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Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch) review: A rebooted MacBook Pro for the ultrabook era

At $1,699, the new Retina Pro is much more expensive than Apple's other 13-inch laptops, but it offers an incredible high-res screen.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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By adding a high-res Retina Display to a new 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has taken the odd man out of its MacBook line -- the previous 13-inch Pro -- and turned it into a sleek, modern laptop sitting at the midway point between slim ultrabook and mainstream powerhouse.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13.3-inch)
8.2

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch)

The Good

The new <b>13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display</b> adds a screen that's nearly as high-res as the 15-inch version, making for incredibly crisp text and images. The slimmer body feels much more modern, and the excellent keyboard and trackpad remain.

The Bad

Considering that this looks and feels a lot like the 13-inch MacBook Air, you may be in for a bit of sticker shock, especially as the base model only includes 128GB of SSD storage.

The Bottom Line

While the Retina MacBook Pro is easily the most desirable 13-inch Mac laptop to date, the high price and lack of discrete graphics make it a tough call versus either the more powerful 15-inch Retina Pro or the more affordable 13-inch Air.

Prior to this, the $1,199 13-inch MacBook Air had become Apple's go-to for everyday consumers, while the recent 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Displaywas the $2,199 reach system for power users. Even though the standard 13-inch Pro (starting at $1,199) remains a strong seller for Apple, it has also become the most archaic-feeling Apple laptop, saddled with a low native screen resolution and a chunky (by contemporary ultrabook standards) body.

At a starting price of $1,699, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a big step up in price from Apple's other 13-inch laptops, but it also offers features they cannot. Like the 15-inch Retina Pro, this new model includes a high-resolution display -- at 2,560x1,600 pixels, it's the highest resolution you can get in a 13-inch laptop -- plus two Thunderbolt/DisplayPort outputs, and even HDMI.

This update is not as revolutionary as the 15-inch version, which really was something we had never seen before. But, it leapfrogs some recent Windows 8 ultrabook-style laptops that were giving the MacBook Air serious competition as the go-to premium laptop in that price range, such as the Acer Aspire S7 and the Dell XPS 12.

Is $1,699 too much to ask for a 13-inch laptop? I've recently seen some flagship Windows 8 laptop with similar prices. The aforementioned Acer Aspire S7 is $1,649, but that includes a low-voltage Core i7 and a 256GB SSD. The convertible Dell XPS 12, with a slightly smaller 12.5-inch screen, starts at $1,199, but our review unit of that system also traded up to a Core i7/256GB SSD combo for $1,699. Both of those laptops have 1,920x1,080-pixel displays, which is as high as you can get on a consumer Windows laptop, and both are touch-screen laptops, an area Apple has yet to get into.

Compared with those, the base model Retina 13-inch Pro has a Core i5 and 128GB SSD. The unit we're testing is actually the step-up model, which upgrades the storage space to 256GB, for a total of $1,999. Add a Core i7 processor to that, and it's $2,199 -- the same price as the 15-inch Retina Pro, with a Core i7, 256GB SSD, and discrete Nvidia graphics.

The takeaway? None of these superpremium laptops is inexpensive, and at $1,199, $1,699, or $2,199, you have several options depending on your need for storage space, screen size, CPU power, or graphics.

The main selling point of this system, the Retina Display, is something that presents itself much better in person than online. Like the 15-inch version, this won't actually look like you're seeing full 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution (or 2,880x,1800 pixels, in the case of the 15-inch), if you still think about screen resolution in the same way Windows laptops do.

Instead, Apple uses a different dot pitch for the screen, which makes the desktop appear to be operating at 1,280x800 pixels, just with a much finer grain to the image. You can pop into the System Preferences menu and change that to "look like" 1,440x900 pixels or 1,680x1,050 pixels. The end result is a screen that's higher-res than a 1,920x1,080-pixel laptop, but appears to operate at a lower screen resolution, all while appearing crisper and sharper.

If all that sounds confusing, just know that you're unlikely to notice the difference between a Retina and non-Retina screen until you see them side by side. Then, it's definitely noticeable, but I've found it primarily of use in reading onscreen text more than anything else (the same was true for the Retina iPad versus previous non-Retina iPads).

The Retina MacBook Pro is on the right, a 13-inch Air on the left.

Interestingly, the non-Retina 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops continue to exist, although it's hard to imagine anyone not needing an internal optical drive or huge HDD going to those as a first choice (a budget-driven choice, perhaps).

While we continue to test the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, my initial impression is of a laptop following an inevitable evolutionary pathway, shedding size and weight, along with arguably legacy hardware, from optical drives, to platter hard drives, to Ethernet jacks (a point sure to be hotly disputed by those who still use those features every day).

I'd still call the 15-inch Retina Pro the best all-around MacBook in Apple's current roster, and the 13-inch Air the most practical for on-the-go lifestyles. That puts this model just behind those in the complex calculation of value, practicality, and features, but still miles ahead of most other 13-inch laptops.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,999 / $1,699
Processor 2.5GHz Intel Core i5
Memory 8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 256GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD 4000
Operating System OS X Lion 10.7.4
Dimensions (WD) 12.4 x 8.6 inches
Height 0.75 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.6 / 4.1 pounds
Category 13-inch

Design and features
The new Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro feels like neither a standard Pro, nor like a MacBook Air. Instead, like the 15-inch version from June 2012, it's caught somewhere in the middle. Thinner than a Pro, it also feels dense, leaning toward heavy, when you pick it up. It doesn't taper to a fine point the way a MacBook Air does, making it a bit harder to carry by hand comfortably.

