MacBook Pro with Retina display 13-inch vs. 15-inch: Which powerful Mac laptop should you get?
MacBook Pro with Retina display buyers guide: Choosing between the light 13-inch and the top-of-the-line 15-inch
You're going to buy a new Mac, and you've narrowed your choice to one of Apple's new sleek, speedy MacBook Pros with Retina display. Seems like an easy choice, doesn't it? Just decide which screen size is right for you: 13-inch or 15-inch, then pull the trigger. Not so fast. There are other considerations you should make, as well. Because screen size isn't the only different between the two machines. This guide should help you iron out some of them.
What is a Retina display, anyway?
First of all, what makes a Retina display "retina?" It isn't a specific resolution or color gamut - it is, instead, a somewhat subjective determination. Apple coined the term "Retina display" to describe any display that, held at an average operating distance, produces imagery with indistinguishable pixels.
Both MacBook Pros with Retina display use screens with similar pixel densities - that is the number of actual pixels displayed by the screen within a single inch (pixels per inch, or PPI). The 13-inch model's pixel density is about 227 PPI while the 15-inch model's is about 220. While that's lower than the iPhone, for example (326 PPI), it's almost twice the density of "regular" MacBook Pro models. Set side by side with "standard" resolution displays, MacBook Pros equipped with Retina displays show sharper text, richer color and more image detail.
It's worth noting that both Retina MacBook Pros have significantly higher native resolutions that what you'll normally see. The 13-inch model's display has a native resolution is 2560 x 1600 pixels, though 1680 x 1050 is the highest resolution accessible through the Display system preference. Likewise, the 15-inch model has a 2880 x 1800 native resolution, though the scaled resolution is limited to 1920 x 1200 pixels - the same as the native resolution of the discontinued 17-inch MacBook Pro.
Apple does that for legibility - truly native resolution would produce almost unreadable text and really tiny pictures. But if you want to give native display operation a try, you can install a third-party utility that unlocks custom resolutions like SwitchResX.
Comparing Retina MacBook Pro models
Starting at $1,299 ($200 less expensive than the previous model), the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro comes equipped with a 2.4 GHz dual-core i5 processor, 4 GB RAM and 128 of PCI Express-based flash storage. It uses Intel Iris integrated graphics.
The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro measures 12.35 x 0.71 inches closed and weighs about 3.46 pounds. That's about two ounces lighter and just a skosh thinner than last year's Retina MacBook Pro; it's also narrow and shorter than the standard 13-inch MacBook and more than a pound lighter.
A $1,499 Retina MacBook Pro model doubles storage capacity and memory, and for $1,799 you can get a system equipped with a 2.8 GHz i5 processor, 8 GB RAM and 512 MB storage. You can configure to order systems with up to 16 GB RAM and 1 TB of flash storage if you prefer.
The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro starts at $1,999. For that you get a processor that's only clocked at 2.2 GHz, but it's a quad-core i7 processor instead. 8 GB RAM and 256 GB flash storage come standard. Intel Iris Pro graphics come standard. A 2.5 GHz system with 16 GB RAM and 512 GB flash costs $2,599. That premium model is also the only Retina MacBook Pro to include a discrete graphics chip - the Nvidia GeForce GT 750M, with 2GB of dedicated VRAM. Like past models, that system will automatically switch graphics from the lower-power Iris Pro to the higher-power Nvidia chipset depending on what's needed.
Closed, the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro measures 14.13 x 0.71 inches - same height as the 13-inch model - and weighs just a pound more. There's no longer a "standard" 15-inch MacBook Pro to compare against - this year, Apple's offering only the 15-inch Retina display model.
