Time for a Retina MacBook Pro

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 10.30.29 PMFour months ago I posted about my “next Mac” and how I was 90% sure that it would be a MacBook Air. I don’t need a mega-powerful machine and I want something that is light and has long battery life. At the end of the post I mentioned that there was a slim chance I’d opt for a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro instead once Apple updated them with the latest hardware. Well Apple released its updates in October and they have seriously shifted my priorities.

First, the specs. I’m interested in the 13″ model so that’s all I’m going to focus on. The biggest change is the addition of Intel’s Haswell architecture and the improved graphics and battery life that come with it. The base model includes a 2.4 GHz Core i5, 128 GB of PCI Express Flash memory storage, 4 GB RAM, 802.11ac wireless, Intel Iris 5100 graphics, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports. The new model is also thinner (by a whopping four one-hundredths of an inch) and lighter (by one-tenth of a pound). The CPU speed is actually a bit slower than the prior model but it performs about 4% faster overall. The Iris GPU, while still integrated, is faster than the HD 5000 GPU in the Air and much faster than the HD 4000 GPU that was in the previous model.

Overall these are the same sort of upgrades that the Air received in June – faster flash storage, faster wireless, and updated CPUs. As was the case with the Air, battery life improves as well, going from 7 hours to 9. That’s not the same 2x improvement as the Air, but Apple was able to do it even after packing in a better GPU and reducing the size of the battery to reduce weight.

The specs are great, but that wasn’t what changed my mind. It was the price. Apple lowered the price of all models by $200, dropping the existing 8GB/256 SSD model from $1,699 to $1,499 and creating a new entry-level 4GB/128 SSD model at $1,299. The new base model is only $200 more than the base 13″ MacBook Air with the same memory and storage capacity. The pricing gets even closer if you upgrade the Air to 8 GB memory and 256 GB of storage, which is the configuration I’d get. That configuration brings the Air up to $1,399, only $100 less than the Pro. For an extra hundred dollars you get a beautiful Retina display, a 20% better performing CPU, a better GPU, and faster Thunderbolt ports.

I had been lightly considering the Pro before due to its higher screen resolution but wasn’t fond of the effective resolution. The native resolution of the Retina display is 2560 x 1600, but everything is double-detail resulting in the same display area as a 1280 x 800 pixel display. That’s lower than the resolution of my current Pro as well as the 13″ Air (1440 x 900). That’s where the Retina’s simulated resolutions come into play. Since it has so many pixels available to it, the Retina can actually simulate higher resolutions such as 1440 x 900 or even 1680 x 1050 on its 13″ screen.

Simulated screen resolutions open up a lot of options – view super crisp images content at 1280 x 800 (effective), scale up to 1440 x 900 to see what I can see now, or go even higher to 1680 x 1050. I could even hack it to view the native 2560 x 1600, which happens to be the same resolution as my 27″ iMac. My major concern was that a simulated resolution would result in a blurry interface elements. I didn’t want to spend money on a beautiful screen to spend the day looking at blurry simulated resolutions. After reading several reviews and analyses I learned that Apple works extremely hard to avoid that problem in simulated resolutions, even at the cost of general screen performance.

I decided to go to Best Buy to see for myself. I was looking at two things – the quality of the scaled interface and its performance. My first concern was immediately addressed. Everything was crisp at both simulated resolution, looking bar better than my current screen at its native resolution. In order to achieve that quality, Apple renders a huge image and then scales it down, which actually puts more pressure on the hardware than even the standard Retina resolution. The original models introduced last year suffered from several performance problems related to scrolling, animating, and resizing elements. Changes in Mac OS 10.8 and 10.9 have made major improvements in this area and the more powerful GPUs in the latest models should help as well, but I still needed to confirm.

Overall, performance didn’t seem to be a problem either. Complicated sites like Facebook scrolled smoothly and I didn’t notice anything when moving / resizing windows. The advancements made in Mac OS 10.8 and 10.9 coupled with the improved Iris GPU seem to have eliminated the majority of the issues, at least for my needs.

At this point the Retina MacBook Pro is looking pretty great. I don’t technically need all that power but I can’t pass it up for only $100 more than I was planning to spend. The only disadvantage compared to the Air is that I lose three hours of battery life and have to lug around and additional half pound of heft. In the scope of things those are minor. At 3.5 lbs, the Retina is still a full two pounds lighter than my current machine and nine hours is plenty of battery life when I spend 99% of my time at home with it.

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