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Apple 13-in. Retina MacBook Pro review: Vibrant screen, perfect size?

November 20, 2012 05:45 AM ET

One thing to keep in mind: If you've already run through the initial setup and created your account using your old account name, you can't be logged into that account and use the Migration Assistant in the Utilities folder to transfer data from your old computer. You have to create an account with a different name, log in to that account, and then run Migration Assistant to set up your new computer using your old account name and password. It's a surprisingly kludgey move from Apple.

Migration Assistant finished a 235GB wireless transfer in six hours and 24 minutes. (When I was finally able to connect the two laptops, using a FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter, I restored the laptop and ran that setup again. This time, that same 235GB transferred in an hour and seven minutes.)

Better than the 15-in. model?

Initially, I was skeptical that the 13-in. screen would be enough for me. I've been using one variant or another of the 15-in. PowerBook/MacBook Pro for most of my professional life. And even with the larger screen, I have to use the pinch-to-zoom feature of OS X to read some text-heavy sites. From past experiences, I wasn't convinced that the 13-in. display would be better, Retina display or not.

The first time I turned the new computer on, text jumped out right away; it's very smooth and crisp. After a few weeks, I noticed that I didn't really need to zoom in on text-heavy sites like I used to. That's entirely due to the Retina display. It didn't take long to see that the sharp text and graphics make it easy to love the 13-in. screen. Even better, the size/weight combo is perfect for sliding into a backpack or briefcase. I find myself now wondering: Do I really need the 15-in. MacBook Pro anymore?

It's not all roses, though. In real life, the arrival of Retina displays means one of two things: content looks great, or it looks like crap. Why? Because, while some content and apps have been designed for high-res displays, many other things have not. Photos that would look fine on a normal display might look pixelated here; the same is true for video, apps and even webpages that don't yet support high-resolution graphics.

Sure, text is crystal clear, but other elements depend on the quality of the source. So, while the display is great, as with the iPhone and iPad before it, if your day-to-day apps haven't been updated to take advantage of the technology, you'll notice the lower quality.

Even so, it's safe to say that the Intel chipset inside the computer will show its age long before the display will.

I'm accustomed to the i7 processor in my own MacBook Pro, so I really wanted to put this machine's i5 chip through its paces. In the end, I was impressed. Performance-wise, the 13-incher had more than enough horsepower to run Windows XP using Parallels, along with Office and other programs in both the Windows and Mac operating systems at the same time without lagging. I usually had about a dozen programs running in the background at any given time, and switching among them and operating the computer didn't cause any obvious slowdowns.

One thing that surprised me was how eerily silent the 13-in. MacBook Pro ran. Actions that cause the fan to rev loudly on my own laptop merely warmed up the new laptop. (I could feel some heat escape from around the keys, but that was it.) Even when I had a dozen apps open, including XP in Parallels and Handbrake exporting different versions of an iMovie video, this machine was quiet: No clicking and clacking of hard drives, and no whir of fan noise. I had to double-check to see if the 13-in. MacBook Pro even had an internal fan. (It does, by the way; two of them.)

Battery life is impressive. Although I run this computer plugged in at work all day, when at home, I tend to leave it on the coffee table beside me, unplugged. Apple's estimate of seven-hour battery life isn't far off the mark. I got about six hours of use before receiving the 10% left warning.

Final thoughts

In terms of actual performance, the Intel i5 processor isn't as fast as the quad-core i7 I'm used to -- which is obvious, but it was interesting to see the difference. Encoding a two-and-a-half hour video took an hour longer than on my own laptop. So while the 13-in. Retina MacBook is not the fastest laptop you can buy from Apple, it more than holds its own in everyday tasks.

And that's the tradeoff, really. You give up an optical drive, some legacy ports and customization in exchange for less weight, a smaller form factor and a stunning screen. At $500 more than a standard 13-in. model -- and $100 less than the low end 15-in. model -- the decision right now on whether to buy one depends on your priorities and your pocketbook.

My take is that the Retina display MacBook Pro offers a compelling bundle of features housed in an impressive chassis, with plenty of horsepower and, of course, the screen that makes it special. In short, this machine has won me over. It scores high marks everywhere it counts: performance, battery life, stability, quality, weight/portability and design. There are tradeoffs, but if you can live with them, you can't go wrong with this MacBook Pro.

13-in and 15-in MacBook Pros
The 13-in. Retina display MacBook Pro (left) and the larger 15-in. Retina display MacBook Pro (right). (Image: Apple)

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Read more about Macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.

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