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MacBook Pro 13" with Retina Display — Analysis versus the 15" Model

The compact form factor of the 13" model is always attractive, especially since the latest model (Oct 2012) how has an 2560 X 1600 Retina display upgrade (but it’s optional and expensive and limits memory to 8GB).

For those who must have a smaller form factor, the 13" MacBook Pro appears to be quite a lovely little unit and for many uses, it will be a very fast and very enjoyable computer. Beautifully designed, and very fast for most uses.

But once spiffed up to the Retina display and fast CPU; the 13" Retina model offers poor value by comparison with the 15" Retina model, because the 13" MBP Retina is crippled in two key ways, and also has a smaller screen:

  • Dual-core CPU, meaning that Lightroom and Photoshop will never run anywhere near their possible speed. Converting my Nikon D800 files is already sluggish on my 2.7 GHz MBP Retina quad-core, I don’t see a dual-core CPU as a viable CPU for my non-casual use. A MacMini has a quad-core 2.6 GHz i7 CPU, what are they thinking here?
  • Perhaps even worse, the 13" MacBook Pro offers a maximum of 8GB of soldered-on non-upgradeable memory, which can be a serious hit to performance when working with larger files, far more performance degrading than dual vs quad core. This is a key distinction from the non-Retina 13" model, which accepts 16GB memory at low cost. Seriously, a MacMini can do 16GB, but not a top-flight 13" MBP? What are they thinking?
  • Smaller working screen area, very noticeable in practice. This is not a defining issue, but it is significant to working efficiently.

The 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display is stillborn as far as my workflow.

Spending $2699 for a crippled 13" MBP makes sense only if a slight savings in size and weight are the #1 priority (the price drops to $2199 if one opts for the 256GB flash drive, but that is not enough for me in the field).

When one adds in the cost of AppleCare, backup, peripherals, the total system cost looks even less favorable for the 13" Retina model. Everyone has their own needs and priorities, but for me the MBP 13" Retina looks like a very poor value by comparison with the 15" model. It becomes a luxury good, at which it succeeds admirably, but in terms of my needs for serious work, it is a design failure.

  MBP 13" Retina MBP 15" Retina
CPU up to 2.9 GHz dual core up to 2.7 GHz quad core
Memory 8GB max 8GB or 16GB
Flash drive up to 768GB up to 768GB
Screen resolution 2560 X 1600 2880 X 1920
Working area at Retina(best) resolution* 1280 X 800
(scaled up is less cramped)
1440 X 960
(scaled up is less cramped)
Graphics** Intel HD Graphics 4000 Intel HD Graphics 4000
NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with
1GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching
Weight 3.57 pounds 4.46 pounds
Dimensions 12.35 X 8.62 X 0.75 14.13 X 9.17 X 0.71
Price $2699
(2.9 GHz dual core, 8GB, 512GB)
$2199 for 256GB flash config
(2.6 GHz quad-core, 16GB, 512GB)

* Screen resolution should be confused with screen useable working space in conventional terms of how much can be displayed. Scaling up the screen helps.

** Mostly irrelevant. I have never measured any gains for “faster” graphics for anything I do and OpenGL causes glitches in Photoshop anyway, so I turn it off.

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