Macbook Pro 13-inch with Retina review

A bit chunky but powerful as ever, Apple's updated MacBook Pro 13 is back on top

PC manufacturers have turned up the heat on Apple’s MacBook Pro, but it remains one of the best notebooks around.
PC manufacturers have turned up the heat on Apple’s MacBook Pro, but it remains one of the best notebooks around.
PC manufacturers have turned up the heat on Apple’s MacBook Pro, but it remains one of the best notebooks around.

Highs

  • Robust connectivity
  • Force Touch feels great
  • Top-notch display
  • Long battery life
  • Quicker than competitors

Lows

  • A bit heavy by modern standards
  • Retina resolution no longer class-leading
  • Runs hot under load

DT Editors' Rating

Home > Product Reviews > Laptop Reviews > Macbook Pro 13-inch with Retina review

The new MacBook stole the show at Apple’s Spring Forward event, arguably beating out even the Watch for oohs and aahs among the company’s fans. The Macbook Pro 13 with Retina is a more tangible, understandable product, for one thing, with positive and controversial traits. Yet it was not the only Mac news; the Air and 13-inch Pro with Retina also received new hardware.

It’s an update that feels late in coming, as the first PC notebooks with Intel’s fifth-generation Core processors arrived about three months ago. On the other hand, the delay feels understandable, as no one seems particularly excited about its inclusion. Quoted battery life has improved just an hour, from nine to ten, and the new Core i5 processor, while certainly quicker and more efficient, isn’t a great headline feature.

There are other subtle and important changes, however. A new Force Touch touchpad promises better tactile response and new interface options, and the integrated graphics chip was updated to Intel’s HD 6100, making the Pro 13 with Retina one of the few notebooks to offer Intel’s quickest fifth-generation integrated graphics solution.

What’s the same? Everything else. The display, keyboard, and enclosure are identical to the first Retina model, which appeared in 2012. Are the improvements enough to keep the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina on par with PC competitors, or is the system starting to feel its age?

Hands on review

That’s a MacBook, alright

Chances are you already know what a MacBook looks like. If not, here’s the gist; silver aluminum, and lots of it. The company’s elegant notebooks aren’t flashy (though the MacBook in gold will change that), but they are beautiful. The MacBook Pro 13 looks like money.

A firm press on the touchpad feels like a click, but the surface doesn’t budge.

It feels it too, because of its heft, but that’s not entirely a compliment. The Pro 13 with Retina was one of the lightest systems around in 2012, but today its three and a half pounds seems a bit chunky. The system’s profile, at seventh-tenths of an inch, is also far from the slimmest available. In a world where ultrabooks regularly weigh three pounds or less the MacBook is no longer svelte.

In a twist of irony, though, this gives the Mac room for more connectivity than the Windows alternatives. The presence of two USB 3.0 and two Thunderbolt jacks means up to four peripherals can be attached at a time, and there’s HDMI for an external display (Thunderbolt can power DisplayPort monitors, too). Put simply, there are a lot of options here, far more than found on a Dell XPS 13 or Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Wireless connectivity, which includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, is also excellent. That’s good, because Ethernet is unavailable without an adapter.

May the Force be with you

Apple made a big deal about the new “butterfly” keyboard switch design in the MacBook, and while it’s not found in the Pro, it’s indicative of the effort the company puts into its keyboards. The typing experience is top-notch and nails all the most important points: great key travel, a firm bottoming action, and spacious layout. Touch-typing is easy, and the keyboard can be used comfortably for hours at a time.

Backlighting is standard on all Pro models. There are 16 separate levels of brightness, far more than in most notebooks, so a comfortable setting is always possible. Some light leak is visible from the bottom edges of the keys, particularly the function row, but no more than average.

The Pro’s touchpad has long been the best in business; most PC notebooks don’t even come close, and while a few are almost on par, Windows’ inferior gestures do them a disservice. This new model takes the touchpad even further with Force Touch, which provides haptic feedback that mimics the feel of a click. It works perfectly: A firm press feels exactly like a tactile button, albeit a shallow one.

Apple-MacBook-Pro-13-Ret-2015-side
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple has built in pressure detection as well, which adds new functionality in certain apps. In Safari, for example, a “deeper” press can open a page preview, and in Quicktime a long click adjusts the speed of rewinding or forwarding through a video. The feature could be finicky, particularly in Safari where preview windows sometimes appeared slowly, but it worked far more often than not.

Support is limited to Apple’s apps for now, though. Spotify, for example, does not allow use of a deep press to fast-forward or rewind through music, and it’s anyone’s guess if it ever will.

Retina still impresses

Apple’s Retina display, which boasts a resolution of 2,560 × 1,600 in 13-inch form, is no longer the densest panel available. That honor goes to the Dell XPS 13, which offers a 3,200 × 1,800, 13-inch display, which comes to 280 pixels per inch. You may not be able to tell the difference, though, because the density of the Pro’s display already exceeds the average person’s visual limit.

The MacBook walks away from the competition, especially in multi-core testing.

