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Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display review

£1699 inc VAT

Manufacturer: Apple

Our Rating: We rate this 4.5 out of 5

Retina display is the main draw for the Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display, although few notebooks could compete even if Apple hadn't put a country light year between its laptop and the complacent competition with a class-defining display.

It was inevitable that the original Retina-class notebook, the 15in MacBook Pro, would be joined by a similarly bescreened 13in model.

See: more reviews of Apple MacBooks.

In the case of this 13in Retina Mac, the display’s pixel count has likewise been doubled in both directions, from 1280 x 800 to 2560 x 1600 pixels. This unlocks a HiDPI mode, whereby the desktop interface looks the same size and proportion as before, but with every element literally twice as sharp.

See also: new Macworld UK review of the 15-inch Apple MacBook with Retina display, with new benchmark tests

It’s still a reflective glass display, like the 15in Retina Mac’s screen,  yet one of the least annoying of such polished mirror-like displays. That’s thanks in part to the reduction of the number of reflective layers that sit between you and the TFT matrix. The LCD and glass are bonded as one.

This means expensive repair bills should the worst happen, but rich, saturated colours you’d expect from a gloss screen, and fantastic viewing from any angle, thanks to the in-plane switching (IPS) technology that underpins the panel.

Apple also applies an anti-reflective coating to the surface. Together, these strategies create one of very few glass screens that won’t drive you to distraction with aggravating reflections.

Apple must also be one of very few notebook designers still specifying 16:10 aspect ratio screens. This provides a much more comfortable viewing experience than the nearly inescapable 16:9 screen now used across the computer industry; fine for watching widescreen film and video, very far from optimal when trying to be productive or even just read down web pages.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina

The Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display has a glass screen but one that is relatively low in reflectivity.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: Features

The ins and outs of ports are identical to the 15in version, so we see fast USB 3.0 (times two) for desktop peripherals, as well as a formidable pair of even faster – and more versatile – Thunderbolt ports. 

Either or both of these Thunderbolt ports can be connected to external monitors or projectors. Apple says that both external screens can be up to 2560 x 1600 pixels in size, the same as the built-in Retina screen. That’s surprising given the modest integrated Intel graphics processor.

Even driving just the built-in screen, there are occasional moments when you can perceive some juddering – such as fast scrolling in Safari web browser. While this suggests that some apps’ video rendering is not optimised for perfect Retina motion, we believe this may yet be improved in forthcoming software updates.

Other I/O ports include an SDXC card slot for high-capacity flash cards, and the revised MagSafe 2 magnetic power clasp. Absent from the 19mm-thick Unibody casework are the once-standard accoutrements of gigabit ethernet and DVD optical drive.

The former can be covered by an optional Thunderbolt-to-Gigabit Ethernet Adapter (£25), while external USB optical drives – Blu-ray as well as DVD – are readily available.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina

MagSafe 2 power connector, two Thunderbolt ports, USB 3.0, headset jack and twin mics range across the left side of the Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display

Also missing in the new generation of Retina MacBooks is the comforting, slow pulsing sleep light, plus any means to physical secure the hardware. The once-ubiquitous Kensington lock slot is once again forsaken. The infrared remote receiver is also now absent.

More disappointing for bleeding-edge technology enthusiasts is the continued absence of ‘gigabit wireless’, otherwise known as 802.11ac. This is still fledgling wireless technology, although that didn’t prevent Apple from showing the industry the way before with first its early adoption of first 802.11b, and later the 11g and 11n standards that followed.

Underlining Apple’s interest in voice recognition technology, with more integration seen in the latest Mountain Lion operating system, the new 13in MacBook Pro includes dual microphones. Dual mics assists in voice capture clarity, by allowing sophisticated noise-cancellation algorithms that help remove unwanted background noise.

These mics are sited on the left flank now, just in front of the single headset jack that replaces separate audio-in and headphone-out sockets on earlier models. Still present is the useful Toslink digital audio output, available through the centre of the 3.5mm combo jack.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: Weights and measures

At less than 19mm thick, and 314mm by 219mm in plan view, the 13in Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display remains very much a portable notebook. Not only ultraportable, we’d venture, but appropriate for the Ultrabook category that Intel invented to sell more processors to Windows laptops makers.

The Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display weighs just 1.64kg – a most modest mass that notably undercuts the 2.06kg of the ‘classic’ 13in MacBook Pro Unibody design.

The latter, like its even chunkier 15in counterpart, remain in production; perhaps to satisfy those that need more expansion and upgrading options, as much to help those with smaller budgets.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: Processor and memory options

In contrast to the 15in Retina MacBook Pro, the 13in model loses out on a quad-core Intel processor. Instead of 2.3GHz or 2.6GHz Core i7 chips, the smaller notebook is fitted with either a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5; or optionally and for an extra £160, a 2.9GHz Core i7. Both options are dual-core with Hyperthreading to present four virtual cores to the software.

Memory is not so customisable. Where the 15in can have either 8GB or 16GB of DDR3L RAM – albeit totally upgradeable after purchase – the 13in is only available with 8GB of 1600MHz memory. This again may push those who demand more, up to 16GB of memory, toward the 15in option.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: What’s in store

Flash storage is the present as well as the future, the logical choice for a high-performance notebook that’s been shrunk to 19mm thin.

