Over the course of 2012, Apple upgraded processor speeds, graphics capabilities and port options on its MacBook Pro laptops. These upgrades were modest in most cases. "If you bought one of the MacBook Pros last year, there's no compelling reason to purchase one of these new machines," Jackie Dove writes at Macworld, talking about the standard 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros.
One change to the lineup is very significant, however: Apple killed the 17-inch MacBook Pro and made the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (*Est. $2,200 and up) the high-end Apple laptop, giving it a makeover that distinguishes it from the rest of the MacBook Pro pack -- and makes it one of the best performance notebooks around. You can learn more about the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display here.
Late in 2012, Apple also introduced a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (*Est. $1,500 and up). It's less expensive than the 15-inch version, but also a bit less powerful -- for example, sporting a dual-core i5 processor compared to the quad-core i7 processors found in the 15-inch version. While it still garnered a bit of expert appreciation, enthusiasm was more muted than for the 15-inch version. Several critics say that if you don't need the smaller form factor of a 13-inch laptop, the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a better performer and a better value.
MacBook Pro laptops have a sleek aluminum unibody case, edge-to-edge glass display and flush trackpad, and they're available in 13- and 15-inch versions. All MacBook Pro notebooks -- including the Retina Display models -- offer battery life of 5.5 to 7 hours that's above the average for laptops, especially performance laptops. The backlit keyboard and glass trackpad found on Mac laptops are likewise considered second to none. New this year is the addition of USB 3.0 ports, which are much speedier than USB 2.0.
The 13-inch MacBook Pros don't attract the same level of enthusiasm as their 15-inch counterparts, but reviewers say the entry-level MacBook Pro offers good bang for the buck. It comes in two configurations. The most inexpensive option (*Est. $1,200 and up) comes with a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. The step-up model (*Est. $1,200 and up) sports a 2.9 GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 CPU with 8 GB of RAM and a 750 GB hard drive. Although both 13-inch MacBook Pros lack discrete graphics, they do include a Thunderbolt port, Bluetooth 4.0, an optical drive and the FaceTime HD webcam.
Though in many ways it's simply a smaller version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, there are some key differences that make the 13-inch MacBook Pro less desirable, reviewers say. Benchmark tests show that while the 13-inch models' dual-core processors are powerful enough for most tasks, they fall fairly far behind the 15-inch models' quad-core counterparts. While Ivy Bridge's improved graphics capabilities vastly trump last year's gaming frame rates, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a lower screen resolution than the 15-inch model, and Macworld says its on-screen colors are more muted. That publication also finds the 13-incher's sound to be tinnier, flatter and generally inferior to the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Overall, critics say the 13-inch MacBook Pro is a decent choice for a portable, yet powerful notebook, but CNET's Scott Stein says it "feels too expensive compared with the competition."
Numerous reviewers say the 15-inch MacBook Pro is one of the best laptops available, but the Ultrabook competition is closing in fast, making this Apple laptop less of a sure-fire buy than before.
In addition to an upgrade to third-generation Ivy Bridge Intel Core processors and USB 3.0 ports, this year's refresh saw the 15-inch MacBook Pro switch its discrete graphics from AMD's Radeon GPU to a newer Nvidia GeForce GT 650M. The Nvidia GPU includes Optimus switching technology that only activates the discrete GPU when it's needed, leaving lighter tasks to the Ivy Bridge CPU's integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics.
The lower-priced model in the line (*Est. $1,800 and up) sports a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 4 GB of RAM, a Nvidia GPU with 512 MB of its own RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. The step-up version (*Est. $1,200 and up) includes a 2.6 GHz Core i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, a GeForce GT 650M GPU with 1 GB of discrete RAM and 750 GB of storage. Both have a 1,600-by-900-pixel screen and, like the 13-inch models, include an optical drive and several ports, including a Thunderbolt connection, though accessories that support Thunderbolt are still not widely available.
The mixture of Ivy Bridge and Nvidia has led to a modest performance increase over last year's models, but CNET's Dan Ackerman says the improvements are similar to what you'd see in a comparable Windows-based notebook. Despite that, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is one of the most powerful laptops around, and with its long battery life and excellent keyboard and trackpad combination, Ackerman says it's "the most universally useful laptop you can buy."