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Is the Retina Macbook Pro a Waste of Money?

June 13th, 2012

We pay a premium for certain features in computers and computer peripherals that are not entirely functional. One of those is a slim profile. When LCD flatscreens came out, people paid a premium for these, despite the fact that they were worse than CRTs in almost every respect except for their size. They were dimmer, lower-resolution, had a fixed number of pixels (native resolution), had a worse viewing angle–and they were expensive, hellishly so at first. But they were thin, so we bought them. Eventually, their popularity helped bring prices down, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find CRTs for sale at all. They went the way of the floppy.

Laptops are similar: everything about them is inferior to desktops except for their size and mobility: they have weaker CPUs, less memory, smaller hard drives, fewer features, smaller screens, can only be expanded externally, and are more expensive. And yet, I know people who buy laptops but never move them from their desks. That makes no sense; laptops are all about mobility; everything else is a drawback.

We pay for a smaller profile; the smaller it is, the more we pay, in both greater cost and lesser features.

When the Macbook Air came out, I saw the same problem, magnified. Compared to the 15“ Macbook Pro at the time, it had a slower CPU, a smaller screen, fewer ports, and lacked an optical drive–and yet it cost almost the same. People asked me if they should get one, and I always gave the same answer: only if you place a huge priority on ”sexy.“

Today, a co-worker had a similar reaction to the Retina Macbook Pro: it was priced for sexy. They said they did not need the retina display, and outside of that, you were just paying for the sexy.

I don’t think that claim stands up to scrutiny, however.

For example, I no longer ward people away from the Macbook Air. It matured, especially with the speedy SSD, and became a good machine in its own right–not to mention, the price has dropped considerably (from $1800 to $1200 for the base 13” model). It’s not a high-powered computer, but it functions extremely well, and is still sexy–but this time for a reasonable price.

Within the context of the Mac line, the Retina Pro is also worth the cost. Consider the difference between the base 15“ for both the regular Pro and the Retina Pro: you pay $1800 for the regular, $2200 for the Retina. However, it’s not just the retina display that you get. The CPU is the same, but the RAM is doubled in the Retina, you get an 256 GB SSD instead of a 500 GB HDD (an overall plus due to performance increases), and double the GDDR5 memory.

If you don’t need the display, don’t need the RAM, don’t need the video, and prefer capacity to HDD access times, then of course, get the non-Retina model. But that’s not because it’s a better value; it would purely be a matter of preference.

Take the regular Pro model, double the RAM and swap in a 256 GB SSD to make it closer to the Retina specs save for the resolution, and the price goes up to $2400–$200 more than for the Retina–and you still lack the Retina display and the extra graphics memory. In this sense the Retina model is priced competitively with the older Pro (and/or the upgrades are way overpriced, which is also likely).

Here’s how the basically stack up:

Unit 13” Macbook Air (high-end) 13“ Macbook Air (high-end, upgrades) 15” Macbook Pro (low-end) 15“ Macbook Pro (upgrades) 15” Retina Macbook Pro (base)
CPU 1.8GHz dual-core Core i5 (TB: 2.8 GHz) 2.0GHz dual-core Core i7 (TB: 3.2GHz) 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 (TB: 3.3GHz) 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 (TB: 3.3GHz) 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 (TB: 3.3GHz)
Storage 256 GB SSD 256 GB SSD 500GB 5400-rpm HDD 256GB SSD 256GB SSD
GPU HD Graphics 4000 HD Graphics 4000 NVIDIA GT 650M / 512MB GDDR5 NVIDIA GT 650M / 512MB GDDR5 NVIDIA GT 650M / 1GB GDDR5
Monitor 1366 x 768 1366 x 768 1440 x 900 1440 x 900 2880 x 1800
Optical Drive Superdrive 8x Superdrive 8x
Price $1,499 $1,699 $1,799 $2,399 $2,199

Apple seemed to do a fair job of balancing the pricing (within the parameters of their profit-taking, of course). The closest real challenge is the upgraded Macbook Air vs. the base Retina Pro, especially if you’re not at all interested in graphics.

Even then, the $500 price difference can be accounted for. The processors may seem similar (both i7s with similar GHz ratings), but compare a dual-core at 2 GHz with 4MB of L3 cache to a quad-core at 2.3 GHz with 6MB of L3 cache (not to mention double the L1 and L2 cache), and I betcha you see enough of a difference. Geekbench reports 50% higher performance from the Retina’s CPU.