13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display vs. 13-inch MacBook Air (pictures)

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I took the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and lined it up next to a current-gen 13-inch MacBook Air. The results left me feeling that each design has its advantages, but there's still a big difference between the two.

While the new Retina MacBook Pro is not as thin and light as a MacBook Air, it actually has a slightly smaller footprint. The Retina Pro is 12.4 inches by 8.6 inches, whereas the 13-inch Air measures 12.8 inches by 8.9 inches.

I know plenty of people who lug around full-size 13-inch MacBook Pros to and from work everyday -- and a few who do the same with 15-inch models. Both camps would benefit greatly from the smaller Retina Pro. Some time ago, I decided to carry a 15-inch Retina Pro around with me every day for a week as a test. It ended up being much easier to travel with than I expected, so the 13-inch model could certainly be an everyday machine, although many ultrabooks (and the MacBook Air) clock in at around half a pound less. The keyboard and trackpad are the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook, and they remain an industry standard. Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, and the trackpad, with its multifinger gestures, remains the easiest to use in any laptop -- although Windows 8 is making a major play for improved touch-pad gestures.

On the 15-inch Retina Pro, the high-res display felt like a real hardware breakthrough. Since then, we haven't seen anything like it on any other laptop until now (although the same higher-res technology can be found in recent iPhone and iPad models). Adding it to this 13.3-inch model doesn't yield results that are quite as stunning, but even on this smaller scale, colors pop, images appear to have great depth, and text is much crisper than on any non-Retina laptop.

Apple says this screen has less glare than previous MacBook screens -- the glossy top layer still seemed to reflect plenty of light from nearby sources. The Retina Pro sticks with a 16:10 aspect ratio (the much more common 16:9 aspect ratio is only found in the 11-inch MacBook Air). It won't make a tremendous amount of difference, but there's something to be said for matching the aspect ratio of HD television content, for letterbox-bar-free viewing.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch) Average for category [13-inch]
Video HDMI, DisplayPort (X2, via Thunderbolt) HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt, SD card reader 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None DVD burner

Connections, performance, and battery life
The new MacBook Pro isn't going to satisfy every potential customer's connectivity needs. Ethernet, the optical drive, and FireWire are gone, but HDMI and a second Thunderbolt port (which also works as a DisplayPort out) have been added, just as on the 15-inch Retina Pro.

While Thunderbolt remains an underused connection, I did find it handy in the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro for hooking up multiple monitors easily, so having multiple ports of this type can be useful.

The default CPU in both the $1,699 and $1,999 configurations of the 13-inch Retina Pro is an Intel Core i5; the extra $300 only gets you a 256GB SSD versus a 128GB one. But that should be more than fast enough for even heavy multitaskers. In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, initial results show the new MacBook Pro performing on par with the 13-inch non-Retina Pro and 13-inch Air, which has a low-voltage Core i5. In all cases, the 15-inch Retina Pro, with a quad-core Core i7 CPU, was significantly faster.

In hands-on use, the Pro felt fast and lag-free, even when rapidly switching between apps, or juggling multiple Web pages, office documents, and video streams.

All this is to say that, like virtually any current-gen Intel Core i5 laptop, the new Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro is more than fast enough for even strenuous multitasking. With the higher screen resolution and ability to output to multiple displays at once, you may be tempted to maintain a very large desktop and run a lot of apps at once -- you can feel confidant doing so that you won't run into lag or slowdown.

With only Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics, this won't be your main gaming machine (the paucity of Mac games notwithstanding). It'll do fine for World of Warcraft or a Call of Duty game in a pinch, however.

Much more important, especially for 13-inch laptops, is battery life. Apple has always set the standard for long life in both laptops and other categories -- so much so that some recent Apple products seem to be evolving into giant batteries with small bits of electronics attached. In our video playback battery drain test, this system ran for 6 hours and 57 minutes, which is near the top of the 13-inch laptop heap. The 15-inch Retina Pro ran for 6 hours and 59 minutes, and the current 13-inch MacBook Air ran for 7 hours and 27 minutes.

Interestingly, Windows PCs are making a big push toward battery life with Windows 8, and even more so with Windows RT. We have yet to fully test the battery life claims of RT, but PC makers are claiming 12-plus hours from ARM-based hybrids.

Apple's service and support options are, at the very least, polarizing. The support section of the Apple Web site is clean and easy to navigate, and more importantly, the large number of Apple retail stores makes getting in-person service relatively painless.

Your $1,699-plus laptop only includes one year of coverage, and only 90 days of telephone support. This makes buying Apple's extended AppleCare warranty a virtual necessity to protect your sizable investment, and at $249, it's a big add-on to your total cost of ownership.

That said, actually using a retail store Genius Bar for service is unlike any other PC tech support experience, and I've had several pain-free visits over the years. For some people, it's worth switching to the Mac platform just for that.

Conclusion
The 13-inch laptop remains the closest humankind has come to the perfect computing product. It's big enough to work on all day, but small enough to carry around on a regular basis. With the proliferation of Windows-based ultrabooks, and the success of Apple's own MacBook Air, the original 13-inch Pro model felt dated, even bloated. This modern-feeling refresh carefully skirts the line between power and portability, which may be an even more important feature in the end than the vaunted retina display.

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)

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

Load test (average watts)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:
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

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch w/ Retina Display (June 2012)
OS X 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

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Summer 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Summer 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 620M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Dell XPS 12
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB LITEONIT SSD

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13.3-inch)
8.2

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 8Support 8
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