Editor's desk: Taking the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro on the road

MacBook Pro in low light
MacBook Pro in low light (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

There's no such thing as perfection. We strive for it. We seek it. But we can never find it. Because everything has its advantages and disadvantages, its good points and bad. Everything is a compromise. Knowing that, understanding that, the trick becomes finding the best compromise. For me, for a few years, that's been a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro at home, and a 13-inch MacBook Air for travel. But now that's changed. Now I'm typing this on an airplane, on a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. So, why?

My first modern Mac laptop was a 17-inch MacBook Pro. I was working as a graphic designer at the time and I wanted all the pixels. Lugging it around was a pain — literally, in my shoulder and neck — but it was like having a desktop with me everywhere. When Apple discontinued the 17-inch, I switched to a 15-inch with the higher resolution display option. It was lighter, relatively speaking, than the 17-inch without sacrificing the pixels.

Then came the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. I'd experienced Retina before on the iPhone, of course, and I knew I wanted it on everywhere. Yet I'd begun working full time at iMore and traveling far more frequently and, thanks to nagging injuries from grappling, I knew it would be tough to lug it around. There were rumors of a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro coming down the line, but I was impatient. So I jumped on the 15-inch.

It was, as I said at the time, the best computer I'd ever owned. It was fast and, wow, but it was beautiful. Yet Retina came at a price. It had less working area than my old higher resolution MacBook Pro (though I could scale it), and while the battery life was okay at first, it got worse over time.

When the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was announced, I considered switching to it, but ultimately decided I couldn't justify the expense.

When Apple announced the new MacBook Air with its much longer battery life, however, I began to consider switching again. In fact, I began to think I'd miscalculated. I'd traded too much power for too little longevity. So, I attached the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro to a Thunderbolt display at home, and bought the 13-inch MacBook Air to travel with. (11-inches was just a bit too claustrophobic for me.)

I loved the MacBook Air. Combined with an iPad as a Wi-Fi hotspot, it meant I no longer had to leave coffee shops when my battery ran down. I could very literally close the coffee shop down. (I didn't, of course, because I'm not a monster.)

I used the MacBook Air for all my trips, and the lightness was fantastic. Yet a lot of my job involves shooting and processing video at events and I quickly found that the MacBook Air just didn't excel at crunching a ton of Final Cut Pro X. It was good, very good even, for short or casual video, but not good when there was a lot of video, long video, or turn-around time really mattered.

The MacBook Air too came at a price. And I realized I'd miscalculated again. This time I'd traded too much longevity for too little power.

So, last week I ordered a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. I'll spare you the Goldilocks analogy you've seen trucking your way since the first paragraph and just say — so far, so great.

The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro has plenty of power. It can run Handbrake about one-third the speed of the Retina 5K iMac, which is impressive given the hardware disparity. It's also lighter than any other MacBook Pro I've ever had, and the battery is lasting the nine hours Apple promises on the spec page. At least for now.

There are, of course, rumors of a Retina MacBook Air on the horizon, but I'm not sure that'll offer the performance I want either. I'll have to wait and see how I feel about this calculation — this compromise — sometime next year.

For now, I'm on my first trip with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and it's performing admirably. So much so, I think I might have finally found the right compromise for me.

P.S.: Since I'm traveling, here are a couple tips I've had occasion to pick up:

