MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display £1699

18th Dec 2013 | 11:20

MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display

Has the Retina MacBook Pro finally come of age?

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Intel's latest chip and Thunderbolt 2 make Apple's Retina display laptop the one to beat.

Like:

Fast Haswell processors; Fantastic Retina screen; Thunderbolt 2 ports; Good range of bundled apps

Dislike:

No integrated optical drive; No matte screen option; No discrete graphics in this model; Expensive; Almost impossible to user upgrade

Introduction

The late 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display is the third release in the series. The Retina notebooks were introduced in June 2012 and lightly refreshed in February of this year. Externally, the new, late 2013 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina display are identical to their predecessors.

They boast the same slim, lightweight design, same range of connectivity ports and above all, the same gorgeous Retina screen. It's a 15.4-inch display with a native resolution of 2880x1800, which is over 5.1 million pixels.

MacBook Pro keyboard

So what's changed? The two new 15-inch Retina Pros in the late 2013 range have, of course, switched to the new Haswell processors. They both have quad-core Intel Core i7s, which can Turbo Boost to redistribute underused resources and temporarily raise their performance above their stated clock speed. Hyper Threading allows them to run two threads on each core, giving a total of eight virtual cores.

The Retina MacBook Pros have won multiple awards, and naturally, they've been extensively copied. If you don't want Mac OS, there's plenty of light, thin Windows notebooks to choose from. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus is thin and powerful, though at over £1,100, it's expensive for a PC notebook.

The Sony Vaio Duo 13 has Haswell processors, and a form factor that lets you turn it into a tablet as well as use it as a standard laptop. And there's always the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart, which is a very capable machine at around £1,000.

Ports

If you're happy with the limited but cheap and functional Chrome operating system, there's the HP Chromebook 11. It costs less than £230, which is a bargain.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is ideal for professionals who need the extra screen space afforded by a 15-inch notebook, especially if they're likely to carry it around a lot. By ditching the optical drive and replacing the hard drive with built-in solid-state storage, Apple has been able to slim it down to just 1.8cm thick, and reduce the weight to a mere 2.02kg.

Of course, its excellent Retina screen is ideal for graphics and video work too. Slimming down the casing forced Apple to drop the FireWire ports for the Retina range - it simply wouldn't fit. But as we get two Thunderbolt ports (using the new Thunderbolt 2 protocol), two USB 3.0 ports, a HDMI outlet and an SDXC card slot, will we really miss FireWire? If you still have FireWire peripherals, you can buy a first-party adapter for £25 and use them in one of your Thunderbolt ports.

Specifications

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display reviewed here is the cheaper of the two 15-inch models. It has a 2.0GHz Haswell quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU, which can Turbo Boost at up to 3.2GHz. The more expensive version runs at 2.3GHz, or up to 3.5GHz under Turbo Boost.

If you buy on the Apple Online Store, you can upgrade the processor on this 2.0GHz model to a 2.3GHz or 2.6GHz chip, while the more expensive model can be upgraded to 2.6GHz.

Haswell processors are designed to be very light on power consumption, extending a notebook's battery life. According to Intel, this is achieved by fully integrating the power management system, allowing the chip quicker access to extra power when required and a faster reduction when it isn't. Apple claims the new Haswell 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro can surf the web wirelessly for up to eight hours on a single charge, up from seven hours.

More ports

The arrival of OS X 10.9: Mavericks also helps with power consumption. Its App Nap feature, for example, puts applications into a low power mode when all their windows are hidden (minimised or behind other windows), as long as they're not doing something useful like downloading files or playing music. When you bring that app to the fore again, it's instantly back at full speed. It works in Safari tabs too, with tabs you're not currently viewing similarly slowed. Apple claims CPU energy use can be reduced by up to 23% in this way.

Haswell processors also bring better integrated graphics chipsets. The 15-inch models have Iris Pro Graphics. The cheaper of the two models drops the discrete graphics chip entirely, relying solely on the Iris Pro integrated graphics, while the more expensive version augments its graphical power with an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M with 2GB of GDDR5 memory.

Mac notebooks have enjoyed Automatic Graphics Switching for a while now, and this one's no exception; at times of high needs, graphics processing automatically switches to the discrete chip for more power, switching back to the integrated chipset when demand falls, to save battery life.

