13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (early 2015) full review
Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro has been updated with new processor chips (which improve performance and drastically improve battery life) and a Force Touch haptic trackpad. In our new 13-inch MacBook Pro review we outline all the new features, design changes and specifications, as well as the UK launch date and UK pricing, and help you decide if this is the laptop for you.
Two new Apple products dominated the company's 9 March 'Spring Forward' press event: the Apple Watch and the new, super-slim 12-inch MacBook. But there were other important announcements. For one thing, Apple quietly slipped out updates to its hugely popular and successful MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptop lines. In this review we discuss and analyse the changes to the MacBook Pro. (These changes affect the 13-inch model only, by the way, but we'll get to that in a moment.) We've also looked at the new 13-inch MacBook Air and the new 11-inch MacBook Air.
Plus: Best Mac buyers' guide 2015 and MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review, 13in Apple laptops compared and read our comparison review of the MacBook Air and the MacBook, find out which is the best lightweight laptop
Read our MacBook Pro reviews:
- Retina MacBook Pro review (15in, 2.5GHz, mid 2014)
- Retina MacBook Pro review (13in, 2.7GHz, 2015)
- Retina MacBook Pro review (15in, 2.2GHz, mid 2014)
- MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Introduction
Do not be deceived by outward appearances. You can choose any two examples of an Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display from 2012, 2013 or 2014, put them next to each other, and you will not find any material difference between them. Inwardly, though, they are more than subtly different animals.
There has been a steady evolution inside, the most significant in October 2013 when Apple slipped in an Intel Haswell processor, 11ac Wi-Fi, and a PCIe-attached flash drive. These three upgrades introduced even better battery life, improved wireless performance and a major lift in overall system speed.
There was also a trade up to Thunderbolt 2, but with the dearth of devices that can make good use of even Mk I Thunderbolt, we can write off this minor change more as 'maybe useful one day' rather than a must-have necessity.
Now in 2015 we find an important refresh that has been granted to the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro with Retina display only. The 15-inch MacBook Pro is languishing unchanged, most likely since Intel has fallen far behind in its roll-out of 14 nm Broadwell chips, and the necessary quad-core Intel Core i7 chips are still entirely missing in action.
For the 13-inch notebook, though, the processor and the storage have been most firmly bolstered, and a third and highly significant development can be found on the most intimate interface on any Apple laptop, the multi-touch trackpad.
Each of these three new changes has wrought remarkable changes to the way this notebook now feels and performs. Let's explore them further.
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Physical design and build quality
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display keeps its lightweight Unibody chassis milled from solid aluminium, and we have the same port line-up on its sides, featuring two high-speed Thunderbolt 2 ports on the left, located between the MagSafe 2 power connector and a USB 3.0 port.
On the right side is another USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, and SDXC card slot. There has been no change to the HDMI specification used here, which follows HDMI 1.4 and allows an external display up to 'UHD' (3840 x 2160 pixels) or '4K' (4096 x 2160 pixels), but only at low refresh rates of 30 or 24 Hz.
For connecting the current highest resolution display you will still need to use one of the Thunderbolt 2 ports, and ensure the screen works with DisplayPort 1.2 to enjoy 60 Hz refresh rates.
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Force Trackpad
The one physical difference between the new 13-inch Pro and the old one is the trackpad. Like the 12-inch MacBook, the 13-inch Pro gets the Force Touch trackpad, which is sensitive to varying degrees of touch pressure: you can set it to respond to harder/deeper presses to activate different features.
It also provides what is known as haptic or taptic feedback, a tangible, tactile response that in theory allows you to 'feel' what you are interacting with (rather than just the flat surface of the touch pad).
That's the theory, anyway, and Apple is likely to open up the API for this feature to developers, leading to more ambitious implementations of Force Touch functionality in the future. But at the moment the haptic element is limited to the simulation of a mechanical click when no such click is actually happening.
Standard clicks and Force Clicks
The new trackpad has a two-stage click operation - a standard light click felt when gently pressing, comparable to the standard mechanical click of the previous buttonless trackpad; and additionally, a harder-feeling click that's felt by pressing down a little deeper.