  • If you want to help make sure you're not bumped off an oversold plane, always make sure you have a confirmed seat when you book.
  • If you want to help make sure you're not bumped off an over-weight plane, always make sure you've checked baggage.
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • I never understood weight complaints with Macs, it's not like they're Alienware heavy. I don't think carrying around a 6 pound( 2.72kg) laptop is absurd. Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • It's not absurd at all. The issue comes when you do that for a living or if you do it very often. As someone who travels about 35-40% of the year, that weight adds up quickly. In the Apple universe, carrying a MBP, an iPad, likely an iPhone, plus cables, accessories (BTW, plug here, the Skooba DLX has been a HUGE cable organization life saver), etc., adds up quickly. I didn't realize how heavy my bag really was until I changed to a smaller laptop. It was literally a night/day type of weight difference. Today, although I'm moving back to a larger device, my total weight carried in my bag will be 6lbs as opposed to what it was before (8.8 lbs).
  • With traveling I can see that being an issue. I may not have a real reason for all that I carry, but portable gaming isn't light. Laptop, cooler mount, mouse, charger, ethernet cable, spare USB cables, playstation and xbox controller controller, batteries (and spares) and a Kindle because textbooks are for scrubs. So maybe I'll consider something lighter some day. List of crap I carry.
    MSI GS70 2qe Stealth Pro(silver edition [people think it's a Mac lol]) Kindle PaperwhitePaperwhite
    Playstation SIXAXIS
    Xbox 360 Controller for PC
    Razer Krakens
    Razer Naga Hex
    Some Logitech mouse (don't know what it is.) and a Razer Megasoma 2 mouse mat.
    Cooler Master NotePal X3
    Cables (2 6 foot USB cables, one
    10 foot ethernet cable, charging cable for the xbox 360 controller)
    Spare Phone battery for my Nexus S 4g
    Blackberry Z30.
  • At a trade show, it's not unusual for me to have a Mac strapped to my back for 8-16 hours. After a while, every little bit of extra weight feels like a ton :)
  • Ah, okay. I somewhat understand, I carry around a nearly 6 pound laptop for about 12 hours everyday (because college :[ ) so the weight is somewhat noticeable, but it's worth it for the power I get out of it. I just never thought as Macs as "heavy" enough to be bothered about. They're so light and thin it's ridiculous. Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • 6 lbs? Are you kidding? Sent from the iMore App
  • Explain? Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • It was likely a reply to my post. No, no kidding. 4lbs laptop, 1.5 lbs tablet/laptop hybrid (personal device), and .5 lbs Skooba bag with power cables, 256GB USB Flash Drive, an Active and Capacitive Pen, and an ink pen. I also carry a set of noise canceling Bose earbuds. Total weight in my bag, approximately 6 lbs. Note that this doesn't include the bag. I carry a Swiss Army backpack. If it was a reply to your 6lbs laptop post, then that is not that big either. My 2011 15" MBP is 5.6 lbs by itself. It isn't unreasonable for a gaming laptop to cross 6 lbs easily.
  • I weighed my backpack, and it's about 10-15 pounds (depending on how much food I have with me) so your 6. 6pound backpack seems amazing. Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • We just bought our son a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro after considering a 13-inch Air. We paid more money ... but this article confirms we made the right call. Thank you for that.
  • Awesome! That's terrific to hear. The 13-inch is remarkably portable for the power.
  • Actually Rene, you confirmed what I was already thinking.
    The ONLY advantage of owning a 13" Air is battery life. Nothing more. But when you own a 13" rMBP, you've got power, a retina display, and everything the Air has except battery life. I just received an external charger and so I can add 4 to 6 hours of battery life to my rMBP. Fact is I can't have a non-retina screen anymore... I'll surely consider an Air as soon as the display becomes Retina. Sent from the iMore App
  • IMHO, Rene ...these little guys' batteries don't 'suck' either!
    I'm easily getting 7-9 hours a day, 20 minute screen saver and 45 minute display timeout. I've actually gotten a full eleven hours with maybe four to five hours of browsing, audio editing and plenty of standby in between
    ...Hell, I'm blowin away with the 'life' I'm getting from our 15s --- I, too, purchased V1 15" decked with the 2.7/16/786. It's still flying today. We just bought another over the weekend at almost $500 off with the new 2.8/16/1TB of PCIe SSD storage. WOW!
    And the '12 still hauls ass...but these new ones with Haswell and the Iris pro graphic card integration, it's amazing. Either the 5100 or 5200. Both keep up, and I believe the IP5200 in the new rMBP 15 is actually quicker rendering and trans/encoding than my 2012 with the 650m.
    I was playing last night with some 1080p/60 footage and transcoding to ProRes and the new guy with gfxcardstatus forcing the iGPU, I think it worked from what I could tell...and seemed a good 20-30% quicker (noticeable with 8-12 minute clips) I love the 13". It's easily the best compromise on the market for OSx and Windows, power, efficiency, display and that incredible speed with the PCIe storage config, it's an extremely cool package. I'm 44 and started with the IIe. I can't remember being as happy comouting in thirty years as I've been the last three
    HiDPI displays have completely changed my life and my all the sudden crappy vision while reading;) & solid state storage and it's speed increase over the 'spinners' is a night and day difference
    Coupled with today's iGPUs and incredible weight/efficiency ration, it's definitely THEE line of laptops to 'beat';)
  • I've had a similar journey as well (starting out with a larger device, moving to the device that was available, then to something smaller and lighter). However, I'm a bit further than you in that journey so I can offer what my insight was after making the switch to the smaller, high pixel device... I'm going back to a larger device. Here's why: As you will likely find, the smaller 13" MBPr has plenty of power and is much lighter than a 15" MBPr. The problem that I have, though, is that my job has me on the road quite a bit and for short trips, the lighter smaller device works great. However, for extended trips, the smaller 13" High DPI screen starts to become a huge issue (for apps that scale, no real issue, but for apps that don't scale or for apps that you need to not scale, the smaller 13" size makes looking at the content much harder). Thus, I am now moving back to the 15". I think that it has the perfect balance of weight, performance, size, and screen real estate.
