Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display (late 2013) review

The MacBook Pro is Apple's top-of-the-line laptop computer and one that comes with plenty of power. It's available in two versions: the 13-inch and 15-inch, both of which can offer Retina display - as in this model on review - and a powerful spec sheet if you are happy to add a little weight to your bag over the MacBook Air. Is that extra baggage and cost worth it, or should you plump for the higher-spec device?

There's also the question of power between smaller and larger devices. The 15-inch can be fitted out with more powerful graphics, whereas the latest 13-inch Retina display models starts and ends with Intel Iris. Does it really make sense in the face of the Air?

Design

In short the new MacBook Pro looks the same as the last couple of models from Apple with some small tweaks to make it even lighter and thinner. The laptop carries the same signature Apple silver aluminium metal finish, the same backlit Chiclet keyboard and the same lovely-to-use glass trackpad.

The new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro model is now 18mm thick and 1.57kg in weight compared to the 19mm and 1.61kg weight found on the 2012 model. You won't notice it in the real world, but it's there, and that's progress.

READ: MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display (late 2012) review

In comparison the MacBook Air is sloped from 3mm to 17mm and weights 570-grams less, at roughly 1kg dead. The Air is also slightly wider. Only you will know if you are happy carrying the extra weight in your bag, but the difference is now a lot less than it used to be when the Air first came out and the MacBook Pro was the big and heavy one.

As before the MacBook Pro design is sealed shut - there are no real options for private upgrades, so we would suggest making sure you get the best specs to suit you and your growing needs rather than thinking about doing it later. If you do that you'll end up forking out for a brand new Mac, nice though that is (except on the wallet). We always follow the rule of get the setup that you can afford at the top of your budget, as it will last you longer that way.

Screen

The MacBook Pro Retina displayis packed full of pixels. In real terms you get a maximum resolution of 2560 x 1600 - which is 227ppi - from the display, which is the very same as last year's model.

The screen is almost like an enlarged 13-inch equivalent of the Retina-flavoured iPad devices, such as the 9.7-inch iPad Air. In its MacBook Pro form it's lovely to enjoy.

READ: Apple iPad Air review

There is one difference to before, though, and that's time. A year in with the Retina display and the 2013 MacBook Pro doesn't have the issues with apps and jaggy views in some software that was an issue before. Most major apps have upgraded, while the Mavericks operating system looks great.

Even up close you will struggle to spot the gradients in fonts thanks to that crisp resolution. But it isn’t really just about making your fonts look prettier, this is a laptop designed for photographers and videographers looking to work in the field and wanting the resolution to make work both easier and more accurate. There's enough resolution, for example, for video editing at native 1080p while leaving enough additional space around the preview for your editing tools. It's Pro by name and pro by nature.

Power

The main shift in the 2013 MacBook Pro is the interior architecture. Welcome Intel Haswell, which drives forth not significantly better performance, per se, but better power performance. Intel's processor better graphics via Intel Iris and, the crux of it all, better battery life than ever before.

Combined with Mavericks it means we've been getting a good day's worth of battery from a single charge and while the system doesn't last as long as the MacBook Air - something probably to do with the increased screen resolution the Pro has to power - it's nonetheless still very good.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is available with a 2.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 2.9 GHz, 4GB of memory, 128GB of flash storage for £1100.

For an extra £150 there's a with an 8GB of memory and 256GB of flash storage option or, top of the off-the-shelf pile, is the £1,500 2.6Ghz model with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of flash storage. It's this top-spec model that we've been testing out for this review, as that's what Apple sent on over for the loan.

If you'll be chopping up masses of big files then that extra flash space might be more useful than you'd think, but it doesn't come in cheap. If you are happy to configure it further and have it delivered rather than just walking out of the shop there is an even beefier version which comes with a dual-core Intel Core i7 processor up to 2.8 GHz with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.3 GHz, up to 16GB of memory and flash storage up to 1TB. Pop all that in and you're looking at £2,239.

Beyond those core specs Thunderbolt 2 has now been included, which is said to bring a solid speed increase to accessories - 20GB/sec of bandwidth is what Apple claims, compared to the 10GB/sec found on the 2012 edition. We don't have any Thunderbolt 2 devices so will just have to take Apple's word on that for now, but it does mean you would be ready to output to a 4K display in the future.

Wi-Fi has also been boosted in the 2013 version. The latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi brings faster speeds and ranges than the 802.11n Wi-Fi found in the 2012 MacBook Pro. It also means that you can be further away from the base station, handy if you like working on the sofa and your router isn't in your lounge. It's also incredibly handy if you are working a lot with streaming content as the transfer speeds are faster.

As you know we don't benchmark here at Pocket-lint, there is no point boring you with performance percentages that are a fraction faster than last year's model - you'll never run both side-by-side in the real world anyway. Instead we use products like real people, just as we did here. We found that our test MacBook Pro was nippy, handled graphics applications like video and picture editing well and did every job that we threw at it. It does what it sets out to do and feels like a pro bit of kit.

The 13-inch isn't as powerful as the 15-inch model with its discrete graphics, but we get the feeling the world has moved on from demanding that a 13-inch MacBook Pro is expected to be as powerful as the 15-inch model. And if not then this model, it seems, will never be for you and you'll be disappointed this trend has continued here.

Mavericks and apps

The new operating system from Apple comes installed as standard. The latest OS brings with it some nice new features, especially if you are going to be connecting this laptop to multiple screens, which you might well be.

READ: Apple OS X Mavericks review

The overall improvements Mavericks brings may appear seemingly invisible at first to those not yet used to it, but run much deeper and will make a huge difference in daily use. Overall it's all about the battery boost too which, paired up with Haswell, is fantastic here.

You'll also get free copies of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote alongside the usual array of Apple software like iPhoto, Maps, iBooks, Mail, Safari and more. Gmail users need not fret any more either as there's been an upgrade to fix initial hiccups.

READ: Rejoice: Apple releases crucial OS X Mavericks Gmail update 

That said there have been plenty of acknowledged issues from the OS including problems with Quick Look and more specifically to the MacBook Pro issues with the trackpad and keyboard locking up. Apple has now issued fixes for most of the major known bugs so you should be okay here and smug in the knowledge that waiting a couple of weeks after launch date has saved you any potential pain and hassle.

Verdict

The question here isn't whether the MacBook Pro is better than the 2012 model or whether it stacks up against the 15-inch version - which has also recently upgraded to include the intel Haswell processor - but whether it makes more sense than a MacBook Air.

It's a tough decision. Both devices just work, and effortlessly, which is pretty much a given. Compared to the Air the Pro offers a better screen and the potential for more power. The payoff is that you'll get shorter battery life and a heavier product, and it's still not as graphically astute as its 15-inch brother.

The crux really is likely to come down to how much travelling you do. If you are on the road without easy access to power then you should stick with the Air. If this is a laptop for the home and little else, you'll enjoy the power the Pro brings and the screen resolution too, knowing full well that a power socket is never that far away.



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