Once you see it, it's hard to go back to any other screen. That's the way the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display makes you feel. Everything else is second best -- with the exception of Apple's higher-res 15-inch version. For $1,699, or $500 less than the flagship MacBook Pro, you get double the pixels of an HDTV inside a machine that's just as thin but faster than Ultrabooks. Still, this premium cousin to the regular 13-inch MacBook Pro (the No. 1 seller in the U.S.) costs more than the Ultrabook competition and $500 more than the 13-inch Air. Let's find out if Apple has done enough to tear you away from your run-of-the-mill screen for good.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is remarkably thin and light for a notebook with a full-voltage Core i5 processor under the hood. At 3.57 pounds and 0.75 inches thick, this machine is 20 percent thinner and nearly a pound lighter than the regular 13-inch MacBook Pro (4.5 pounds, 0.95 inches). The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is also about a pound lighter than the 15-inch version and has a smaller footprint (12.4 x 8.6 vs 14.1 x 9.7), which makes it more travel-friendly.
Clad in aluminum and sporting the same classically beautiful silver-and-black aesthetic as other MacBooks, the 13-inch Retina feels rock-solid and meticulously crafted. Everything from the magnetic latch on the front lip of the laptop for lifting the lid to the way Apple uses the intake vents on the bottom to pump out audio tells you that Apple's perfectionist design sense is still very much intact.
No, it's not as high-res as the 15-inch Retina MacBook's 2800 x 1800-pixel screen, but the 2560 x 1600-pixel display on the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro still beats the pants off of any Windows notebook and has a slightly higher pixel densitry (226 vs 217 PPI) than its big brother. When reviewing photos we shot at Apple's iPad mini launch event, we could easily discern which shots of CEO Tim Cook were in focus in iPhoto's thumbnail views, saving us lots of time. At full screen, you can see a lot more detail without having to zoom in, a boon for photo editors as well as video editors. When we loaded a 2048 x 1536 image of a Lion (natch) we could make out fine scars on his nose, details we initially missed on the 13-inch MacBook Air's 1400 x 900 screen.
The Retina Display on this MacBook Pro makes everything look crisper, from text on websites such as NYTimes.com to the icons on the dock and in Launchpad. But this screen's resolution is only part of the story. It offers superior color saturation and contrast, along with 178-degree viewing angles.
When we viewed the same HD "Skyfall" trailer on the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and Air side by side, the Air's picture had whiter whites, but overall we much preferred the image on the Pro. The skin tone in Daniel Craig's face looked warmer, and the black levels were much darker. Apple claims the Retina Display reduces glare by 75 percent versus the regular MacBook Pro. Sure enough, we could easily see our work sitting next to a window on a flight with sunlight streaming in.
In terms of brightness, the 13-inch Retina Display averaged 313 lux, which is a good deal higher than the Air (268 lux) and the category average (233 lux), but falls below the ASUS Zenbook UX31A's average of 423 lux, as well as that of the ASUS UX32VD (368 lux) and the Dell XPS 12 (434 lux).
Apple optimized its own apps for Retina Displays back when the 15-inch MacBook Pro launched, and they're all here, too, from Mail and Safari to Keynote and Aperture. You'll also find enhanced third-party apps in the Mac App Store, with 39 choices and counting. But this is just a curated list of recommendations. There are more than 200 choices available. Some of the better options include Real Racing 2, Parallels, Sketchbook Pro 6 and Pixelmator.