Apple's standard suite of application software is included on both MacBook Pros; you get the iLife (iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand) and iWork (Keynote, Pages, Numbers) apps, along with Safari, Mail and a number of other apps and utilities. OS X Mavericks is also standard issue. Both iWork and iLife got a major overhaul in October; the new apps have been designed to work in tandem with their iOS counterparts much more easily. Some interface changes and some feature limitations have caused long-time users of iWork apps, in particular, to complain.
iLife has long been standard-issue with new Macs, but iWork only started being included with new Macs this October. Also worth noting is that GarageBand in its factory release is limited - it has only a small subset of instruments and lessons. A $4.99 in-app purchase unlocks the full suite of instruments and piano and guitar lessons.
Dual core vs. quad core: Retina MacBook Pro gets a Haswell makeover
In 2013 the Retina MacBook Pro was refreshed with Intel Haswell microprocessors - the same chips used in the MacBook Air. Haswell chips are more power-efficient than their predecessors, which nets some improvements in battery life - up to nine hours per charge for the 13-inch model and up to eight hours per charge in the 15-inch model.
The clock speeds of early 2013 models are actually higher than the Haswell versions. But other efficiencies, such as improved SSD throughput and better integrated graphics, mean the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros are quite a bit faster than their predecessors. It's a bit murkier for the 15-inch models. Some operations that don't rely on graphics processors are faster, which some graphics-intensive operations perform better only on the Nvidia-equipped high-end 15-inch model.
It's important to note that the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros come standard with quad-core Intel i7 processors. Their lower clock speeds notwithstanding, they're very powerful when running software that's optimized for multi-core processors.
Most general users can get away with a dual-core processor and not suffer any problems. But if you're doing graphics or video work, rendering 3D or other seriously processor-intensive work, consider a quad-core processor. More cores means the processor is able to juggle more balls at once without skipping a beat - great for ripping video in Handbrake, for example, or running computationally-intensive operations (often used in math, science and engineering software). For graphics-intensive stuff, also consider the discrete graphics chip on the higher-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro - more on that in a bit.
One way or the other, unless you have a real edge case, it's probably not worthwhile to invest a lot of money in processor upgrades for your Retina MacBook Pro - go with one of the pre-configured systems unless you really need some incrementally improved horsepower.
Memory: The non-upgradable dilemma
The 4 GB included on the low-end 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is adequate for now to run Mavericks and application software; it's the minimum RAM configuration for all MacBook models across the board (the MacBook Air similarly comes equipped standard with 4 GB RAM).
Having said that, 4 GB is skimpy, especially if you plan to run memory-hungry apps like imaging software (such as Photoshop). It'd be a wise investment to bump it up to 8 GB, especially since the RAM is soldered to the motherboard and is not upgradable after the fact, unlike non-Retina MacBook Pros.
Higher end configurations come with 8 GB or 16 GB (or can be configured to 16 GB). That should give you sufficient breathing room for the next few years.
Storage vs. affordability: Get the SSD balance right
Retina MacBook Pros eschew conventional hard disk drives for Solid State Drive (SSD) instead; the net result is that they're able to be thinner and faster, with better storage system reliability than before.
Another carryover from the MacBook Air refresh is an update to the Retina MacBook Pro's storage system. This year's crop replace Serial ATA (SATA) with PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage. The new Retina MacBook Pros perform file-based operations much faster than their predecessors.
There is a downside, though - the actual interface used for these SSDs appears to be a proprietary Apple design, which may make it difficult to upgrade them down the road (unlike RAM, Retina MacBook Pro SSDs are daughtercards that can be removed, though they're not easily user-accessible).
So it's probably a good idea to configure your Retina MacBook Pro with as much storage as you can reasonably afford right off the bat (as with RAM, the 128 GB standard SSD on the $1,299 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is skimpy, but it's the lowest-priced model).
Integrated graphics vs. discrete graphics: A question of speed, price and battery efficiency
A benefit of the Retina MacBook Pro's switch to Intel's Haswell microprocessor is faster graphics. The 13-inch MacBook Pro features Intel Iris graphics - the next step up from the Intel HD Graphics 5000 found on the MacBook Air, which itself was much faster than the integrated graphics found on last year's processors.
Iris graphics differentiate themselves from the 5000 by having a higher clock speed, so you're able to get more done in less time. Iris Pro, standard on the 15-inch model, gains a 128 MB cache of embedded DRAM to speed things up further.