Apple calls the harder click a 'Force Click', or "a click followed by a deeper press": but really this just means a normal click only harder. The Force Click can be set to do different things in different applications, but by default it generally acts as a sort of 'look up' button - bringing up a definition of the word you Force Clicked on, for instance, or a relevant Wikipedia article summary.
Despite appearances, both the standard and Force Clicks are virtual. The trackpad surface is essentially immobile, and relies on strain gauges attached to the underside to sense light flexing. When the small ARM Cortex-M computer behind the trackpad senses your intent through the measured strain, possibly using additional data such as the 'footprint' size of your fingerpad, it will actuate a small click effect using electromagnets to create a brief impulsive shock.
From System Preferences/Trackpad you can switch on or off the secondary deep click from the entry marked 'Force Click and haptic feedback'. You can also adjust the strength of impulse on standard clicks from the 'Click pressure' slider, selecting Light, Medium or Firm.
To our touch, the latter Firm setting feels closest to the real click of the previous mechanical switch trackpads, while the Light setting especially is very delicate, yet still works consistently and provides the essential but gentle haptic feedback.
Pressure, and gestures
Beyond this, the trackpad is capable of sensing and responding to different degrees of pressure. Again, the applications for this are currently somewhat limited. In Apple Maps, varying the pressure when you click on the zoom in/zoom out buttons varies the speed of the zoom accordingly; and you can likewise vary the speed of rewind or fast-forward in QuickTime.
We said you can tinker with the click settings to a degree. But conspicuous by its absence in these OS X settings is the three-finger drag gesture, used for moving files, folders and open windows around the screen. Like the Drag and Drag Lock options that let you click on an item and move it while still holding the click, the three-finger drag option has now been strangely relegated to a setting deep within the Accessibility options of System Preferences.
We don't have suitable equipment to measure touch control interfaces, but subjectively there did not seem any more than the usual few hundred millisecond lag between touch and response in non-clicked gestures. However, we did note while comparing two-finger taps that when making a two-finger direct 'click', we had near-instantaneous response, which was a welcome improvement toward eliminating interface lag.
For example, tap lightly on the OS X desktop with two fingers, and you bring up the right-click context menu. Interface lag here is perhaps just below 500 milliseconds - half a second - between your input and the menu actually appearing. But make a taptic click with two fingers resting on the pad, and we're back to traditional real mouse-like simultaneity.
It will take some concerted retraining of muscle memory, but one of the great advantages of the Force Trackpad is the ability to make a simple 'click' anywhere across the surface of the trackpad, and not simply along the closest edge as we have been trained to do since using hinged mechanical trackpads.
In the following video we explain how the new Force Touch trackpad works, and demonstrate some of its current applications:
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Screen
The screen on the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is largely unchanged too: it's still a 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with a Retina-class resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels and a pixel density of 227 pixels per inch (ppi).
(Or you can plump for a 15-inch screen with a resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels at 220ppi. But do bear in mind that the 15-inch model is completely unchanged - the upgraded specs and new trackpad that we discuss in this article apply to the 13-inch model only.)
Above: the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro has been updated. The 15-inch model has not.
There seem to have been some tweaks to the screen, however.
We put the IPS display through a simple test to see if it may have been revised. While the manufacturer seems to be the same (unknown, but designated '610'), the model number has changed from A020 or A019, to A029.
Last time we measured the 13-inch Retina display of the MacBook Pro in June 2014, it had 91 percent coverage of sRGB, and 68 percent Adobe RGB. Today these figures have improved, to 97 and 73 percent respectively.
Contrast ratio is a trickier test but this also seemed to have improved slightly, with a maximum of 880:1 against last year's 800:1.
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Specs
But when we look inside the chassis and examine the tech specs, we find the main substantive changes. The new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro line comes with a new set of processor chips, which will offer higher potential processing speeds and (where processing speed is the limiting factor) improved real-world performance.
Specs depend on the configuration you go for, of course, and there are build-to-order options that allow great leeway in your options here. But there are three base configurations:
Base configuration 1: 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache; 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM; 128GB PCIe-based flash storage; Intel Iris Graphics 6100
Base configuration 2: 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache; 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM; 256GB PCIe-based flash storage; Intel Iris Graphics 6100
Base configuration 3: 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache; 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM; 512GB PCIe-based flash storage; Intel Iris Graphics 6100
Above: the current buying options if you want a 13-inch MacBook Pro. Note that, like the 15-inch Pro, the non-Retina 13-inch model hasn't been updated.
