Review: Apple MacBook Pro 13 inch with Retina (2015)
4.8Overall Score
Price (RRP): $1799 (starting price); Manufacturer: Apple

Now that Intel’s latest generation of processors is out and has been for a few months, Apple is ready with an update, refreshing its line of computers to take the new chips, as well as a dash of something else. Could this be your next computer purchase?

Features

Apple is almost always among the first to update its computers with the latest and greatest from Intel, and while it was a little late getting the new chips — Lenovo paid for that exclusive with the Yoga  — it is now ready to show its wares to the world, starting with the MacBook Pro.

Specifically, Apple is starting with the 13 inch Retina model of the MacBook Pro, with the 15 inch variant keeping the previous generation of processor for the moment (generation four, “Haswell”) and the 13 inch getting generation five of Intel’s Core processors, also known as “Broadwell”.

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In this refresh, you’ll find dual-core Intel Core i5 processors are offered with either 2.7 or 2.9GHz of power, though a version can be selected with the 3.1GHz dual-core Core i7 chip, too. Memory for these machines comes with 8GB out of the box, though 16GB can be configured, with the storage for Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite” starting at 128GB, with options for 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB of PCI-e flash-based storage offered, a little faster than the typical solid-state hard drive options computers may well come with.

Intel’s graphics are relied on for most of the graphical work needed here, with no option for a heavier graphics chip like in the 15 inch MacBook Pro with Retina, but the display does come with the same resolution as its 15 inch counterpart, the Retina-labelled 2560×1600 13.3 inch screen offering 227 pixels per inch of clarity.

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Ports are much the same as they were last year, with two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, a 3.5mm headset jack, SDXC card slot, and a single HDMI port, as well as the Apple proprietary MagSafe 2 power port, and as usual, there’s a 720p FaceTime HD webcam in the frame above the screen. Two microphones are build into the computer, as are two speakers.

Wireless connectivity is included, too, regardless of which version you buy, with 802.11a/b/g/n and even 802.11ac, with Bluetooth 4.0 included as part of the package.

Casing for the machine is made of aluminium, with the machine featuring a thickness of 18mm when closed and a weight of 1.58 kilograms.

The review model was the starting model, which includes a 128GB PCIe flash drive, 8GB RAM, 2.7GHz Intel Core i5 processor, and a price of $1799, which is also the starting price for Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 with Retina.

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Performance

In 2015, the biggest reasons for updating to a MacBook Pro 13 with Retina are the processor change — because Intel’s fifth-generation “Broadwell” chips are now here — and the inclusion of the Apple “Force” trackpad, a new style of trackpad that we’ll see on the upcoming ultra-thin MacBook when it gets released.

Beyond these changes, it’s the same typical MacBook Pro with Retina we’ve seen before, and loved before, for that matter, so let’s get stuck into it.

From a design point of view, nothing has changed, and that is okay by us. In the 2015 edition of MacBook Pro, Apple has stayed with the tried and tested aluminium unibody, black plastic screen hinge, and relatively thin design that we’re only now just seeing some proper competitors for in the PC arena.

We’re told it’s a little heavier — marginally — but for the most part, you’ll still see it and feel it as much the same 13 inch machine from last year, and that’s because it looks pretty much the same, coming with two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, a lone HDMI, the one 3.5mm headset jack, and of course an SDXC card slot in case you want to stick a card in the computer and copy images.

But while it looks the same, the two changes are inside, with the new guts — a heart, if you will — and the new trackpad.

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For most of the machine, it’s the same typically excellent MacBook Pro we’ve come to expect out of Apple, and much of our praise for these machines in the past is echoed in this generation, starting with a solid typing experience with just enough travel accompanied by a soft clicking sound as the keys drop in and out.

The screen is just as good as it ever has been, the Retina’s 13.3 inch display running the very high and fuller-than-Full HD resolution of 2560×1600 making images and text look impossibly clear and stunningly bright.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: more screens need to be this good, because this display is bloody superb. Simply, the 13 inch MacBook Pro with Retina is Apple doing the engineering thing it does brilliantly, with a display that keeps your eyes locked onto what you’re doing because it looks so good and never tries to hurt your eyes in the process.

