Upgrades make Retina MacBook Pro a better bargain

In the latest update to the Retina MacBook Pro, some models got price cuts, some received slightly faster processors, and some got a healthy bump in the amount of RAM. Anyone who purchased a Retina MacBook Pro prior to this refresh shouldn't kick themselves for making the leap, but the reduced cost for the 13-inch models and faster performance for the 15-inch models make these thin, light, and fast laptops a better deal than ever.

Let's be specific

From the outside, the 2013 Retina MacBook Pros look identical to the 2012 models. Our previous reviews of the original 13-inch and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros contain more details on the look and feel of these laptops. But here's a short summary of the specifications.

[Apple boosts performance, lowers prices on MacBook Pro with Retina display and Mac troubleshooting: What to do when your computer is too slow]

All of the Retina MacBook Pros have two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, a MagSafe 2 power connector, a headphone jack, and an SDXD card slot. As with last year's Retina MacBook Pros, RAM is not user-upgradable; but luckily, the standard 8GB of memory is sufficient for all but the most demanding users. If you require more than 8GB of RAM, you will need to move to a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro which can be configured with 16GB of RAM.

The 13-inch models feature LED backlit screens with 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution and a pixel density of 227 pixels per square inch. This extremely high resolution--four times higher than that of the MacBook Pros with standard screens--makes the individual pixels in an image virtually undetectable. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is just 0.75 inch thick and weighs 3.57 pounds. The non-Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro is 0.95 inch thick and weighs 4.5 pounds.

The 13-inch base model's specifications remain unchanged, but its price has dropped from $1699 to $1499. It has a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 processor with Intel's Turbo Boost technology, which allows the processor to reach speeds of up to 3.1GHz for short periods of high demand. The Core i5 processors in the 13-inch MacBook Pros do not support Hyper-Threading, an Intel technology that allows applications to access two virtual cores for each physical processor. The base model has 8GB of 1600MHz memory, 128GB of speedy flash storage, and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000.

At $1699, the new high-end 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro costs $300 less than its predecessor. Even with the reduced price, the system comes with a slightly faster processor--a 2.6GHz Core i5, versus the 2.5GHz Core i5 in the previous model. Like the $1499 model, this system comes with 8GB of 1600MHz memory (not upgradable) and Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4000. The $1699 model includes 256GB of flash storage, twice the capacity of the $1499 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.

The new 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros have 2880-by-1800-pixel resolution, with a slightly lower pixel density--220 ppi--than the 13-inch Retina model. The 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is actually 0.04 inch thinner than the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and weighs in at 4.46 pounds, about the same as the non-Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The new 15-inch models cost the same as their predecessors ($2199 and $2799), but the base model now has a faster, 2.4GHz Core i7 quad-core processor and supports both Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost. It also features the same 8GB of 1600MHz memory (upgradable to 16GB for $200 more, but only at the point of purchase) and 256GB of flash storage as before, as well as both integrated and discrete graphics in the form of Intel's HD Graphics 4000 and Nvidia's GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. The high-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro has a faster 2.7GHz Core i7 quad-core processor, a whopping 16GB of 1600MHz memory, and the same 500GB of flash storage and dual integrated/discrete graphics as the previous high-end standard-configuration Retina MacBook Pro.

All about performance

To see how these new updates affect performance, we ran our Speedmark 8 overall system performance benchmark suite, which helps us compare the new system's results to those of previous systems and other Apple portables. The new 13-inch 2.6GHz Retina MacBook Pro earned a Speedmark 8 score of 190, about 3% faster than the 13-inch base model with its 2.5GHz Core i5 processor. With both systems sharing so many specifications (graphics, flash storage, RAM), its not surprising that most tests results were very close, and some were even identical.

The high-end 13-inch 2.6GHz Core i5 Retina MacBook Pro's Speedmark 8 score was 24% higher than that of the high-end 13-inch 2.9GHz Core i7 standard MacBook Pro, due almost entirely to the Retina MacBook Pro's faster flash storage. The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro was faster in seven tests, including a file duplication test that took five times longer to complete on the non-Retina MacBook Pro's standard 5400-rpm hard drive. The standard MacBook Pro, with its discrete graphics and speedier Core i7 processor, was faster in seven tests, including MathematicaMark 8, Portal 2, and Cinebench's OpenGL and CPU tests.

If you're trying to decide between a MacBook Air and a Retina MacBook Pro, you'll be interested to know that the Retina MacBook Pro was 14% faster overall, with processor-intensive tests showing the biggest differences. The Retina MacBook Pro was 40% faster than the MacBook Air in our Handbrake test, 17% faster in the Cinebench CPU test, and 7% faster in the MathematicaMark 8 test. The extra RAM in the MacBook Pro helped it earn a 34% higher productivity score in PCMark running on Windows 7 using VMWare Fusion.

Despite having twice the amount of RAM and slightly faster processor, the new high-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro was just 3% faster than the previous high-end 15-inch model that had the same graphics and flash storage. The new high-end model was 5% faster overall than the new base 15-inch Retina model. When comparing the performance of the new low-end 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro and the new high-end 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, you see a very large difference between the two, with the 15-inch model being 47% faster overall. In both Portal 2 and Cinebench's OpenGL tests, the discrete graphics in the 15-inch model displayed more than twice as many frames per second as the 13-inch model's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000.

Bottom line

The new Retina MacBook Pros represent a subtle refresh to the line of beautiful, ultra-high-resolution portables introduced last year. The price reductions for the 13-inch models make them a better bargain than before, while the 16GB of RAM in the high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro might help take the sting out of the $2799 price tag.

This story, "Upgrades make Retina MacBook Pro a better bargain" was originally published by Macworld.

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