Warming To The Retina MacBook Pro Or Just Resignation Setting In?

I don’t know if I’m just getting soft, or it’s just resignation setting in, but I find myself warming to the Retina MacBook Pro – at least a bit.

Especially after Apple, responding to sluggish MacBooks sales in Q4 2012 sweetened the price of the 13-inch rMBP in mid February to $1,499 with a 128GB SSD — a $200 price cut, or $1,699 for a 13-inch rMBP speed-bumped with 2.6 GHz Intel Core i5 dual-core processor and 256GB of SSD storage.

The base 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display’s price held steady but it also got mildly speedbumped to a 2.4 GHz quad-core processor for the base model, while the top-of-the-line 15-inch rMBP got a 2.7 GHz Core i7 quad-core processor and its standard (non-upgradable) RAM configuration doubled to 16GB of memory.

The 13-inch MacBook Air with 256GB of SSD storage capacity also got a price reduction to $1,399.

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I’m not planning to make a move until at least after the update to Intel’s next generation Haswell Core CPU family later this year.

While I’ve never disputed that the rMBPs are formidable and seductive machines, what I’ve found off-putting about them from the get-go is the idea of paying $1,500.00 up for a computer that can’t be upgraded, or repaired (at least easily and economically) should it break or suffer damage.

It didn’t help that iFixIt gave the 15-inch rMBP a miserable 1 out of 10 repairability rating based on their teardown revelations — the worst they’ve ever awarded to any hardware device.

My preference is for computing devices that are easy to open up with plenty of upgrade latitude. Apple, on the other hand seems bent on turning all of its PC hardware products into variants of the iPad. I can tolerate the “disposable commodity” concept somewhat more sanguinely on a $500 machine like the iPad, and with gritted teeth on a $1,000 or $1,200 128 GB MacBook Air, but even a $1,500 rMBP is an expensive laptop by today’s standards, and its long-term value is seriously compromised by design.

I say this as a user of two extensively upgraded Apple PowerBooks that are well into their 13th year of service, and at least one of which I use every day for real productive work. Now, I’ll freely concede that a baker’s dozen year service life would be unreasonable to hope for. I don’t expect to repeat it. However, these two computers would’ve been functionally obsolete many years ago if not for their facility to be upgraded with more RAM, larger capacity hard drives, and faster, more capable optical drives, and in the instance of one replacement of a monitor panel and video power inverter board — a job I executed myself in less than half an hour, not hurrying.

I think it not unreasonable to expect that a laptop PC should provide at least six years of useful service life. My current newest Mac and anchor work platform, a late 2008 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo unibody MacBook is now into its fifth year, and still an adequate performer, but only because its RAM could be upgraded. The hard drive is pretty well filled, but HDDs are cheap and easy to replace in this model MacBook as is the battery. The original battery is still hanging in, but it’s reassuring to know that I can replace it if I decide to shoot for six years and beyond.

I won’t be able to do any of that with a Retina MacBook Pro, if one of them turns out to be the MacBook’s replacement.

The rMBP’s RAM is hard-soldered to the logic board, so you either pay Apple another $200 to max out at 16GB up front (on the 15-incher; with the 13-inch model 8 GB is all she wrote) or forever hold your peace. You can’t upgrade later on.

The rMBP’s proprietary SSD isn’t upgradeable either (at least as yet), being similar but not identical to the flash storage module in the Air. However it is at least on a separate daughtercard, and iFixIt CEO Kyle Wiens says he’s hopeful that they’ll be able to offer an upgrade in the future.

Removing The Proprietary SSD – Photo Courtesy iFixIt

The rMBP’s lithium-polymer battery is glued rather than screwed into the case, which increases the chances that it’ll break during disassembly, leaking toxic contents. The battery also covers the trackpad cable, which tremendously increases the chance that a user will shear the cable in the battery removal process. Better not try this at home, kids.

Prying At The Battery – Photo Courtesy iFixIt

Then there’s the vaunted Retina display panel, whose assembly is completely fused, and with no glass outer layer protecting it. If anything ever fails inside the display, or it gets damaged, you’ll need to replace the entire (extremely expensive) assembly.

I did find it slightly encouraging that iFixIt awarded the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro model that came along last October a slightly less horrific 2 out of 10 repairability score — an improvement at least over its bigger brother’s score.

The rating improvement was thanks to iFixIt’s discovery in their 13-inch rMBP teardown that two of the six battery cells are held in with screws and no adhesive, and it took them only 15 minutes of prying using a Torx screwdriver and three spudgers (but no heat gun) to remove the battery without terminally puncturing the battery cells — something iFixIt’s iFixit Chief Information Architect Miroslav Djuric says is definitely doable with the 13-inch model as opposed to being nearly impossible with the 15″ rMBP, but still much more difficult than battery replacement in the old-school, non-Retina MacBook Pros (which earn a very respectable 7 out of 10 repairability score). Also, five screws hold the trackpad in place, so you can actually replace it if it breaks, which is also pretty much impossible on the 15″ model, so the 13-inch rMBP represents at least a bit of positive progress on the serviceability and repairability front.

On the other hand, the 13-incher’s RAM is still not upgradeable, its exterior case fastening screws are still proprietary, and replacing the display will still cost you an an arm and a leg.

The thing is, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool laptop guy, and I doubt that will change at this stage of the game. These days I spend about half of my screen time on my iPad, but I still consider my MacBook my “real” computer. Consequently, if I’m going to persevere on Apple hardware, I’m going to be obliged to make my peace with Apple’s design orientation, which as iFixit’s Kyle Wiens observed in a blog last fall beginning with the original 2008 MacBook Air, has involved Apple sacrificing performance and upgradeability to achieve thinner form factors. However he observes that Apple’s MacBook customer base has consistently voted for hardware that’s thinner rather than upgradeable… our collective purchasing decisions signaling to Apple that we’re quite happy to buy computers and watch them die on schedule… noting that “every time we buy a locked down product containing a non-replaceable battery with a finite cycle count, we’re voicing our opinion on how long our things should last…. Did we want a machine that would be stuck with 2 GB of RAM forever? Would we support laptops that required replacement every year or two as applications required more memory and batteries atrophied?”

Wiens notes that consumers overwhelmingly voted yes, with Air sales soaring to take 40% of Apple’s notebook sales by the end of 2010, buyers voting with their wallets to purchase the device despite its “built-in death clock.”

Unhappily for those of us who would prefer upgradability and long-term value, we’re evidently a minority, and the majority determines market reality.

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