Apple starts with a relatively small 128GB SSD as standard for £1449, with a 256GB SSD model costing £1699. Doubling that 256GB to 512GB adds £400 to the price; maxing out to 768GB results in a 13in Retina portable that costs £2499.

Like memory, storage upgrades on the new MacBooks are not supported; unlike the soldered memory though, there may be scope for third-party flash cards to upgrade the new-style storage.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: Power

Higher performance and a multi-megapixel IPS display results in increased drain on the (non-replaceable) internal battery. To this end, the 13in Retina MBP packs several lithium-polymer batteries, amounting to a 74Wh.

That's up from the 63.5Wh of the non-Retina model but well short of the massive 99Wh pack fitted to the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display and its 45W TDP quad-core processor and two graphics processors.

Apple once again lists 7 hours of wireless web battery life, the same figure cited for all its Mac portables now.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: Performance

We tested battery life first, using the industry-standard MobileMark 2007 test in Windows 7.  Apple lists 7 hours of wireless web battery life, the same figure cited for all its Mac portables now. We saw a usefully extended runtime of nearly 9 hours (524 mins, Productivity test). It’s possible that Mac users may benefit from even longer than that figure.

Still in Windows 7, we tried our nearly retired real-world benchmark suite WorldBench 6, and here the Retina 13in reaped a tidy 152 points.

PCMark 7 gave us a headline suite result of 4596 points, putting performance firmly into the premier league; the standard MacBook Pro 15in (Mid-2012) with quad-core processor but hard-disk storage scored 2697 points, for example.

Windows gaming tests showed a typical result that we see from other Ivy Bridge chips with Intel HD Graphics 4000 driving the screen – with 29fps averaged in both the old FEAR test at Maximum detail, and Hard Reset running at 1280x800 with High detail.

In short, overall system performance is very far from wanting, and all still backed up with fantastic battery life.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display: The Caveats

Lest we give the impression this is the perfect – if pricey – notebook, we should reiterate some of our misgivings about this undoubtedly advanced example of precision computing hardware.

Apple has always promoted the complete user experience, rarely acceding to the usual Windows PC industry way of bolting together computers. And that in-house ecosystem philosophy is evident when it comes to upgrading system components. 

In the past Macs have been relatively easy to upgrade – the usual points of storage capacity and memory at least. In fact, some Macs we’ve seen, such as the Mac mini, have been engineered to have the easiest memory accessibility imaginable, such as popping off a large plastic hatch on the underside.

Other times, we’re frustrated by non-standard parts, such as the custom hard disks now required to repair recent iMacs.

Now we are finding some of the latest Apple high-tech hardware has reduced upgrade options to effectively zero. The trend may have started outside of Macintosh with Apple’s smartphones and tablets, but is now filtering across to the workhorse Mac computers too.

The 13in Retina MacBook Pro has RAM chips soldered to the logic board, and uses proprietary flash storage modules. Its lithium-polymer batteries don't pop out if you can get the baseplate unscrewed – they're epoxied to the chassis. All this is sealed down with tamper-discouraging pentalobe screws.

For future expansion of this 13in Retina MacBook Pro, you’re now limited to whatever can be adapted to work with USB or Thunderbolt ports. 

And the move to super-thin construction also carries security issues. If you want to ensure your precious isn’t swiped from your desk when you turn your back, you will need to wait first for some innovative third-party to come up with a locking system to replace the classic Kensington lock slot, now that the slot itself has been swiped by Apple. 

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina display Expert Verdict »
Apple MacBook Pro MD213B/A 13" Retina Display Scores 9.0 out of 10 based on 1 review
2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M
Intel HD Graphics 4000
13.3in (2560 x 1600) IPS display
Apple OS X 10.8.2 Mountain Lion
256GB SSD
8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM
ethernet and FireWire 800 via Thunderbolt adaptor (not included)
HDMI and DisplayPort/Thunderbolt video out
dual-band 802.11a/b/n 3x3 MIMO Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.0
1Mp FaceTime HD webcam
stereo speakers
headset jack with mic in and Toslink digital output
2 x USB 3.0
2x Thunderbolt
MagSafe 2 power connector
SDXC card slot
glass buttonless multi-touch, 105 x 76mm
iLife ’11 software
60W with MagSafe 2 connector
74Wh non-removable lithium polymer battery
313 x 219 x 18.9mm
1640g
  • Build Quality: We give this item 10 of 10 for build quality
  • Features: We give this item 9 of 10 for features
  • Value for Money: We give this item 6 of 10 for value for money
  • Performance: We give this item 8 of 10 for performance
  • Overall: We give this item 9 of 10 overall

The essential specifications of the 13in Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display closely follow the groundbreaking original 15in version. Reduced size here necessitates integrated-only graphics, as well as a more efficient dual-core rather than quad-core processor. But this choice of components really delivers, and crucially in a state-of-the-art 13in notebook that takes the second-finest laptop display money can buy – beaten only by the 15in Retina model of the Apple MacBook Pro.

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