The dimensions and weight are the same as on the old 13-inch MacBook Pro:
- Height: 1.8cm
- Width: 31.4cm
- Depth: 21.9cm
- Weight: 1.58kg
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Performance
On paper, the specs above represent wide-ranging and significant upgrades on the previous generation of MacBook Pro.
The dual-core processor in this MacBook is now from Intel's fifth generation of Core Series chips, and is marked by a process shrink in the silicon lithography, from 22 nm used in the previous fourth generation (aka Haswell) down to 14 nm. In general, a reduction in the die size will confer the advantage of reduced power consumption, when comparing processors with the same clock frequency.
Last year, the choice of processor clock in the 13-inch model was between 2.6 or 2.8 GHz after the mid-year refresh. Today we are offered 2.7 GHz as the starting point, or 2.9 GHz in the 'best' model.
There's also a CTO option to equip it with a 3.1 GHz processor, which would make this particular MacBook the 'fastest' MacBook ever made in the range's nine-year history, based on baseline clock frequency at least. We hope to review this model soon, in particular to establish just how fast it can run in single-core bench tests.
These are all dual-core chips, chosen for their lower thermal design power (TDP) than the quad-core processors found in the 15-inch MacBook models. So while the latter use quad-core processors specified with 47 W TDP, and make use of two internal cooling fans, the 13-inch model's dual-core processor is specified at 28 W, and uses a single fan.
Besides the crucial process shrink in Broadwell, the maximum memory speed has risen slightly, from 1600 to 1867 MHz, and the 13-inch MacBook is indeed fitted with 1867 MHz low-power DDR3 RAM, once again soldered to the logic board.
In our tests of raw processor and memory speed, we found this 2.7 GHz MacBook reported Geekbench 3 results of 3326 points in single-core mode and 7100 points in multi-core mode. We don't have Geekbench figures for the comparable entry-level Mid-2014 model with 2.6 GHz processor, but the 'best' 13-inch MacBook Pro with 2.8 GHz Intel Core i5 of last year was measured with 3307 and 7086 points respectively.
In other words, today's entry-level 13-inch MacBook is fractionally faster than last year's top model (0.2-0.5 percent), despite a 100 MHz slower clock speed.
Using the Cinebench 11.5 workstation benchmark test, the entry-level 2015 MacBook showed 4.6 percent higher single-core speed and 7.0 percent higher multi-core results (1.37 versus 1.31 points, and 3.37 versus 3.15 points), compared the same entry-level MacBook of 2014 with its 2.6 GHz Haswell processor.
From the Cinebench 15 benchmark test, greater differences were measured, moving from 113 to 127 points single-core mode; and from 280 to 318 points multi-core mode. That's around 12 and 14 percent point increases.
The sole graphics processor of this MacBook is integrated into the Intel Core i5 chip, and have also been upgraded as part of the Broadwell refresh.
Dubbed Intel Iris Graphics 6100, it replaces Iris Graphics 5100, and differs with an increased number of execution units (48 instead of 40) even if its maximum clock speed has been reined in slightly, from 1200 to 1100 MHz. It is this graphics solution that also holds back decent 4K output through HDMI, with the integrated GPU stuck at v1.4 rather than the required HDMI 2.0.
Since integrated graphics rely on system memory rather than dedicated video memory, the mild increase in memory clock speed to 1867 MHz should benefit graphics performance.
In Apple's estimation, graphics performance for the Early 2015 MacBook has been increased by between 20 and 40 percent.
We put the MacBook Pro to the test in a range of demanding Mac Mac games. We found that Batman: Arkham City would now play a little more fluently at 1280 x 800-pixel resolution and Medium detail setting, at an average rate of 35 fps. Last year's entry model recorded 32 fps with the same settings, suggesting around 9 percent improvement here.
Using the Tomb Raider 2013 test, at the same settings as above the new MacBook played at just 20.4 fps - not sufficient for smooth gameplay, but a little better at least than the 14.2 fps of last year's best 2.8 GHz model
However, by selecting legacy OpenGL mode, playable framerates were available. Last year's 2.8 GHz MacBook averaged 32.1 fps here; this year's 2.7 GHz MacBook - 36.6 fps. That's a larger delta which resolves as a 14 percent increase.
