Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, 2013) review:

Not a Retina MacBook Air, but awfully close

We know how standard fourth-gen "Haswell" Core i5 processors perform, at this point, on most laptops: a little better than last year, with much-improved integrated graphics.

The 13-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro has, for the most part, standard "mainstream" specs, if you're just looking at the processor. A dual-core 2.4GHz Core i5 processor is definitely a faster CPU than the MacBook Air's lower-speed, lower-power-oriented CPU, but the gap between "low-power" and full-power processors continues to narrow. But, the Retina 13-inch has the aforementioned faster flash storage, and Intel Iris integrated graphics, a step up from the average thin-and-light laptop.

The type of flash used on these new Retina MacBook Pros has also changed: it's PCIe-based, and all you need to know is it is, indeed, even faster than before. The 13-inch Retina Pro woke from sleep nearly instantaneously, and launched applications and files at a faster-than-Air level. A cold boot-up into OS X 10.9 Mavericks, which comes preinstalled, took around 13 seconds. That contributes to an extra dose of overall system speed.

As you'd expect, this laptop is definitively faster than the 13-inch Air on all our tests, and slower than the 15-inch Pro, especially when it comes to multitasking (no surprise, the 15-inch version has a quad-core processor). It's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison with the summer's 2013 Air because these computers have OS X Mavericks preinstalled, but stay tuned for updated results against Mavericks-installed Airs.

We've never tested Iris graphics on a laptop before; the 15-inch Retina Pro has even higher-up Iris Pro graphics and an Nvidia graphics card in higher configurations, while the 13-inch just has Iris. It's a higher level than the HD 4000-level graphics seen on a lot of ultrabooks and mainstream laptops. It's hard to find games that offer decent benchmarking tools on the Mac, but Call of Duty 4, despite being an old game, shows the gain over last year's 13-inch Retina Pro: 34 frames per second at 1,440x900. Diablo III can scale up to Retina-level resolution: with graphics settings on High and a resolution closest to the native 2,560x1,600, Diablo III ran at 12 frames per second. With the resolution dialed down to 1,968x1,230, it ran at 19fps. The take-away: the 13-inch MacBook Pro fares better with games than last year, but I still wouldn't call it a gaming PC unless you dial back settings.

Battery life is the biggest and most pleasant surprise: instead of the promised 9 hours of video playback, our tests showed a whopping 13 hours and 2 minutes. Part of that may indeed be Mavericks, but who cares? The 13-inch Retina Pro has all-day (and then some) battery life in everyday use, and ends up as our best battery-life laptop next to the 13-inch MacBook Air. You can use this on a flight with little concern for that charger.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Conclusion: The 13-inch MacBook we've been waiting for...nearly

I own a 2008 13-inch MacBook. I haven't upgraded in all this time because, frankly, no 13-inch laptop in the Apple universe made me want to upgrade. I wanted something compact and full-powered like that 13-inch model was back then.

This year has offered me two compelling options to upgrade: the 13-inch Air, and the 13-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro. Both products existed last year, but this year's versions are more affordable and more powerful, and each boasts better battery life.

Ideally, I'd want a Retina Air. In absence of that, I lean toward the Retina Pro. It's a laptop I'd seriously consider as my next computer. But I do have some reservations: I'd still prefer more-affordable flash storage options, and I'd like more-robust graphics.

But, at least until there's a true Retina Air, the 13-inch Retina Pro is Apple's only option for super-high-res ultra-mobile computing. At least, this time, it's far more affordable at $1,299, versus the $1,699 last year's started at. It's just a $200 upsell over the lowest-price Air. And, if you're comparing it with the similarly priced Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus, you could make the argument that the Retina Pro comes out a little ahead, if you value a bit more performance.

The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is still a story of compromise, but it's also Apple's closest thing to a sweet-spot power laptop. And even if it costs a bit more than the Air, it also feels more future-proofed for the next few years because of its extra performance, and its display. Just make sure you leave a few dollars earmarked for a RAM/storage bump-up, because I certainly think I'd need it.

QuickTime iTunes multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Handbrake multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display (October 2013)

Call of Duty 4 (Retina comparisons, in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

System configurations:

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display (October 2013)
OSX 10.9 Mavericks; 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-4258U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1GB Intel Iris Graphics; 256GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, June 2012)
OSX 10.7.4 Lion; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M + 512MB Intel HD 4000; 256GB Apple SSD

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400: 128GB SSD

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)
OSX 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4240U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch w/ Retina display (October 2012)
OSX 10.8.2 Mountain Lion 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 3210M, 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz,768MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000, 256GB Apple SSD

Alienware 14
Wndows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; HDD#1 256MB Lite-On SSD HDD#2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013)
OSX 10.9 Mavericks; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 750M + Intel Iris Pro Graphics; 512GB Apple SSD

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