As before, storage is solid state – 256GB for this model and 512GB for the more expensive version – but Apple has switched to PCIe-based flash storage, giving up to 60% faster read speeds. All the new Retina MacBook Pros – 13-inch and 15-inch models – have the second-generation Thunderbolt 2 ports, its debut on Mac computers. While its bandwidth is the same as the original Thunderbolt format released back in 2011, the original's dual channels are combined into a single 20Gbps channel.

Trackpad

With higher PCIe data rates and DisplayPort 1.2, it's claimed to be the first connection technology that can simultaneously transfer and display uncompressed 4k video. Naturally, this is well beyond the needs of the majority of Mac notebook users, but for video professionals, it's definitely an asset worth having.

Performance

The Retina screen is unchanged since the first 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina display were released, but as it's still as breathtaking as it was last June, this is not an indictment. The display packs in so many pixels, the human eye struggles to distinguish between them at normal viewing distance. The difference this makes has to be seen to be believed, so if you haven't done so already, make sure you take a look in your nearest Apple stockist.

A Retina display doesn't look like a 'normal' computer screen. Instead, your desktop resembles an art print, offering beautifully organic text with no sign of jaggedness, and pictures you could hang on your wall. Our only complaint is that Apple continues to refuse to offer a matte screen custom order option.

Although it could never match a discrete graphics chip, this MacBook's Iris Pro Graphics integrated chipset certainly proved its worth in our tests. Using the Unigine Heaven benchmarking tool at its most demanding Extreme setting, the 2.0GHz 15-inch Pro managed 7.2 frames a second - significantly better than the 4.5 FPS offered by the 13-inch model, which only has Iris graphics, not Iris Pro.

side on view

It also ran Batman: Arkham City at 39 FPS with the graphics ramped up to maximum settings and the resolution set to full HD 1080. Turning the resolution up to 1920x1200, we still got a very playable 29 FPS, though it struggled a little at its native resolution of 2880x1800, managing only 16 FPS. But only a maniac – or a reviewer – would turn it up that high anyway.

The combination of the low-power-consumption Haswell processors and Mavericks' energy-saving features give the battery life a boost. In our tests, we ran a live feed from the BBC's iPlayer website for a few minutes shy of six hours, an hour longer than the 13-inch model with its inevitably-smaller battery. Given this is a very power-hungry test, that's an excellent result.

Like the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pros, the 15-inch range has enjoyed a price drop. Both large-screen notebooks are now £100 cheaper than their predecessors. But unlike the 13-inch versions, they didn't get a cut in the February refresh. While the 13-inch models have broken out of their luxury niche and are now affordable enough to enter the mainstream, the 15-inch notebooks are still a substantial investment.

Conclusion

The late 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display makes substantial gains over the previous generation, but changes are all internal – the basic form factor remains the same. The Retina screen is the same as before, with a native resolution of 2880x1800 and over 5.1 million pixels, and the only change to the expansion ports is the move to Thunderbolt 2.

apple logo

The main improvement offered by the October refresh is the switch to Haswell processors, which boost battery life by using less energy than the last generation of Core-i chips. They have better graphics too, with an integrated Intel Iris Pro chipset in both models. The cheaper version reviewed here doesn't have a discrete GPU.

We liked

The screen is fantastic, boasting such a high resolution that the human eye can't distinguish individual pixels at normal viewing distance. When you've used a Retina screen, you're loath to return to a standard display. It really is that good.

The new Haswell processors are a definite step up in quality. Their low power consumption, combined with the power-saving features in the new OS X 10.9: Mavericks operating system, mean you can use your MacBook Pro for even longer than before without recharging, and Haswell's integrated graphics chipsets give a performance boost too. Naturally, we can but welcome the £100 price drop.

We disliked

Off the shelf, the late 2013 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is an excellent machine, but if you want to beef up its specs – maybe to increase the storage, or boost the 8GB of RAM you get out of the box on this 2.0GHz model – you'd better order online at the Apple Store and use the custom order options. It's almost impossible to upgrade after purchase.

We wish you could customise the screen by ordering online, giving a matte, low-glare option that used to be available on the old, pre-Retina MacBook Pros. Not everyone likes shiny displays. And as, unlike the 13-inch notebooks, the 15-inch models didn't get a price drop in the February refresh, they're expensive compared to their smaller-screen stable mates.

Final verdict

While a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina screen is still a substantial investment, for professional users, graphic designers and video editors, it's an excellent solution for computing on the move. Battery life is even better than before, lasting an astonishingly long time on a single charge, and it's one of the most portable 15-inch notebooks around. We wish it were cheaper, but even at its current prices, you're certainly getting a lot of notebook for your money.

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