Write up: Retina vs Non-Retina?

Discussion in 'MacBook Pro' started by el-John-o, Jan 24, 2013.

  1. el-John-o, Jan 24, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2013

    el-John-o macrumors 65816

    Nov 29, 2010
    So this question is getting asked quite a bit on the forums. Seems like 2 or 3 times a day. It's a VERY GOOD question, as there are some clear advantages to both.

    So, I thought I'd do a quick write-up based on what folks are saying, outlining a few differences, and maybe provide a good reference for folks making this discussion. I'll welcome any further comments/changes/omissions as well, and try to be as objective as possible.

    Also, for further reading, here are the threads from where I'll be getting my info, and where a prospective buyer might look. I'll update this as more / more relevant threads pop up;


    So, for starters, some definitions.


    This is a marketing term from Apple that started with the iPhone 4. It refers to a display that, at a normal viewing distance, the pixel density is so great a human eye cannot discern the difference between pixels. So far, all Apple Retina Displays have also been IPS (In Plane Switching) displays, a feature that, while more expensive, offers much greater color gamut (number of colors displayed) and much more accurate color. Also, all Apple retina displays have been LED backlit, further improving color accuracy and display crispness. (Note: Apple does have LED Backlit, IPS, non-retina displays as well)

    uMBP, rMBP, cMBP xyzlmnopMBP????

    Apple marketing refers to the line as "MacBook Pro" and "Retina MacBook Pro", but that can become somewhat confusing to users on an internet forum. So, there has been an effort to distinguish the two models so that there isn't the confusion that might come with simply saying "MacBook Pro". They are;

    rMBP or MBPr; Retina MacBook Pro

    cMBP; Classic MacBook Pro. This is the second time this moniker has been used, it was previously used to describe pre-unibody MacBook Pro's and is thus, a bit of a misnomer

    uMBP; This is ALSO a misnomer, as it stands for 'unibody MacBook Pro', it intends to refer to the non-retina model, however, the retina model is ALSO a Unibody MacBook Pro.

    Despite the misnomer, you will see the non-Retina MacBook Pro referred to as uMBP and cMBP throughout the forums.

    So, let's just dive in, shall we?

    What's the difference?

    Apple Currently offers two sizes of "MacBook Pro". The 13" and 15". On both the Retina and non-Retina models, the 13" comes standard with a dual core Intel i5 CPU, and the 15" comes standard with a quad core Intel i7. Furthermore, the 15" includes an nVidia discrete graphics card.

    That is about where the similarities end, however. Obviously, the reason for this discussion is that the machines are vastly different, each with their own advantages and disadvantages!

    The easiest place to start, is the display. The Retina MacBook Pro uses an ultra-high resolution IPS display. On the 13" model this is a 2560x1600, and on the 15" model, this is a 2880x1800. Both are actually HIGHER resolution than Apples 27" Thunderbolt/Cinema Display, and the 27" iMac (2560x1440)

    Beyond the obvious difference (the resolution) the display is also distinct from it's non-retina brother because it is an IPS display. As mentioned earlier, this offers the best viewing angles and color representation of nearly any current display technology in the consumer world. It is a significant improvement over the TN (Twisted Nematic) display found in the non-retina models. Colors will be sharper, brighter, and more accurate on the retina models.

    Next, is the design of the machine itself.

    The Retina models are both thinner and lighter. Apple has done away with 'standard' chassis parts, like optical drives, 2.5" hard drives, or 'slots' to hold RAM, instead, using soldered RAM, no optical drive, and a special small and light 'blade' solid-state drive. So while the specs of a retina vs non-retina are very similar, the parts inside are extremely different. The result is a much lighter and thinner laptop. This goes for both the 13" and 15" models.

