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The Retina MacBook Pro: Taking ‘Pro’ Out of the Equation

Posted in Apple, Mac on 12/06/2012 by J. Glenn Künzler

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Apple’s new Retina-toting MacBook Pro is a beast of a machine, with an incredible processor, the fastest low-voltage notebook memory available, and speedy solid state storage. It’s also thinner and lighter than its predecessor, and absolutely gorgeous to look at. However, as with most things, there’s more to Apple’s new MacBook Pro than meets the eye – and I don’t like what’s lurking under the surface.

In order to allow such a thin design, Apple removed the optical drive and the traditional 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD found in every previous MacBook Pro, and instead included additional battery cells and a blade-style SSD. Unfortunately, while I applaud some of Apple’s changes here (like the removal of the optical drive), many of the changes that Apple made to make the MacBook Pro thinner and lighter come at a cost: Accessibility.

I’ve been using a MacBook Pro for a number of years, and one of the things I’ve come to appreciate over the years is the ability to upgrade my own RAM and storage without having to pay whatever price Apple decides to charge – 3rd-party RAM and storage are almost always cheaper when purchased from someone other than Apple.

Unfortunately, Apple has all but eliminated the ability for customers’ to upgrade their own machines, reducing the MacBook Pro hardware to its most inaccessible state yet. Even the RAM in the new Retina MacBook Pro is soldered directly to the logic board, so you better make sure you buy that 16GB RAM upgrade if you think there’s any remote possibility you might need it in the future. Otherwise, you’re screwed.

Some might argue that Apple had no choice – that those decisions had to be made in order to keep the MacBook Pro so thin and light. The trouble is: I’m not so sure that’s the case at all! It seems as though there are a number of other possibilities Apple could have embraced rather than settling on the design they showed off at the WWDC keynote.

Consider that the built-in optical drive in the non-Retina 15-inch MacBook Pro measures 5 inches by 5 inches exactly, and that a 2.5-inch mobile hard disk (or SSD) measures 2.75 inches in width and about 3.9 inches in length, and a number of possibilities open up. By making only relatively minor design changes, Apple could have replaced the optical drive with slots for regular sized hard drives or SSDs, while opening up a fair bit of extra space to expand the battery into.

Alternatively, Apple could have included a blade-style SSD in their Retina MacBook Pro, while leaving one space for a standard hard drive. That would have allowed even greater space savings than the above design. Plenty of folks have replaced their optical drive with a second hard drive, running their Mac off of an SSD and using the second drive for storage.

So, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the length or width of components in the MacBook Pro that caused Apple to decide to make their new MacBook Pro so inaccessible. Could it have been the thickness? Again, things don’t quite add up.

According to the specs for the 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina, the device measures 1.8cm (18mm) thick. By comparison, the thickest of all modern consumer-level portable hard drives measure only 9.5mm thick – and many are only 7.5mm thick! Even assuming that Apple requires 8.5mm of thickness for the front and back of the case (which they don’t, by the way), there could be plenty of space to stick in a second hard drive or an SSD. They could even require that users install only 7.5mm drives!

But storage is a secondary issue, even considering the added expense for blade-style SSDs (and assuming that Apple didn’t decide to use a proprietary connector).  The MacBook Pro has  2 Thunderbolt ports and 2 USB 3 ports, so a user could easily buy an external hard drive for storage. Even though that would reduce the portability of their workstation, it’s a possible workaround.

The more significant irritation in my book is the RAM. Apple solders the RAM directly to the motherboard. Yup. Seriously. Soldered. Why? You can see the memory controller above. It doesn’t take much space. I cannot imagine that a few millimeters could make or break their design. And while their $200 upgrade for 16GB of RAM is actually quite reasonable by today’s standards, that very well may not be true a year (or even a few months!) from now.

Wrapping It Up

In the end, my point isn’t that I think most users want extra storage space, or that I think many users will want to upgrade their RAM without paying whatever Apple charges for the upgrade. My point is that Apple is robbing their pro users of the hardware accessibility they’ve come to expect.

Up until now, all MacBook Pros (and PowerBooks, and iBooks), have featured RAM and storage that can be replaced or expanded. iMacs have featured a significant level of expandability right from the very first model. And of course, the Mac Pro is highly customizable. And there’s a good reason for that: It’s what Apple’s professional audience expects.

Steve Jobs himself may have put it best in this video clip (at about the 41:30 mark), speaking about the iMac at Macworld in 1999:

We don’t think design is just how it looks. We think design is how it works. And we labored a lot on this because our pro customers want accessibility. There’s a lot of great technology inside, but they want access to that technology. To add memory, to add cards, to  add drives. And so we think we’ve got the most incredible access story in the business.

The result of Apple’s “design innovation” is that their creative users must make a choice: hardware accessibility, or a stunning display that could improve the way they work. It’s a difficult choice, and in my opinion, an unnecessary one.

