Review: 13-in MacBook Pro with Retina Display (2015)

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Gizmag reviews Apple's newest version of the 13-in MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

Gizmag reviews Apple's newest version of the 13-in MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com). View gallery (15 images)

Now that Apple is set to launch a MacBook that's lighter than the MacBook Air and has a Retina Display, where does that leave the 13-in Retina MacBook Pro? And is its new Force Touch trackpad an upgrade-worthy feature? Join Gizmag, as we review the 2015 (13-in) MacBook Pro with Retina Display.

In the world of MacBooks, sometimes you'll see major upgrades. Products like the first MacBook Air, the original Retina MacBook Pros and, of course, that "new MacBook" Apple just announced all fit into this category.

But those are few and far between, with the rest of Apple's annual (sometimes bi-annual) updates standing as more incremental changes. If you own the previous year's model, then these minor updates aren't likely to scream "upgrade me!" These incremental MacBook updates do, however, offer just enough change that, once you stack two or three of them together, your older machine might start to feel a little dated … even if it still looks exactly the same on the outside.

That's the kind of update we're looking at with the new 13-in Retina MacBook Pro (rMPB). If you already own the mid-2014 model, you're probably going to be just fine standing pat. Sure, this new one is better … but not by such a huge degree that it's going to deliver a radically new experience.

But if you own, say, one of the 2013 13-in Retina models? Or maybe even the original late 2012 model? Then this might be a great time to trade up.

Physically, the newest rMBP looks exactly like its predecessors from late 2013 on – with identical dimensions. The one physical spec that's different is that the new model is less than 1 percent heavier, likely due to its bigger battery (more on that in a minute). Like its predecessors, it's going to feel a little beefy next to a MacBook Air (and even more so next to that new 12-in MacBook), but the rMBP is still 23 percent lighter and 25 percent thinner than the old (optical drive-toting) non-Retina MacBook Pros.

It could afford to be lighter, and your back might start to feel it if you tote this sucker around in a backpack or laptop bag all day long. But on the whole its balance of portability and power doesn't make for a bad tradeoff.

Its build quality is also familiar (identical, actually) to its predecessors, rocking the same aluminum unibody build that we've seen on all recent MacBook Pros. Nothing to worry about there.

Its Retina Display is no different this time around, and that was always the most bulletproof part of the machine anyway. This screen is going to continue to look good for years to come, with a 2,560 x 1,600 (227 pixel per inch) resolution that looks as razor-sharp as you'd ever need from a typical laptop viewing distance. Color accuracy, brightness and viewing angles are also top-notch.

Apple's Retina Display now has more competition than ever on the Windows side of the aisle, but it's still a strength – and no less stunning than it was when it first debuted two and a half years ago.

Another returning strength is Apple's excellent (unchanged) keyboard, which has consistently been our top pick for notebook typing.

The laptop has the same series of ports from years past, including two USB 3.0, two Thunderbolt (though those are starting to look more obsolete by the minute), HDMI, an SD slot and a standalone MagSafe 2 charging port. If you're considering holding out for that new 12-in MacBook, its lone USB Type-C port – which you also use for charging – could make for quite the compromise (and quite the collection of adapters).

For a combination of razor-sharp screen, pro-level power, standard selection of ports, and acceptable level of portability, this Retina MBP is the best MacBook (and arguably the best notebook) you can buy.

You might notice that we didn't yet mention the new model's glass trackpad, which has also consistently been the best in the business during recent memory. That's because it's another change on the new model, switching from the physically-moving ("diving board" hinged) one on every other recent MacBook to a new "Force Touch" trackpad. When you press down on the trackpad for a full click, it no longer moves.

But the crazy thing is, if you aren't aware of this new tech, you might not even realize that this trackpad is any different from the old ones. That's because Apple has included a combination of pressure sensors and haptic feedback to make it feel like it moves when you press down on it.

It's a bizarre sensation: turn the MacBook off and press on its trackpad, and it's clear that you're just mashing your finger against a non-moving piece of glass (much like a smartphone's screen). But once you power it on, OS X activates its Force Touch feedback and you'll swear that it's moving and clicking, just like every other MacBook trackpad you've used.

More than any other haptic feedback we've used, the Force Touch trackpad simulates real movement. It feels much more sophisticated than the haptic feedback that's common on Android smartphones.

On that razor-thin new 12-in MacBook, this Force Touch trackpad makes a lot more sense, as it plays a part in allowing the device to be so light and thin (no moving trackpad means less required internal space). But on a comparatively beefy notebook like this, there isn't a clear-cut reason for having such a non-moving trackpad.

