Sunday, July 29, 2012

Buyer-Friendly Review: MacBook Pro 13-inch Core i7, June 2012


About this review

Here I review a model from the 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro refresh. This is not a Retina Display model, as those are only available in 15-inch, which is too big for my needs and also too expensive.

This review is different from others. Instead of looking at detailed performance analysis results and doing benchmark tests like so many other reviews do, I will look at the little things that potential buyers may want to know before making the purchase. This review is written as a supplement to long and detailed reviews that large companies like CNET write.

This “buyer-friendly” review is meant to remove a lot of the things non-computer-savvy consumers will not need, making it to the point and simple, while increasing focus on small but important things like the placement of ports, heat issues etc.

I have color-coded the subheadings in this article to highlight the good, bad and "meh" aspects of this laptop.

My model's specs

Instead of getting the baseline 13-inch model with the Core i5 CPU as I planned earlier, I got the $1499 model with the i7 CPU and 8 GB RAM. Since I purchased it from an authorized reseller rather than online, there were the specs are not customized in any way. This is a non-customized high-end 13-inch model from here.

Hardware and Design


The screen on the MacBook Pro is not bad. Colors are as perfect as they look in Apple's photos. The glossy screen is not annoying as people normally say it is. Reflections on it have never distracted me. However, I may have been conditioned to ignore them because I haven't owned a matte screen laptop in years.

The minor downside is that you don't get the very popular 1366x768 resolution that is found on most laptops these days. On a 13" screen, this isn't bad and you cannot see the pixels or anything, but still, the resolution of 1280x800 is a little outdated.

Keyboard and touchpad

This MacBook has the same keyboard and touchpad as all the other current-generation MacBooks. The keyboard has chiclet keys. Unlike the one on my previous laptop, a VAIO E-Series, I like this keyboard. I didn’t particularly hate the previous one, but I felt that it didn’t let me type as fast as I used to on a regular laptop keyboard. I didn’t get habituated in the 1.5 years of using it either.

But I really enjoy typing on the keyboard on this Pro, which I am using to type this. Maybe it’s just the right texture on the keys themselves. The VAIO had slightly rougher keys that gradually wore off, losing the uniform texture on them. I don’t think that the MacBook will lose texture, because there’s not much of one anyway. As a bonus, the keys on this laptop literally feel like silk when typing or even resting your fingertips lightly on them.

Moreover, there is an adjustable backlight on the keyboard as an aded bonus. There are dedicated keys to make them brighter or dimmer. And these lights look really elegant.

The touchpad on MacBooks are iconic. There’s not much for me to write in this, unique review. The touchpad is very large and made of glass. It also feels very similar to the keys on the keyboard. Fingers glide across it very smoothly when you use it. I cannot describe the quality of this trackpad in typed words. You have to use it to believe it. This thing is so good, you’ll have no regrets. Moreover, OS X Lion and up have these mouse gestures that every other review talks about. I won’t go into much detail here. The size of the touchpad is not even in the Goldilocks zone, but rather in a Goldilocks spot. It is perfect for all the gestures you can use on a Mac. OS X is so smart, it blows all the other trackpads and their drivers out of the water. It almost detects which fingers I am putting on the surface. Two fingers placed in a certain way will work differently than a different two finger placement. Again, you have to experience it to believe it.

Ports placement

This section is written to help buyers know the annoyances, if any from the placement and number of connector ports on the laptop, in order to minimize any regrets after purchase: “Oh no! The USB cables I plugged in leave no space for my mouse hand on this table.”

Apple is known for its minimalist design. There are quite a number of ports on the MacBook Pro, but none of them clutter the design. Since there has not been a design refresh yet this year, the ports are pretty much the same as the previous generation Pros (and maybe the ones before that).

All of the ports are on the left side of the laptop. There are two USB ports, one Firewire, one Thunderbolt and one Ethernet jack. Along with that come the MagSafe charger connector, a headphone jack and an SD card slot.