    However, with these design leaps come some shortcomings. With soldered RAM, it cannot be replaced by the user or upgraded later. On the 13" model, the RAM is fixed at 8GB (4GB more than the standard RAM on the 13" non-retina). On the 15", it can be upgraded, but at a cost much greater than the cost of purchasing DDR3 RAM sticks (like one could buy for the non-retina models). Also, the 13" non-Retina unofficially supports up to 16GB of RAM through 2 8GB DDR3 sticks. Again, the 13" retina is fixed at 8GB. So while there are no performance advantages to the non-Retina, in addition to being cheaper off-the-shelf, upgrades are much cheaper. HOWEVER, if you are a user not comfortable with DIY upgrades, the cost of upgrading will not be any higher on the Retina model, as these upgrades cost the same on both models!

    Finally, the battery on the retina models is glued to the chassis, making further replacement questionable. It's worth mentioning though, that the battery in the non-Retina is also technically not user replaceable, and requires taking it to Apple to be replaced. If you are a user who is not comfortable tearing open your machine, you are once again nowhere different, as you'd need to take it to Apple for replacement anyway.

    Also, for 'honorable mention' is one final advantage to the retina model. The retina model includes two thunderbolt ports instead of one, AND an HDMI port. The retina model MBP can drive multiple displays on native ports (without requiring any sort of special equipment), wheras the non-retina is tied to just one miniDisplayPort or Thunderbolt compatible display. Though miniDisplayPort does technically support daisy chaining or hubs, there are very few of these available and when you can find them, they are very expensive. So expensive in fact, it can actually cost just as much as simply upgrading to the retina model!

    Thanks to Skaertus: The retina MBP also includes a slightly different keyboard with less key travel than the non-Retina (another reason why it's important to visit a store if at all possible and play with the machines!)

    Bottom Line:

    Should I buy a Retina, or should I buy a non-Retina?

    First, determine the type of user you are. In the last 6 months, what type of applications did you use? What will you use 6 months from now? If your 2GB RAM white MacBook is still doing just fine, then it's silly to think that you'll need the ability to upgrade RAM later, on a notebook with 8GB. However, if you are a heavy VM user using 10-12GB of RAM every day, then you'll need to factor in the very pricey cost of 16GB of RAM on the 15" model!

    Once you've decided what kind of user you are, go play with them. Get a feel for the weight and size differences of the 4 MacBook Pro models. It is a laptop, meaning you are going to take it places. What 'fits'?

    So, in this corner, we have the RETINA MacBook Pro!


    Color Accurate, ultra high resolution display. Sharp pictures, the ability to add screen real estate, and color accuracy that blows the competition away.

    As light as the MacBook Air or an 'UltraBook'. Thinner than just about anything on the market, yet performs better than many higher end very thick and heavy notebooks!

    Additional connectivity, an extra thunderbolt port AND an HDMI port. Eliminates the need for HDMI dongles for outputting on your television, allows for the connection of multiple displays without the need for expensive DisplayPort hubs.

    Did I mention the screen?

    SSD's are standard. An SSD is one of the greatest things to happen to the personal computer since the multi-core CPU. Performance is impossible to compare to a machine with a spinning disk. While it doesn't make the processor faster or add any RAM, it does mean rapid boot times and instant program loads. SSD's are available on the non-retina models, but they are not standard, and they will cost; even if going aftermarket!


    Cost. The Retina MacBook Pro starts about $500 higher than the non-Retina. Because it is not user upgradable, you are stuck getting your upgrades through Apple. The 13" Retina, for example, comes standard with a puny 128GB SSD, many users will find this limiting. Upgrading this SSD can be very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. Upgrading the 15" model to 16GB of RAM, for example, costs hundreds more than buying DDR3 sticks from a third party.

    The lack of an internal optical drive will be an issue for some

    The Retina model is not user upgradable, though Apple does include ample RAM for most users. In the future, more manufacturers will offer the small SSD 'blade' used in the rMBP. However, presently the only aftermarket offering is a $600 480GB SSD from OtherWorld Computing. Contrastly, Crucial is set to release a 960GB 2.5" SSD for the same price, that could be used in the non-retina.

    And in this corner, the NON Retina MacBook Pro.


    Cheaper. At least $500 cheaper for two identically configured models. If you are comfortable upgrading the machine yourself, you have the ability to upgrade using aftermarket parts. For example, you could purchase a base model MacBook Pro, and upgrade the RAM and Hard Disk with third party components and save HUNDREDS.

