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

Thanks to new Intel CPUs and upgraded components, the 15-inch MacBook Pro remains a high-end favorite.

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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 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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9 min read

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.

Apple_Macbook_Pro_15_35781448-4070.jpg
8.3

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013)

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.

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.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display 2013 hands-on (pictures)

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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).

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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

In our benchmark testing, you can rightly expect the high-end configuration supplied by Apple to perform extraordinarily well. Some of our tests, including Photoshop and iTunes, display a natural OS X bias, but in each of the tests, it excelled, with the exception of a single-app Photoshop test, which suggests that program may not be fully optimized for Mavericks yet. In hands-on use, it felt just as fast as the original model, which is to say this is more than enough power for even heavy multitaskers, video editors, and photographers. The scores reflect a modest to medium jump in most cases over the 2012 version of this system, as seen in the charts below. However, true power users are no doubt waiting for the $2,999-and-up Mac Pro desktop, which will be available in December 2013.

Upgrading from last year's Nvidia GeForce 650M to the newer 750M is a great excuse to fire up a few games on the MacBook Pro, especially as it's easier than ever to be a Mac gamer. Steam, GOG.com, and other game distributors have robust Mac sections now, and Windows games are being ported to OS X within months, not years.

Both BioShock Infinite and Metro: Last Light, excellent 2013 PC games, are available on Macs now, although in somewhat limited versions that cap the graphics options and resolutions, preventing them from truly showing off what the MacBook Pro can do. Diablo III allows you to fully crank up the resolution to 2,880x1,800, and the game ran with settings maxed at about 23 frames per second. Dropping the resolution to 1,968x1,230 (a 16:10 resolution close to 1080p), the game ran at 44 frames per second.

Our old Mac standby, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, ran at 35 frames per second at the highest detail settings and full 2,880x1,800 resolution. The game ran at 81.2 at a more reasonable 1,680x1,050 resolution. Last year's Retina MacBook Pro ran that test at 70.8 frames per second (1,680x1,050) and crashed at the higher resolution.

Josh Miller/CNET

One of the main reasons moving to the current generation of Intel CPUs is important is because of the improvement to battery life, always a key factor in a laptop. Apple promises 8 hours from this system, and last year's model ran for a bit under 7 hours. The summer 2013 MacBook Air -- the first Haswell MacBook -- exceeded Apple's own estimates in our tests, running for more than 12 hours. Our 15-inch 2013 MacBook Pro fell right in between those two numbers, running for 9:52, which is especially impressive for a 15-inch laptop.

Conclusion

If you like the idea of investing in a higher-resolution laptop, and can live without an optical drive (a concession that seems more reasonable every day), the updated 2013 version of the Retina MacBook Pro, especially in its 15-inch incarnation, remains an irresistibly powerful yet reasonably portable laptop.

This has been a year of incremental, and mostly internal, upgrades for Macs, from the Air to the iMac, but a handful of price cuts to base models help the entire line from feeling too stuck in time. The only really "new" Mac coming this year is the Mac Pro desktop, which is far from a casual/consumer machine, but will be idolized by anyone interested in technology design and aesthetics.

Its $2,599 price is a major hurdle (as is the $1,999 base model), but there is no other laptop this year (or last) that combines powerful components, design, display, and flexibility quite like the MacBook Pro.

QuickTime iTunes Multimedia Multitasking test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013) 46Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, June 2012) 97Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013) 110Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, October 2012) 193Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) 211Alienware 14 257Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus 438
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, June 2012) 119Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, October 2012) 186Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013) 192Alienware 14 199Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013) 244Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus 248Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) 333
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013) 60Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, June 2012) 64Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, October 2012) 68Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013) 73Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) 82Alienware 14 92Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus 119
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

HandBrake test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013) 177Alienware 14 180Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013) 445Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus 506Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) 532
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance

Call of Duty 4 (Retina comparisons; in fps)

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013); resolution tested at 1,680x1,050 81.2Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, June 2012); resolution tested at 1,680x1,050 70.8Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013); resolution tested at 1,440x900 34Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, October 2012); resolution tested at 1,440x900 25.5
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) 865Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013) 782Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (October 2013) 592Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus 509Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (15-inch, June 2012) 419Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-inch, October 2012) 417Alienware 14 233
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

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

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013)
OSX 10.9 Mavericks; 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-4258U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM ; 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; 1,749MB (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; 1,024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with 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
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 4700MQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M; HDD#1 256MB Lite-On SSD HDD#2 750GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital

Apple_Macbook_Pro_15_35781448-4070.jpg
8.3

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2013)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Battery 9
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