Aside from that, you have one machine with a 13“ 1-megapixel display vs. a 15” 5-megapixel display, not to mention the difference between integrated chipset graphics and that plus a serious GPU… you’d have to really not care about graphics.

Of course, that’s where it really comes down to preferences. I really want the resolution and the graphics abilities, if not for today then for the future; I want the upgradability to 16GB of memory… and especially, I want the 15“ screen. The processor difference may not seem like too much now, but in 3 years, I think the difference will be rather marked.

I know many people may object to the whole context, saying that you can get similar specs in Windows laptops for a much cheaper price. True. Even counting the retina display (though that will be adopted by PC makers soon, I am sure), it would seem that Macs are overpriced. But such comparisons fail to recognize some important qualities which differ between product lines. How many Windows laptops are built as well as any of the Macbooks? So many are flimsy, cheap-feeling, poorly designed, and often seem ridiculously thick and bulky compared to Macs. The Windows laptops which are not are often priced closer to Macs. Macs are not that much more expensive, they just don’t make the cheapo discount versions. Then there are advantages to the Mac in general: the same company makes the machine, OS, and much of the software, not to mention favored mobile devices, allowing for a seamless integration you can’t get elsewhere. Relative security without the cost in cash and performance for anti-virus software. And, interestingly, a lot of the software is cheaper (when do new versions of Windows cost $20?), often more versatile (e.g., multi-language), and usually much easier to install and use. Okay, off my flame-war soapbox, sorry.

Back to the point: I am very much OK with how the Retina Pro stacks up against the other Macbooks, and expect to be very pleased with what I get. Not to mention that I am moving up from a 2008 Core 2 Duo with 4GB of RAM, meaning a 350% increase in CPU speed, a 400% increase in RAM, and generally a lot more of everything everywhere. I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

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  1. Troy
    June 13th, 2012 at 10:21 | #1

    The CPU is the same, but the RAM is doubled in the Retina, you get an 256 GB SSD instead of a 500 GB HDD (an overall plus due to performance increases), and double the GDDR5 memory.

    やっぱり, the RAM is fixed in the new version:


    90% of your chart is just forcing us to overpay.

    I’m beginning to think ‘f that noise’.

    you get an 256 GB SSD instead of a 500 GB HDD (an overall plus due to performance increases), and double the GDDR5 memory.

    I think tossing the 500GB HDD (into an external caddy perhaps) and paying $450 for a 480GB SSD is the best approach.

    512MB vs 1GB for the GPU is neither here nor there really, and is Apple artificially forcing people to overpay again.

    I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

    Not in the slightest, LOL. $2200 is a lot of money to part with, but over 5 years it’s 10c an hour of use if you’re like me.

    My Mac IIcx cost ~$2000 more than an Acer 386 clone running DOS and (later) Windows 3, but I don’t regret paying the Apple Premium back then.

    Though what I might do is keep an eye on the x86 hackers.


  2. Troy
    June 13th, 2012 at 10:33 | #2

    fwiw, my 2008 MBP is still perfectly serviceable and I’ve decided to hold off upgrading the whole kit.

    The only snag in its performance is Windows in a VM is sorta laggy.

    But if I needed a Windows machine (and I don’t thanks to Microsoft imploding these pat years) I’d just go out and get one I guess.

    The great thing is that each iteration of the OS (Snow Leopard, Lion, and now Mountain Lion) has made the thing run perceptibly faster and smoother (I really like the polishing they’ve been doing to the boot/login sequence, LOL).

    But I should head over to the Apple store later this month to check out what I’m not getting . . .

  3. Troy
    June 13th, 2012 at 10:35 | #3

    Oh yeah, I forgot about your AAPL stock. IIRC you bought at $80, LOL. With their new dividend payouts, maybe you can think of that as your new-Apple funding : )

  4. Troy
    June 13th, 2012 at 11:02 | #4
  5. Luis
    June 13th, 2012 at 11:57 | #5

    Yeah, I saw that review, and others. Basic rundown of most reviews is that it is a sexy computer with great specs and strong performance, but is priced for professionals of the faithful.

    This guy seems to be right in line with me:

    I really wish the $2199 SKU had the 512GB SSD, or at least offered it as an option – otherwise the spec is near perfect in my mind.

  6. Troy
    June 13th, 2012 at 13:16 | #6

    If the retina thing is no big deal for me, I might stick with the old-school MBP and upgrade it piece-wise, if they haven’t f’d that up yet.

    At newegg I can pay $120 for 2x8GB RAM and $270 for a 256GB SSD, so $2200 for an old-school MBP with 16/256 — vs. $2400 for the retina with 16/256.

