Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, 2013) review: Not a Retina MacBook Air, but awfully close

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MSRP: $1,299.00

The Good The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display has phenomenal battery life, better-than-average integrated graphics, faster Thunderbolt 2 ports, and a lower price than last year.

The Bad Still expensive if you plan to add more storage or RAM; no extra Nvidia graphics option as on the 15-inch version; yes, it’s thicker and heavier than an Air.

The Bottom Line There are other high-res laptops out there, but this year’s more powerful and affordable 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is one of the best of the bunch, and makes a compelling case for upgrading from the 13-inch Air.

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8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 10

Last year's 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display was a bit of an odd duck. Yes, it was the Retina Display-equipped 13-inch MacBook everyone had been waiting for, but it wasn't the powerhouse performer the 15-inch version was, and it cost a lot more than a MacBook Air.

This year it's back in a more powerful, less expensive package that makes a lot more sense: it's now a Retina laptop that people can actually afford.

The 13-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro always caught my eye, but its price was originally prohibitive; $1,699 was a steep starting price. A year later, the entry point is $1,299, which, in Apple's laptop landscape, isn't so bad at all -- and, in fact, is pretty close to what competitors charge for thin 13-inch laptops with super-high-res screens.

Josh Miller/CNET

The 13-inch MacBook Pro (let's agree to call it that, even though there is a thicker 13-inch Pro that Apple still sells) is still a tweener among Apple laptops: it's heavier and thicker than the Air. The Air has better battery life. But the Retina Pro has a beautiful, far crisper screen, and better graphics. No, the 13-inch Retina Pro doesn't have the workhorse quad-core processor or extra Nvidia graphics of the 15-inch Pro. It's not the same computer. But, it's not the same price, either: the entry-level 15-inch model is $700 more. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Retina for Everyone...provided you can afford $1,299 for a laptop.

Consider it Apple's version of an ultra-high-resolution ultrabook with vamped-up processing, or the thicker Retina Air you've always wanted. Is this year's version the sweet-spot compact high-end MacBook you've been looking for? So far, signs point to yes.

Josh Miller/CNET

Design: Thick Air, or thin Pro?

The newest 13-inch Retina Pro looks identical to last year's -- a thinned-down optical-drive-free variant on the thicker original 13-inch Pro -- but, it's actually even a little thinner and lighter, at 0.71 inch and 3.46 pounds versus 0.75 inch and 3.6 pounds for the 2012 model. Now, it's just as slim as its larger 15-inch cousin. It's heavier than a 13-inch Air, by about a half pound (the Air is 2.96 pounds) but the Retina Pro still has a very compact feel -- and a notably smaller footprint.

In a world of thin-and-light laptops, the 13-inch Retina Pro is decidedly heavy: the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus weighs 3.06 pounds and is just a half-inch thick, despite an even higher-resolution display. But, compared with "full-powered" laptops, the Retina Pro is definitely thinner and lighter. It's cleverly designed, too: speakers (and vents) are tucked out of sight, via nearly hidden vents on the bottom edges.

Josh Miller/CNET

The solid unibody aluminum frame and glass display are longstanding hallmarks of Apple's laptops, but this 13-inch Pro feels especially rock-solid, easily one of the best-built laptops currently made. The backlit keyboard and large, clickable trackpad are both as excellent as always, and just about identical to what you find in the MacBook Air.

Yes, the Retina Pro is not Air-light. But it slides into a bag and feels suitably compact, and takes up relatively little space. It's compact enough for my needs.

Josh Miller/CNET

Retina Display: No longer unique, but still great

Last year, the 2,560x1,660-pixel 13.3-inch Retina Display was the highest resolution you could get in a 13-inch laptop. What a difference a year makes -- suddenly, Windows laptops such as the Toshiba Kirabook and Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus are approaching and exceeding those resolutions, copying Apple's playbook. The Kirabook's 13-inch display is 2,560x1,440 pixels, and the Book 9 Plus is 3,200x1,800.

Apple Macbook Pro 13-inch (October 2013) Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)
Price $1,499 $1,399 $1,099
Display size/resolution 13.3 -inch, 2,560x1,600 screen 13.3-inch, 3,200x1,800 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen
PC CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4250U
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1GB Intel Iris Graphics 1749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1024MB Intel HD Graphics5000
Storage 256GB SSD 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system OS X Mavericks 10.9 Windows 8 (64-bit) OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4

Both of those laptops start at $1,299 and $1,399, respectively. The Kirabook comes with twice the RAM and flash storage (8GB, 256GB) versus the Retina MacBook Pro for the same price; the Ativ Book 9 Plus comes with the same 4GB RAM and 128GB SSD for $100 more. Both of those systems are thinner, lighter laptops, but also run less powerful ultrabook-optimized Core i5 processors.

But enough of the nit-picking. The point is, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display matches the territory in terms of price. And the Retina Display, the same as last year's, looks just as good.

The improved color quality and finer detail are worth the upgrade for photo-editing or any sort of graphics work. Apple's operating system and all of its current apps take advantage of the Retina Display to optimize text and graphics, usually to the tune of making everything crisper and better-detailed versus expanding screen real estate. You can, however, adjust to make for more desktop space (and smaller icons and text) in system settings. Windows 8 laptops can do the same: tile-based Windows apps scale nicely to higher-res displays, and using "desktop" mode gives you extra space.

Retina-level resolution in a laptop isn't an essential difference-maker, but it's absolutely an upgrade, if a subtle one at times, from whatever you may have been using otherwise. The 227 pixels per square inch amount to, if nothing else, a lot easier-on-the-eye reading clarity.

Josh Miller/CNET

Ports: Nearly everything...except Ethernet

One of the big advantages to the Retina Pro over the 13-inch MacBook Air is its plethora of ports: two USB 3.0, two faster-throughput Thunderbolt 2 ports, an SDXC card slot, and even HDMI. The Air lacks the extra Thunderbolt port and HDMI.

A physical Ethernet port is still an unfortunate and intentional omission. We're in an age where wireless is clearly the way to go -- and with upgraded 802.11ac wireless built-in, you're only a compatible router away from greatness. If you really need hard-wired Ethernet, a USB (or Thunderbolt) adapter is sold separately.

The new Pro also has improved dual microphones and an improved-light-sensitivity 720p FaceTime camera for Web chats -- welcome improvements for this type of premium product.

Configurations and storage

The 13-inch Retina Pro starts at $1,299, and you get standard-for-an-ultrabook specs: 128GB of flash storage, 4GB of RAM, and a 2.4GHz dual-core fourth-gen Core i5 processor.

Increasing storage means buying Apple's next step-up model, which costs $1,499, bumps the RAM to 8GB, and storage to 256GB. That's the sweet-spot level most people will want -- and, considering how hard it is to upgrade RAM and storage on these slimmed-down Retina Pros, you'll want to consider this choice quite seriously. That's the review model we have at CNET.

For a little more, the $1,799 model has a bumped-up 2.6GHz Core i5 processor and increases storage to 512GB, and that's the only way to get up to 512GB. RAM and processor can be bumped up on any model, to get to a faster Core i5 or dual-core i7 processor, or to get up to 16GB of RAM. A new top-level of 1TB of flash storage is now on tap, at a lofty $500 extra. With all bells and whistles purchased, you could max out the 13-inch at $2,699 -- but, at that point, you might as well get the 15-inch Pro and its better quad-core CPU and Nvidia graphics.

Josh Miller/CNET

Performance: Better than Air, better than last year