Design Tradeoffs in the Retina MacBook Pro

Earlier this week, Apple announced the much-anticipated release of the first Mac with a super-high-resolution “Retina” display. While some people hoped/expected it would be a 15″ version of the MacBook Air, what they released was positioned as the future of the MacBook Pro family. However, it was a much thinner and lighter MacBook Pro than previous models, delivering what many of the people hope for a 15″ MacBook Air hoped for.

Of course, Apple wouldn’t be Apple, and the Internet wouldn’t be the Internet, if there weren’t plenty of people complaining about what Apple ended up releasing. Since its release, any post-sale upgradability of the MacBook Air has been an afterthought. The RAM is soldered to the motherboard, and most recent models use a non-standard form-factor for the solid-state storage. The MacPro, on the other hand, has typically supported upgrades to both RAM and the hard disk. In fact, the Pros have tended to be more expandable than promised. Many models have supported more RAM than Apple specified, and many people have removed the optical drive in order to fit more internal storage.

The Retina MacBook Pro though, is like the Air. The RAM is soldered to the logic board and it uses of yet another non-standard SSD form-factor.  I’ll be honest, these things stick in my throat a bit too, but when it comes down to it, I wanted:

  1. A MacBook with a 15″ Retina display that is…
  2. Significantly thinner and, most importantly, lighter, than the current 15″ MBP while still having…
  3. Decent battery life.

Taken together, something has to give, because clearly the retina display must suck a lot of power. The machine has a more power-efficient CPU, and a significantly larger battery than earlier models, but still delivers “just” a “7hr” runtime with the Retina display.

We can start with the optical drive. Good riddance. That saves some weight and bulk. Eliminating some of the legacy ports, like Ethernet (now available as a dongle off a Thunderbird port” also allows the case to be thinner, saving some more weight, but potentially compromising rigidity.

Which brings us to the glued in battery. Gluing it in would seem to eliminate the need for a subframe to hold the cells. Gluing in the battery may also allow it to contribute to the rigidity of the assembled computer, reducing the need for some metal in the case, and saving more weight. I’m not too worried about the practicality of a user replacing the battery because Apple has been pretty good about replacing out of warranty batteries for free, and for those that don’t qualify for the free replacement, the charge has been a not-unreasonable $100.

Clearly that wasn’t enough for Apple, which brings us to the RAM. Clearly, they’ve eliminated a little weight and bulk by forgoing socketed RAM, but I don’t think that was the most important part. I notice that they’ve soldered the RAM to both sides of the logic board. I think the biggest benefit of eliminating socketed RAM is design flexibility. They didn’t just eliminate the SIMM slots and the SIMM boards, they eliminated the need to route all those traces to an easily accessible location.

Which brings us to the SSD. I’m ruling out the 2.5″ form-factor as requiring too many compromises to the rest of the system. As for mSATA, it appears that all the mSATA SSDs on the market are short little boards, and clearly don’t have room for 768 GB of flash chips Apple offers as an option. Which still leaves the question of why they didn’t use the SSD form factor used in the old Airs. I can’t answer that. Maybe they changed it just to be dicks, but I think there is some underlying reason, like performance and reliability. By doing so, they may have made things harder for the one or two 3rd parties who had products that fit Apple’s old proprietary form-factor, but it wasn’t exactly a big, commodified market that offered end-users significant savings over Apple’s prices.

And now, one final point. Taken together, this all means that Apple gets all the $ from all the people who want to upgrade from the base model. This may offend you, but consider that it might allow Apple to hit their financial targets while offering a lower base price. Lets face it, the base model, with 8GB of RAM and a speedy 256GB SSD is a solid, capable machine that will serve a long time. It may not hold all your media, but it will hold a lot of it.

So, that’s the way I see it. I plan to buy one soon. I’m not sure if I’ll spring for the $200 upgrade to 16GB of RAM. I’m sure it will add to the usable life of the machine, but its also 10% of the cost of my next upgrade.  One thing is clear to me, there aren’t going to be many PC vendors who can make a credible competitor to this machine any time soon.  For one thing, I suspect that Apple has locked up supplies of the displays for a while. For another, I’m not sure there are any PC vendors who are willing to go as far as Apple in optimizing the design of the device.

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