Using a 12″ Retina MacBook Pro as a primary machine in the real world

I’ve been using a 12” Retina MacBook as my primary machine for the last week and I quite like it. It’s more capable than you think. I’m telling you that you probably can quite easily and efficiently do any kind of work beyond “light web browsing and email” up to a much further point than you thought.

Now, I have a long history of using devices in ways most people in my ilk find insane. I’m a creative professional. In my Dock, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign are all running. As is a host of other smaller apps like Mail, Safari, iTunes (okay, that’s not small), Transmit, and others. I’m not “easy” on the workload of my machines.

My last machine? A 15” Retina MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM. I know. What is wrong with me, indeed. There are so many reviews out there about this machine and probably no one will stumble across this because I’m not John Gruber, but I wanted to report some of my findings.

The Keyboard

Much to Marco’s vexation, I quite like the keyboard. I’m actually a pretty good touch typist on glass with my iPad Air, and this isn’t far off from the feel of that. The buttons still move and make satisfyingly rhythmic tapping sounds. But even if I weren’t, I’m a sentient human being capable of adapting to minor changes like a keyboard button. We did it with our phones, we can do it with minor variations in physical keyboards. Heck, we do it all the time anyway every time we step up to a public computer terminal.

The Trackpad

I quite like the trackpad, too. It doesn’t bother me one bit. Maybe I’m not fussy enough, I dunno. But it works, it feels like a click despite being just a haptic feedback click, and it works well for touch-clickers and force-clickers alike. I am, to be clear, a long-time user of tap-to-click. It’s quieter and easier for me. Always has been.

The Screen

This is where this machine gets interesting, not because of its Retina quality (which is nice), but because it’s 12”. It’s not 11” and it’s not 13”. I’ve wanted a 12” display for so long. 13” to me seems big. When I use my laptop I want it to be light and small so it can fit in my backpack and rest comfortably as I cycle in to the office.

15” is relatively no different than 13” to me. I can’t discern the difference when I’m not looking at it. And, to be fair, when I am looking at it it’s not dramatic.

The Price & Specs

When people look at the MacBook the reviews always go to, “It’s nice, but it’s expensive.” Well, is it? Because I priced this machine with a 13” MacBook Air *at the same memory and hard drive allocation*. Once you up the Air to 8GB of RAM, suddenly it’s the exact same price.

I’ve used an Air before, and for a long time it was my primary machine. But I’m done with non-Retina displays. The future is here now and I don’t want to go back. To me, the Air is dead.

So the price isn’t all that different once you compare comparable specs.

The Processor

This is where this is a downside. At 1.1 GHz the MacBook’s processor is lowly. My MacBook Pro had a 2 GHz quad-core i7 Intel chip. That’s a big difference.

Except I don’t feel it. I don’t notice it except in rare circumstances. Those rare circumstances:

  1. Comparing the MacBook to the MacBook Pro side-by-side.
  2. Saving a really big Photoshop file.

So how big is the difference? I wanted to do some real-world tests. Geek bench and other clock speed tests are useless to me.

So I took a short 15 minute video in Final Cut Pro and opened it and exported it out on each machine.

The MacBook Pro rendered it in 14 minutes. The MacBook in 18.

I don’t know about you, but four minutes does not make a big difference to me. I recognize that if you do it all day that adds up, but even if you do it all day, that’s not that much of a difference. It’s an extra bathroom break in a day.

So when I look at these speeds I had to recognize the obvious: I’m paying for a lot of screen and weight so I can save 4 minutes here and there.

Other Conclusions

It’s not worth it, so I’m selling that MacBook Pro. I come away with the same RAM and disk space, slightly smaller screen but of equally unmatched quality and pixel density, and shed about 3 pounds.

The result is I use my computer more often away from my desk. And if you’re wondering about the lack of ports, that’s why this isn’t much of a concern to me: plug it into a monitor or hub and you’re fine. The kinds of people that worry about that already have this stuff sitting around anyway.

And because I use my computer more often away from my desk, I find I’m more productive and do more at home. That’s either a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it.

Also a plus: this thing has the best speakers I’ve ever heard on any of Apple’s laptops except the 15” Retina MacBook Pro. But they’re darn close.

Future Revisions

My greatest hope for future revisions is actually about the charger. I don’t mind too much about the lack of MagSafe, even though that was really great. What I mind is this cable is ridiculous to wind up, store, and move. I get the advertised 8-10 hours of battery life on this thing, but I still have to tote a charger around. There’s no cord hooks on this MacBook’s power brick, so it’s pretty awful to carry. I can imagine it’ll get worn out just from sitting in a bag wrapped around itself over time.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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