MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display (Late 2012) review

4 out of 5
£1500 (as tested)

For

Screen, design

Against

No discrete graphics

When Apple launched the MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display the industry crowned it one of the best laptops on the market, with a screen that was stunning. Here at Pocket-lint we had equal praise, saying:

"Once again, Apple has developed a machine that's both beautifully designed, technologically advanced and expensive enough to be considered only by those who have to have the best of the best. We love it though, and so will you."

And we added:

"The MacBook Pro with Retina display is comparable to Apple’s MacBook Air from 2008. Apple uses this to show what it can achieve, and what is in store for the future. There is no doubting that within a couple of years the screen technology seen here will be the de facto screen technology on the entire MacBook range."

READ: Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch review

Now, five months on, the second laptop with a Retina display is available, but does the success continue?

Design

It looks like a MacBook Pro as you would expect, but it has been shrunk, gone on a diet, and lost a couple of things along the way.

The first thing you'll notice is that the MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display has ditched the optical drive. Yep that's right Apple is almost completely disc-less now and while you can still get an optional DVD drive to plug in, Apple thinks - and we agree - it's time to ditch physical media. 

The removal of the DVD drive, as you can imagine, has had a huge impact on the size of the computer. It's smaller, thinner and lighter now, although it's still slightly thicker and heavier than the MacBook Air.

In real terms you'll get a 1.62kg laptop that measures 19mm x 314mm x 219mm. Compare that to the non-Retina version which comes in at 2.06kg and 24mm x 325mm x 227mm. It's also not too far off from the size specs of the MacBook Air either; 1.35kg and 17mm x 325mm x 227mm.

Aside from the obvious size and weight differences, the MacBook Pro keeps the same design ethos we've seen before. It's clad in aluminium, has a backlit island keyboard, and large glass trackpad. Likewise there is no way to get into the laptop to change the battery and you can't upgrade the memory either. What you buy is what you get.

Connectivity

With no optical drive we are treated to a bevy of new ports split unevenly down both sides of the laptop left and right.

On the left you get Apple's newer MagSafe 2 power socket - that's important because without an adapter you won't be able to use your old MacBook Pro power pack - two Thunderbolt ports which can run at speeds up to 10 Gbps, a USB 3 port and a headphones socket.

On the right you get a further USB 3 port, HDMI port, and the faster SDXC card reader.

Firewire and Ethernet users worried their favourite ports have now been ditched, needn't be - you can get an adapter that fits the Thunderbolt port to fix those shortcomings. It's all about adapters with Apple these days, which will add some expense to the cost of buying one of these machines. 

The arrangement of the ports fixes any previous of overcrowding and those still using Mi-Fi dongles will be pleased to hear that doing so doesn't wipe out all other connectivity options.

Inside connectivity includes Wi-Fi b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.0. There is no built-in SIM slot - something we've been requesting for a long time, but something that still falls on deaf ears.

Horse power

What you could always be sure of in the past with the MacBook Pro range was that you were getting something that was suitable for even the most demanding of professions. Apple goes some way in doing that in this Mac, but falls short of what we have come to expect from the Pro range.

The model we've had on test for review is the entry level model that costs £1,449 and includes a 2.5Ghz dual-core i5 processor (Turbo boost up to 3.1Ghz) with a 3MB shared L3 cache and 8GB of RAM. The laptop comes with 128GB of flash storage and is powered by Intel's HD Graphics 4000 processor. Pay £1,699 and you'll 256GB of flash storage.

Further upgrades at the ordering process include beefing up the processor to a 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor and boosting the storage capabilities up to 756GB. Do so and the price skyrockets, in the UK, up to £2,659. That 756GB drive alone adds a cool £800 to the price tag.

The big issue here is that there is no discrete graphics card to take over the heavy lifting when you really need it, and that you can't upgrade to 16GB of RAM either, something which high-end machines should offer. For the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, discrete graphics were provided by Nvidia; here, you get the integrated Intel graphics processor and nothing else.

All that performance - or lack of it, in some cases - means that while you can happily do photo editing on this machine without the fan kicking in and the system going crazy, operations like high-res video editing or playing games just aren't as practical, and that's something we've never said about a MacBook Pro before. 

Going Retina

As the name suggests, the MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display comes with a 13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit display with IPS technology with a maximum resolution of 2560 x 1600 at 227 PPI when in Retina mode.

While the pixel-per-inch count is higher than the 15-inch Retina display model, the resolution is less on screen (the 15-inch is 2880 x 1800).

In reality when set to the "best" or Retina screen mode everything is incredibly crisp but a little big if you've been using a MacBook Air. You can play with the display settings within the OS X Mountain Lion operating system to deliver 1440 x 900 resolution which will give you more "stage" on which to work, but reduce the crispness of the screen. Furthermore you can go even higher to make the screen act like a 1680 x 1050 resolution one, but again you pay with a further loss of Retina quality. 

In real terms that means you can't, as with the 15-inch model, edit 1080p video at full resolution and still have space around it for the editing tools.

Now it is fair to say that doing that might not be high on your list of priorities, but Apple has sacrificed the additional power to create something that is lighter and smaller and while we can see that fitting the bill for most people, we aren't too happy about it.

Get past the limitations of the screen and its quality is still fantastic. When apps are optimised for the Retina screen the difference is clear, just in the same way it is if you've used a new iPad compared to the iPad 2 or original model. Yes you can live without it, but it is hard to go back once you've experienced it.

Even up close you will struggle to spot the gradients in fonts. 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.

Retina apps and surfing the web

There are a growing number of apps that now support the Apple Retina display, and we've already seen that number increase from the introduction of the 15-inch model in June. All Apple apps for Mountain Lion are Retina-ready, for example, as is Microsoft Word, some of Adobe's software and other apps from smaller developers.

Where you won't get to benefit as much as you might like is on the web. While text renders beautifully, if a website has poor quality or small images you'll notice.

Battery

All this power can take a toll on the battery life. Surfing the web or doing minimal tasks and you’ll be fine. We’ve been getting just over six hours of battery life in our tests using Wi-Fi to surf the web, write this article, and do basic chores including watching some videos. Ask it to do more demanding things, and the battery performance will drop.

Verdict

There is no doubting that the MacBook Pro is a lovely machine. For day-to-day tasks it breezes by with little sign of effort, while still being light enough to take with you on the road. However, as soon as you start doing any real heavy lifting it will start to struggle, which makes us question the "Pro" label.

What doesn't help the Pro is that the 13-inch Air is just SO good. In our testing during this review we've found the Air does a very good job of keeping up (for clarity it is a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 with 4GB RAM).

READ: 13-inch MacBook Air review

Had Apple branded this new laptop as merely the new MacBook, this review would have been very different, the exclusion of a discrete graphics card wouldn't have been a issue. But Apple isn't selling this as a beefed-up Air, it is selling it with the Pro moniker, and while it could be seen to be merely semantics, we feel it's important.

As a MacBook Pro we worry that this won't be powerful enough for you; as a MacBook Air it's a lot fatter and heavier for a device that doesn't give you much above and beyond what the Air delivers. That leaves us wanting more from the MacBook Pro 13-inch, and suggests that if you want real power you'll have to go for the much larger 15-inch model.