REVIEW: MacBook Pro 13-inch

The 13-inch Macbook Pro refresh once again keeps Apple ahead of the game. And if it continues to offer free upgrades to OS X every year, then you may never have to pay for a new operating system again.

The most interesting aspect of Apple’s MacBook Pro update was the move to release the latest version of its desktop operating system, OSX 10.9 Mavericks, as a free upgrade and include the iWork productivity suite with every new Mac.

Admittedly, it’s a strategy that Apple can afford to employ. After all, the company’s desktop business is almost entirely dependent on hardware margins as opposed to Microsoft which derives its profits from Windows licences. But it’s also a necessary strategy in an ailing PC market.

On the hardware side, the 13-inch MacBook Pro switches to the new Intel Haswell processors and a thinner, lighter form factor. But is it enough to keep the Windows Ultrabook camp at bay?

Solid but familiar design

The MacBook Pro uses the same one-piece aluminium build that Apple has been using in the notebook line for the last five years.

We have no issues with Apple reusing the design here as it is a solidly built, premium feeling laptop with zero flex. Our only gripe with the aluminium build is that, like the iPad and iPhone, it is prone to scratches so you do need to handle it with a bit more care than some other notebooks.

When Apple introduced the high resolution retina displays on the MacBook Pro last year, it dramatically reduced the size and weight of the entire line. It has repeated the formula with this year’s refresh.

The device is now 0.04 inches thinner and just 18mm thick when folded shut. The overall weight is down almost 200 grams at 1.52kg.

The gains might be modest but it does put the Pro closer than ever before to the 13-inch Macbook Air. It might still be a far cry from the Sony Vaio Pro 13, which weighs in at 1.06 kg, but you do get serious performance, higher screen resolution and a deluge of ports.

In fact, the Pro offers the largest selection of ports in its class. On the sides, you get 2x Thunderbolt 2.0 ports which can also be used as DisplayPorts for connecting to external monitors, a full-size HDMI port, 2x USB 3.0, headphone jack and a SDXC card reader.

There’s a second microphone on the left edge, designed for noise cancellation, which cuts out ambient noise during voice calls or video chats.

The big glass trackpad is still the best in the business. Performing gestures on a Macbook feels smooth and responsive. Gestures, such as, the four finger swipe upwards to bring up all open app windows, pinch to zoom, two finger scrolling, swiping left or right with four fingers to switch between full-screen apps and showing the desktop by spreading the thumb and three fingers all work flawlessly.

The island style keyboard is a joy to use with springy, well-spaced backlit keys that have just the right amount of travel.

Better graphics, better battery

Under the bonnet is an Intel Core i5 Haswell 2.4GHz or 2.6GHz dual-core processor. Performance is, for the most part on par with last year’s Ivy Bridge processors, but the real gains come in power efficiency and graphics performance.

The MacBook Pro is one of the first notebooks to receive Intel’s HD 5100 integrated graphics as opposed to the HD 4200 or HD 4400 configurations found in most Windows Ultrabooks. Apple says the chip provides 90 per cent improvement in graphics performance than the previous MacBook Pro.

In real world terms, running graphics intensive applications such as Adobe Photoshop or using transitions and animation effects in PowerPoint/KeyNote should all benefit from the boost. However, don’t expect the integrated graphics to handle more demanding applications such as AutoCAD.

Battery life has always been great on the MacBook Pro and it’s even better with Haswell on board. We were able to play 10 hours of streaming video over Wi-Fi, which is almost twice as much as last year’s model. Better still, we were able to get a little over 11 hours while editing documents in a word processor and browsing the web.

One reason for the improvement is the software optimisation in OSX Mavericks such as automatically hibernating open programs that aren’t actively visible on screen.

It’s not quite the 13 hours the MacBook Air provides but it easily outpaces the Windows competition.

Resolution revolution

It’s hard to look past the excellent 2560x1600 resolution IPS display. The panel might be the same on used in last year’s 13-inch Pro, but it’s still one of the best displays on the market. Text looks incredibly crisp while images and video exhibit an impressive level of pop. The extra resolution is a boon for photographers and videographers who can edit at native 1080p while leaving enough space for editing tools.

It also happens to be one of the brightest displays on the market with a 340 lumen density (lux) in comparison to Samsung’s ATIV Book 9 Plus (251 lux) and the Sony Vaio Pro 13 (237 lux). While Windows machines are beginning to catch up on display, led by the recently released Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus 3200x1800 resolution display, the Pro is still  ruling the roost.

The latest Windows 8 Ultrabooks have some impressive boot times but Apple has upped its game here as well. The Pro uses a faster PCIe-based flash storage which means faster read speeds and quicker start up times. Our review unit booted into the desktop in under 12 seconds and waking from sleep was almost instantaneous.

OSX Mavericks and iWork

The last version of Mac OS, OS X 10.9 Mavericks, also boasts some notable enhancements and features. Finder now supports tabbed search and tags making it quicker to find files and you can now respond to emails, tweets and Facebook messages directly from notifications. iCloud keychain is essentially a glorified password manager that can also store payment info and keep data synced across your Mac, iPad and iPhone. iOS applications such as Maps are also included with the ability to send directions from your Mac to your iDevices

Native applications such as Calendar are now location aware and offer the ability to seamlessly show your next meeting location on a map, weather forecast information and the calculated travel time all within the calendar interface.

You can now finally use apps in full-screen mode with a multi-monitor setup and AirPlay support has expanded from straight mirroring to using Apple TV connected display as an independent second desktop screen.

Apple’s productivity suite, iWork, is now included for free and it’s a capable alternative to Microsoft Office. Pages has comparable features to Microsoft Word but with a greater emphasis on layouts and elements. The cleaner interface is attractive and easier to use than Word especially when working with more sophisticated documents. It’s, however, a bit unstable, often crashing unexpectedly whenever I fiddled with text styles. Saving Pages documents as a Word DOC was also a bit hit and miss with chunks of text displaying out of alignment.

Keynote offers an arguably stronger set of transitions, animations and templates for presentations than PowerPoint, while Numbers is also a capable alternative to Excel but does fall short when it comes to more complex calculations and analysis.

As is the case with Office and Google Docs, you can collaborate on documents, spreadsheets and presentations with others online using just a web browser via iCloud.com.

Staying ahead of the game

The 13-inch MacBook Pro refresh once again keeps Apple ahead of the Window Ultraportable competition. At over 11 hours, the battery life is the best in its class by some distance as is the abundance of ports on offer. The Intel HD 5100 graphics also comfortably outpaces other Ultrabooks in its price range. And if Apple continue to offer free upgrades to OS X every year, then you may never have to pay for a new operating system again.

It also comes with a compelling assortment of software out of the box and all of the software files sync seamlessly within the iOS ecosystem.

Combine that with the 2560x1600 resolution display and a flawless trackpad and keyboard, the 13-inch MacBook Pro looks impressive. If you want portability and you’re happy to sacrifice performance and battery life then there are other viable options worth considering. But if the Windows 8 touch-based route isn’t for you then the Pro strikes the perfect balance between power and portability.

Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering business IT and consumer technology.

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