Apple Macbook Pro 13 (Late 2013) Review

Apple’s finally jumped into the Haswell pool with its Macbook Pro lines. They’re not cheap — but they’re exceptionally good.

Macbook Pro 13 (Late 2013): On the plus side

Apple’s industrial engineering remains the best in the business. I’m not talking there so much about issues of style, which can be a personal thing, but of build quality and durability. Picking up the Macbook Pro 13 for the first time it’s hard not to notice how well constructed the whole notebook actually is.
Apple also makes a lot of the fact that it uses high resolution — what its marketing department calls “Retina” — displays on most of its Macbook Pro lines now. In fact, Retina displays now outnumber non-Retina displays in the Macbook Pro family five models to one.
The retina (2560×1600) display on the 13″ Macbook Pro is impressive to look at, and because Apple’s got such a tight grip on the whole Mac OS X experience, it’s impressive resolution that runs throughout the operating system, rather than being simply useful across single applications the way it is on some high resolution Windows systems.

Retina displays remain highly lickable. (note: May void warranty)
Retina displays remain highly lickable.
(note: May void warranty)

Apple’s official line — or at least the one they’ve told me — is that they held off on fourth generation Intel Core (“Haswell”) processors for Macbook Pro models until they could ship them with OS X 10.9 (“Mavericks”) pre-installed, so that the 64-bit code of the operating system could fully exploit the processing power of the Intel chips.

From the sample I’ve tested, which was the top end of the 13″ inch range with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, I’d say they may have a point. While benchmarks don’t tell the whole story, I ran Geekbench 3 over the Macbook Pro 13″ to get some kind of relative feel for the system. I put its scores up against this year’s iMac — reviewed here, if you’re interested — and my regular desk machine, a by now ageing iMac 2010 model.
Geekbench 3 32 bit Results, Single Core Score, Multi-Core Score
Apple Macbook Pro 13 2013, 2861, 6002
Apple iMac 2013, 3279, 10357
Apple iMac 2010, 2236, 7900
Geekbench 3 64 bit Results, Single Core Score, Multi-Core Score
Apple Macbook Pro 13 2013, 3131, 6727
Apple iMac 2013, 3528, 11285
Apple iMac 2010, 2463, 8947
This isn’t an exact like-for-like comparison, because the Macbook Pro is rocking an SSD where the two iMacs run on mechanical hard drives, although the older iMac has twice the memory of either the new iMac or the Macbook Pro. Still, those scores are interesting when you ponder pricing — which I’ll get to shortly.
Apple’s estimates for the Macbook Pro 13″ suggest “up to” 9 hours of battery life, in line with Haswell’s general battery life improvements. “Up to” is one of those marketing weasel terms — and, I’m sure, legal obligations — that vendors use to suggest best case scenarios for their systems.
So I ran a test designed to show a bit of worst case scenario performance, running full screen, full brightness video to the point of battery exhaustion with Wi-Fi still running. You could drain a battery faster, but this provides a nice constant push against the power capabilities of any device — and it’s nicely reproducible across operating systems to boot.
The Macbook Pro managed a very credible seven hours precisely in that test. That’s not nine hours — and Apple’s own figures suggest “Up to 9 hours iTunes movie playback” — but then something tells me that Apple doesn’t run those tests at absolute full brightness and volume, either. Getting nine hours out of the Macbook Pro 13″ is entirely feasible.

Macbook Pro 13 (Late 2013): On the minus side

With the Macbook Air having taken the slot of the “affordable” Macbook (relative to the rest of Apple’s product lines), the Macbook Pro is meant to be the Macbook for the professional crowd, or those after a more aspirational and powerful Macbook line. I’m left puzzled, then, why Apple’s persisted with a single audio in/out port. It doesn’t even appear that there would be a tapering/thickness problem with having dedicated audio in and out ports — but you can’t have them.

Sure, you can have two Thunderbolt ports. What, audio in AND out? Why would you possibly want that?
Sure, you can have two Thunderbolt ports. What, audio in AND out? Why would you possibly want that?

It’s also — and this is something of a matter of taste and access — a not terribly repairable machine, at least based on iFixit’s teardown of a Macbook Pro 13″ Retina

Now, I don’t entirely buy iFixit’s premise that every single Macbook Pro owner is going to want to repair their Macbook Pro every single time. In fact, I’m pretty sure they won’t want to, but there is an issue with having such a heavily glued down system when it comes to shopping around for repairs, because in a very real way, you can’t. This might not be an issue if you’re near an Apple store or authorised repairer, but if you’re not in the vicinity of such services, this could be a major pain point.
Where I do think that’s an issue is for upgrades. Again, you’re stuck going down the Apple-only route, and that makes it harder to shop around if you wanted to get the best price in a couple of years on memory, storage or even just replacement batteries. If Apple stops making them when your Macbook Pro is still going, you’re out of luck entirely.

Macbook Pro 13 (Late 2013): Pricing

The model I tested was the highest end of the 13″ Retina Macbook Pro line, which comes in at $2,199. The 13″ line runs from $1,599-$2,199, while the 15″ versions sell for $2,499 to $3,199 without modification. There’s still one non-retina model on the books at $1,349.

Macbook Pro 13 (Late 2013): Fat Duck verdict

The Macbook Pro 13 is a well built laptop, as you might expect from a premium brand. It’s not cheap, and that could be an issue, and it’s also in the curious position of playing second fiddle to this year’s Haswell-based iMac, which outscored it on the same tests. Now, that’s an interesting comparison to make, because the model I tested with costs $2,199, the same as the Macbook Pro, and it was tested with OS X 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”), because that’s what it shipped with at the time. Mavericks should be more efficient than Mountain Lion, which means the performance gap could be even greater.
As such, if you’re in the Mac ecosystem, there’s a choice between portability and power to make. If you genuinely don’t leave your desk much — or could get away with remote desk work via an iPad, for example — the iMac might just be the better deal.

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