We don't expect full-bodied sound from a 13-inch notebook, but this MacBook's four speakers offered loud and rich audio in our tests. We could easily hear Sublime's "What I Got" from across our hotel room, with warm gravelly vocals you would expect to hear out of a premium stereo. Alex Care's "Too Close" got loud enough to disturb fellow passengers on a flight -- even over the din of the cabin. Distortion didn't prove to be an issue, even at max volume. Similarly, we enjoyed booming explosions and crystal-clear dialog when watching the "Skyfall" trailer.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The typing experience on the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is very similar to the 13-inch Air. The layout is spacious and offers solid tactile feedback, but it's clear Apple sacrificed some travel to achieve a slimmer design. As with other MacBooks, the little raised ridges on the F and J keys help you position your fingers correctly for touch typing, and the backlighting is bright and even across the layout. You'll also find dedicated keys for adjusting everything from the the display brightness to controlling media playback, as well as shortcut buttons for Mission Control and Launchpad.
The large 4.1 x 3-inch glass trackpad on this MacBook is just as smooth and reliable as all the others we've tested. The pad executed multitouch gestures flawlessly and provided a satisfying click when pressed.
The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro uses asymmetrical fans to help keep this notebook cool under pressure. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad was a temperate 82 degrees and the space between the G and H keys was 92. The middle of the underside averaged 93, but the area towards the hinge reached 97. We consider anything above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable. We could feel this part of the notebook getting warm, but not enough to bother us with the machine in our lap.
As you might expect for a design this svelte, Apple gave the DVD drive the old heave-ho for the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. You also won't find an Ethernet port (which some may miss) or FireWire. But Apple has your high-speed transfers covered with two Thunderbolt ports on the left side along with a USB 3.0 port and headphone jack. The left side also houses dual microphones to minimize background noise when video chatting. An SDXC Card slot, full-size HDMI port and second USB 3.0 port line the right side. Our only quibble is that memory cards stick out of the side of the system when inserted.
According to a caller, the 720p FaceTime HD camera in the 13-inch MacBook Pro delivered sharp visuals and good colors during a FaceTime call. However, when looking at an image of ourselves, we noticed a little bit of noise in the image.
The flash memory inside the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro literally gets it off to a blazing start, as it took only 12 seconds to boot OS X Mountain Lion. That's slightly faster than the speediest Windows 8 notebook so far, including the Sony VAIO Duo 11 (13 seconds) and Dell XPS 12 (15 seconds). The screen pops back to life in about a second when you open the lid.
Unlike Ultrabooks that use low-voltage processors, this MacBook features a full-voltage, third-generation 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5 CPU. Apple also includes a robust 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory and the aforementioned 128GB of flash storage. These components combined to pace this notebook to a Geekbench score of 6,760. That's more than 1,000 points higher than the ultraportable category average.
The Dell XPS 12 (1.7-GHz Intel Core i5-3317U CPU, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD, Intel HD 4000 GPU) scored a lower 6,043, and the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX32VD (1.9-GHz Core i7-3517U, 4GB RAM, 7,200-rpm 500GB, Nvidia GeForce GT620M) notched 6,860. It's not an Ultrabook, but the 13-inch Toshiba Portege Z935 (2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-3210M processor, 6GB RAM, 5,400-rpm 640GB hard drive) outpaced the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with a score of 7,040.
By comparison, the latest 13-inch MacBook Air registered 6,141 on Geekbench, but the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro nearly doubled the 13-inch version's performance with a score of 11,049 (aided by its quad-core CPU and Nvidia graphics).
One the CPU portion of the Cinebench test, the 13-inch Retina Pro scored 2.82 points, better than the 2.09 turned in by the Air but again behind the 15-inch Pro's 6.12 points. The XPS 12 got 2.38.
This is definitely one of the fastest solid state drives we've tested. The flash storage inside the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display took just 26 seconds to duplicate 4.97GB worth of files, which translates to a transfer rate of 195.7 MBps. That blows away the XPS 12 (149.7 Mbps) and VAIO Duo 11 (145.4 MBps) and is way above the 65 MBps average.
The Intel HD 4000 graphics inside the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is certainly capable, but it's not blazing. On the OpenGL portion of the Cinebench test, the system scored 16.79 fps, again between the MacBook Air (10.39) and 15-inch Retina Pro (33.4). The Dell XPS 12 mustered 14.64 fps, and the Z935 scored 15.85.
