Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13-Inch, 2014) Review

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Pros: Excellent design; Long battery life; Strong performance; Loud speakers; Free iLife and iWork

Cons: SD Card sticks out; Graphics performance not better than the MacBook Air's

Verdict: Apple's refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display offers a boost in performance and endurance over last year's model.

Apple's midyear refresh of its 13-inch MacBook Pro brings with it an updated Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM -- twice that of last year's model -- for the same starting price of $1,299. This ultraportable still features a stunning Retina display, solid aluminum design and world-class keyboard. How much improved is it over last year's model, and how does it compare to the $999 MacBook Air? Let's find out.

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Design

If it ain't broke, then why fix it? The Pro's all-aluminum design has remained virtually unchanged since it was introduced in 2012. It looks great and feels sturdy, but I wish that Apple would start playing around with some new ideas.

At 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71 inches and 3.46 pounds, the Pro is thin and light enough to carry around in a messenger bag, but isn't as svelte as the 3-pound, 2.8 x 9 x 0.11-0.68 inch MacBook Air.

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Other Windows systems are also lighter and thinner, such as the Dell XPS 13 (3.3 pounds, 12.4 x 8.1 x 0.7 inches) and the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (3.2 pounds, 12.6 x 8.8 x 0.54 inches). The Gorilla Glass-bedecked Acer Aspire S7 is larger but lighter, at 12.72 x 8.78 x 0.51 inches and 3.0 pounds.

Display

Apple was the first to usher in Retina-level displays, and the 2014 MacBook Pro delivers more of the same (good) thing with its 13-inch 2560 x 1600-pixel panel. However, other notebook makers have followed suit and, in some cases, surpassed Apple. The Acer Aspire S7, for instance, has a 2560 x 1440p panel, and the Samsung Book 9 Plus has a 3200 x 1800p display. The Dell XPS 13 sports a 1920 x 1080p screen.

At 286 nits, the Pro is dimmer than the XPS 13 (356 nits), but brighter than the average of 251 nits and the Samsung Book 9 Plus (213 nits).

Based on our measurements, Apple's notebook is capable of displaying only 87.3 percent of the sRGB color gamut. Although that's higher than the ultraportable average of 67 percent and the Air's 63.3 percent, it's lower than the Acer S7's 98 percent.

The 13-inch Pro's color accuracy beats that of its closest competitors. The Mac's Delta-E score of 2.3 (numbers closer to 0 are better) is much better than the average of 6.5, as well as the Acer's 6.1. The Air came close, at 2.5.

Having a Retina or Retina-like display is only useful if you have apps that can take advantage of those HD+ resolutions. About 260 apps in the App store are Retina-enabled, according to Retinamacapps.com.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Same as before: The MacBook Pro's keyboard and touchpad continue to deliver one of the best typing experiences ever on a notebook. You'll enjoy snappy feedback from the backlit layout. I also continue to love the smooth, accurate trackpad. This is one thing I hope Apple never changes.

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Audio

The MacBook Pro is not only loud -- 92 decibels, crushing the average of 83 dB -- but as accurate and enveloping as before.

While bass was on the thin side, the guitar riffs and Dee Snider's vocals on Twisted Sister's "I Am (I'm Me)" rocked out on the ultraportable. Nico & Vinz' "Am I Wrong" also sounded great -- the instruments seemed to float around the Mac, and voices came through clearly.

Heat

After I streamed a video from Hulu at full screen for 15 minutes, the Mac's touchpad was a relatively cool 81 degrees; here at Laptop Mag, we consider anything higher than 95 degrees to be uncomfortable. The middle of the underside and the space between the G and H keys were slightly warmer, at 92 and 93 degrees, respectively, but the back edge of the notebook was a hot 99 degrees.

Ports and Webcam

The MacBook Pro features two Thunderbolt 2 ports, which promise up to 20 Gbps transfer speeds -- four times faster than USB 3.0. Because compatible Thunderbolt accessories aren't exactly ubiquitous, you can use the MacBook Pro's two USB 3.0 ports. Also included are an HDMI port, a headphone jack and an SD Card reader. I really wish the cards would insert fully, instead of protruding from the side.

Performance

The 2.6-GHz Intel Core i5-4278U and 8GB of RAM in the MacBook Pro offers a modest bump in performance from last year's version.

On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, the 2014 MacBook Pro scored 6,730. That's about 500 points higher than last year's model, and higher than the category average of 4,079. The Dell XPS 13, Acer Aspire S7 and Samsung Book 9 Plus, all of which have an Intel Core i5-4200U CPU, all scored lower, at 5,153, 5,101 and 4,150, respectively. The MacBook Air's 1.4-GHz Core i5-4260U processor earned it a score of 5,393.

MORE: Best Mac Apps 2014

On Laptop Mag's productivity test, the 2014 MacBook Pro paired 20,000 names and addresses in 3 minutes and 20 seconds. That's three times as fast as the category average (10:18), and about 2 minutes faster than the Samsung Book 9 plus (5:13), the XPS 13 (5:20), the Acer S7 (5:15) and last year's MacBook Pro (5:02). Only the Air, at 3:46, came close.

The 128GB flash memory in the MacBook Pro was fast, but not the speediest we've seen. It duplicated 5GB of multimedia files in 27.4 seconds, for a rate of 185.7 MBps. That's plenty faster than the average (112.2 MBps), as well as the XPS 13 (145 MBps) and the Book 9 Plus (127.2 MBps). However, the Pro was outpaced by the Acer S7 (196 MBps), the MacBook Air (190.3 MBps) and the older MacBook Pro's 256 flash memory (299.4 MBps).