Pro users – the sort that buy an expensive MacBook Pro – like the ability to customize, access, and upgrade their Macs. For everyone else, there’s the MacBook Air – it’s incredibly thin and light, and much more affordable! But there’s no sense in downgrading a pro-level product in this way.

What’s the point of shaving off an extra fraction of an inch from an already thin device, especially when  it comes at such a high practical cost? Treating pro users like typical consumers is a mistake. Apple is slapping their professional audience in the face.

The new Retina-equipped device they call a MacBook Pro is actually nothing more than a heavier and much more expensive MacBook Air with limited storage space and a flashy screen. Why would Apple release a heavier and more expensive MacBook Air when they could have released a machine that could truly be called a MacBook Pro? Have they forgotten their commitment to their professional audience?

The world may never know.

Update 6/13/12: iFixit has posted their teardown of the Retina MacBook Pro, confirming that the RAM is indeed soldered to the logic board, that Apple is using a proprietary (and not commercially available) blade SSD, and that the new MacBook Pro is nearly impossible to upgrade repair.

Thanks, Apple! Your customers will appreciate those outrageous out-of-warranty repair costs!

Update 6/15/12: TUAW has also posted an excellent article discussing many of the same points.



  • Georgehulston

    I see your point, but surely if you want the flexibility you can still buy the stnadrad MacBook Pro? The new Pro has it’s obvious benefits, but at the cost of easy-upgrades. I would chose those benefits over easy-upgrades, but if you felt differently you could just buy the 15 inch normal Pro & jazz it up however you want.

  • http://twitter.com/Jjiminian Jonathan Jiminián

    I salute you

  • Toppe

    hail hail!
    finally someone that noticed this. for me this is a reason to not buy the mbp pro retina.

    sad.

    • Aol123

      Agree

  • ahmadtawakol

    I really don’t agree with what your saying at all. There are a lot of different factors that you have to consider other than just “visual space”. That means that you can’t just photoshop a picture of a hard drive and just cram it anywhere, there are connectors for that drive that you have to consider as well, and where will these connectors go? They have to be connected somewhere on the logic board. All that takes up space that you don’t really see.

    About the upgrading prices, with the old MBP when you wanted to upgrade to 16GB of memory, you would pick a laptop with 4GB of memory and pay $1500 or more to buy 16GB of memory from OWC. Did you check the price of upgrading the new MBP to 16GB of memory?

    • jrklein

       Actually, I just upgraded my MBP i5 2.3″ to 16GB for $160… so yes, you can get it cheaper than that.

    • Cobie8a

       I upgraded my 2011 13″ and (3) 15″ macs to 16GB for $98 each.  Newegg has the Corsair RAMs which after running for a year, seems reliable.  First upgraded my early 2011 15″ to see how stable it runs (when cost was $200) and very happy with it.  Recently upgraded all of them to OCZ Vertex SandForce or Samsung 830 SSDs; will likely upgrade to the 830 512GB when prices go down, so retina users can drool over how much money I saved by waiting…

      maybe i’ll buy the last iteration of the unibody when I can upgrade to 32GB RAM while Retina users are stuck with 16GB max.  Ivy Bridge can accomodate 32GB RAM btw, but unfortunately there aren’t any 32GB DIMMs yet.

  • Smpage31

    Is there anything more asinine than a blogger criticizing the work of the worlds leading and most innovative industrial designers and engineers?

    • http://www.facebook.com/jonniebarnsley Jonnie Barnsley

      are you going to form an argument why he’s wrong or are you just going to complain?

      • jon

        the author’s solutions don’t make any sense. He/she says they should have included both the blade SSD and also another drive in place of the old optical drive, which would “save space” according to him/her….

  • http://twitter.com/IsaacJDean Isaac Dean

    They couldn’t market the “All flash” architecture. Which is obviously so important.

  • Drozdetsky

    I’m sorry but this is nonsense. Who’s really worried about saving $50 on ram for a $2000++ computer? Apple has in no way “abandoned” the pro audience. What’s this fixation on losing the optical drive? Why carry hardware around that barely ever gets used and will no doubt break after a year or two? These arguments may have been valid 5 years ago but fact is that you don’t NEED massive storage locally anymore and thunderbolt is bringing most of those traditionally PCI accessories to MacBooks and iMac. What “pro” thing can’t you do with this machine? What a joke

    • Dan

      You may not, but many of us do need large amounts of storage locally.

  • Coleua

    This article is way off base. There is almost no reason for anyone to have 16gb of RAM for one. If you want a machine that you can upgrade yourself buy an HP.

    • http://MacTrast.com J. Glenn Kunzler

      Almost no reason? Like almost nobody edits video, runs virtual machines, or process high-definition video? The people that use 16GB of Ram are Apple’s pro users. Not your average Starbucks web junkie.