    LOL, looking at that I think the retina version is worth the $200 premium, sigh. Smaller dimensions, a whole pound lighter, and I certainly don’t need the optical or firewire option.

    Intel’s successor to Ivy Bridge (Haswell) CPU is coming out in a year and all it apparently offers is better on-die GPU performance, but as I said last time nVidia’s Kepler GPU is state-of-the-art and will be really good for the rest of the decade, easily.

    IOW I guess you chose well. 16GB RAM option is the critical thing given the RAM is non-upgradeable.

    Hard to believe my PowerMac 7500 came with the CPU on a daughtercard. How far Apple has fallen in 15-odd years.

    It certainly makes sense for Apple to pound as much stuff as they can into the envelope without making it user upgradeable — it raises their profit margins, increases reliability, reduces space and weight, increases structural strength and component density, but on the downside it means things are less repairable w/o bringing the whole thing into an Apple Store.

    But that downside is only for the customer, not for Apple.

  7. Luis
    June 14th, 2012 at 01:16 | #7

    Intel’s successor to Ivy Bridge (Haswell) CPU is coming out in a year and all it apparently offers is better on-die GPU performance…
    Yeah, but it’s the old story of forever waiting for the next one. Eventually, you’ll get a new one in 3-4 years, and that one will have far better stuff. Sometimes you just have to accept that in a year, your computer won’t be the best anymore, and be OK with that.

    For me, it was more clear-cut: I really could have gotten a new MBP last year, but (1) it was a relatively insignificant speed bump, and (2) I had heard that the next model would be a significant upgrade, including the retina display and new form factor–which made sense if the previous new model was a small speed bump. So I decided to take the risk and wait for it–not for just the next expected jump up, but for a significant revision. For about 9 months, I kept using a computer that was almost broken. The optical drive crapped out long ago, the trackpad button-click does ‘work, the case is warped and ill-fitting due to several heavy drops on the floor, and it’s just plain getting slow, especially as I often run 10 ore more apps at a time.

    As it happened, the wait paid off.

    IOW I guess you chose well. 16GB RAM option is the critical thing given the RAM is non-upgradeable.

    Hey, it was not an impulse decision. After waking up, I spent several hours going over all the little details, piecing together reports and comparing setups, playing with upgrades to the 13″ Air and the 15″ old-style Pro, comparing price levels, figuring compromises, etc. I went back and forth a whole bunch of times, and weighed the options carefully before coming to a final decision. So, yeah, I’m pretty sure I chose well.

    BTW, iFixIt has a teardown up now, and it’s definitive: the SSD is removable. In time, 3rd-party suppliers will have replacement units. However, I will probably wait for a year or two, hoping that SSD prices go down–$500 for a 512 GB SSD is still a tad steep.



  8. Troy
    June 14th, 2012 at 02:32 | #8

    What I was getting at was that since the MBP comes with the Kepler GPU, waiting a year for Haswell’s better GPU makes zero sense, especially since Intel’s main focus with Haswell is going to be adding transistors to the package to make their on-die GPU more performant.

    The Airs — without discrete GPUs — will be better with Haswell, though if you don’t play bleeding-edge games the current Intel GPU is good enough too.

    I’ll be sending you my app to beta test the 2X display later this month : )

  9. Rado
    June 15th, 2012 at 03:21 | #9

    I was looking forward for the retina model since I love the form factor, but the soldered ram has me worried. How much would an out-of-warranty repair cost if the RAM dies? Just the thought of that makes me cringe!

  10. Troy
    June 15th, 2012 at 10:16 | #10

    In 20+ years, I’ve never had RAM go bad on me.

    Maybe a 1/1000 chance?

    On a $2000 investment that’s a $2 expected value.

    Well, resale value after the 3 year AppleCare expires is going to be $1000 or so, so that’s a $1 expected value.

    Much more likely to drop the damn thing, badly.

  11. Luis
    June 15th, 2012 at 10:53 | #11

    I got the 3-year AppleCare–figured it would be a far better investment on this than my current Pro, which I didn’t get the coverage for. If the RAM died, I would think there’d be a better-than-even chance that Apple would replace it anyway, simply out of principle that it wants people to feel safe with the investment. I’ve seen them replace out-of-warranty motherboards before, for example.

    AppleCare worked for me with the iMac–just before it ran out, I got the 24″ screen replaced on the basis that it was dimming in places. Only very slightly, but they accepted that and replaced it. It might have been worth it for this Pro, which had the DVD drive and the trackpad button fail before 3 years were out…

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