Overall Design

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is clearly the best MacBook for most Apple Mac buyers — and the easiest to review. Why? The “early 2015” model of Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has all the core features most people need and want in a laptop — excellent overall computing performance, a sharp screen, decent battery life, and a solid and dependable form factor.

Of course, it’s how all of these features come together — along with how the 13-inch MacBook Pro fits into Apple’s MacBook lineup — that make it a great MacBook. I had a chance to spend some quality time with a new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display review unit, thanks to the pros over at B&H Photo Video. Let’s review the machine itself, plus look at how it can fit best for MacBook buyers in 2016.

13-inch MacBook Pro Retina Review — ‘Early 2015’ Model

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has been in Apple’s notebook lineup for years — the solid aluminum unibody frame is large enough to hold (and cool) a powerful 2.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor that can ramp up to 3.1 GHz with Turbo Boost when your computing situation needs it. The base model has 8GB of 1866 MHz LPDDR3 memory along with 128GB of fast flash storage.

Unfortunately, while the flash storage is wicked fast, Apple is stingy with the base amount — 128GB just might not be enough storage for you if you’re into taking a lot of photos or video. If you do take a lot of photos and video, I recommend that you jump up to the next model or two to get 256GB or even 512GB. Sure, you can manage your media by paying yearly fees and offloading your bigger files to a cloud service — or to a good external hard drive — but I like having my important photos all in one place.

Is the MacBook Pro Retina Display Worth It?

13-inch MacBook Pro Retina Review

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display easily fits within the shape of the much larger 15-incher. Check out MacBook Pro options, including free 2-day shipping, at B&H now.

Meanwhile, what about that 13-inch Retina display? It’s gorgeous. Where do I notice it most? With text. Obviously I write a lot, so there is that, but more importantly for most people, the Retina display makes text on Web pages appear astoundingly crisp and sharp. In addition, the Retina display makes OS X come alive — the subtle graphical effects of icons and translucency all seems just a little more real. And what about doing any sort of graphics work? Definitely better, definitely worth it. If you’re going to spend a lot of time on your Mac, you’re going to love a Retina display.

How about external monitors? The latest 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display uses Intel Iris Graphics 6100, and this built-in graphics processor does surprisingly well for most every general-purpose computing need. In fact, this 13-inch MacBook is capable of simultaneously supporting the full resolution of the built-in Retina display in addition to two massive external 4K displays (3840 x 2160).

Is all of this good enough for hard-core gaming? Not really. It’s great for most casual games, but serious gamers (who also must have a Mac) should look toward a beefed-up 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

The New Force Touch Trackpad

Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad feels as good and responsive as the old trackpad, but instead of using a traditional moving hinge that registers a press, the Force Touch trackpad can feel the force of your press and then react — anywhere on the trackpad itself. How does it react? It vibrates in such a way that it feels as if the Force Touch trackpad is moving down . . . when it’s not moving at all like the old trackpad.

How natural does the Force Touch trackpad feel? Astoundingly natural. Apple created some haptic vibration feedback here that might have a secret dose of magic to make it work.

Of course, the Force Touch trackpad brings a new layer of user interface to some apps — for instance, if you press down harder over a date in an app, you can launch a calendar entry. Or fast forward through a movie faster. Expect Apple to add new Force Touch features in future versions of Mac OS X (which you will be able to upgrade to free when they come out).

The Keyboard, Ports, and 12-inch MacBook ‘Alternative’

Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display uses the same sweet keyboard that it’s been using for years — it has a fantastic spring, sound, and travel distance. Why bring this up? If you’re planning on spending some serious writing time — say, if you’re a student — this keyboard helps make the 13-inch MBP better for work than the new 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. There are performance differences, as well, and the 13-inch bigger screen is easier on the eyes over the long haul, but I have to say this: The fancypants new MacBook keyboard isn’t all that great. It’s OK, it’s workable, and you’ll get used to it, but come to love it? I find that doubtful. Let’s put it this way: If Apple puts its slimmer MacBook keyboard into the next version of MacBook Pro . . . I’ll cry, probably under my desk as I rock back and forth.

So what about those ports?

The MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3 ports (one on each side), an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot (for photographers), a headphone port and dual microphones (for better FaceTime video calling). Unfortunately, the MacBook Pro does not have a new USB-C port, but there isn’t any real need for it right now. All of these ports cover the vast majority of need for most MacBook owners — and this also is a reason why the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is currently the best overall Mac for most consumers.

Battery Life in 2016

The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display has a better battery than previous generations — it delivers up to 10 hours of wireless web browsing, 12 hours of iTunes movie playback, and up to 30 days of standby time. Pretty solid, really. In fact, I poked at my MacBook review unit off and on over the course of three days before I bothered to attach the sweet magnetic MagSafe 2 Power Adapter to recharge it. (Apple’s battery tech and claims are both solid, so I rarely bother to waste time on this sort of review test with MacBooks. My advice? Battery life isn’t an issue for most consumers when it comes to any of Apple’s MacBooks.)

13-inch MacBook Pro Review Bottom Line: Best All-Around Mac Value 2016

Overall, the 13-inch MacBook with Retina display has all the core features most every Mac-loving consumer needs — a sharp Retina display, enough processing power to get through most tasks with ease, plenty of ports, and plenty of battery life. If you take a lot of photos and video with your iPhone or other cameras, the 128GB base model is disappointing, but Apple offers two more off-the-shelf models that you can usually get from a third-party retailer like B&H for a bit less than Apple’s cut-in-stone prices. If you opt for the 128GB model and run out of space, you could resell your MacBook for a relatively high price — or tap into your SDXC card slot as a new storage source. Of course, external drives and large and fast USB 3.0 thumb drives can help here, too.

Basically, while storage is a possible hiccup, it’s hard to go wrong with any 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.