Pic of both the 15 inch and 13 inch MacBook Retina

MacBook Pro Retina: Is It Worth It?

  by Simon Fairbairn3 Comments

Articles on this site contain affiliate links, meaning we may be compensated if you purchase a product or service after clicking them. Read our full disclosure policy here.

Last time I was here, I finally and decisively laid to rest the Mac vs PC debate once and for all. Now that history has been successfully rewritten and we’re all on board with Macs being perfect for travel in every way and without fault, it’s time to decide exactly which Mac to buy.

If you’re travelling you probably don’t want to lug around an iMac, so let’s reduce our field of possible options to the MacBooks.

In the blue corner, we have the speed and lightness of the featherweight Airs. In the red corner, the hulking great heavyweight Pros and we’re letting the Pros have the first swing.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina

Apple first introduced the concept of Retina displays in its iPhones and iPads. The idea behind it is that you cram enough pixels into a small enough space so that your eye can’t see them individually (from beyond a certain viewing distance—stick your nose up against the screen, and they’re still there).

The previous generations of 15″ Pros had pixel densities of 110 pixels per inch. The retina doubles this to fit in an astonishing 220 pixels per inch. However, instead of everything getting really small (although that’s an option), everything remains the same size but is given double the amount of pixels to work with.

Safari icon in both the Retina and Air

Retina on the left; Air on the right

At the Retina resolution, it basically has the screen real estate of 1440×900 pixels except where there was one pixel there are now four (this isn’t always the case—for example, when editing video or using Photoshop, one pixel still equals one pixel, it’s just half the size—but on a day to day basis when using the OS, it holds).

Fonts now have enough pixels to clearly display their letterforms without the OS having to add semi-transparent pixels around them to smooth them out; application chrome is sharply defined; and icons can have a crazy amount of detail.

The massive number of pixels (over 5 million on the 15″ model) also shows up holes in your work that you wouldn’t otherwise see—your photos, for example, may not be as sharp as you think they are.

That possibly just applies to me.

But still, I wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for the screen.

And if you’re editing video, you can fit full 1080p HD video in your editor of choice and still have enough room to see all of your editing tools—this is the only laptop that can offer this kind of video editing space in something that can fit in your carry on.

Weighing In

My previous laptop was a 2009 13“ MacBook Pro and the 15” Retina is actually thinner and slightly lighter (2.02kg vs 2.04kg). A big reason for this is because the optical drive has been removed. Personally, this was the right call—a weight and size saving is more important than having a drive that I used maybe 10 times in the three years I owned it.

Tensing the Muscles

Driving this thing is a quad-core i7 processor; 8GB of RAM (with an option at purchase to upgrade to 16GB); 256, 512 or 728GB SSD drive; and a Nvidia 650M discrete mobile graphics chip with 1GB of dedicated video RAM.

If you’re into games, then fire up Steam or Windows via Boot Camp and get ready to enjoy them at 1920×1200 resolutions with frame rates of 60fps+ on titles like Portal 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Borderlands 2.

Running GTA IV on a MacBook Retina

Mmmm, portable gaming action

Having this thing run at full pelt will set the fans a-spinning, but these new fans are larger and feature a new design that takes out some of the more irritating higher frequencies—a more pleasant sound (in as far as that’s possible) than the Air when it gets its screech on.

For peripherals, it has two USB 3.0 ports (one on either side), two Thunderbolt ports, a HDMI port and an SD card slot.

Any Weaknesses?

No, not really.

OK, yes. A few.

