The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is very real, but after weeks of anticipation how does the high-resolution laptop live up to expectations set by its 15-inch sibling, not to mention all of the ultrabook competition it faces? We're waiting until we get to spend quality time with the new computer to make any final conclusions, but for now we can tell quite a bit just by poring over the specification sheets. Join us, won't you, for a look at where the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro truly stands.
MacBook vs. MacBook
Apple's laptop lineup is getting a bit more crunched up than it's been for a while — especially since the company is still offering its traditional 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros. If you're on the lookout for a new machine, the decision may not be as easy as you think.
When pitting the new Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro against its non-Retina counterpart, you see much the same picture that we saw with the 15-inch model. The primary specifications are very similar: both models start with a dual-core, 2.5GHz Core i5 processor, and HD 4000 integrated graphics, though the non-Retina version obviously has a far inferior display (at one-quarter the resolution), and to reach its starting price of $1199 it opts for 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. It also comes with an optical drive. If you configure the non-Retina machine to match the Retina's 128GB of flash storage and 8GB of RAM, however, it comes in at $200 less than the new laptop's $1699 price tag. That's a departure from the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro's pricing, which was less expensive than a similarly-equipped standard MacBook Pro. Of course, the new Retina machine doesn't just have that beautiful 2560 x 1600 display to separate itself: it's also nearly a pound lighter and 0.2 inches thinner.
Little more than a thicker, more expensive MacBook Air with a fantastic screen?
You may think that there's a significant difference between the new 13-inch Retina model and the 13-inch MacBook Air, but you'd be wrong. You can configure the Air with the same amount of flash storage and RAM as the Retina, and since the new machine lacks a discrete graphics processor, both Intel's HD 4000 integrated chip in charge of graphics. The primary difference, then (other than the display), is the processor: instead of the 2.5GHz full-voltage CPU on the Retina model, the Air starts with an ultra low-voltage 1.8GHz dual-core processor. If you match the specs as best you can, the Air is nearly 0.6 pounds lighter and 0.07 inches thinner for $300 less than the Retina MacBook Pro, taking into account its weaker performance.
The last OS X option is either the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro or its non-Retina variant. Both are significantly different machines, primarily due to their switchable Nvidia GeForce GT 650M discrete graphics cards, which offer excellent performance that far outpaces the integrated HD 4000 graphics offered in the other MacBooks. Both models also come with quad-core Intel Core i7 processors. You'll need to settle for an additional 0.9 pounds over the 13-inch Retina if you're looking at the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, however, and that's not to mention a starting price of $2,199.
MacBook vs. the competition
If you're not beholden to OS X, there are more than a few PCs worth your attention if you're considering the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. We've limited our comparison to thin machines with excellent, high-resolution displays. Sure, none of these quite complete with Apple's 2560 x 1600 display, but believe us when we say that you may not need all of that resolution — most of these PCs have downright gorgeous screens.
Asus' impressive Zenbook Prime (UX31A) offers a 1920 x 1080 matte(!) display and specifications that line up almost line-by-line with the MacBook Air for $1,149.99 (and you can even find it for a bit cheaper if you look around). There are some concerns with the Zenbook, like its trackpad and physical design, but it can mostly stand up to the Retina when if comes to power. Just like in the Air vs. Retina Pro comparison, the Zenbook Prime can match the Retina's SSD, RAM, and HD 4000 integrated graphics, but the major difference comes down to the Asus' ultra-low voltage 1.7GHz, dual core Intel processor, which doesn't stand up to the far more powerful full voltage, 2.5GHz processor in Apple's laptop.
The VAIO Z remains an excellent option
If you want a full voltage processor, Sony's potent VAIO Z will have you covered, and there's no doubting its matte, 13.1-inch 1080p display is stunning. Spec-for-spec, the Z is an attractive alternative to the Retina MacBook, matching it nearly the whole way down the sheet. It doesn't hurt that the Z is $100 cheaper and a pound lighter, either, and some will be happy to see a standard Ethernet port on the side of Sony's machine. It's worth noting that Sony has informed us that it's discontinuing the Z, however.
If you look at new Windows 8 hardware, the Acer Aspire S7, Dell XPS Duo 12, and HP Spectre XT TouchSmart are all solid competitors. They all have touchscreens, naturally, and all have 1920 x 1080 displays that won't make you miss the Retina display too much. They all have their differences: the Acer is lighter and has fewer ports, the Duo 12 matches the Retina in weight in exchange for its spinning display, and the HP is quite a bit larger and heavier thanks to its 15.6-inch display. They are all going to be cheaper than the Retina when they launch later this month.
So what's the conclusion? Well, unlike the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, there a a more than a few good alternatives to the 13-inch model — including some within Apple's own lineup. If you've been waiting for the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro to upgrade, certainly wait a bit longer for our review, and don't forget to look at some of these other options — they may just serve you better.
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