Graphics

The Intel Iris graphics in the MacBook Pro aren't exactly discrete-level in terms of performance, but they do provide an extra bit of oomph compared with most other integrated GPUs.

On the Cinebench OpenGL test, the Pro's score of 21.33 edged out the Air's score of 18.47.

The MacBook Pro took 2 minutes and 12 seconds to transcode a 1080p 205MB video trailer to 720p in iMovie after applying the Dream effect and using the Enhance tool -- that's 16 seconds faster than last year's model. However, the 2014 MacBook Air, which has Intel 5000 Series Graphics, also took just 2:12. The 13-inch Pro was still twice as slow as last year's 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (and Nvidia graphics), which took just 1:06.

Using the Fotor app, we then batch-applied several effects (Scenes: Auto; Effects: Lomo; Borders: Soft Haze) to 102 photos. The MacBook Pro took 1 minute and 7 seconds, while the Air took 1 minute and 17 seconds.

In our World of Warcraft test, the MacBook Pro averaged 31 fps with the resolution at 1280 x 800p and the effects on Max. That's the same as last year's 13-inch MacBook Pro and slightly better than the Air (28 fps), but significantly higher than the Book 9 Plus (19 fps), the Acer S7 (21 fps) and the XPS 13 (24 fps) with the resolution at 1366 x 768p.

At 1440 x 900p, the Pro averaged 46 fps with the effects on Good, and 28 fps on Max settings. That's the same as the Air (46/28 fps) at those same settings.

At its native resolution (2560 x 1600p), the MacBook Pro averaged 22 fps with the graphics on Autodetect. That's marginally better than the 20 fps of the older MacBook Pro, but still below our playability threshold of 30 fps. At its native resolution of 3200 x 1800p, the Samsung Book 9 eked out 24 fps.

Battery Life

On the Laptop Mag Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi at 100 nits of screen brightness), the MacBook Pro lasted 10 hours and 44 minutes. That's about 2.5 hours longer than the ultraportable average (8:44), but falls short of the Dell XPS 13's 11:26 and the MacBook Air's extraordinary 12:20.

On an older version of our battery test (Web surfing at 40 percent brightness), last year's MacBook Pro lasted 9:31, and the Acer Aspire S7 lasted 6:44.

MORE: 10 Laptops with the Longest Battery Life

Software and Warranty

The two things I particularly like about Macs is their complete lack of bloatware, as well as the fact that Apple includes its iWork and iLife suites for free.

Soon, you'll be able to enjoy OS X Yosemite, which will make it easy for you to take calls from your iPhone on your Mac, or continue typing a message on your iPhone or iPad that you had started on your laptop (and vice versa). These and other so-called continuity features will make Apple's devices play more nicely together. We also like the cleaner interface of Yosemite, as well as the upcoming iCloud Drive for storing your files in the cloud.

Configurations

A $1,499 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has the same processor and RAM, but a larger 256GB drive. A $1,799 version has a faster 2.8-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.

The $1,299 and $1,499 models can be upgraded to a dual core 2.8-GHz Intel Core i5 processor for $100 and a dual-core 3.0-GHz Intel Core i7 processor for $300. An extra 8GB of RAM (for a total of 16GB) will set you back $200.

If you opt for the top-end model, you can select a dual-core 3.0-GHz Intel Core i7 processor for $200, 16GB of RAM for $200 and 1TB of storage for $500.

Bottom Line

Once again, Apple delivers an exceedingly well-rounded notebook in the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. This 2014 update brings improved performance and battery life over last year's model, and starting at $1,299, it's expensive, but not outrageous.

For me, though, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a bit of a tweener. It's not as portable or long-lasting as the $999 MacBook Air, and it's not that much faster. On the other hand, the 15-inch MacBook Pro delivers more screen real estate and (if you splurge for the top-end model) discrete Nvidia graphics.

The choice between the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display and the Air really comes down to the screen. There's no denying the gorgeousness of the 13-inch Pro's display, which, in and of itself, may be enough to persuade shoppers to fork over an extra $300. But the Air is still our top notebook overall.

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Author Bio
Michael A. Prospero
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor
Michael A. Prospero has overseen reviews on Laptopmag.com since 2007, focusing on producing the most thorough and authoritative mobile product reviews. After receiving his Master of Science in Journalism from Columbia in 2003, Mike worked at Fast Company. Prior to that, he worked at The Times of Trenton, George and AlleyCat News.
Michael A. Prospero, Reviews Editor on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.6-GHz Intel Core i5-4278U
Operating System OS X 10.9 (Mavericks)
RAM 8GB
RAM Upgradable to 16GB
Hard Drive Size 128GB
Hard Drive Speed n/a
Hard Drive Type Flash
Secondary Hard Drive Size
Secondary Hard Drive Speed
Secondary Hard Drive Type
Display Size 13.3
Native Resolution 2560 x 1600
Optical Drive
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card Intel Iris
Video Memory
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac
Wi-Fi Model
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 4.1 x 3 inches
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) Thunderbolt 2.0
USB Ports 2
Card Slots 2-1 card reader
Warranty/Support
Size 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71 inches
Weight 3.4 pounds
Company Website www.apple.com