The value added premium: Old-school MacBook Pro vs. Retina MacBook Pro

Sections: Features, Laptops, MacBook Pro, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Opinions and Editorials

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Weighing in on the MacBook Pro vs. Retina MacBook Pro debate, Resexcellence’s Joshua Coventry has posted a glowing review of the most recent, and likely the ultimate old-school MacBook Pro 15.4″ revision that was released in June 2012. The mid-2012 15″ Pro got Intel Ivy Bridge Core i processors, more powerful discrete graphics from NVIDIA, and USB 3.0 connectivity, but I’m doubtful there will be another upgrade of the non-Retina Pro models when Intel’s next-generation “Haswell” CPU family comes on-stream later this year, especially with the late-2008 form factor models having been passed over in the mild refreshment of Apple’s Retina MacBook Pros last month.

However, Coventry praises the MacBook Pro without Retina Display as still being one of the best laptops you can buy in this price range, with hardware quality and software features far exceeding anything in the Windows PC market. He likes it so much he bought one himself and says it’s by far the best computer he’s ever owned, the best Mac he’s ever owned, and, configured with a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, it’s the most powerful Mac he’s ever used as well. Rendering tasks such as video production, photo editing, sound production, illustration, simulations, 3D rendering, and gaming are all a breeze, especially after he D.I.Y. upgraded to a 7200RPM 750GB Western Digital Scorpio Black hard drive and 16GB of RAM.

MacBook Pro vs. Retina MacBook Pro

You can’t do that with a Retina MacBook Pro. You can order a B.T.O. 768GB flash SSD with the 15-inch rMBP at time of purchase, but it’ll cost you a nosebleed-inducing 700 bucks extra on the base model. An upgrade to 16 GB of RAM is another $200, which—with the base model price of $2,199—brings the grand total to $3,199. If you need an external SuperDrive optical drive, add another $79, taking you up to $3,278.

By comparison, the non-Retina MacBook Pro starts at $1,799, and includes a standard internal SuperDrive. A 750 GB , 7,200 RPM hard disk drive can be ordered for $150 more and an 8GB memory option is $100. Grand total: $2,049, albeit with slower HDD rather than SSD storage and half the RAM. However, if you want to go the D.I.Y. Route, Other World Computing will sell you the 7200RPM 750GB Western Digital Scorpio Black HDD that Joshua Coventry has in his MacBook Pro for $99.97, and a 16GB RAM upgrade for $129.99, lowering the total cost to $1,929.96 and bringing the RAM to parity with our B.T.O. rMBP spec.

Aside from the lower price, another cool thing about the old-school MacBook Pro alternative is that you can spread the cost out by going with the base machine to start with, then installing the upgrade bits later. Upgrading the hard drive and memory yourself doesn’t void Apple’s warranty—standard or AppleCare—and Coventry notes that while it isn’t officially removable by the user, the battery can be replaced fairly easily as it is not glued to the case like the one in the rMBP is, but simply held in place by a few screws and a connecting cable (although be aware that tampering with the battery while your MacBook Pro is under warranty will void the warranty). With the rMBP, you’re stuck with whatever spec your computer leaves the factory in Asia configured with.

Granted, with the non-Retina Pro you’ve still got a slightly slower 2.3GHz Ivy Bridge CPU to the base rMBP’s 2.5GHz chip, slower HDD storage rather than SSD, and, of course, a somewhat bulkier form factor with no Retina display, but you can upgrade to a 2.6GHz Ivy Bridge at time of purchase for $200, opt for SSD storage (512GB – $700.00 extra) and you still get a really nice display and a machine that can be upgraded and repaired much more easily than the Retina MacBook Pro. Joshua Coventry opted for the Hi-Res Antiglare Display option, and says the brightness, contrast, viewing angle, and color accuracy are all fantastic, and that’s from a high-end graphics professional who uses his MacBook Pro as a work platform for web design and development.

It partly boils down to how much you can afford, and how much of a desirability premium a Retina display adds for you vs. the versatility and potentially longer lasting value added of an upgradable machine. Personally, I lean toward the latter, and I can get a Retina display a lot cheaper in an iPad.

How about you? If the older design (but still deliciously attractive and capable) MacBook Pro exerts more appeal, you’d be well-advised to grab one soon while the grabbing is still good.

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  • Kevin

    Bought the 15″ rMBP two days ago to replace my wife’s failing 2006 15″ MBP. We opted for the 2.7GHz/ 16GB RAM/512GB SSD version instead of the entry level rMBP for the very reason that we can’t upgrade it later.
    By investing more heavily back in 2006, we were able to get a solid 6 years from her original MBP (only upgraded RAM post-purchase), and hopefully going with the rMBP now, we’ll get at least a couple more years than if we had gone non-retina today.
    Another deciding factor was the lightness of the form factor and no moving parts (other than the fans) – she’s constantly on the move with it.
    Now if I can just get VMWare Fusion working on it as well as it did on her old machine… :)

  • ViewRoyal

    I just configured the 15″ Retina MBP and regular 15″ MBP equally, and the Retina version came out to be almost $500 LESS!!!

    Both were configured with:

    * 2.7GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7
    * 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
    * 256GB Solid State Drive
    * The regular MBP was upgraded to the 1,680-by-1,050 display (not as good as the Retina’s 2880-by-1800 resolution display!)
    * The Apple USB SuperDrive was added to the Retina MBP to equal the built-in SuperDrive in the regular MBP

    Total prices:
    Regular MacBook Pro = $2,849.00
    Retina MacBook Pro = $2,378.00

    So for almost $500 less than the regular MBP, you get a similarly configured Retina MBP that has a much better display, and is thinner and lighter!

  • Nick

    No way would I ever buy a Retina MacBook Pro. If it breaks inside, you can’t fix it. If you want to upgrade it, that’s not possible. I wouldn’t worry about maxing out the specs on it too much at the same time though, my 2010 MacBook can do whatever a new MacBook Pro can do. Sure it’s 0.1 milleseconds slower but it works.

    • Darwin

      What are you going to fix inside if it breaks? Are you a laptop hardware expert? No? You aren’t going to fix anything inside either machine. The retina display is vastly better than anything else out there. Just upgrade to 16 GB from the start and there is nothing else to upgrade. Spinning hard drives are dead and even if you replace the stock drive with the ssd you aren’t going to upgrade the ssd over the life of the machine.

  • Peter

    Here’s a difference that’s somewhat important to me.

    Buy a Retina MacBook Pro. Save $500 on your purchase. Wait 2 years. Upgrade the memory to 16GB.

    Cost for MacBook Pro: Probably less than $200.
    Cost for Retina MacBook Pro: The cost of a new retina MacBook Pro–probably another $2400.

    • Darwin

      I see retina MBP for under $2000 all over the place. Check the Apple Insider price list for a start.

  • Charles W. Moore

    If you’re happy being locked into a tiny 256gb SSD and 8 GB of RAM forever (or at least till it breaks and you can’t fix it), rock on.


    • Darwin

      Don’t buy it with those specs. Problem solved. Most ssds in laptops these days are 256GB or less.

  • Charles W. Moore

    I actually do tear down and repair laptops. However I meant that with the rMBPs *nobody* can repair it, especially the 15-inch model. Check out iFixIt’s teardown reports.

    OTOH, with the old-school Pros ordinary users can upgrade the storage drive and RAM without voiding their warranty or even doing much of a teardown.