The Retina 13": Awkward

06 Nov 2012

Patrick Gibson posted a review today of the Retina 13” MacBook Pro:

Here’s your one-line review: Don’t buy this computer.

A week ago I upgraded to the 13” Retina Pro from a 2.5-year-old 15” Pro. While I wouldn’t go as far as Patrick, I did consider returning mine for the first couple days ((Or more accurately, pass it over to somebody else at Steamclock.)). I expected it to be an upgrade, but instead got more of a die shrink.

The Bad

The Intel HD Graphics 4000 can barely handle this display. The smoothness of scrolling and gaming compare poorly to my old 15” Pro when driving the Retina Display. Of course this is an unfair comparison: a discrete graphics card driving a low-res display is going to outperform integrated graphics driving a high-res display.

For many the discrete graphics might be overkill, but I miss it. I primarily care about RAM and graphics, neither of which are configurable on this machine. So here I am, 2.5 years later, with a new laptop that has the same RAM, same disk, and 0.1 Ghz faster CPU than my last machine. Woe is me, life is so very difficult.

The Weird

As nice as it is to look at the display when I’m on the go, my laptop spends a lot of its time running an external monitor. External monitors for now are not Retina. As nice as it is to look at a HiDPI screen when you’re used to standard DPI, it’s much worse to go the other way. I spend my days now jumping from clear and crisp to dull and cruddy.

The iPad mini poses the same challenge. By all accounts it’s a wonderful device, but it’s hard to look at for those of us who have gotten used to Retina displays. When you can go all-Retina it’s a beautiful experience, but if your external monitor is low-res and your iPad is low-res, is a Retina laptop just a form of torture?

To the software. I use Photoshop and Illustrator a lot, and they look really sad. This was unsurprising. The glitches in Apple’s apps did surprise me however. The migration from my old machine has left me with an iPhoto that won’t launch until 10.8.2 is available for my machine - it alerts me of this fact whenever I plug in an iOS device. When I switch from an external display to the built-in display I often end up with iTunes, iCal, and other Apple apps on screen looking blurry, still drawing at non-retina resolutions. I’ve seen the Quartz window shadows detach from apps and iCal lose the plot and tear horribly when scrolling. These annoyances will all be temporary, so I’ve been mostly ignoring them.

Besides the big points, there are a handful of tiny things you give up going to this machine. A MagSafe connector that actually stays connected, for one. The little battery indicator lights are gone. I suppose you also give up the optical drive, but I probably used that even less often than the battery lights.

In sum, I was spoiled by my last computer, and so for the first time I can ever remember, I’ve gone and upgraded to a computer that doesn’t feel faster in real use. This feels like a strange way to spend $2000 ((To be fair, I can sell my old 15” Pro for most of the cost of this machine, so in practice this upgrade will actually cost very little.)), so by day two I hit peak skepticism about this machine.

The Good

When I am running on the built-in display, it brings me joy. It’s crisp, it’s beautiful, and it’s obviously the future. At least as important as my subjective experience is the ability to see how our web work looks on a Retina Mac. Low-resolution assets are everywhere on the web, and although I had a pretty good idea of which of our assets were sub-par, I now have knowledge and motivation to get it all fixed. Just like on the iPad 3, going Retina forced a number of compromises, but you can see why they bit the bullet and did it anyway.

The biggest reason I’m keeping this machine, though, is the form factor. I underestimated how addicting the smaller size and weight would be. I’m more comfortable using it in my lap, on the couch, and my back is thankful. There isn’t a lot to be said about it - for most people, a 15” computer doesn’t make sense anymore, myself included. This new machine isn’t any faster, but it’s so much nicer to carry and use that it really qualifies as an upgrade.

The Awkward

Although I’ve decided to keep this computer, I’m not convicted that it was the best option. Would a cheaper 13” Air or 13” non-Retina Pro, with the same graphics, disk, and RAM, have been a better call? Or would I have been better off waiting for the next 13” Retina Pro? The fact that I’m unsure speaks to the cluttered state of Apple’s notebook line today. There are a lot of form factor options but few performance options. As John Siracusa puts it, the line is going through adolescence. Weird transitions are happening, and for now we’re living with compromises.

If your 13” MacBook is less than 3 years old, I’d encourage you to wait this one out for another generation. If you’re moving to an iPad mini, the Retina display on this Mac might just make you sad. However, if you’re coming from a heavy or old MacBook and want a taste of the future, you might just like this machine.