Unfortunately (for some people), there is no microphone jack on the 13-inch model. The built-in mic is not bad, though. The 15-inch model does come with a mic port, but the 13-inch also supports the iPhone headset with remote and built-in microphone anyway.

There are only two USB ports, so without a hub, I can only connect one device when using my mouse. But thankfully, I seldom use a mouse because of the amazing, fluid trackpad that’s built in.

The ports are build close to each other so they take up minimal space on the side. But unless you have awkwardly shaped flash drives, connected cables will not block each other. When you connect the MagSafe power adapter one way, it blocks most of the ports on the side. However, the charger can also be connected with the wire facing upwards.

Overall body design

The MacBook Pro did not undergo major redesign in June 2012 either. It has the same unibody design and all the same exterior as the previous generation models and beyond. It looks snazzy and simple, but also feels rich, expensive and high-end to use.

There is no Retina Display model available in the 13-inch size. If you are not in a hurry to get a laptop right now and really want a Retina Display for a cheaper price, I may suggest waiting for a while to see if Apple brings the amazingly rich display to the smaller Pro before the end of this year. Such a model is eventually guaranteed, but we don’t know when it will be available.

I don’t have any major annoyances with this laptop right now. But as a Windows-convert, I had the natural confusion with the control key. In OS X, the Command key, which is NOT in the bottom-right corner, replaces the control key in most shortcuts. You may be confused for a couple of days. If you use a lot of keyboard navigation shortcuts when typing (making the cursor jump over words, select words in a specific way), some of the shortcuts and shortcut-combos from Windows will not transition well and feel awkward for several days. The job of the control key in Windows is even split between the Command and the control key in this case.

Another little annoyance is that the magnets used to snap the lid and hold it in place is a bit too tight. Depending on what you wear, you may find clothing often get stuck in the lid. Then you need to open the lid again (which requires a bit too much strength) and pull out anything that’s in there.

The trackpad is itself an entire button (which is the case in OS X). I also find it annoying how it is not as easily press-able at the top as on the bottom. I would have found it better if it was uniform.


General performance and gaming

[It's hard to pick between a yellow and a green for this one. I gave it a yellow because this particular model may not be the example of the best performance you can get from a product in the MacBook lineup. As a standalone product, it has great performance and I don't have any regrets.]

The standard Core i7 model comes with 8 GB RAM. All this power really shows. If you are using this computer only for web browsing, email, social networking etc., you’re not experiencing all the power this computer can put to use. You are even overspending. If you want an Apple laptop solely for these uses, get a MacBook Air instead.

While I haven’t tested out loads of advanced games (I have yet to install Portal 2 on it), the integrated graphics performance is surprisingly good. If you don’t want to play extremely heavy games at the highest settings, this laptop is perfect for you. I think it will be able to run Skyrim, even but not at the “ultra high” graphics settings.

I played Team Fortress 2 on this laptop. Compared to my VAIO with a dedicated Radeon GPU (see the VAIO’s review here), it feels like a true upgrade. The screen’s a lot better, so the colors were a lot richer. I wasn’t playing at the highest-of-highest graphics settings, but the optimal settings that the Source engine suggests were quite close to it. Anti-aliasing looked a bit worse on these default settings, but I didn’t mind much. I can surely bump it up a bit without compromising performance.

If you want some more power, especially in games, get one of the 15-inch models, which have dedicated graphics chips. I am not going into a lot of detailed tests here, because every other review site does them and you can easily find the numbers online.


Heat is not an issue at all in general, everyday use. As I type this article in Pages with a web browser open in the background and iTunes downloads going, the myriad temperature sensors report temperatures ranging from 35 to 45 degrees Celsius (95 to 113 Fahrenheit) to the Dashboard widget iStat Pro. It’s surprisingly cool.

However, don’t expect to play games on it (like TF2) with the laptop placed on your lap. It doesn’t actually overheat. The temperatures remain fine, but the metal unibody on this laptop is a massive heatsink itself. The aluminum bottom gradually heats up to the point where it’s fairly uncomfortable on your lap. It won’t burn you (probably even your bare legs), but it gets hot.