    These models are user upgradable down the road. Up to 16GB of RAM in each. With aftermarket components like the OptiBay, and promised low cost 1TB SSD's, the non-Retina MacBook Pro could potentially have 2TB of SSD storage in it, somewhat affordably, as early as this year. The battery, while not TECHNICALLY user replaceable, can be removed and replaced with a couple screwdrivers.

    The 15" model has an option for a 'high resolution' Matte (Anti-Glare) display. High resolution here is relative as it is significantly lower in pixel count than the retina, however, it offers a matte finish. This is greatly preferred to a number of customers. The Matte screen reduces reflections and glares that can make the Glossy MBP unusable in bright sunlight. This is a build-to-order option.


    Older twisted nematic displays are inaccurate and bland. The lower resolution means crammed workspace, softer images, and grainy screen elements.

    The lack of a standard SSD means that, base model for base model, the non-Retina will be slower.

    Added weight and thickness is present in these models. There is also the added noise of a spinning hard disk if you choose not to upgrade to an SSD. These models lack the asymetrical fans in the rMBP, further increases the 'noise'

    Fewer ports, and only one thunderbolt ports, forces you to daisy chain when using as little as two thunderbolt devices, and limits the number of attached external displays.


    I can't afford to upgrade the SSD. Is 128GB/256GB enough?

    This is asked alot, but it is ENTIRELY subjective. A good way to look, would be to look at how much storage you are using now. If you are using a Mac, right click the hard drive icon and click 'get info'. How much space have you used? How much space would you be using if you got rid of pictures and your iTunes library?

    One significant advantage to current gen MBP's, and in this case especially the retina model, is high speed I/O. If you are set on the retina but don't think the stock SSD is going to be enough, and ALSO cannot afford to upgrade, no worries! USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt are fast enough to handle disks so fast you won't even know they are external. A spinning 2.5" hard disk can be as fast over USB 3.0 as it is when mounted internally. Are you retiring your old laptop? Remove it's hard drive and place it in an external enclosure (A USB 3.0 enclosure can be had for $20 new). Now, you've got a bunch of extra storage without spending a bunch of extra money!

    Want SSD speeds and more storage, but don't want to pay Apple to get it? Thunderbolt enclosures and 2.5" SSD's will be just as fast as a 2.5" SSD mounted internally. (They will be slightly slower over USB 3.0 however, as they WILL saturate a USB 3.0 connection, wheras a spinning drive won't)

    These are not ideal solutions, but they are effective. They are also a great way to 'make do' until third party manufacturers have more available upgrades for the retina models.

    Can I go without an optical drive?

    Again, this is absolutely up to you. However, it's worth mentioning that if you have another mac available with an optical drive, you can very easily share it's optical drive with your mac. This feature was included in OS X when Apple released the first MacBook Air, the first computer from Apple with the Optical Drive omitted. Also, external optical drives are available pretty inexpensively. Again, retiring an old laptop? You can also get enclosures for your old optical drive and turn it into a USB external.

    Do I need 16GB of RAM?

    Generally speaking, if you have to ask the question, then no you probably don't. OSX manages memory very well and having dozens of tabs open in Safari while using heavy applications like Photoshop, Final Cut Pro or After Effects will not saturate 8GB of RAM most of the time. Perhaps when sticking together 30 RAW files into a Panorama, but if you don't do that every single day, then 16GB of RAM might not be a necessity. Even if you run out of RAM, OSX will spill the information over into the hard drive. This is much slower, but it does mean you can still do whatever you need to do even if you run out of RAM.

    Typical users of that much RAM are using large virtual machines (running several OS'es at once) or doing heavy video or 3D rendering with Applications such as Maya.

    Yeah but will I need it 3 or 4 years from now?

    To run OS X and most applications? No. 8GB 'base' on the retina models will again, be enough. However if you use heavier duty applications or plan to in the future, and also plan to hang on to your machine, you will have to consider either sticking with the non-Retina (and upgrading cheaper) or biting the bullet and buying the pricy RAM upgrade from Apple.