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro (13 inch, early 2015) review: Storage drive
A major breakthrough was made with the 2013 generation of Macintosh computers when Apple started fitting solid-state drives to most models that connected more directly to the PCI Express bus, rather than via the Serial ATA bus. At a stroke, the top sequential transfer speeds moved from the circa-500 MB/s level that was cramping the entire PC industry, with a 50 percent hike to around 750 MB/s.
Two years later and Windows PCs are still stuck behind the SATA controller, but Apple hasn't complacently stayed with this lead. It's now made a clearer gap by doubling those breakneck speeds its flash drives already enjoyed.
This has been achieved through the simple expediency of using more PCIe data lanes, moving from two to four PCIe 2.0 channels. Note that contrary to some press reports, Apple still seems to be using the v2.0 standard and not the latest v3.0 of PCIe that is now emerging.
Not that it needs the added lift of PCIe 3.0 just yet, since the use of PCIe x 4 has already opened up speed to frankly ridiculously high levels, when compared to what even high-performance desktop PCs typically experience.
In our tests we saw average sequential read speeds of 1500 MB/s, and 661 MB/s for sequential writes. Put another way, with a read speed that can be expressed as 1.5 GB/s, the entire contents of a full DVD could be read in little over three seconds. Or around six seconds for a dual-layer disc, assuming they had been committed to the MacBook's internal flash drive first.
Maybe you prefer your entertainment in high-definition video with 24-bit lossless audio? In which case every frame of your 25 GB film extracted from a Blu-ray disc could be viewed in around 16 seconds. Just make sure your graphics processor can handle full-HD frames at a rate of 8438 frames per second.
Meanwhile, single-threaded 4 kB files could be randomly read or written at 37 and 99 MB/s respectively. Last year's model reported speeds of 23 and 69 MB/s in the same test. That's a healthy boost by 60 and 43 percent.
Averaged across files sized from 4 kB to 1024 kB, the new MacBook returned figures of 765 and 531 MB/s (last year's: 201 and 366 MB/s). Which means it can wield the tricky little files with the same lightning speed as last year's model could hit in its maximum sequential performance.
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: Battery life
One final improvement that's worth both a mention: Apple has squeezed substantially more battery life out of the new generation of 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.
This year's 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has a marginally larger battery than before, moving from 71.8 watt-hour (Wh) to 74.9 Wh. That simple 4.3 percent increase in capacity cannot alone account for the dramatic change in battery life that we measured.
In our standard battery runtime test - looping an MPEG-4 HD film in QuickTime, streamed over Wi-Fi from a nearby NAS and router, with screen set precisely to 120 cd/m^2 - last year's entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro lasted for 10 hr 7 min.
We were astounded to find the 2015 model survived our overnight test... and was still playing its film the following morning. The battery finally expired and the Mac went to sleep at 17 hr 5 min after the test started. It's a runtime figure that beggars belief, and we intend to try variations of this test to ensure we were not misled.
Our technical editor was quite pleased, although excited but hasty Twitter postings can lead to logic fail. That should of course be OR and not an AND in that expression...
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: UK release date/availability
The new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is available now. You can select a configuration and order from Apple's website - we've posted links to the base configuration options below - or visit an Apple Store or Apple reseller.
New 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review: UK pricing
The new 13-inch Pro starts at £999, but prices vary widely depending on the spec you go for. Here are the prices for the three base configurations:
Base configuration 1: 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache; 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM; 128GB PCIe-based flash storage; Intel Iris Graphics 6100. £999 - view on the Apple Store
Base configuration 2: 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache; 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM; 256GB PCIe-based flash storage; Intel Iris Graphics 6100. £1,199 - view on the Apple Store
Base configuration 3: 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz) with 3MB shared L3 cache; 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM; 512GB PCIe-based flash storage; Intel Iris Graphics 6100. £1,399 - view on the Apple Store
Visit the Apple Store to view more build-to-order options; you can configure the flash storage up to a terabyte, for instance. Select the configuration that is closest to what you want, and then pick extra RAM or whatever on the subsequent pages.