13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display Review: The Almost Perfect Laptop  

Is Apple's latest laptop the perfect blend of performance and portablity?

Nov. 29, 2012 — -- I own a lot of gadgets, but the most used gadget in my arsenal? A 13-inch MacBook Pro laptop. Some will find that shocking: Why don't you own a MacBook Air, which you have said time and time again is the best laptop to date? There's one reason: more horsepower.

I have always needed more computing strength than the Air can provide -- I run a lot of programs on my laptop, at times do heavy photo and video editing, and I also run Windows 7. All of those demand a lot of RAM (the Air comes with 4GB) and a full voltage processor. But, of course, for that internal muscle I have given up the Air's thinner and lighter build and longer battery life.

But Apple's latest laptop -- the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display -- promises to put an end to my constant search for outlets and heal my aching shoulder. It is billed as the best blend of both the Air and the Pro, with both higher performance parts and an insanely-high resolution display. It's almost perfect. (Almost. The starting list price is $1,699; I'll gripe about that later.)

Thin, Aluminum Design

Those who have used a MacBook Air will not be impressed by the 3.57-pound, 0.75-inch-thick 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display -- at least not with the lid closed. But those who have dragged around a 13-inch MacBook Pro will oh-so-appreciate the difference. It's lighter on a lap, lighter in hand, and much lighter in a shoulder bag.

No, it's not as thin as the Air, but without an optical drive, it is much thinner than the 13-inch Pro. Apple also made more room for two USB 3.0 ports, two ThunderBolt jacks, an HDMI socket, and an SD card reader. What is missing is an Ethernet port -- something I actually missed when at the office. Apple offers a Thunderbolt to Ethernet adapter for $29.00.

The laptop is made from the same DNA as the rest of Apple's laptop family. Its aluminum-unibody build is still tough and extremely sturdy. You'll still want to think, though, about investing in a sleeve or cover to make sure it's protected from nicks and scratches in a bag. (Trust me, it's not something worth learning the hard way.)

Under the lid you'll find a glorious display (more on that in a minute), a chiclet keyboard, and a wide trackpad. The backlit keyboard and trackpad combo are exactly what you get on other Macs -- they are comfortable and easy to break in. The pad deserves special attention. It is still by far the best made on any laptop today and is ultra-responsive to swipes, taps and gestures.

An Eye-Popping Display

And now to that screen. No, it doesn't claim to be the highest-resolution display on any notebook -- the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is better -- but it's still damned impressive. Retina Display is in the name of the product and it's for good reason -- the 2560 x 1600-resolution screen is sharp, crisp, clear, and any other word you can think of to describe a piece of glass that makes text and images look so high-quality.

As I said in the reviews of the 15-inch version, it ruins other computer screens. Every time I went from looking at the 13-inch Retina display to my 21-inch, 1080p external monitor my eyes would have to adjust; just as you have to adjust to the winter or drinking soy milk -- it isn't pleasant. The only problem is that content and apps that aren't optimized for the higher-resolution screen look bad. Real bad. For instance, in Twitter, which still hasn't come out with a optimized app in the Mac Store, text looks grainy. Same goes for Firefox.

Powerful Insides

The screen is only one reason to upgrade, though. The rest happens inside. My review unit's 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid state drive all pushed Apple's Mountain Lion operating system along with multiple apps open, including Photoshop, Microsoft Outlook and Word, Tweetdeck, GarageBand, and others. Thanks to the 128GB flash drive the laptop also starts up in just 15 seconds and resumes from sleep almost instantly.

But while the drive is fast, 128GB of space means it is also limited. My MacBook Pro has a 500GB hard drive and I never worry about having to offload photos or video. This wouldn't be such a big deal if upgrading weren't so much extra. Moving up to a 256GB drive costs $300 -- raising the price of the laptop to $1,999. I'll come back to the price soon, but I have to wonder why Apple hasn't made a move to put its Fusion Drive, which blends flash and traditional, large hard drives, in the 21.5-inch iMac in a laptop.

The battery life on the laptop was impressive, especially coming from my 13-inch Pro. When looping an HD video, the laptop lasted almost seven hours (six hours and 56 minutes to be exact). I didn't have to charge the laptop until I was three quarters of the way through my workday. Speaking of the HD video, the laptop plays back HD video very smoothly, and while it doesn't have Nvidia's higher-end graphics, the Intel graphics were just fine for my needs.

Bottom Line:

I would say the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina is the absolute perfect laptop for me if it weren't for the storage size and the price. $1,699 is a lot of money to spend on a laptop, and then, if I want to get the larger drive I am looking at almost 2 grand. In many ways, the 15-inch version is a better deal -- for $2,199 you get better graphics and a faster quad-core processor.

But, of course then I wouldn't get the trimmer dimensions of the 13-inch version, which is more important to me. Which is why, even with those sacrifices, I'll likely be making the Retina MacBook the most used gadget in my arsenal when my current Pro is on its last legs.