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

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

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.