    Many people believe that, when 16GB of RAM becomes a necessity, current generation CPU's will need to be upgraded anyway.

    Can the 13" MBP handle the retina display?

    Absolutely. I use my 13" MBP with two displays, the built in display along with a 2560x1440 Apple Cinema Display. I can even play some older games at that full resolution at high settings! I can certainly use Adobe Photoshop or iMovie as well. The Intel HD4000 can drive the display just fine, that shouldn't be a concern. However, intense 3D applications will require a discrete GPU, regardless WHAT resolution the display is, and so the 15" with a discrete GPU should be considered. Some choppiness or 'lag' in applications that move a lot of pixels should be expected on the 13". It doesn't matter the resolution of the display here though. For example, to 'straighten' a 23 megapixel image in photoshop moves just as many pixels on a 1280x800 display as it does in a 2560x1600 display. Because the GPU doesn't have to just move them on the screen, it has to actually move every single pixel in the image, even the ones not being displayed on the screen because there are more pixels in the image than the display! This is where a discrete GPU comes in handy. However, the HD4000 can handle it if you don't mind a bit of chopiness.

    What about battery life, CPU, GPU, etc.

    These things were not mentioned because they are the same across the line.

    Okay, I've decided on the Retina or non-Retina, should I get the 13" or 15"?

    This is really a topic for another day, but I'll throw it in here. The 15" model includes a quad core CPU and a discrete GPU, the 13" model has a dual core CPU and an integrated GPU. Apple maxes the 13" model out at 8GB of RAM, whether retina or non-retina, unless you upgrade the RAM yourself (non-Retina only) in which case you can hit 16GB

    Bottom line? For a little more money, you get a lot more performance in the 15". For some, that's a much better value. However, others greatly prefer the 13" form factor, and even if the 15" is a better value, it's still more money. The 13" is in a more affordable price range, likely why it's Apples best selling laptop. Again, you really should NOT decide between the 15" and 13" sight unseen, go play with them! See which form factor works for you! Some prefer the 13", some prefer the 15". Still others don't care at all, but cost or performance are factors!

    That's all I'll say on that topic.


    If anyone has anything to add, let me know. I thought this could be useful to all the users asking this question. I'm trying to make this as objective as possible. Not one guys opinion about which you should go with, or even niche or once-in-a-blue-moon or oddball cases. But rather, the 'common' swaying points that a 'typical' user might consider when determining their next computer.


  2. Barna Biro macrumors 6502a

    Barna Biro

    Sep 25, 2011
    Zug, Switzerland
    The real difference is: I LIKE the rMBP MORE than the cMBP.
    ... and that's also the most significant difference to me. :cool:
  3. alohamade macrumors regular


    Sep 13, 2012
    Absolutely useful, and great post, I nominate this as a sticky for sure. As someone who's participated in a lot of these threads, I stand ready to help you out in any questions anyone has...always ready to contribute!

    As far as this thread goes, I'll be thinking of stuff to add. Bravo!
  4. Ploki macrumors 68020

    Jan 21, 2008
  5. Arnezie macrumors 65816


    Oct 10, 2011
  6. arsimoun macrumors member

    Jan 24, 2013
    Why I chose rMBP...

    I do not need the horsepower of the rMBP; I am a writer. That said, there are two things that matter to me: the screen and the keyboard. That's pretty much true of anyone who writes for a living. The Retina screen makes this the device of choice for my needs. While I like the easy portability of the 13" model, there is no gainsaying the charm of screen real estate. 15" rMBP was where I landed.

    One man's .02


    P.S. -- Oh, yeah... I went for the 16 megs of RAM on the theory better safe than sorry even though I don't really "need" that much RAM.
  7. Liquinn Suspended

    Apr 10, 2011
    You've forgotten a pro for the cMBPs.

    The optical drive can be replaced with an optibay.
  8. skaertus macrumors 68030


    Feb 23, 2009
    Thats great! You should add a conclusion to it, to sum it up.

    A 13" rMBP vs. 15" rMBP would also be welcome...