There are, however, a couple of somewhat practical aspects to the new trackpad in this model, even if they aren't quite game-changers.

First, it's possible that, rather than making the device smaller, the non-moving trackpad allowed Apple to squeeze in that larger battery.

There is also a new Force Click gesture integrated into OS X. A standard press on the pad registers as a single click, just as you'd expect – but if you press down (what feels like) a little farther, it classifies this as a Force Click. OS X registers this the same way as it did a three-finger tap on older MacBook trackpads, giving you immediate info like pop-up definitions of words your cursor is hovering over (and you can still change this setting back to that three-finger tap if you like).

In time, Apple will likely add more Force Click support into OS X.

The last advantage of the new trackpad is that, since you lose that "diving board" hinge, there's no "good" or "bad" place to click the pad. On the physically-moving trackpads, it was much easier to press down near the front than it was near the back. But since the "movement" is now an illusion created by sensors and vibrations, it's equally responsive across the entire pad.

Our one piece of advice on using Force Touch is to think of it in terms of depth, not force. A single click is like walking from the second floor of a building down to the lobby. A Force click is like going from that second floor all the way down to the basement. To get to that basement, you don't have to pound on the main floor with a jackhammer; you just walk down a little farther.

… and you'll know when you've force-clicked because you'll feel a second click on the trackpad. All of this may sound odd, but it will all make sense once you use it – and none of it takes anything away from the experience of using Apple's still outstanding (and still huge) glass trackpad. This sucker is still one of the best reasons to choose a MacBook over a Windows- or Chrome OS-running rival.

In the entry-level model we're using (Broadwell Intel Core i5, at 2.7 GHz with 3.1 GHz Turbo Boost), performance was fast and smooth in every corner of OS X. Apps load lightning fast and advanced filters in Photoshop apply almost instantaneously. Like the mid-2014 model, 8 GB of RAM comes standard in the new entry-level model, but this model adds faster PCIe-based SSD speeds (double the storage speeds of the previous model, according to Apple).

OS X storage benchmark BlackMagic Disk Speed Test indeed showed out-of-this-world solid state speeds, hitting over 625 MB/s write speeds and 1,150 MB/s read speeds.

The Geekbench 3 performance benchmark showed similar scores to the mid-2014 rMBP (a little faster in multi-core, a little slower in single core), as the two machines have equal RAM and nearly identical processor speeds. The lack of significant improvement there is because Geekbench doesn't measure storage speeds, which are where the vast majority of this model's performance boost comes from.

If you're also looking at that new super-thin 12-in MacBook, this new Retina MBP is going to be much faster than both it and the latest MacBook Airs. There's just no comparing the Broadwell Core M found in that ultra-portable 12-in model (or the slower Core i5 in the Air) to this Broadwell Core i5.

Apple is advertising slightly longer battery life in the new model (10 hours web use vs. 9 hours in the 2014 edition), and we've been very happy with its uptimes. In our video streaming test (minimal background apps running, brightness set at 75 percent) it dropped 9 percent per hour. For a frame of reference, the Surface Pro 3 dropped over 15 percent per hour in the same test. For such a powerful machine with a razor-sharp display, the new MacBook's uptimes are outstanding.

In regular use, battery life also impressed us. With my typical workflow (typing in a writing app, some Photoshopping and lots of web browsing … with brightness varying between 60-90 percent), it can keep chugging for as much as 7-8 hours. Again, awesome.

If you're shopping for a new MacBook (or a new notebook in general), Apple has made your decision tougher than ever. No more is your choice between light and thin but no Retina Display vs. a little thicker and heavier (and more expensive) with Retina. Now you also have the option of that 12-in MacBook that's lighter and thinner than the Air with a display that goes toe-to-toe with this one.

Though we haven't yet put that new MacBook through the paces, it's safe to say that this Retina MacBook Pro still has a place – and is still worthy of consideration. Its only disadvantages are that it sacrifices portability (it's 37 percent thicker and 71 percent heavier) and its entry-level version gives you half the internal storage for the same price (128 GB vs. the 12-in MacBook's 256 GB).

But on the plus side, this Retina MacBook Pro has a full set of ports, a 23 percent bigger screen, (what should be) significantly faster performance and slightly longer battery life. The new MacBook is undoubtedly the sexy one, but this rMBP is still the workhorse – and possibly the best all-around notebook you can buy today.

The new 13-in MacBook Pro with Retina Display is available now, starting at US$1,300 for 128 GB of (speedy) storage and 8 GB RAM. You'll need to tag on an extra $200 to take that up to 256 GB (though accessories like the JetDrive Lite can do wonders for getting by with 128 GB).

Product page: Apple

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