      • jon

        Professionals should use desktops for intensive work (video editing etc..)

        • Rootabega

          Did you even consider what you were saying when you wrote it?

  • http://twitter.com/Jjiminian Jonathan Jiminián

    Well, we live in a country of free speech, and free blogging.

  • Gran-bazu

    Is this blogger a hardware engineer or an industrial designer? Otherwise, I think that reading this post is a complete waste of time!

  • Dmsmithlaw

    Dead-on article.

  • mooner

    Your article is misleading… 

    1: Your photo shows a MBP 17″ and implies there is plenty of room for a hard drive in the new MBP.2: The new MBP Retina needs a bigger battery… Just like the iPad, you’ll need a bigger battery because the screen needs brighter backlight for the same level of brightness. So, even with the bigger battery, you still get the same “7 hours” of usage.

    3: Because of the bigger battery (and the slightly SMALLER 15″ case), there is no room for a hard drive.

    4: SSD-only will also help battery life AND make the machine feel faster. Neither is a bad idea. Remember, they want to revolutionize the notebook market, not keep making the same crap over and over…

    5: 8 GB of RAM soldered to the board is not necessarily a bad thing. With the current MBP, if you purchase a 4 GB model, you have to remove all the modules and throw them away (or sell them used) to upgrade to 8 GB. Why is that better?? Besides, I think that long silver === looking thing above the RAM chips might be an expansion socket.

    • http://MacTrast.com J. Glenn Kunzler

      Nope. Soldered. And that is a 15 inch MacBook Pro.

    • Charles

      I have to agree this is a grave mistake by Apple. I have purchased half a dozen MacBooks a couple ofI imacs and a Mac pro in the last 5 years or so and as much as I would love to have a retina display, I refuse to give up my ability to choose my own memory and hdd on my laptop. It’s fine with my phone and iPad… I don’t progressively upgrade those, but I did just upgrade my 2011 MacBook pro and double the ram and put a new ssd drive in it. With the retina mbp this would not have been possible. I mostly love apple products (to the tune of buying almost every one) but this is one I will be passing on. Apple should take note that while it seems a good idea to force your pro users into an apple repair, they will make no money or a repair that doesn’t exist when I don’t buy the product.

    • Charles

      Sorry moonier, I posted my comment in a reply instead of a new comment.  Ignore

  • Xdash

    Very well written. I have replaced my optical drive with a second drive. No more storage problems.

    Soldered ram and bladed ssd is not a concern for me. But they should offer a 2.5″ drive slot

    They went too far this time. Otherwise I’m buying for sure.

  • Serguey Gorokhov

    Apple is the greatest company in the world not because it meets the needs of its customers, but because it defines their needs and means.

    • http://profiles.google.com/captain.miller Captain Miller

      if somebody changes his opinion becuase a company says that he is stupid.

  • mirrorfont

    it is really funny that you are complaining about a business decision as a technical fault. accessibility is 1 thing, but this is only their 1st retina display model that have come out, a good business will listen to the needs and demands and work towards it. 

    maybe the next update will have a slot just for ‘you’ to upgrade RAMs even more, but for now understand that they have made smth thin and relatively powerful, yet they need the sales figures. so this is in my opinion, purely a business driven decision.

    plus how many of you had wanted your mbp to be thinner like the Air before? they are just making it a lil bit more possible.

  • Qixo

    Quite right.  When I read about Apple making a laptop that was already thin enough even thinner and removing the optical drive I was concerned they’d be going down the route of removing the ability to upgrade and enhance the machine.  It’s one of the reasons I never considered the Air.  Does the standard resolution Macbook Pro 15″ have these same design defects?  If so I’ll have to consider getting the last of the good ones before this lesser version becomes the standard.

    Every Macbook Pro owner I know buys the machine with the smallest memory option and upgrades it themselves.  This obviously wouldn’t be an issue if laptop manufacturers didn’t charge ludicrous prices for RAM.

    • http://MacTrast.com J. Glenn Kunzler

      The standard resolution models have fully accessible RAM and storage.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1551575057 Carl TightShooster

    Fully agree with that article,
    the reason for this inflexible design, to bind the customer complete to apple and get most money out of him. Even the product itself is amazing …
    /K

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  • Charles

    I have to agree this is a grave mistake by Apple. I have purchased half a dozen MacBooks a couple ofI imacs and a Mac pro in the last 5 years or so and as much as I would love to have a retina display, I refuse to give up my ability to choose my own memory and hdd on my laptop. It’s fine with my phone and iPad… I don’t progressively upgrade those, but I did just upgrade my 2011 MacBook pro and double the ram and put a new ssd drive in it. With the retina mbp this would not have been possible. I mostly love apple products (to the tune of buying almost every one) but this is one I will be passing on. Apple should take note that while it seems a good idea to force your pro users into an apple repair, they will make no money or a repair that doesn’t exist when I don’t buy the product.

