MacBook Pro 13 Inch Retina First Impressions


I guess it’s fair to say that I love tech. A quick rummage through my cupboards would betray my enthusiasm (some might say obsession) with boxes full of old Psions, Palms, Newtons and laptops - even a couple of Sony micro PC’s. But whilst its is true to say I love tech, there are actually only very few individual products that I love. There are many that I enjoy using, admire, respect but to love a device, for me, it has to have 2 unique attributes; firstly it has to constantly exceed my expectations in it’s daily use and secondly, it has to have a design that stirs certain feelings when you cast your eyes on it or when it sits in your hand.

That perfect combination of function and form.

For this reason, even though I think they are brilliant devices, I don’t love my iPhone or iPad. They pretty much nail the form part of the equation but don’t exceed my expectations every day because of the compromises they make. Just today, for example, my iPad let me down  when someone sent me a zip file I couldn’t open and even after all this time I’m still mad with it for not having a file system and for changing every lower case i to an upper case I without asking me! And the phone, well the audio quality always disappoints me when I listen to it - which I do every day. I’m prepared to live with the compromises - I just don’t love them.

If I had to name three devices that I love. My top three would be: The Linn Sondek LP12 turntable, my Sony Walkman pro  cassette player and my Apple 11” MacBook Air. I don’t even use those first two items every day (in the Sony’s case - ever) but like old girlfriends, they will always have a special place in my heart.

I bought my 11” MacBook Air in Vegas whilst attending CES 2010. It was replacing one of the first generation Airs, which whilst a masterpiece of thin design was pretty much unusable for anything other than a bit of email. Even a few minutes of flash video from the web made the original Air hotter than a fox in a forest fire so I didn’t have high expectations for the 11” but I was prepared to try the compromise as it was a brilliant design and unbelievably light.

From the moment I turned it on, it exceeded my expectations. This was my first SSD experience and despite it’s modest processor and RAM specs, it was the fastest computer I had ever used including the big clunking Mac pro computer on the desk in my office, which at that time was still using spinning drives. The way I’d define fast is a little different from the benchmark specs about how fast a computer can render in photoshop, It’s about the every day speed of the little things - changing a wifi network, launching iPhoto, how many tabs can load sensibly in Safari and in this respect the modest 11” Air rocked. It’s display was a higher res than anything I’d had before and I was thrilled with how usable the small screen was.

A couple on months in, I found myself on a plane between the UK and the USA doing radical last minute changes to a presentation I was due to give when I got off. I was simultaneously rendering new titles & overlaying new audio into video in iMovie, embedding the the results into Powerpoint along with images from a USB stick and the humble Air just did it. No failing batteries, no spinning beach balls, no overheating, no hysteria. This became a device I loved. I take it everywhere when I travel and when I’m not at my desk at home, more often than not I’m carrying around with me like small magazine. I prefer it to the iPad for everything except reading newspapers and books.

The machine I had was the absolutely lowest spec, memory & storage and for about a year I have been looking to upgrade it. (Every time I download a movie - I get the dreaded your startup disk is almost full message) Minded to the Mac release cycle, I decided to wait until the summer of this year when I planned to buy a maxed out 11” and that’s when the 15” Retina spoiled my plans. I spent serious time in the Apple store with a 15” Retina in one hand and the an 11” Air in the other and came to the tough decision that neither would now do. The 15” was just two big to travel 2/3 days a week and I knew that having a non-retina display was too much to give up so I made the very grown up decision to wait for a 13” Retina to come along. 4 months latter it did. I got mine today - the mid point 256GB i5 - and here are a few first impressions.

The punchline - It’s not a 13” Retina MacBook Pro it’s a 13” Retina MacBook Air.

I don’t mean this in a pejorative way. I don’t need my mobile machine to be a pro machine so I’m cool with it. I just think it’s a function of Apple’s naming conventions that they’ve ended up in a funny place here. If you look at the specs and say to yourself what would I change if I was making a 13” retina machine that had decent battery life, that was the thinnest we could make it and had the minimum specs to still work - you would end up with this machine. It’s not an Air because of the physics of the battery requirements but to all intents and purposes - it is. Conversely, Apple could have made this machine a lot more “Pro” - Quad core processors, discrete GPU, 16/32 GB of Ram could all have been included, but haven’t been. These things are in the 15” model with better value for money than the 13”.

For power/business users - If you want one machine that can replace a desk top and be used in different locations around the home and occasionally travel then the 15” is the no-brainer option but if you want a machine that can be genuinely mobile and perhaps be used in combination with a big machine at home then I think there is a real choice between which compromise suits you best:

An 11” Air which gives you super light weight at the cost of display.

A 13” Retina which gives you super display at the cost of weight and bulk.

After 1 day I can report that the display is bloody brilliant. It works fine at the top scaled spec of 1680 by 1050 and for the first time I can use two major apps side by side without tabbing which is much more productive for me. There is an ominous warning - “Using scaled resolution may affect performance” on the settings screen which pertains to that written above about how far away this really is from a Pro machine.

It’s also a lot heavier to my hands than the 11” Air. It feels like a computer again. The best way I can describe it - I wouldn’t think twice, if I was standing a metre away from the sofa about tossing my Air onto it like a magazine, it feels light enough that it will never come to any harm but I’d never toss this machine, it feels heavy enough to bounce off and make a hole in floor.

How these two compromises will trade off over time - I have no idea. It will take a month or two to know and least one go of that long run between terminals at O’Hare with my case hanging off my shoulder.

In terms of speed and heat, so far so good. I have had chance to run some HD video with no noticeable warming. Battery life is loads better than my 11” Air. Speed is a bit more difficult to judge as I have been doing all those set up jobs you do on a new laptop and that’s a reminder of one of Apple’s two present deadly sins - more stuff being modal in it’s operation. (The other being skeuomorphism  of course)

As I set up 10 or 15 email accounts in preferences, I just want to bang in the SMTP and IMAP server settings and move on. I don’t want to have to wait whilst each one is tested over a slow internet connection watching a spinning beach ball. This OSX not iOS - use a background process not a modal process. It used to be that the only app that gave me the beach ball of death was MS Office suite but actually the latest version is almost faultless. Now it’s only Apple settings apps (which all seem to keep you on hold whilst the app communicates with the server), Safari and iTunes giving me the dreaded ball - in iTunes’ case for about half of my total use time. Hopefully this is about to be fixed but I digress.

It generally feels pretty snappy, faster than my Air and about the same as my New/old Mac Pro which runs a 500GB SSD. The first time I opened iPhoto it took 25 seconds to launch but subsequent times it’s about 1.5 seconds.

One other thought - When switching from reading this draft which I typed on the Retina to my desk top to post it. Suddenly the 27” cinema display looks really rough. I’d never noticed this before but today I can see all the flaws in the text.

Much more to report after a few weeks use rather than a few hours but to the question of will I ever love this device? We’ll see, I doubt it - I can already foresee a 10/11” retina device, weighing less than a kilo and sexier than Keira Knightley landing somewhere in 2014 and I think that will probably be the next love.