Gear Review: 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display

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Gear and Gizmos  

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For the past few years the best laptop for travelers has been, without question, the MacBook Air. It’s slim design and sub-3 pound weight have made it a favorite amongst road warriors looking to travel as light as possible. The latest update to the laptop even gave it an astounding 12 hours of battery life, which only seemed to increase the Air’s lead over the competition. But a few weeks back Apple also updated it’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display line, introducing some excellent improvements while slashing the price. As a result, Apple has finally introduced a true rival to the Air, giving travelers a new option for a mobile powerhouse. 

Cosmetically the 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display hasn’t changed much from last year’s model at all. It is slightly thinner at .71 inches and lighter at 3.4 pounds. That makes it just a bit bigger than the air at it’s thickest point and about a half-pound heavier. But what we give up in weight we more than make up for with other features. The latest editions of the MacBook Pro come equipped with Intel’s new energy efficient Haswell processors which have an immediate impact on battery life while also improving speed and power for running our favorite programs. The new Pro models can now run more than 9 hours on a single charge while still having the muscle to edit photos and video on the go. Those are tasks that the Air can struggle with due to its less powerful processors.

The updated Intel chips aren’t the only improvements that brings more speed to the MacBook Pro. Faster solid-state hard drives deliver performance gains as well. This year’s model is noticeably faster at loading programs and saving files and since SSD’s don’t have moving parts, they can resist the rigors of travel more easily. The model I tested came with a 256 GB drive, which seems like the sweet spot in terms of providing plenty of storage capacity at an affordable price. That same model included 8 GB of RAM – double the amount that ships on the Air – which also helps with speed and efficiency.

Of course, the other big difference between the MacBook Air and the Pro is in their displays. The Air has a decent screen that serves its purpose well, while the Pro models have Apple’s amazing Retina Display. The 13″ model I used for this review has an impressive resolution of  2560 by 1600, which provides plenty of screen real estate for getting work done. Beyond that however, the screen is just incredibly crisp and clear, while providing excellent color reproduction. When compared side-by-side with the Air, the difference is striking. The Retina display is just so much better that it is hard to go back to a regular screen once you’ve used it.

Apple hasn’t changed the keyboard or multitouch trackpad on the MacBook Pro in any way, but then why would they ever want to mess with perfection? For my money, the keyboard is the best I’ve used on a laptop, with a great feel and plenty of travel on the keys. Likewise, the trackpad is simply unmatched on any other notebook on the market. It is smooth, responsive and spacious. Add in OS X’s support for multitouch gestures and you truly have the best combination of input devices for a laptop.

The MacBook Pro with Retina will appeal to a lot of travelers because it offers much of the same features that have made the Air so popular, while also giving them more power to get things done. That was true last year however when the Retina models were fist introduced. What’s different this time out? Apple has slashed the price on the new Pro’s by $200, which now puts them within striking distance of the Air in terms of cost. In fact, when I configured a MacBook Air with similar specs to the Pro model I reviewed, there was only about a $50 difference in price. That $50 gave me a considerably faster processor, twice the RAM and a much improved display. That made it a no brainer to spend a little more money to get the Pro.

If battery life is your chief concern with your laptop, then the Air may still be your best choice. It’s 12+ hours is simply incredible and something the Pro model can’t match. But the Retina Pro does still offer more than 9 hours of battery life between charges, which is impressive in its own right. Because it is also a much more capable laptop in general, I suspect most of us will be willing to sacrifice a few hours on the battery in favor of all around better performance.

The MacBook Pro used for this review features a 2.4 GHz processor, a 256 GB SSD drive and 8 GB of RAM. This model carries a price tag of $1499, although there are configurations that are both more and less expensive. All versions of the MacBook Pro include two USB 3.0 ports, a built in HDMI port, two Thunderbolt ports and an SD card reader. That’s a solid number of options for a laptop this thin and light.

If you’re a frequent traveler who needs to carry your laptop with you when you hit the road, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is tough to beat. It is fast, powerful and has a beautiful display. It is also thin and light, while maintaining the fantastic build quality that Apple is so well known for. Heck, it even runs Windows if you need it to, although the new version of OS X (dubbed Mavericks) brings some excellent new features to the table as well.

For the first time in several years, the MacBook Air may no longer be the best choice in terms of travel laptops. While it remains an enticing option for sure, when you factor in everything the new MacBook Pro brings to the table, it may be time for the Air to relinquish its crown.

 

About the Author: Kraig Becker

Kraig Becker is a freelance outdoor and adventure travel writer who covers extreme sports, mountaineering and active travel. Based out of Austin, TX he writes about his own travels while encouraging others to seek their own opportunities for adventure where ever they go.

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