Apple's new Macbook Pro with Retina display is (probably) not for you

Apple's new Macbook Pro with Retina display is (probably) not for you

Summary: Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display won't sell like hotcakes. It's not supposed to.


Like anyone else who uses their laptop computer primarily to work and not play, I found myself salivating over Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display, announced yesterday during the company's annual Worldwide Developer's Conference.

And who wouldn't, really? With a 15.4-inch display at 2880x1800-pixel resolution, an up to 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8 gigabytes of 1600 MHz memory and up to 512 gigabytes of solid-state storage -- oh, and that slim 0.71-inch profile -- the thing is both a marvel and a powerhouse.

But cool your heels, people. It's highly unlikely that this computer was designed for you (and even me). Unless you were the corner office-inhabiting type who bought the first-generation MacBook Air -- or a video editor.


Apple's MacBook Pro lineup has always been aimed at, well, professionals. Not just people with full-time jobs, mind you -- the people who need serious computing horsepower to get their jobs done effectively.

The original MacBook, announced in 2006 to replace the low end of Apple's PowerBook line and priced at $999, was pitched as "the ideal consumer notebook for students and new Mac users." It was positioned as taking the best features of the Pro line -- unibody construction, multi-touch trackpad, etc. -- and trickling them down to the masses. And so it was: by 2008, it was the best-selling Macintosh in history.

If the original MacBook was all-consumer, the 13- and lower-end 15-inch MacBooks were prosumer. (That's where most people who read ZDNet come into the conversation.) When these models were announced in 2006 to replace the PowerBook G4, the word "performance" was used six times in the press release. Yet many of the features mentioned -- Front Row, iSight, Photo Booth -- were decidedly consumer.

"MacBook Pro delivers dual-processor desktop performance in a thin, sleek notebook," the company said at the time. Your laptop isn't relegated to second-string.

This was an extension of the positioning of the PowerBook G4, which when introduced in 2004 also claimed a mix of "performance and portability," Phil Schiller said at the time. The higher-end 15-inch and 17-inch systems were intended "for customers who want the highest graphics performance" -- creative professionals.

As such, this was the Apple creed through 2004 (it was later changed to focus on mobility):

Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and Internet offerings.

Emphasis mine, of couse. With students and educators covered by the MacBook, and consumers by the low-end MacBook Pro, the only group remaining were creative professionals -- and for them, there was the high-end 15-inch and 17-inch models.

The MacBook Air changed everything. At first, it was the coveted, high-priced executive toy -- every suit-sporting chief executive that waltzed through ZDNet HQ had one tucked under his arm. (Later, this would become the iPad.)

But as thin-and-light-and-small became less of a premium (but still a performance compromise), it eventually replaced the lowly MacBook, with prices (and sales) to match -- leaving a CEO-sized hole at the top of Apple's product portfolio that the 17-inch couldn't fill. Meanwhile, designers and video editors were increasingly favoring the laptop-external monitor combination.


I take you through all of this corporate history to demonstrate that the new MacBook Pro with Retina display replaces both the 17-inch creative workhorse as well as the original, exclusive MacBook Air.

It's thinner than its Pro siblings, it's lighter, and it packs the best (well, almost) speeds and feeds Cupertino has on offer. There's enough computing muscle inside to please a creative director; if not, he or she can give up the high-res display for a touch more performance, with the expectation that they'll bypass the display anyway for an external monitor. And with a thinner design and dazzling Retina display, this new MacBook Pro model ought to satisfy the CEOs who liked the "it factor" of the original Air but disliked its sluggishness.

In 2004, Schiller said this of the original PowerBook G4:

No other notebook packs so much performance and so many cutting-edge features, including large widescreen displays, high-speed wireless networking, advanced connectivity and industry leading graphics, into such a thin and light design.

The new MacBook Pro with Retina returns to this promise. Apple's lumbering 17-inch model quickly became a burden -- if you've ever seen a designer toting one of those things around, it's painful to watch -- as professionals increasingly opted to work with very large external displays plugged into their powerful laptops. So the company contracted to the 15-inch size, increased the options within that size from two to four and gave two of them features that would start conversations.

Since Apple as a company has moved out of its education-and-creative niche -- it's now billed simply as maker of "the best personal computers in the world" -- there are now options for all professionals: creative types who work on laptops, creative types who work on external monitors, non-creative professionals who need processing oomph and executives who need a shiny medal to tote in business class.


