. The MacBook Pro follows, with its prices going from $2,199 down to $1,999 for the 15-inch version (and from $1,499 for the 13-inch version down to $1,299). That's a break from traditional Apple pricing, where prices would remain the same generation over generation, with updated components adding value.
The 15-inch version defaults to 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD (which Apple cheekily described as a "quarter terabyte"). Our review configuration of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is the step-up model (and it's a big step) for $2,599, with a faster 2.3GHZ Core i7, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and the Nvidia GeForce 750M GPU.
In our hands-on testing, these new model looks and feels a lot like the previous generation, so if you bought one last year, there's no need to reach for your wallet. However, if you don't already own a Retina MacBook Pro, the promise of longer battery life, somewhat improved performance, faster Wi-Fi, and lower starting prices is enough to make this a significant overall update.
|Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013)||Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina Display (June 2012)||Alienware 14|
|Display size/resolution||15.4-inch, 2,880x1,800 pixels||15.4-inch, 2,880x1,800 pixels||14-inch, 1,920x1,080 pixels|
|PC CPU||2.3GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ||2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM||2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ|
|PC Memory||16GB DDR3 SDRAM||8GB DDR3 SDRAM||16GB DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 750M||1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M||2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 765M|
|Storage||512GB SSD||256GB SSD||256GB SSD + 750GB|
|Networking||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||OS X Mavericks 10.9||OS X Lion 10.7.4||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
A power-packed thin design
As in the first generation of these MacBook Pro models from 2012, the current versions exist somewhere between the chunkier idea of a "pro-level," power-user laptop and the slim ultrabook ideal. Denser than it looks at first glance, the 15-inch MacBook Pro isn't exactly a carry-all-day-every-day package, although one could conceivably pull that off a few times per week.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro is more striking than the 13-inch, especially considering that its slim chassis includes a decent discrete graphics card. Still, from the outside at least, this is the same MacBook Pro as last year. Like the 2013 MacBook Air and iMac updates, the new features are internal in nature, or software-based, if you're considering OS X Mavericks to be part of the overall package.
The keyboard and trackpad remain essentially the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook. Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, with the possible exception of Lenovo, a company as involved with keyboard research and development as any. The large glass trackpad, with its multifinger gestures, remains the industry leader, even as Windows laptops move to more touch-screen controls, at least partially to compensate for the hassle of using a touch pad with Windows 8. The ability to do easy four-finger swipes, and the no-lag scrolling in Web browsers, is something Mac users always have trouble with when they switch back to a PC. That said, tap-to-click really should be turned on by default. Instead, you'll have to go into the settings menu to turn this obvious feature on.
The 15-inch Retina Display remains a main selling point, and the Retina branding now crosses over between the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro. Some new and upcoming Windows laptops go for even higher resolutions, and it's not unreasonable to ask when we'll see this trickle down to the MacBook Air line. The Retina screen is a 2,880x1,800 display, and is at its best when displaying text or professional photography. Videos rarely go past 1080p, and most Mac games can't display higher resolutions to begin with.
As originally noted last year, the Retina Display looks great, although you're more likely to notice it when comparing with a non-Retina laptop. A great way to see the screen in action is to zoom in closely on plain black text against a white background, as we did with the original Retina MacBook Pro.
By going into the settings menu, you can set the scaling so that onscreen text and icons appear as they would on a number of common resolutions, although I would have liked the opportunity to get the full unfettered 2,880 view.
|Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013)|
|Video||HDMI, 2x Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt 2|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt 2, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
Apple can drive people a bit nuts when it comes to ports and connections, but over the past few years, some semblance of universality has come to many Macs, with the addition of SD card slots and HDMI ports to many models. As in last year's model, you get two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports (now Thunderbolt 2), which also double as Mini DisplayPort outputs, an SD card slot, and Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
The HDMI and Thunderbolt video outputs can drive two additional external displays, at up to 2,560x1,600 pixels (I've set up a Retina MacBook Pro with its Retina screen sandwiched by two high-resolution external monitors, and it becomes quite the command center).
If you're looking for legacy items, such as Ethernet, an optical drive, or FireWire, keep looking. And yes, Apple apparently considers Ethernet to be a legacy port.
While our review unit is the (significantly) more expensive $2,599 model, you can quite easily trade down to the $1,999 model if you don't need the extra storage space or discrete GPU. For a hair under 2 grand, you get a 2.0GHz Core i7, and cut the RAM and SSD in half, to 8GB and 256GB. In the less-expensive version, you get Intel's Iris Pro graphics, the higher-end version of the improved integrated graphics offered with Intel's Haswell-generation processors.