While you should always take a break every couple of hours from viewing a computer screen, this is one that you’d probably get away with continuing to look at, because it’s just that good, and doesn’t require any strain whatsoever.

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Performance is the next thing, and it’s one of the reasons to move to this generation of MacBook Pro, because inside here you’ll find Intel’s latest and greatest, the fifth-generation Core processors from the series known as “Broadwell”. If you’re not caught up with the lingo or the codenames, anyway, this generation is smaller, less power hungry, and generally can run fan-less and without as much heat.

In the 2015 MacBook Pro Retina 13 inch, you’ll still find a little bit of heat when the processor starts to really work, with a feeling that it gets a little toasty on your lap, but it’s not a huge amount of warmth in the way the old MacBook Pros had before the Retina screens turned up, and we never felt uncomfortable.

That said, the MacBook Pro isn’t fan-less like you might expect, and while we mostly had the machine running quiet without the fan, every so often when we wanted to push the graphical power of the computer, we heard the fan spin up and start cooling the system aggressively. It’s not a surprise, that said, to see that happen, or to hear it happen anyway, as this isn’t an Ultrabook-styled computer, not like the MacBook Air, but you still have to push the computer pretty hard — games, graphics, etc — to get the fans to spin up and start exhaling loudly.

Overall performance beyond this is pretty strong, and we had few speed issues as we ran Evernote to write the review, nor as we worked with Safari or Chrome for web surfing, or playing games via Steam.

As a sidenote, gaming isn’t going to be the chief use of this machine, with no option for a discrete graphics card in anything but the 15 inch MacBook Pro Retina. With only Intel graphics on-board, you might still get a little bit of 3D gaming done, with 2D gaming having no problems, just don’t expect the MBP 13 to tackle “Bioshock Infinite” as it’s just not made for that.

We’d like to see a graphics chip option in this model, as without one, this computer is kind of like an Ultrabook with a little more grunt. Kind of, sort of.

Relatively thin and fairly light, only half a kilo heavier than many of the Ultrabooks, including the MacBook Air.

Relatively thin and fairly light, only half a kilo heavier than many of the Ultrabooks, including the MacBook Air.

Over on the battery side of things, if you’re planning to work with writing, web surfing, and general use, the time you’ll see on this laptop is fairly strong, with Apple’s expectation of “up to 10 hours” coming out at pretty much nine-and-a-half of solid use.

Mind you, we also found it didn’t need a charge over the course of two days worth of use, provided you worked a good four hours solid every day or so. You might even be able to pump out a little more, which given the spec and size would be pretty good altogether.

That’s a really impressive effort for a machine that can still keep it relatively thin and yet pack in a high-grade and bright display, while keeping the processor running at over 2GHz, something Apple’s MacBook Air doesn’t reach for. Few PCs offer that sort of battery to system performance, and this feature alone could make someone switch operating systems, it really could.

It’s not all perfect, though, and as the first computer to have the new Force trackpad, we’d be surprised if it didn’t go off without a hitch.

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Unfortunately, hitches do exist, and if you leave your hand or wrist accidentally near the new trackpad, there’s a possibility you might just accidentally erase your writing as you work.

That’s because on this touchpad, the sensibility seems to be very high, and just like with other Windows trackpads that incorrectly pick up on your wrist and activate the mouse accordingly, so too does the Force trackpad from Apple. We’re not sure why it’s so touchy, and we’d like to fiddle with the sensitivity of the wrist pick-up, just like we can with some Windows drivers, but there’s no support here.

Instead, the best solution we’ve managed to find for this issue was to switch off the “tap to click” function on the touchpad and go with an actual click down. You can choose to disable the Force Click setting if you want, but it doesn’t matter if you leave it on; provided “tap to click” isn’t checked, your mouse won’t pick-up on your wrist movement as often, or won’t select things while your wrist absent-mindedly touches it as you type.

Interestingly, this problem is also an issue on PCs, and the easy solution that is generally found on Windows PCs is a function key to switch off the touchpad, a feature that is missing on the Mac.

Apple’s Force trackpad also takes some time to get used to, partially because it’s such a curious concept.