In fact, the Pro will likely look better, because OS X is better equipped to handle high pixel densities. Its icons, interface, and text appear sharper in general than most Windows applications. Third-party apps are often better too, because Apple has pushed developers hard to make their apps Retina-friendly.

And there’s more to Retina than pixel density. The display also offers excellent color accuracy, can render 98 percent of the sRGB gamut, and hits a contrast ratio of 770:1 at maximum brightness. These figures put it in the top tier of laptop displays. Only the Asus ZenBook NX500’s Quantum Dot panel is superior in all areas, but that laptop has a base price of $2,499, far more than even a 15-inch Pro with Retina.

Audio is a bit of a disappointment, however. The built-in speakers offer reasonable quality but mediocre maximum volume. We also noticed that bass can rattle internal components, which is particularly distracting with music. External speakers or headphones are required for the best experience.

Feeling snappy

The refresh of the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina brought fifth-generation Intel Core processors. Our base model came with the Core i5-5257U, which has a base clock of 2.7GHz and maximum Turbo Boost of 3.1GHz. It’s notable because of its 28-watt thermal design power, which is much higher than the common i5-5200U’s TDP of 15 watts. That pays off in performance, as shown in Geekbench.

Apple has an easy win here, particularly in the multi-core score, where the latest Pro 13 with Retina beats the more expensive Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon by over 500 points. The Dell XPS 13 may be an even more relevant comparison, because the Core i5 model retails at the same $1,300 price tag. Dell’s lighter, thinner notebook pays for its slim size with performance that’s 15 percent behind the Mac in the single-core result and 25 percent slower in multi-core.

Geekbench

BlackMagic’s Disk Speed Test has good things to say about the hard drive, reaching a write speed of 647 megabytes per second and a read speed of 1,056MB/s. These numbers are not the absolute highest we’ve ever seen from a notebook (that honor goes to the Origin EON17-X) but they’re close, and easily beat most systems on the market.

Our standardized graphics tests don’t run in OS X, unfortunately, but we did fire up Diablo 3 to see how the Intel HD 6100 handled the game. The best balance of visual appeal and performance came at 1,920 × 1,200 resolution with details set to low. High details brought the game to a crawl, and playing at full Retina resolution was also out of the question. The Pro handles games about as well as any other Core i5 notebook with Intel HD graphics — which is to say gaming is possible, but not always ideal.

Performance doesn’t exclude portability

Battery life has always been a highlight of the Pro line, and this new model is no different. Peacekeeper’s web browser benchmark required 10 hours and 11 minutes to drain a full charge. That figure is two minutes short of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and longer than the Dell XPS 13 equipped with its 3,200 × 1,800 touchscreen. It also represents a major increase over the last Pro we reviewed, the 2013 model, which couldn’t quite crack seven hours.

Apple’s system isn’t the lightest, but its battery life is commendable.

The Mac’s long battery life is made more impressive by its relatively high power draw. At idle it needs no more than ten watts, a modest figure that’s in line with Dell’s XPS 13, but at load the system can hit 47 watts. That’s much higher than a typical ultrabook; the Dell and Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon max out at 33 watts.

It’s impressive that the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina can last so long given how much power it draws. The secret sauce is no secret, really; the system’s total battery capacity comes in at almost 75 watts. That’s about 25 more than the Dell or Lenovo, which offer around 50 watt-hours each.

A little hot under the collar

Apple’s decision to extend the life of the Pro’s chassis is partially due to a feeling it remains adequate, no doubt, but it’s also surely because of its performance. The system’s strong results in processor benchmarks means there’s plenty of heat to exhaust.

At idle the system has no problem keeping up. In fact, it emits virtually no noise even at full processor load, though it lets the maximum external temperature rise to a somewhat toasty 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Engaging the graphics chip, though, makes the Mac huff and puff at a very noticeable 46 decibels, and it still hits 107 degrees — the highest figure we’ve recorded from a notebook not built for gaming in almost a year.

Warranty

Apple ships all its notebooks with a typical one-year warranty. While it’s arguable that the existence of numerous Apple Store locations makes warranty service easier and more reliable than competing brands, the basic terms of the warranty are similar.

Conclusion

The refreshed MacBook Pro 13 with Retina is in many ways the same system we saw in 2012. It looks the same, weighs (almost) the same, and has the same display.

Yet it feels different. Back in 2012, the Pro 13 was one of the most portable systems around, competing neck-and-neck with ultrabooks. Today, it’s relatively heavy and thick, and instead differentiates itself with performance, battery life, and a touchpad that, thanks to Force Touch, is better than any competitor.

Windows notebooks have improved over the last several years, and for some people the lighter, thinner and equally long-lasting Dell XPS 13 could be a compelling alternative. Yet the Pro is quicker and more pleasant to use every day.

The fact that there’s legitimate tension between the two is a credit to today’s ultrabooks, but Apple’s notebook is more likely to appeal to speed demons, videophiles, and anyone who despises the finicky touchpad experience of Windows machines.

Highs

  • Robust connectivity
  • Force Touch feels great
  • Top-notch display
  • Long battery life
  • Quicker than competitors

Lows

  • A bit heavy by modern standards
  • Retina resolution no longer class-leading
  • Runs hot under load