When buying a new notebook you often find yourself making sacrifices. Smaller notebooks are lighter but have significantly less power and less battery life. Larger notebooks seem to have none of those drawbacks but end up looking ugly or weighing the equivalent of a large toddler.

In October last year Apple took the wraps off of the latest version of its popular MacBook Pro line of notebooks. With the usual pomp and spectacle the internet exploded with tales of Apple’s fantastic new notebooks but now that the hype has settled down, we want to know: are they fantastic?

Luckily we’ve managed to get our grubby paws on a new mid-spec 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro and we’ve been using it daily to find out just how good it really is.

Look and feel

If you’ve seen any MacBook Pro since 2008 then the latest 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro holds little surprise for you. While it does shave a whole 0.1cm of thickness and 50 grams off of last year’s model, the current generation uses the same unibody aluminium design that we’ve all become accustomed to.

This is by no means a negative remark though. Apple has a history of fantastic build quality and the MacBook Pro range has become almost the de facto standard for high end notebook design.

Running the same 1.8cm thickness all the way through, the aluminium slab is blemished only by ports on either side and a recess in front to lift the MacBook’s display. The familiar Apple logo sits on the top of the display lid ready to provide its glowing light when awakened.

Keeping with the familiar look and feel, the inside houses the same silver multi-touch trackpad and backlit black keyboard of its predecessor.

The 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro weighs in at a shade over 1.5kg, which just 220 grams more than the 13 inch MacBook Air. It’s light enough to carry everywhere you go without feeling like you’re hauling a load of groceries in from the weekly shop.

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Hardware

The biggest change to the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro is underneath the familiar silver exterior.

The processors have been upgraded to the latest generation Haswell components from Intel. The new chips offer two very important advances for the Retina MacBook Pro specifically better battery life and graphics capabilities.

The solid state drives (SSD) used for storage have also been modified to use the faster PCIe port as opposed to the older, slower conventional SATA port. Wireless communication comes in the form of the latest generation of Bluetooth (Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy) and 802.11ac WiFi (also known as Gigabit WiFi).

All manner of modern peripherals are supported with two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a full sized HDMI port, SD card slot and headphone jack divided up between the left and right sides of the notebook.

As with previous generations of the Retina MacBook Pro, the new models have been designed to be non-user upgradeable forcing you to be careful in choosing the configuration when you buy.

Our test unit was the middle of the three standard specification 13 inch MacBook Pros offered by Apple. It has a 2.4GHz dual core Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3L RAM and 256GB of storage.

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Software

When you first turn on the new Retina MacBook Pro you are greeted with the latest version of Apple’s OS X, Mavericks. We’ve done an extensive review of the operating system here, but needless to say that it has been fine tuned to elicit more battery life out of the Haswell based Macs.

Apple also includes the Boot Camp assistant which allows you to install Windows 8 on any Mac and the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro is no different. We had Windows 8.1 running in no time and with no hassles to speak of.

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Display

The 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro’s display is the star of the show and of course the reason for the ‘Retina’ nomenclature. The 13.3 inch LED backlit IPS display has a maximum resolution of 2560X1600 and a pixel density of around 227 pixels-per-inch. That, according to Apple, is enough pixels to ensure that the human eye won’t be able to differentiate the individual pixels at a normal working distance.

Apple uses the word ‘stunning’ to describe the display on its website and we have to agree with them on this one. Colours are vibrant and pictures are crisp and detailed. Text is unbelievably clear and easy to read whether it be in a browser or a word processor in OS X or running Windows.

When indoors the IPS display has fantastic viewing angles, in fact no matter which direction you’re looking from it produces a consistently fantastic picture. To reduce glare outdoors the display panel and the protective glass covering are bonded together, it definitely helps but still can’t stop the bright African sun from making things tough.

Performance

Of course the new Intel Haswell processors are, as one would expect, the best processors in terms of performance available today. Day-to-day tasks from web browsing and productivity software like Microsoft Office as well as HD video playback are all handled with ease.

But it’s the PCIe based SSD storage brings the most tangible benefit to users. Start-up times in both OS X and Windows have been reduced to under ten seconds (though a large portion of users won’t care about boot times because waking the Retina MacBook Pro from sleep by opening the lid takes less than two seconds).

Opening an application is as near to immediate as smartphone users have become accustomed to rendering the infamous spinning coloured wheel, or the ‘Beachball of Doom’ as it is more commonly known to Mac users, nearly obsolete.

The increased graphics prowess of Haswell has also turned the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro into a portable gaming solution. From indie titles like Desktop Dungeons to the more serious XCOM: Enemy Within and even Batman: Arkham City the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro was superb.

Arkham City was admittedly played on low graphics settings but suffered from no lag in the middle of combat with gangs of enemies.

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Battery Life

Apple quotes the battery life for the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro as up to nine hours on a single charge.

Our typical day at the office is admittedly rather heavy with upwards of ten Chrome browser windows open, Skype and Google chat, Microsoft Word as well as streaming music from a service like Rdio.

Using OS X Mavericks we managed around 7 hours of usage on a standard charge with a Bluetooth External mouse and keyboard. While using Windows 8.1 the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro was consistently able to make 5.5 hours on a single charge.

With more careful usage of the web browser and limiting the amount of open programs on either platform it can usually be stretched out by another hour.

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Value

A notebook is a purchase that will stay with most of us for at least two years. At R20 000 for the model we reviewed, the truth is that the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro is not cheap.

For that price however,  you do get the latest generation hardware and connectivity, fantastic build quality and, though we are loathe to admit it, a certain level of prestige that comes with owning a Mac.

The competition will be more pronounced this year with the likes of Lenovo’s revised ThinkPad X1 Carbon having been shown off at CES running similar specs to the MacBook Pro. The difference is that the competition is still on the way to retail and the new Retinas have already been here for a few months.

Conclusion

If you are in the market for a premium notebook with the latest technology from a reputable brand, then it’s hard to fault the 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro. Yes it is expensive, but the indication from the US pricing of its competitors is that they will carry a similar price when they eventually land here.

There is a model below the one we reviewed which halves the RAM and storage space available but shaves R3 000 off of the price

The 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro has all of the performance, specs and build quality we expect for its price and most importantly it’s available right now.

In fact I found it to be so complete a package that I bought one for myself.