Thoughts on the 13" Retina MacBook Pro

Reading about the 13” Retina MacBook Pro (‘rMBP’, for our sanity) is confusing. Opinions range from Don’t buy this. (Patrick Gibson) to Very close to the perfect Laptop. (MG Siegler). Others settle for something in between and call it out as sort of a compromise of ‘light’, ‘powerful’, ‘cheap’ (Chris Foresman on Ars).

I mostly agree with Chris Foresman. The combination of all advantages and disadvantages that come with the slim form factor and the retina display make the machine appear as the symbol of the transition Apple’s product line is in right now. The question is if such a machine had to be built (it probably had) and subsequently, if you want to use such a machine (probably not).

Here comes the mandatory comparison to the original MacBook Air (wow, that was 2008). You saw the form factor, and loved it so much that you were willing to cope with all the drawbacks it had, or you did not.
The drawbacks may not be as much of a dealbraker with the 13” rMBP, but they certainly are more present than with the 15” rMBP. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the 15” rMBP isn’t constrained by its form factor as much, despite it being considerably smaller and lighter than the now seemingly medieval non-retina and non-Air MacBooks.

In my book, it just doesn’t pan out. The display is nice, without a doubt. I love my iPhone’s screen, and standing in the Apple Store, the retina MacBook screens look just amazing. But here come the drawbacks. When I looked at the 13” rMBP in the Store, I realised that the GUI elements were huge. They are, because the standard setting mimics a (super-sharp) 1280-by-800 resolution. On a 13” screen, that seems like a setting for seniors. I’m used to my MacBook Air’s 1400-by-900, and I love it. Granted, its resolution is nowhere near retina, but it still is a pretty nice display.

Great, just change the 13” rMBP’s settings to mimic a 1400-by-900 screen then? Yeah, but only kind of. The trade-off in sharpness is basically nonexisting. The first thing you could be annoyed by is the simple fact that there’s this super-nice, state of the art display and you don’t use it at its native resolution. It just isn’t right.
But sadly, quitting being a nerd for a second and not caring about that, there are more drawbacks. Performance drops when you scale up. There were problems reported with scrolling within Safari on the 15” rMBP, and, doing the math, the practically-as-powerful-as-the-Air 13” rMBP just can’t handle a retina screen that well.
In the store, I saw the 13” rMBP do a crappy performance in a task as mundane as scrolling in Safari. I mean: come on, it’s an onboard GPU driving a 2560 by 1600 screen. As much as Apple is pushing Intel to beef up performance of those GPUs, they just aren’t there yet.

And apart from graphics performance, the 13” rMBP doesn’t put much ground between itself and the Air either, as Ars’ benchmarks show. Dual-Core CPU and 8 GB of RAM tops? Where does the ‘Pro’ come from? ‘MacBook Retina’ would’ve been a much more descriptive name for this generation of the 13” rMBP: As much as the 15” rMBP is bleeding edge for professionals, the 13” rMBP is not for professionals, and will fall off the edge in most cases. Of course we will get there. Give it one or two generations, and the relation between the lines of MacBooks will make sense again.

So, obviously enough, I think that Marco’s statement, pointing the 13” rMBP out as computer most people should get is definitely wrong. The 13” MacBook Air is the laptop you probably want, if you’re ‘most people’. And regarding computer usage (‘Surfing, writing, music and occasionally photo editing’), nowadays there are very few people who are not. For everybody else, there’s the 15” rMBP.
The 13” rMBP is as much a special case as the 11” MacBook Air is and the 17” MBP was.