    You forgot to mention the difference between the keyboards. The rMBP has a keyboard with less key travel than the cMBP.
  9. Ploki macrumors 68020

    Jan 21, 2008
    good point. imo the biggest pro of the cMBP. only one

    I really can't feel the difference. :/
  10. skaertus macrumors 68030


    Feb 23, 2009
    Really? Try to put them both side-by-side. You'll notice that the keyboards are different.
  11. DTKblaster macrumors member

    Aug 3, 2012
    so far as I know, IPS doesn't improve colour gamute or accuracy (this is dependent on the backlighting used and calibration), but only improves the viewing angles.
  12. nickftw8686 macrumors regular

    Oct 6, 2011
  13. Ploki macrumors 68020

    Jan 21, 2008
    I have the first gen MBP, and aside first gen feeling "sloppier" i can't really feel significant difference while typing
  14. Poisonivy326 macrumors 6502

    Nov 25, 2012
  15. Idefix macrumors 6502

    Jul 10, 2012
    Don't forget you can get a high-resolution anti-glare screen for the cMBP.

    For those who can't forgive Apple for getting rid of matte options, it's the only way to go.

    Apple's claim of 70% glare reduction on rMBP is marketing speak for "it's still got way too much glare!" but this is the way we can sell it to you...
  16. el-John-o, Jan 24, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2013

    el-John-o thread starter macrumors 65816

    Nov 29, 2010
    It absolutely does. IPS displays more colors than TN and is much more accurate and much easier to calibrate. My wife is a photographer, we work with a lot of displays to get things accurate!

    That said, and photographer worth their salt wouldn't be doing color correction on a laptop display, no matter how good. Changes in lighting, viewing angle, etc are going to screw up your calibration. In fact we use 5500K bulbs in the room we do photo editing in, blinds closed, on 27" Apple Cinema Display calibrated monthly.

    However, it's still an advantage. And it'll get you a lot closer than a TN display.

    Also, I DID mention the optibay, it's in the part about upgradeability.
  17. Ray Brady macrumors 6502

    Dec 21, 2011
    Thanks for the extremely helpful post. There's one point in particular that's valuable to me: "You can also get enclosures for your old optical drive and turn it into a USB external."

    I'm on the verge of retiring a 2008 MBP, and was unsure about whether I would need to invest in an external SuperDrive as well. It never occurred to me that my current machine's SuperDrive would work in an external enclosure. Thanks for the tip!
  18. el-John-o, Jan 24, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2013

    el-John-o thread starter macrumors 65816

    Nov 29, 2010

    I did the same thing, sort of. I bought a non-Retina MBP but put two SSD's in it, replacing the optical drive, and stuck the optical drive in an enclosure. I've used it once or twice, and could have just as easily used a networked optical drive, but I figured; I have it, and enclosures are cheap!

    If you aren't going to be using the '08 MBP anymore, you could also take it's hard drive and stick it in an enclosure for more storage. I did that with the stock hard drive that came with my MBP.

    By the way guys, glad everyone liked it! It'd be nice if the mods stickied it, though not everyone reads stickies. My hope though is that folks can get this info without having to re-ask the same question. It's easy to just bark 'use search' but sometimes search doesn't work well, and if you don't know exactly what you're looking for, it can be a little hard!

    On the opinion stuff, I actually want to leave the opinions OUT of the original write up. I didn't want to include why someone wants one or the other so much, because that's subjective and the reader will be different. I just wanted to include the facts on the differences, as there are quite a few that Apple isn't clear about (like the keyboard, I didn't know that!) And the most GENERAL opinions, as opposed to a few niche issues here or there.
  19. adjeff8 macrumors 6502


    Nov 18, 2012
    There's one more thing that I noticed when I played with both side by side at the Apple store. I played an identical music video on both machines, and the sound was easily 3 times as loud on the Retina. The Apple Store was pretty loud, loud enough that I could barely hear the cMBP, but when I cranked the Retina, people actually asked me to turn it down. It was really loud. Awesome...before that I was considering a cMBP and installing a SSD. Not anymore.

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