While it may get a lot of attention -- much like the original MacBook Air -- Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display won't sell untold volumes. It's not meant to.

Just before its demise, Apple's 17-inch MacBook Pro was thought to have represented just two percent of its overall laptop sales. ("Thought to have," because the company doesn't release breakout sales figures.)

In fact, the most recent sales breakdown was estimated to look like this:

  • 17-inch MB Pro: 2 percent
  • 15-inch MB Pro: 16 percent
  • 13-inch MB Pro: 47 percent
  • 13-inch MB Air: 18 percent

(I presume the missing 17 percent is for the 11-inch MacBook Air, but I couldn't obtain the original research note.)

Stare at those numbers for a minute. The new MacBook Pro with Retina display is meant to address perhaps 10 percent of Apple's customers -- the 17-inch refugees, a generous half of the 15-inch buyers and some untold amount who want Apple's most attractive product, whatever the specs or price.

A month after the first-generation MacBook Air was introduced, the potential of the "Executive Mac" was thought to be about 16 percent of Apple's overall portfolio. By 2011 it slowed to just eight percent, before Apple revamped and repositioned it at the low end.

Is Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display the new "Executive Mac?" Only sort of. For execs who put a premium on weight, a maxed-out MacBook Air will do -- or an iPad. (Depends on whether you're an Excel kind of boss, or a PDF-and-PowerPoint kind of boss. You know?) For execs who really do need a system-on-the-go, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display will better suit their needs than any conventional MacBook, Pro or otherwise.

Whatever the use case, the Retina-sporting MacBook is priced and spec'd out of the reach of a general use buyer, consumer or business. In other words, probably not you.


What I find most interesting here, by the way, is the resegmentation of Apple's customers. What was once a very strict categorization of customer -- low, medium, high, and to hell with the use cases -- is now compounded by the push for mobility and consumerization in the enterprise, as well as the existence of the iPad.

If you're a professional, there are more tradeoffs than ever within Apple's portfolio. Mobile, or less so? Powerful, or less so? Visual, or less so? Apple's once-crystal clear portfolio is now much more complex, most apparent with the exceedingly clumsy name for its new top-of-the-line MacBook.

This a reflection of changing customer preferences, as we each figure out which device is better suited for our tasks, as well as the prices and limitations of components. The Retina display is too expensive, for now, to be anything but a bauble. It will no doubt trickle though the rest of the MacBook Pro lineup as soon as it drops into range of Apple's fixed price points. Ditto the thinner form factor. (I imagine it pains Tim Cook to have so many additional parts in the supply chain.)

This all goes to say that the vast majority of you (still, impossibly) reading this very long-winded article are not the target customer for Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display. If you're a Mac customer at all, the real news is within the rest of the MacBook Pro lineup -- effectively, a components refresh. Not the next new thing.

That reality doesn't match the high-pitched tenor of the news from yesterday's WWDC announcement, I know. (You've got to wonder when a general interest newspaper runs articles about what is really a niche industry tool.) But as consumerization works its way through the enterprise, the most important systems to the IT organization will be the ones that you actually buy -- not the ones you wish you could.

Better make sure that order of external monitors is still on its way.

Author's note: The original version of this post indicated that the 2006 MacBook employed unibody construction and a multi-touch trackpad. That is incorrect; those features didn't arrive until 2009. Due to an editing error, the original version also included one mention of a "MacBook Air with Retina display." I regret the errors.

Topic: Apple

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Too funny

    [i]Apple???s new MacBook Pro with Retina display won???t sell like hotcakes. It???s not supposed to.[/i]

    The apologies have started before the first one even sold. This thing [b]can't[/b] be a failure now because it wasn't designed to sell well. So when it doesn't sell well, you can praise Apple for achieving their design goals.
    • Maybe it was

      just a hobby?
      William Farrel
    • Really?

      Yesterday's note about Diablo III had some merits (I don't play games, so from top to bottom it was all buzz buzz buzz to me), but today's comment? Are you just saying something negative as gratuitous reflex? Are dues in the Amalgamated Anodyne He-Man Apple Haters Club daily or something?

      It's a product that has a less expensive alternative even within Apple's lines. Apple has been moving product lines towards a general consumer focus and, yes, the implication of MacBook Airs and iPads is that the expensive machines are more and more targeted at niche segments. Remember the truck vs. car analogy Jobs made a couple of years back?

