November 6, 2012

The Retina MacBook Pro 13"

Here’s your one-line review: Don’t buy this computer.

I initially had the same impression as Marco: A MacBook Pro with a similar size to a MacBook Air, but featuring a faster processor and a Retina screen, at the cost of only 0.5 lbs of weight and a few millimeters of thickness. There’s a significant price tag for this, but it’s worth it, right? No.

I upgraded from a Mid 2011 MacBook Air to the Retina MacBook Pro 13" and have been using it for about a week. The problems are starting to sink in.


I use my Mac for mostly web browsing, email, Xcode, Aperture, various music apps, and occasionally some light Photoshop work. The Retina MacBook Pro 13" has an Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipset, which is rather underpowered. Given my workload, I didn’t think this would matter for me, but I was wrong: It turns out this machine can’t smoothly scroll media-rich websites like The Verge without noticeable choppiness. As someone who spends much of his day trying to optimize scrolling performance on iOS devices, it hurts to see laggy scrolling on my Mac. Even though it’s not that bad, it’s simply not what you would expect from brand new hardware.

Screen Size

While the Retina screen contains something on the order of a trillion pixels (or so it feels like), the effective screen size is actually smaller than the 13" MacBook Air. The effective size of the 13" MacBook Air is 1440x900, whereas the Retina MacBook Pro is 1280x800. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, it isn’t, but it does make a difference. Since the Retina is – well – Retina, text is so much sharper and it’s easy to drop font sizes down to make up for the lack of screen space, but this only works if you’ve got good eyes.

It’s possible to run the display in different scaled modes for “more space”, and this is actually a good solutions for apps that are not yet Retina-ready. The small size of the UI elements hides their blockiness, and it’s wonderful to have a 1680x1050 sized screen crammed into a 13" screen. Unfortunately, running in any scaled mode has the hallmark fuzziness you’d expect from using a display at it’s non-native resolution. The tininess of the of the pixels helps hide this at the maximum scaled resolution, but it still feels wrong to me.

While the smaller effective screen size in normal Retina mode something you can adjust too, it feels like a downgrade.

Battery Life

I was blown away by the battery life in my MacBook Air 13". I would easily get 5+ hours of normal usage, and it felt like more. Because of the faster processor, I expected the battery life of the MacBook Pro 13" to be a little worse, but not by much. Apple seems to keep bending the laws of physics to get more and more battery life out of every new generation of machines. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the MacBook Pro 13".

In my daily usage, the battery life falls short of the MacBook Air by roughly 2 hours. It’s hugely noticeable, and made worse by running the display in any of the “scaled” options. Again, this feels like a downgrade.


All these shortcomings are in service to the bigger picture, the Retina display. And my, what a display it is. It really is beautiful to see all your icons and text rendered with impossible sharpness. When you look at it, it seems obvious that you’re looking at the inevitable future of all displays.

Which is why, unfortunately, I’ll be returning mine.

A $500 premium on the future makes sense, but the other trade-offs required just aren’t worth it right now. That’s not to say they won’t be in the future. In fact, I expect the Retina MacBook Pro line to turn out much like the original MacBook Air. The original MacBook Airs, while tiny, had terrible performance problems. They couldn’t play fullscreen flash video without stuttering or crashing. But Apple did what they always do – they iterated. They knew what they were building had a futuristic quality to it, and must be made better. And now, a few generations in, the MacBook Air is the machine of choice for most people I know, including myself.

I look forward to the next generation of MacBook Pros, but this one just isn’t for me, nor is it something I can see myself recommending to others. Roll on, Apple.

Update: Ars Technica reports that Apple has released a software update which improves scrolling performance, one of my gripes.