Other 13-inch notebooks that are as portable as this MacBook offer discrete graphics, such as the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD. That Ultrabook's Nvidia GPU scored 26.41 fps on the same OpenGL test.
On "World of Warcraft," this system averaged 36 frames per second with the resolution set to 1432 x 894, and the graphics on autodetect. (That's the closest resolution to 1366 x 768 we use when testing other notebooks.) When we increased the resolution to native (2560 x 1600), it dropped to an unplayable 21 fps.
By comparison, on these same settings, the XPS 12 averaged 38 fps at 1366 x 768, and 14 fps at 1080p. The ASUS UX32VD averaged an excellent 98 fps at 1366 x 768, and 62 fps at 1080p.
The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro packs a 74-watt-hour battery that's rated to last 7 hours on a charge. In the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi with the display set to 40 percent brightness, the notebook lasted 7 hours and 38 minutes. That's more than an hour longer than the ultaportable average (6:21), and longer than many Ultrabooks. The HP Envy Spectre XT (6:17) and ASUS UX31A (6:28) fall more than an hour short.
Anecdotally, we used the notebook with Wi-Fi on almost continuously starting at 10:22 a.m. ET before boarding a flight from San Francisco to New York. At 5:32 p.m., on our car ride back home from the airport, the laptop said we had about 15 minutes of juice left, or 5 percent. If you eliminate the 40 minutes or so we couldn't use electronics during the flight, that still works out to well over 7 hours of runtime.
Other ultraportables last longer, including the 13-inch MacBook Air (8:12) and Toshiba Portege Z935 (8:10), but overall the latest MacBook Pro offers plenty of endurance given how many pixels this display is pushing.
Software and Warranty
Apple's Mountain Lion software runs the show on this MacBook, which brings a lot of the features people like about iOS to the Mac. These include a Notification Center, from which you can send Facebook and Twitter updates. There's also an iPad-like Launchpad where you can see all your apps and Mission Control for seeing all of your open programs on one screen.
Mountain Lion also leverages iCloud to keep your Apple devices in sync, from Tasks and Notes (both of which have dedicated apps) to documents and contacts. You can also send messages for free to iPhones, iPads and iPod touches via the Messages app. Of course, this MacBook also includes the latest versions of iMovie and iPhoto for editing pictures and videos, as well as Garageband.
Thousands more apps are available through the Mac App Store, including many that have been enhanced for this notebook's Retina Display.
Apple backs this laptop with a one-year warranty and 90 days of free 24/7 tech support. See how the company fared in our Tech Support Showdown and Best and Worst Brands Report.
The starting $1,699 configuration of the 13-inch MacBook Pro features a 2.5-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, 128GB of flash storage and Intel HD 4000 graphics. Upgrade options include a 2.9-GHz Core i7 processor for $200 and up to 768GB of flash storage ($1,300). Upping the storage to 256GB costs $300. Apple doesn't offer additional RAM options.
While $1,699 is a premium price, it's important to note that you're only paying $200 more than you would for a similarly configured MacBook Pro without Retina display.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a lot like the iPhone 5. Apple took a winning formula and perfected it by making it thinner, lighter and faster. But in this case the display isn't bigger. It's a quantum leap better than the regular MacBook Pro and other ultaportable notebooks. Are all of these improvements worth $500 more? We say yes. Getting this much visual detail and responsiveness in something you can take anywhere has absolutely spoiled us.
However, $1,699 is a lot to spend on a notebook with integrated graphics, especially when other 13-inch notebooks offer discrete GPUs for less. For everyday use, Apple's $1,199 13-inch MacBook Air continues to be our top pick. It's not as powerful and its display seems almost ho-hum compared to the latest Pro, but it offers longer battery life than in a slimmer and lighter design. While it's not a good choice for gamers, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display delivers a near-perfect balance of performance and portability.