  1. Going back is ugly. Every non-Retina screen you look at suddenly looks like a multicolour version of Pong—blocky, pixellated, kinda gross—although you get used to it again fairly quickly.
  2. The web isn’t retina-ready. This is actually worse in some ways—when you view something that isn’t Retina-ready, it sticks out among the Retina goodness. Unfortunately, this includes most of the web.
  3. Missing ethernet port. Not a huge deal, but a lot of the world isn’t 100% WiFi just yet. Apple do offer a thunderbolt to ethernet adapter for $29 if it’s really important (I didn’t bother and I haven’t missed it). If we’re being really picky, having 3 USBs and 1 Thunderbolt would probably have been more useful for travellers.
  4. Not Upgradeable. On my previous MacBook Pro, I went from the stock 250GB drive, to a 500GB drive and then a 1TB internal drive. No longer. There are literally no user-upgradeable parts inside the Retina. Something goes wrong? It’s back to the Apple store. Want more RAM? Better buy it when you first get the machine as there’s no adding it later. Want more internal storage? You’re bang outta luck.

You do get a year’s warranty, though, expandable to three years with AppleCare, so if it’s a hardware failure, just walk into an Apple Store and they’ll sort you out.

Although if you’re in Peru (where there’s a considerable lack of Apple Stores) and you drop it down some stone steps making the hard drive go on the fritz, there’s no heading down to the local market to find a replacement 500GB Samsung drive sitting in a pile on a glass counter.

I’m taking the risk that I won’t be that dumb again (or will at least be somewhere where I can mitigate some of that stupidity), but it is a risk—especially as I rely on it for work—and something to consider.

Get Us in Your Inbox

Get our regular email updates with the latest travel tech news, tips, and articles. We'll also send over a free 5000-word guide to get you started!

No spam ever, and you can leave any time. Our privacy policy explains how we handle your personal information.

What The Hell? This Thing Is, Like, 3,000 Bucks!

Yeah, probably should have put that one in the weaknesses.

If you’re bringing a laptop on the road just to stay in touch with folks, surf the web, check your emails and maybe post a few photos, then this thing is overkill.

In fact, it’s beyond overkill. It not only over kills, it takes the body, throws it in a hole, sets fire to it, buries it and builds a skyscraper on top of it.

Even if you’re running a website full time, you’ll probably be fine without a Retina for the next year or two while the rest of the laptop market catches up.

On the other hand many digital nomads do some sort of visual work for money—photography, video, design—and they are the ones that should seriously consider this machine.

The speed is outstanding—it boots in 10 seconds and apps start almost instantly—and having various display options gives you previously unavailable flexibility. It’s also light, yet solid and robust and, of course, it runs OS X Mountain Lion which, as we’ve established, is the best OS currently available.

But it’s the screen that really sets this thing apart and, when I’m staring at something for eight hours a day, I want to be staring at the most beautiful something possible.

When it comes to laptop screens, this is it.

MacBook Retinas start at $1,699 for the 13“ model (check price on Amazon). The model reviewed was the 15” 2.6GHz starting at $2,799.

About the Author

Simon Fairbairn

Facebook Twitter Google+

Simon Fairbairn is one half of Never Ending Voyage, a digital nomad couple who travel the world indefinitely. He cut his geek teeth on an Amiga 500 and learned computing the hard way—by breaking his dad's desktops and desperately trying to fix them before the old man got home. A recovering PHP developer and web designer, he has since learned Objective-C and now develops iOS apps over at Voyage Travel Apps.


  1. Avatar

    I have a 15″ old pro (for home) and 11″ air (for the road) and decided I needed something that was the best of both worlds. That was the 13″ Retina and I love it. It feels almost as light as the air but more powerful than my old pro.
    The price just dropped $200 yesterday and Apple still honored my 3 week old purchase and refunded me. Usually they have a 14 day price protection. Overall, its a great buy and worth the money. Nice review.

  2. Avatar Author

    Thanks Clint. It’s true—the Retinas are super light but pack quite a punch. I also saw that Apple just dropped their price and it’s great that they refunded you the difference.

  3. Avatar

    Speaking of repairs, we got in a bit of a bind when my wife’s 11″ MacBook Air went on the fritz in Mexico last year. We took it to a nearby authorized repair center and the quote was $750 for a logic board. We decided to wait it out and four months later we visited the States. We took it into an Apple store and had it repaired via the flat rate repair service. $303 including tax, but this service is only available in the U.S.

    Going forward, this is a *big* concern of ours throughout Latin America…

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.