Keep in mind, this isn’t a trackpad in the conventional sense. Generally, the trackpads we’ve all been used to in the Apple computers have been large glass tracking surfaces with a giant button underneath. The trackpads have had multi-touch support, capable of tracking gestures for one, two, three, or four fingers, but the button has been one clicking action of just pressing down.

The Force trackpad is something else.

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Instead of being a conventional button, it relies on a form of haptic or vibration feedback that can firm up or release itself, creating not just a heavy button push like you’re used to, but something underneath it, an extra level of pressing, if you will.

Similar to the camera usability scenario of “press lightly for the auto-focus, and firmer for the shutter firing”, the Apple Force trackpad offers a regular click for your typical single click, and a deeper secondary click for extra functionality.

Most of this “extra functionality” isn’t really defined as of yet, leaving more room for possibilities than actual usage scenarios at the time. For instance, you can press down past the initial click on a word and find the definition of that word, saving you from pulling up the dictionary on the computer or online.

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If you’re checking an address in a calendar or contact, you can press harder for that firmer click and pull up a map. And hey, if you’re surfing Google in Safari and would like to see a preview of a website before you click, press that firmer click on the link and a small box will appear showing you what the page will look like (this doesn’t yet work in Chrome, however).

But that is, for the most part, it, and Apple’s secondary extra heavy mouse click doesn’t do a whole lot right now. We suspect the uses for this will grow in time, but right now, they’re not huge in number.

As for use, the Force trackpad grows on you, especially once you configure it for your use.

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We started the review finding it a little awkward to work, and when the trackpad button was light, we found we’d always push a little too hard, meaning that when we would select text on the screen, our click would be a little too hard and would try to define the words rather than continue a large selection down a screen. Once we firmed up the click and made the main click a little heavier, with the secondary click requiring a solid push, our trackpad felt more like the typical Apple one with something else waiting for us when we pushed down some more.

With those settings working, we found our time with the Force trackpad better and less, well, forced, though it can be a little surprising to get used to, especially since the trackpad isn’t powered when the machine is off or on standby, which can mean you aren’t waking the system up by prodding the trackpad like you used to.

Apple’s software and hardware combination is also fairly switched on to what the trackpad can and should work with, because while you get the extra heavy secondary click on some features — typing this review in Evernote, for example — you don’t get it on others, such as clicking the battery or WiFi function in the Finder bar, as that completely switches off and you’ll only find the single click working there.

As we said, it can take some getting used to, but we think with time, this could be one of those features that improves with age and more fleshing out, and we look forward to seeing what companies can do.

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Conclusion

Beyond the teething process that is the new trackpad, the Apple MacBook Pro is practically perfect, arriving with the ports you need and performance you demand, as well as a weight and battery life that makes it very, very tempting for many.

We find it particularly interesting that Apple has still managed to strike such a balance between performance and long-life that few PCs can nail themselves, though this could have as much to do with the operating system, as Mac OS is a very different beast compared to Windows.

But that’s something worth noting, because it’s a balance we rarely see, and while the thin and light Windows machines generally achieve long life, those with more gutsy processors often fall behind.

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This writer would like to note that in general he’s a PC guy. At home, he uses Windows machines, and the Surface Pro 3 is pretty much his goto machine, because the combination of a touchscreen, a pen, portability, and performance makes that computer one of the better ways to take a machine around the place, even with some of its update flaws.

With that in mind, Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 with Retina is one of the better computers he’s seen in recent years, with a performance and build quality that is hard to escape, and that few competitors can match or even get close to.

Seriously, this is about as close as laptops with almost-3GHz processors get to perfection, and if it can make a Windows guy think about switching, make him ponder hard about jumping camps, then it really is true quality.

Fix those trackpad issues Apple, then we might talk.

Review: Apple MacBook Pro 13 inch with Retina (2015)
Price (RRP): $1799 (starting price); Manufacturer: Apple
More of the same excellent Apple design; Built very well; Still a fantastic screen; Spec’d very well, even though it lacks a discrete graphics chip; Superb battery life; One of the better keyboards you’ll use; Force trackpad is an interesting inclusion that could open up to some useful additions long term;
Trackpad can take some getting used to; Trackpad might pick up on wrist movement and there’s no way to control it;
Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
4.8Overall Score
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