The $2,599 Retina MacBook Pro adds Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics. This graphics subsystem is ordinarily only activated when an app or process launches that demands extra graphics horsepower. Games are an obvious example. So is Adobe Photoshop. Even Apple's own iPhoto will force the faster graphics to come on. When that discrete graphics processor kicks in, battery efficiency drops like a stone. But that's the price you pay to have extra graphics oomph when you need it.
Bottom line: the more you spend, the faster your graphics get. If you need the fastest possible graphics in your next laptop, be prepared to shell out for a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro.
One area free of choices for you: Expandability
All current Retina MacBook Pros come identically equipped with two USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a headphone jack, dual microphones, an HDMI connector and an SDXC card slot.
These are the first Apple laptops to sport Thunderbolt 2. In fact, the only other 2013 Mac to feature Thunderbolt 2 is Apple's forthcoming Mac Pro, which is expected to be released in December. Thunderbolt 2 offers twice the bandwidth of the original Thunderbolt - 20 gigabits per second - which means even faster peripheral connectivity than before. Thunderbolt can be adapted for a wide variety of applications, including fast RAID drives, Gigabit Ethernet or more exotic networking options like Fibre Channel, and more.
Perhaps the most frequent application for Thunderbolt, however, is the use of external displays (Apple sells Thunderbolt adapters to fit different display interfaces like DVI, VGA and HDMI). And the Thunderbolt 2 ports on the Retina MacBook Pro are capable of driving two external displays at up to 2560 x 1600 resolution with millions of colors. What's more, that HDMI interface can drive a 4K display.
Retina MacBook Pros also come with 802.11ac Wi-Fi networking, the faster Wi-Fi standard first introduced with the MacBook Air's refresh earlier in 2013. Called "gigabit Wi-Fi," the faster standard works up to three times the speed of 802.11n, though it requires pairing with an 802.11ac-compliant base station (like Apple's new towering AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule). Both systems also come standard with Bluetooth 4.0 and full-sized backlit keyboards.
Who should buy a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro?
At this point, the base-model Retina MacBook Pro is $300 more than the base-model 13-inch MacBook Air, and comes similarly equipped for RAM and storage. While it weighs more, it's a lot more powerful under the hood - faster processor, better expansion and a dramatically better screen.
For most general users, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is the sweet spot between performance and price, and it should be a great replacement for older laptops - one area where it's particularly better is in battery life, which will be a welcome respite for you if you're used to carrying your power adapter around with you.
I'd argue that you should spend the extra money to get the $1,499 model that includes 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB flash storage - that'll hedge your bet a bit about what the future might hold for OS X system requirements and application needs.
Who should buy a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro?
The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is the no-compromises king of Apple's laptop line. It has the most capable processors, the fastest graphics and the highest resolution. It's superior to the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro by just about any measure except for battery life (and comparing apples to apples, the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is better than the system it replaces). But all that capability has a price - starting at $1,999.
Apple's decision to excise discrete discrete graphics from the low-end 15-inch model left me scratching my head. Iris Pro is certainly an improvement over what came before, and it's fine for low-power work. But the benchmarks I've seen show that the $2,599 15-inch model blows away its lower-priced sibling in graphics tests by as much as two to one.
So if you're a content creator, especially if you're working with pro audio, video or high-resolution graphics - and you're looking for the best system to get your work done, I think the high-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is worth the money. You get a faster machine, double the RAM and half a terabyte of flash storage for another $600.
If you still can't decide with Retina MacBook Pro is the right one to choose from, I'd recommend dropping by our MacBook Pro discussion forum and posting a question there. iMore has a great online community that can help answer questions and offer advice based on their own experience. You're also welcome to post comments here.
I've had my say, now I want to hear from you. Which Retina MacBook Pro do you currently use? Which one do you want? Or have you ruled the Retina MacBook Pro out all together? Please post your comments, critiques and questions.
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