Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch full review

When portability is more important than ultimate performance, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the tool for the job

When portability is more important than ultimate performance, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is the tool for the job. At less than 1.6 kg we’re in true ultraportable territory, except unlike the majority of Windows Ultrabooks, build quality, performance and battery life are all first-class.

Update: Apple unveiled new MacBook Pro models at its 9 March 2015 press event. For more details, take a look at our New 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (early 2015) preview.

The price of entry has been reduced significantly, perhaps a sign that Apple is pinning more hopes on the popularity of the 13-inch Retina model. When first launched October of last year, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display started at £1449. This was reduced to £1399 a few months later when the range received a running processor upgrade. Now the UK price is a much more compelling £1099 for the first of three models that are now available.

In the new 2013 entry-level model, you get a dual-core Intel Core i5 running at 2.4 GHz, with 4 GB of memory and a 128 GB solid-state drive. The middle version usefully steps up memory to 8 GB and doubles storage capacity to 256 GB, all for the price of £1249. And the top £1499 model keeps that 8 GB memory, doubles again the flash storage to 512 GB, and sees a modest processor lift to a 2.6 GHz Core i5.

If you’ve been following the specs to date, you’ll note that today’s Intel processor looks to be slower – down from the mid-season 2.6 GHz and even the original launch spec of 2.5 GHz. Don’t be fooled by these numbers though, as gigahertz alone tells you as little about real performance today as it did during the Intel vs Motorola megahertz wars of the 1990s.

See also: Retina MacBook Pro review and and ourMacBook Air vs MacBook Pro review

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

If you really want to max out the top 13-inch model, you can specify some additional configure-to-order possibilites: a 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 (still only dual-core but with 4MB of cache) for an extra £180; 16 GB memory for a somewhat usurious £160; and 1000 GB of flash storage for another £400.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch (Late 2013): Build and design

As far as even the trained eye is concerned, nothing has changed for the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (Late 2013) from the outside. Except for some tiny laser-etched labelling on the underside that now reads A1502 instead of A1425.

We have the same exterior design as the original, a beautiful unibody chassis just 18 mm thick – rigid, exceedingly tough feeling and impeccably finished in satin sand-blasted aluminium. High-quality touches abound – from a closed position, if you lift the lid there’s just enough resistance to hold it steady at any angle, but not so much that the main body tries to rise up as you open the display.

The Apple backlit keyboard now so widely copied by others is improved over earlier unibody MacBook Pros, such that light bleed through the sides of keys is greatly reduced. And that keyboard is one of the best in the business, with very short travel keys that we found made typing comfortable and nearly effortless.

By referencing the screen in its very name, the real differentiator of this MacBook is still of course the display. This looks to be the same as that in last year’s model, an IPS panel with bonded front glass, treated with a reflection-reducing optical finish. It’s native resolution is 2560 x 1600, and Apple sets a HiDPI mode in OS X so that the Mac interface is rendered like 1280 x 800 pixels. That’s a comfortable arrangement, although you can also tweak to other virtual resolutions, namely 1024 x 640, 1440 x 900, and 1680 x 1050. 

Note that the aspect ratio is still the arguably the best for laptop productivity and comfort, 16:10 ratio rather than the 16:9 screens that most other laptops use, hand-me-downs from the telly industry.

This year’s model is around 220 g lighter than the last at 1.56 kg (compared to 1.62 kg), a saving probably achieved by reducing the battery capacity slightly, from 74 to 71.8 Wh.

There’s the same selection of ports around the chassis, with Thunderbolt now at version 2. Unfortunately the HDMI output looks to be set to the older HDMI 1.2 standard or below as we still couldn’t get any better than 1920 x 1200-pixel output through this port. This won’t be an issue when connecting to full-HD televisions or projectors, but it does mean you need to use a valuable Thunderbolt port to connect a high-resolution monitor with, eg, 2560 x 1600 display.

See also: 

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Not sure which Mac to buy? Read our Which Mac buyers guide

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch (Late 2013): Performance

From the range of three 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina models, we were loaned the ‘Best’ off-the-shelf edition with 2.6 GHz Core i5 and 8 GB of memory.

Last year’s model ran cool and ran quiet – this year’s MacBook with Haswell processor even more so, as we barely heard a peep out of the cooling fan with its asymmetric blade array, except during the graphics tests.

In Geekbench 3, this 13-inch scored 3113 points in the single processor test. For context, that’s within 5 percent of the result of last year’s ‘Best’ 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which averaged 3254 points.

