Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013) review: Apple's high-end laptop gets better battery life and a lower price

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.3
  • Design: 9.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 9.0
  • Battery life: 9.0

Average User Rating

5 stars 5 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The second generation of Apple's Retina-screen MacBook Pro adds internal upgrades to its Wi-Fi, Thunderbolt, SSD, graphics card, and CPU. The result is a faster laptop with better battery life and a lower starting price.

The Bad The changes are internal-only, and not significant enough to upgrade if you have last year's version. At $1,999 to start, this is still a very expensive laptop. Both the 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro have much better battery life.

The Bottom Line The slimmer body and higher-res screen of the original Retina MacBook Pro were a revolutionary leap. This revamp adds modest internal upgrades for modest improvements, but price cuts to both the 13-inch and 15-inch models sweeten the deal.

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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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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
Price $2,599 $2,199 $1,799
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
Optical drive None None BD-ROM
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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

MacBook Pro displays: the 2012 Retina vs. 2012 non-Retina. CNET

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
Optical drive None

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).

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Where to Buy See All

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (2013, 15-inch screen)

Part Number: ME293LL/A
MSRP: $1,999.00 Low Price: $1,827.87 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Weight 4.46 lbs
  • Installed Size 8 GB
About The Author

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he's written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men's Journal.