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  • http://pixelmatortutorials.net PMtuts

    Except for the Mac Pro I have never seen any signs from Apple that it makes its devices to be easily upgradable. I don’t think Apple sees the mac as an ordinary PC. When I look at all the hardware I have around me that isn’t a pc. I only find lamps to be designed so one can easily replace the lightbulb. As a consumer i don’t see myself replacing the logic-board of my TV-set or Radio either. The manufacturers of these devices never had in mind when they designed their product, that components would be replaced by the end-user. I think Apple sees it’s macs in the same way. They are devices that the consumer uses. They come in different configurations just like you have different configurations of TV-sets and radios. Face it.. an iPad an iPhone are computers, they run a version of OS X. Do you expect to be able to swap out your iPad’s graphic card? The Macs are just like that… devices. If they fail you can send them in for repairs and the problem of not being able to easily repair the thing lies with the Apple engineers and not with the end-user. I come from a Windows world, but since I switched to mac, my thoughts don’t go to upgrading at all. Everything just runs fine for quite some years now. I have used a PowerBook and now I’m on my second Mac a MacBookPro 2008 version which runs just as fine since the day I bought it. And it looks like it will run for at least a couple of years more. If you buy your mac with long-livety in mind you don’t have to think about upgrading for (in my case) at least 5 years. Back in the windows world I had upgraded or bought a new machine 3 times within such a period.

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  • Az

    It has half the space of Mac book pro (half height). How they are supposed to fit all these you are saying. Are you so stupid or are you paid to write bullshit?

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  • Paul

    NO MORE PRO. Removing the optical drive is a huge mistake by Apple. I WOULD NOT buy one without a OD period. It is a serious matter of inconvenience. As a professional photographer it is a necessity to have a OD built in. Can you see someone lugging an external OD on an airplane or out on location and trying to use it? I can not. Oh they will sell some but I hope with enough bitching by REAL professional users they will come to their senses. I for one do not give a rats butt about it being thinner or with a super duper display. I care MORE about usability and convenience to get things done. That one will not cut it in the pro world… nuff said.

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  • Dave

    I have the 2011 Macbook Pro 17″ – expandability is something I wouldn’t trade for a few MHz in CPU speed or a higher resolution display. I have 1920×1200 plus 2 thunderbolt displays. I could remove the optical drive and put in the original 750GB HDD, and replace its home with a 500GB 6G SSD that’s blazingly fast. For the operating system, to make sure I don’t have to format a drive with anything on it but the OS itself, I have a WinTec 128GB ExpressCard/34 SSD. So close to 1.5TB of disk, upgraded to 16GB of RAM from the original 4GB for less than $150 – that’s the “pro” I’m looking for. They should just offer a MacBook Air with a 15″ retina display and try to maintain the “pro” without forcing laptop users onto desktop machines.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonniebarnsley Jonnie Barnsley

    When i heard they were taking out the optical drive, i dared to dream that they might have made room for a RAID ssd & hdd setup.. maybe even have it come as standard. what’s the point in a 256gb ssd? open my music files faster? what a joke. the MBP didn’t need to get any thinner. Customers have always had to choose between performance and portability, but I’d rather make that choice than have a middle of the road laptop that satisfied neither of those properties.

  • Jon

    Ultimately, 95% of Apple’s customers do not ever consider opening up their laptops to repair or upgrade things. I have more of a problem with their yuppie market base than Apple itself, which makes by far the best computers.

    Most of their customers don’t use their $1500 laptops for anything other than Facebook and occasionally writing Word documents. They aren’t going to upgrade their ram since they didn’t need much to begin with.

    This article’s alternative solutions are laughable. I’m pretty sure Apple’s engineers know more about the laptop’s design than some speculating blogger.

    And for a device that I spend basically all day using, I think I can shell out a few extra hundred to have Apple replace the battery/ram/HD if needed.

  • MechEng73

    Has anyone ever thought that the bottom of the MacBook Pro’s could be considered cool to the touch under heavy load? And you really want to squeeze more into less space? I used to model military grade computers using finite element analysis to gauge everything from external forces to heat transfer. You can get what you want. But never expect to be able to set it on your bare lap – and don’t expect the components to survive those high temps.

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J. Glenn Künzler

Author

J. Glenn Künzler

Glenn is Managing Editor at MacTrast, and has been using a Mac since he bought his first MacBook Pro in 2006. Now he's up to his neck in Apple, and owns an old iBook, a 2012 iMac with an extra Thunderbolt display for good measure, a 4th-generation iPad, an iPad mini, 2 iPhones, and a Mac Mini that lives at the neighbor's house. He lives in a small town in Utah, enjoys bacon more than you can possibly imagine, and is severely addicted to pie.