In the full multi-processor test of Geekbench 3, this new model scored 6719 points, showing clearly it has two physical processor cores rather than four – the same 15-inch with its quad-core chip and Intel Hyper-Threading technology managed 12,670 points.

We ran some professional CAD benchmark tests for interest, even if most designers would probably be looking at a quad-core laptop with discrete graphics. 

Cinebench R12.5 reported 25.7 fps in its OpenGL test, and 3.13 and 1.30 points for multi- and single-core CPU performance respectively. That suggests a multi-processor speed-up of 2.4x above the single-core result.

The latest Cinebench R15 returned results of 22.0 fps for graphics, and 281 and 113 cb units for CPU tests, making a 2.47x speed up.

Improved graphics performance is one of the key changes for the Haswell processor line. Unlike the 15-inch MacBooks that offer switching graphics processors to balance performance with battery economy, the 13-inch model cannot accomodate the extra graphics chip and its associated heat output, so relies soley on Intel integrated graphics. But will it play games?

The answer is yes, if perhaps not so resoundingly so as we found with 21.5-inch iMac and its Intel Iris Pro solution. The 13-inch MacBook Retina has Intel Iris graphics which can use 1024 MB of system memory, not to be confused with the Iris Pro graphics which as well as running at a higher clock speed than previous generations, also includes its own dedicated DRAM to accelerate performance.

Nevertheless, these regular Intel Iris graphics proved capable of playing the Batman: Arkham City benchmark at an average of 31 fps at High detail using the screen’s ‘native’ resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. Reducing detail to Medium actually changed little, rewarding us with an average of 32 fps.

In the tougher Unigine Heaven test using that app’s OpenGl rendering mode, the Intel graphics did struggle to hit a smooth 25+ framerate – we saw an average of 21.4 fps using 1280 x 800 and Medium detail settings.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch (Late 2013): Screen

Using an IPS panel alone in a laptop is cause for celebration. This technology means we can expect very wide viewing angles and richer, more accurate colours than cheaper TN screens.

But when that screen includes twice the resolution in both axes as the familiar 1280 x 800 size, we hit a pixel density of 227 ppi that makes individual pixels invisible to the eye at reading distances. And even close up, in fact, you’ll be straining to see the matrix of dots that makes for fuzzy text and graphics on standard screens. 

We found this panel to be better than most twisted-nematic designs, but not markedly better under lab measurement. It could cover 98 percent of the simple sRGB gamut, and 69 and 75 percent of NTSC and AdobeRGB.

The contrast ratio was around 550:1 at comfortable midrange brightness settings, rising to 610:1 at its brightest (292 cd/m2). Colour acuracy was a very good average of just 1.44 Delta E.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch (Late 2013): Staying power

Mobile computing today is all about battery life. Winners are now found not by which computer runs fastest or hottest, but which one is still running at all after a day’s work away from the mains.

Apple quotes ‘up to 9 hours’ of wireless web or iTunes film playback. And we’re also told its changed its test methodology, setting screen brightness to 75 rather than 60 percent. And in our experience, the company does not needlessly exaggerate its figures just to snare customers as we see so often from Microsoft’s PC hardware partners.

So it was with high hopes that we put the 13-inch through our battery test procedure: playing an MPEG-4 high-definition film on loop, streamed wirelessly from NAS, with screen brightness set as close as we could to 120 cd/m2. For this model of MacBook, that’s 11 out of 16 steps from the OSD.

Set up thus, the 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina lasted just shy of 10 hours – 9 hrs 55 mins in fact. Do note that real-world should allow longer runtimes, as our test procedure includes no natural pauses – and this is where new power savings are made in both the new Haswell chipset and in the OS X Mavericks operating system.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch (Late 2013): Quick as a flash

The least obvious change for the 2013 Retina MacBook Pro has been saved for the storage technology. Just as with this year’s MacBook Air revision, these notebooks now make use of PCIe-connected solid-state drives. 

So now the flash storage technology bypasses the usual Serial ATA interface entirely to use PCIe (dubbed ‘SATA Express’ in some circles), rewarding with potential power savings through less electronics, and with faster data throughput. And not just a little bit quicker – in our tests, significantly faster. 

Connected to a traditional SATA Revision 3 bus, the best SSDs can return sequential read speeds up to around 550 MB/s. We tested with QuickBench and saw reads of up to 795 MB/s, and writes not so far behind at 745 MB/s. And importantly, small random file transfers were extremely quick: 19 and 67 MB/s respectively for 4kB random reads and writes. Those are single-threaded operations, as unfortunately we couldn’t measure higher queue depths with our current OS X tools.


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