  • Seeing how the 13 inch rMBP struggles with some of the more graphically demanding stuff, I doubt an equivalent sized rMBA would be able to outperform it, even with Broadwell Intel Gfx. I'm expecting Apple to update the 13 inch rMBP with switchable graphics chips (Intel + AMD) while the new rMBA will just get Intel gfx treatment. Personally, I want to see the 17 incher return with a retina screen. Love that size to bits. The old model was, for my needs, the perfect transportable desktop replacement.
  • I used to have the 2012 non retina pro and it was pretty heavy along with my other textbooks when I was on campus. In August I got the 2014 rMBP and the difference in weight is noticeable. Sometimes it barely feels as if its in my bag. I was gonna go with the air but the Apple salesman told me to go with the rPro with my student discount. Best decision i've made. I always laugh when I lift my mothers 2012 pro and thank myself for upgrading!
  • The 13" rMBP didn't quite have the power for me. 15" quad core did along with the real estate for all the spreadsheets and tax and audit programs I run. There's something about typing on the 13" kb I don't like as much. The edge cuts into my wrist. It's not as bad on the 15". As for the mba, no way. Screen is too bad to look at.
  • I'll take a 15" Retina MacBook Air please. Sent from the iMore App
  • Just wondering which 13" MBAir you had used last, Rene? The Mid 2013(and 14s with same chips) are pretty close in (synthetic) performance to all revisions of 13" rMBP. Using Geekbench(http://browser.primatelabs.com/mac-benchmarks) tabulated scores, the top spec 2013 Air (4650-i7) and the top spec 2014 rMBP(4578-i7) compared show a roughly 14.3% performance differential in favor of the rMBP. I tend to think most number crunching would be similarly handled by either of these machines, although the available 16gb Ram for the rMBP is definitely an additional leg up for some tasks. Neither of them hold a candle to any of the quad core chips that have been used in 15" models for a few years.
    I could see how any of these would definitely be big performance gain over the older Airs saddled with Core 2 Duo or Sandy Bridge 2011 i series processors.
    P.s. Thanks for these Editors Desk nerd-outs
  • You can feel the difference when you start running graphics intensive apps. A speced out MacBook Air with an i7 is no match for the i5 in a Pro with equal amounts of RAM. Sent from the iMore App
  • Thanks for the great reviews! The rMBP 13" will be the next one for my husband (currently uses MBP 13"). I love my MBA 13" (perfect for my needs) as my portable office along with my 6+ and iPad mini. Hope to see you at CES 2015!
  • I agree with Rene here. The other day I was making a short movie in iMovie and I could see the slowness while navigating from one pane to another(just in iMovie) on my MBA 13"
    But that's Ok for me as I do not use iMovie alot. Mostly my MBA is used for reading, transferring photos from iPad/iPhone, surfing web and a bit of Excel/Word and it serves me well. Sent from the iMore App
  • Contemplating a move to a Retina MBP 13" myself. Speaking of over-weight planes, years ago I was on a flight that got diverted. As we waited at another airport, the plane was topped off no doubt in anticipation of circling our destination's airport due to weather. Well, the weather broke. So the captain said, "Well, we're clear to land but we have too much fuel so we'll have to approach from the North and burn some off. In the old days we'd just dump some out but we don't do that anymore."
  • I've been using the 13" Retina Macbook Pro for the past six months. My main uses are graphic designing and writing. And I love it! Easy to carry around, great performance from the 8gb RAM. Enough storage with the 256GB SSD. And that SCREEN! Gorgeous! Great article
  • Once again, this great article only proves me that it all depends on what you want to do with your computer, and what your job is.
    I've been using MBP since late 2008, and always found it to be a little pain in the ass while moving around. I'm a screenwriter, so I travel between studios and my offices cross country, and I work in cafes and airports. A lot. I had the MBP in 2008, 2010 and 2012, but after coming home one day with a broken back (MBP can be quite heavy when adding an IPad, iPhone, cables, mouse, extra keyboard and lots and lots of pages to revise) I said the hell with it, and bought 11 MBA. And my life changed for ever. Mainly writing on this computer, I get almost 10 hours of use. I don't need to look for an electricity when I walk into the cafe, I can just sit where I want! It's amazing! I can work for 5-6 hours straight, and still have 40% at the end of the session! And I don't miss the retina display because whenever I wanna read something I have my iPad Air with me.
    To me, that made a huge difference. I'm really enjoying my work now. So it's wonderful that it's working out for you, but to me the MBA really changed my life
  • I had my MacBook Pro for 6 years. It's been great computer but it's time for a MacBook Air. Waiting for the new model. Looking forward to a beautiful screen, faster processor, solid state drive and light as Air. Can't wait. Sent from the iMore App
  • Just switched to a 13" rMBP at the job and LOVE it. I was using an 11" MacBook Air, which is an amazing little device, but the power screen red difference is an easy trade off for added weight. Sent from the iMore App
  • I recently changed from a loaded 15" rMBP to a lower spec 13" rMBP with an i5 an 8 GBof RAM. I originaly bought the 15" with the mindset of some gaming and fierce multitasking. I wanted an iMac to stay at home for the family and I to use and something a little smaller for me to use for work. I'm not able to game much so that's just what I've done. The iMac is under the Christmas tree and I sold my 15" rMBP. I was worried that the 13" wouldn't have the power but I was wrong. When I do play a game on it it works just fine. The difference of what I sold the 15" for paid for the 13" and nearly half the cost of the iMac.
  • Great article. Just one question - given that the 13 rMBP utilizes the Intel Iris, as opposed to the Iris Pro graphics, do you find that the iGPU can drive the retina display pretty well or have you ran into any performance issues?