The day after getting my MacBook, it got gaming-hot while iPhoto was indexing several thousand photos. It would heat up quite often. However, Apple released a fix (coincidentally the next day) that seems to have taken care of that problem.

Battery life

I didn’t purposely test the battery, because again, all other review sites do that. However, in a week of using it quite regularly, I feel that Apple’s numbers are more or less accurate. They always have been accurate for their products (the iPad does get 10 hours of battery) and they are for the MacBook Pro.

If you are getting this laptop for school or college and need to get through a day of classes without a charge, you will get through the day with this laptop. Keep your screen brightness less than 50% and put the computer to sleep once in a while and you’ll get 8 or even more hours of battery out of this laptop.

However, if you expect to be doing really heavy work in class someday, bring your adapter along. It’s not that bulky anyway.

Another thing I really like is that this laptop runs for hours on end on battery, while it takes about two hours to charge up to maximum while being in use. The battery is just perfect. Apple claims that the battery will run the same even after 5 years worth of regular charge cycles.

Travel Use

The 13-inch MacBook Pro makes a fairly good travel companion. At 2.06 kg (4.5 pounds), it’s not terribly heavy and the charger is as bulky as those that come with many other manufacturers’ laptops. However, it doesn’t beat a MacBook Air or an iPad as your only travel companion.

Heat vents

If you’re going to carry the MacBook Pro around under your arm a lot, beware of the air vents. The vents are where your fingers go (at the back, where a laptop battery usually is). The aluminum body does cool down pretty quickly, but the heat near the vents may cause discomfort when holding it at your side with the Apple logo the right side up.

Performance on battery

Unlike many other laptops (including my VAIO before this), performance of the laptop while on battery is surprisingly good. Instead of sacrificing performance for battery life like many laptops, the MacBook Pro keeps going on full power. This is probably firmware based. Still, I cannot stress how good the battery life is on this machine.

A few hours ago, I was playing TF2. Then I watched a YouTube video and did a lot of other stuff before continuing with my review. The battery is still going great.

You can sit down on an airport, play some games, browse the web, watch a movie etc. and there will still be juice left for some use on the next flight.

Sleeping and waking up

When traveling, you need a laptop to go to sleep quickly and start up in a snap so it doesn’t waste a lot of charge while sleeping and waking up. If you are a Windows user converting, chances are, this laptop will completely blow your previous one away in this matter.

Although this Pro comes with a standard hard drive in it, sleeping and waking up happens in a pinch. You just put the lid down and lift it back up; you won’t even notice it went to sleep. Since the Air models have flash memory, they are even faster. But the Pro is not far behind.

Even the boot up is really really fast and the computer shuts down in a matter of seconds. If you didn’t have a solid-state drive on your previous Windows computer, you are really going to notice this significant difference.

Battery indicator

The exterior battery indicator on the MacBook Pro is a really small thing that I really like about it. When on a trip or at school, you can quickly open your backpack, push a tiny button on the left side of this laptop, lighting up a series of teeny-tiny bright green LEDs for a moment to check the battery’s charge.

The Verdict

This laptop is really good. The amazing battery life, quick charge time and the phenomenal sleep/wake-up time is perfect for students and frequent travellers (you will get better sleep/wake-up on the Air or the Pro with Retina Display). The screen is gorgeous, which is perfect for people who do frequent photo and video editing. Games also look great on it. The slightly low screen resolution is not a deal-breaker by any means.

However, although I have not tested out extremely high-end games on my model, the integrated graphics on the 13" model may not be amazing for high-end games on very high settings. It can still run TF2 and Portal 2 very well, but maybe not Skyrim on some of its very high graphics settings. The 15" models (also Retina) come with dedicated graphics chips (Intel, with automatic switching to NVIDIA).

The heat issue may be another thing to put gamers and movie-producers off. Again, the internals don't overheat by any stretch, but the exterior metal body gets hot for those who like to keep it on their laps.

To be concise, get this laptop if you need high power with great portability.