MacBook Pro Retina review (15in, 2.3GHz, nVidia, late 2013)

Last month we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch, in its latest Retina-display guise. The original Retina laptop can be seen as the pinnacle of modern portable computing, and this year’s gentle upgrades to the processor, wireless and storage add some very welcome improvements.

The main processor is from Intel’s Haswell series, which introduces a major step change in battery economy. Wireless data now takes the 802.11ac draft protocol which increases throughput to around 500 Mb/s with more consistency performance at longer ranges, and the flash storage is now PCIe-connected to break through the SATA Revision 3 bottleneck.

The first sample to land in the test lab was the entry-level 2.0 GHz model with Intel Iris Pro graphics. Next up: the more fully featured ‘best’ model with 2.3 GHz Haswell-generation Core i7 and additional nVidia GeForce GT 750M graphics processor.

See also: Which MacBook and our MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, 2.3GHz Late 2013) nVidia: Hardware and features

Both models share the same construction and feature set, and differ only in type of processors, and storage and memory quotas. There’s the same incredible 2880 x 1800-pixel IPS display, configured in HiDPI mode to look like the 1440 x 900 layout of every 15-inch MacBook Pro since 2006.

Ports around the chassis are the same: two Thunderbolt 2, one USB 3.0, audio headset jack with Toslink digital audio, and MagSafe 2 power connector all to the left.

On the right side is another USB 3.0, an SDXC card slot and HDMI video output. Apple’s specs now list the HDMI port as capable of 4096 x 2160 resolution at 24Hz, which would indicate a true HDMI 1.4 spec at last for an Apple computer.

Our tests couldn’t confirm this though, as our 2560 x 1600-pixel display was resolutely stuck at 1920 x 1200 despite using a High Speed HDMI-rated cable. We tried with two monitors, in fact, a Dell U3011 and ViewSonic VP2770-LED, neither of which would run at native resolution, in either OS X 10.9.0 nor Windows 7 Ultimate SP1.

There’s a hefty premium on this top model over the entry-level £1699 Retina MacBook. The extra £500 still buys you an Intel quad-core processor with built-in Iris Pro graphics and 6 MB of L3 cache. But baseline clock speed is raised from 2.0 to 2.3 GHz. Instead of 8 GB of low-power DDR3 memory, there’s 16 GB; and also doubled is the solid-state storage, from 256 to 512 GB.

For professional users and well-heeled gamers arguably the biggest justification for the top-spec Retina MacBook Pro is the discrete nVidia GPU with its 2 GB of video memory. As with the original Retina MacBook and previous Unibody models, these graphics are configured to automatically switch depending on loaded applications. You could also set only nVidia high-power graphics to be used (System Preferences/Energy Saver and deselect ‘Automatic graphics switching’); or use the gfxCardStatus menu app to manually lock Intel graphics on.

For many users the ‘low-power’ Intel integrated graphics will prove quite sufficient, making the upgrade to nVidia machine less justifiable. In our tests, we found Intel Iris Pro could keep up with nVidia GeForce when playing games at standard screen resolutions. And in fact, Iris Pro could be faster.

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, 2.3GHz Late 2013) nVidia: Performance

Playing Batman: Arkham City at 1280 x 800 resolution, Intel’s graphics averaged 63 fps at both Medium and High detail settings, while nVidia’s graphics lagged slightly at 60 fps. Raising the output resolution to 1440 x 900, nVidia barely crept ahead at 52 versus 51 fps.

Using the Unigine Heaven OpenGL benchmark, the two graphics solutions effectively tied at 28.6 and 28.5 fps (1440 x 900, Medium), the tenth of a frame per second in Intel’s favour.

Only when we tried Cinebench could we see nVidia convincingly pull ahead – and then only in the new R15 revision of the rendering app. Using Cinebench R11.5 both graphic chipsets recorded results of 44.9 fps; but the latest R15 build showed a convincing lead of 53.5 against 28.0 fps.

For lovers of peace and quiet though, do note that running the Intel Iris Pro graphics means louder fan noise. The integrated graphics run hotter than nVidia’s and introduce clearly audible noise throughout most gameplay.

Cinebench’s single- and multi-core CPU tests showed around a 10% improvement in point scores for the 2.3 GHz chip, compared to the cheaper 2.0 GHz Retina laptop. So where the latter scored 115 cb points with one core and 564 points in multi-core mode, the 2.3 GHz notebook hit 126 and 623 cb points respectively.

That 10% increase in performance score was echoed by Geekbench 3 tests too, which rose from 3148 and 12,306 points, to 3461 and 13,571 points (single/multi mode results). The last figure here of 13,571 points is the highest score we’ve ever seen from a Mac notebook. But Intel’s fourth-generation of Core-series processors is all about extracting raw performance at lower clock speeds, rewarding us with cooler running and longer battery life. Last year’s best Retina MacBook with an Ivy Bridge chip was clocked at 2.6 GHz, which may be 13% faster yet it only scored 12,670 points here.

Battery life was very good for the new 2.3 GHz nVidia-equipped Retina MacBook, if unsurprisingly a little short of what we measured from the 2.0 GHz model.

Where the base model ran for 8 hour 14 minute in our standard rundown test (looped MPEG-4 film played wirelessly from NAS with screen at 120 cd/m2), the faster laptop expired half an hour sooner at 7 hour 46 minute. In this test the nVidia graphics are not engaged, but remember there’s twice the system memory to power up alongside the faster-clocked main chip.

OUR VERDICT

Apple’s ‘best’ configuration MacBook Pro with Retina display of late 2013 sees the reintroduction of a discrete graphics processor, now removed from the entry-level model. This will be useful for some OpenCL-based professional applications as well as when connecting multiple monitors. For more modest requirements, including gameplay, there’s less pressure to go discrete though. To save some cost, and potentially benefit from longer battery life, you can always split the difference in price and configure the entry model with the memory or storage of the nVidia MacBook.

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