MacBook Pro Retina review (15in, 2GHz, late 2013)

Read our full review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display here. Also read our MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review

When you really need to get productive on your laptop, the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro (Retina, Late 2013) is the machine for you. It’s not just because the screen gives you so much more working space – there’s also the matter of thermal design, since its larger frame can accommodate more powerful processors and still run cool.

Just how productive is a moot point, since the Mac and iOS device maker is offering a 15-inch notebook – for the first time – without a discrete graphics processor. Leaving out discrete graphics may make savings in cost and heat but thanks to new hardware acceleration techniques in much professional design, graphics and video software, the GPU now plays an important role in off-screen as well as on-screen.

Every 15-inch Apple laptop since the PowerBook G4 has included either an ATI (AMD) or nVidia graphics processor. And more recently, we’ve seen low-power Intel graphics included too, with automatic switching that powers up the full-bore graphics only when relevant applications are running.

It’s still not exactly cheap, but the £1699 entry-level MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, Late 2013) relies entirely on the Iris Pro graphics solution that’s embedded within a Core i7 quad-core processor. Once a recipe for slow-motion slide shows in place of fluid gaming video, Intel’s integrated graphics may finally have come of age, if our test of the recent 21.5-inch iMac are any indicator.

The real coming-out party for Intel graphics required a crucial update from Apple though – namely the unlocking of OpenCL to work on integrated graphics processors, now enabled in OS X 10.9 Mavericks.

Note: Apple has now updated it's MacBooks for 2014, read more here:

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2GHz Retina, Late 2013): Design and build

As with this year’s 13-inch MacBook Pro update, there is essentially nothing externally new for this year’s 15-inch Apple Retina laptop. Even the battery inside remains the same too, the multiple 95 Wh lithium-polymer packs hard-glued to the inside of the chassis. Elsewhere inside is different story.

We’re focusing here mainly on the Intel-only 2.0GHz model, but design professionals may be looking further upstream to the ‘Best’ Retina MacBook which includes a 2.3 GHz Core i7-4850HQ processor, 16 GB memory and 512 GB flash storage as standard, plus an nVidia GeForce GT 750M graphics processor (reviewed here). And that model’s graphics engine now includes 2 GB of GDDR5 video memory, all for the sum of £2199.

For a pound under £1700 you’ll find the Retina 15-inch, with a 2.0 GHz Core i7-4750HQ processor, 8 GB memory and 256 GB storage – and the best Intel graphics currently available.

Like all new MacBooks, its internal updates include the Haswell processor for improved efficiency, PCIe-based flash storage, and 802.11ac wireless to improve range and throughput over Wi-Fi.

Despite the slower clock of this entry-level version – 2.0 GHz against the 2.3 GHz of the first Retina Mac, and 2.4 GHz of its February revision – this MacBook Pro does run faster than before.

In the Geekbench 3 test of processor and memory performance, it averaged 3148 points for a single thread and 12,306 points in multi-core mode. Compare this with 3124 and 12,044 points for last year’s MacBook with 2.3 GHz Core i7, and we see a inconsequential 0.8 and 2.2 percent changes.

Looking at Cinebench with its graphics rendering and CPU tests, both the familiar R11.5 and the latest R15 versions, we saw a similar fractional increase in CPU performance. Single-core mode rose from 1.28 to 1.34 points, and multi mode from 6.04 to 6.23 points in R11.5. Then it was from 108 to 115 cb points in R15’s single mode, and from 520 to 564 cb points in multi.

So generally we can expect a tiny lift in processor speed, in the order of 5 percent. That’s not much but remember: the processor is now clocked 15 percent slower than before.

Graphics performance is the more intriguing aspect of this system. We ran the rendering tests in Cinebench, using its OpenGL car-chase animation, and found some interesting answers.

In the new Cinebench R15, the Iris Pro MacBook could play at 27.5 fps. That’s unsurprisingly a step up from the 22 fps of our 13-inch sample with standard Iris graphics, but below the 40.5 fps from our Mid-2012 15-inch Unibody MacBook Pro, which has the same nVidia graphics as last year’s 15-inch Retina.

But using the older Cinebench R11.5 test, the new Iris Pro model played through with an average of 43.4 fps – faster in fact than the 31.7 fps result of last year.

Turning to Mac computer games, the Intel Iris Pro graphics also proved more effective than an nVidia GeForce 650M solution in our tests. In Batman: Arkham City, we were seeing average framerates of 50 fps from an nVidia 650M-equipped Retina MacBook Pro (1280 x 800, either Medium or High detail). The 2013 Iris Pro model played the same tests at 68 or 69 fps. Stepping up to ‘screen native’ 1440 x 900, it averaged 62 and 57 fps at Medium and High detail respectively.

The Unigine Heaven returned results similar to last year’s nVidia solution. At 1280 x 800 and Medium, for example, the Iris Pro managed 33.1 fps while nVidia 650M allowed 35.2 fps.

It was noted that Intel Iris Pro does run hotter than a discrete graphics chip. Or at least the Mac is prepared for it to do so, as we noted the fan would reach audible revs far more frequently with these integrated graphics working away.

The new storage upgrade worked very well, with top speeds on this 15-inch with 256 GB SSD around the same as the 13-inch we tested with 512 GB solid-state drive. Here we saw maximum sequential reads and writes of 791 and 751 MB/s, while small-file random reads and writes were again balanced more in favour of writing, at 21 and 55 MB/s respectively. Averaged from 4 to 1024 kB, we saw random transfer rates of 196 and 328 MB/s, these stellar results in line with those from this year’s 13-inch Retina.

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2GHz Retina, Late 2013): Battery

In the crusade against short battery life that Apple is still waging, and it must be said winning more than any other tech brand, the 15-inch also benefits from the updates to main processor and the operation system. As noted, Apple is playing modest with its runtime figures, which means you’re unlikely to be left disappointed if you heed their numbers.

The spec for all 15-inch MacBook Pro models now reads ‘8 hours wireless web’ – one hour longer than last year’s figures, and one hour shorter than the 13-inch spec. And as with the latter, we found our simple but literally exhausting looped-video test enabled a little longer, this time with 8 hrs 14 mins recorded.

OUR VERDICT

We can see why Apple decided the time was right to offer a 15-inch MacBook Pro without nVidia or AMD graphics. Intel’s Iris Pro has finally brought the kind of improvement that unlocks decent gameplay and rendering power. Power users will still be looking to the dual-graphics top model, and we’ll publish our full test of that machine shortly to see just how much difference lies between them.

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