      Are you going to seriously stand by your suggestion that if an 18 wheeler doesn't move as many units as the Civic, it's a product/design failure?

      Nah. Your grammar is too good. It's gotta to be the dues thing. You gotta get that monkey off your back, man.
      • If an 18-wheeler doesn't move as many units as a Civic...

        ..I would call that a colossal failure.. Either that or a massive feat of engineering on the part of the Civic.
      • @daftkey: LOL

        By units he meant cars/trucks sold, not the cargo...
    • It's not an apology, it's a prediction

      $3000 laptops won't sell as many units as $1100 laptops. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.
      • Exactly

        I'm not sure why you're being downvoted. It's basic economics here ... most people don't want to spend $2,200 on a notebook. They'll take the $1,100 model instead.

        That doesn't make the $2,200 model a failure. I would only classify something as a failure when it [b]fails[/b] to reach its goal. This laptop will mostly likely be purchased by businesses for their creatives and executives, as well as some very dedicated consumers.

        Unlike HP and Dell, Apple actually [i]plans[/i] its product line well, and can make pretty good predictions on which notebooks will sell to which customers. Crazy, isn't it?
      • Correct, it doesn't

        But you have to realize he is so far from "rocket scientist" status he makes the rest of us look like brain surgeons.
      • $3000?

        Er... it's not $3000. I have a Dell Inspiron 9100 I paid $3400 for that's a POS. I'll keep my macbook pro thanks.
        Leif Ashley
    • Waste of time but here we go

      I know I am wasting my time using logic with you but here goes anyway. A hand built Bentley is unquestionably a better built car than say a bare bones Scion. Now the Scion is going to sell a lot more units because it's designed and manufactured to be a better fit for a larger number of buyers but that doesn't make it a better vehicle than the Bentley, it's just a better fit for a larger market. Same goes of the new MBP with Retina display, not designed for the masses but designed to be the ultimate Mac laptop for a more targeted group of users. Same can be said for say the 64GB iPhone or the top of the line latest and greatest Android or Windows phone, not designed to be the choice of the masses but still a better overall unit.
      • You right...

        Are you high or what? First off, average price of a Bentley is $350k, and a Scion is $18k. That's 20x the cost, or 2000%. So you're saying a mac air at $1000 is for the masses and the retina mac is like a Bentley, then the retina MBP should cost $19444. Wow that $2200 is a bargain!

        Second, whoever thinks macs are not built for the masses is a moron. They cost on average 10% more for the same feature specs, which you easily make up in hardware and software perks. This is why Apple is #1 in customer satisfaction. The people that own their stuff voted them #1.
        Leif Ashley
  • You might need to check the Apple store for the correct hardware specs

    Your quoted maximum amount of SSD storage, CPU speed and system ram were just a "bit" off. There is such a thing as a build to order MacBook Pro that Apple sells.

    Admittedly, your errors on those matters (probably) don't distract from the points you were trying to make in your article. But really, Andrew, making a point that the most technologically advanced laptop on the planet at this time is (probably) not for the vast majority of consumers reading your blog post is a bit of a stretch.

    You are not the first ZDNet blogger or talkback commentator to pooh pooh the significance of a retina display on everyday computing tasks. (Our good friend, Toddbottom, actually uses his laptop five feet away from his hands in order to achieve a retina display image simulation. How he makes his laptop display screen increase it's pixel density as a function of distance is still a bit murky however. Personally, I wouldn't go that far to achieve such perceived resolution but to each his own, I suppose.)

    But as for me, I understand and appreciate the significance of a retina class display everyday I view images on my third generation iPad. I would have no problem spending a few extra dollars on a laptop having that feature alone.
    • Thanks for your comment.

      And a fair point about the premise. But a gentle pushback on one point: I'm not pooh-poohing the significance of the display. I love the Retina display on my iPhone. Love it. To get that on my 13-inch MacBook would be delightful. But when I need to expense a new laptop, I'd be hard-pressed to justify a significantly higher price for a "nice to have." Just trying to put it in real world context.

      (I'd like a Ferrari, too. But again -- "nice to have.")

      The higher-density display will trickle down to the rest of the models eventually, and we'll all be happier. But for now, the only people who can justify the price are the ones that *need* it. Not simply want it.
      • Its an honest "real world" point.

        "I love the Retina display on my iPhone. Love it. To get that on my 13-inch MacBook would be delightful. But when I need to expense a new laptop, I'd be hard-pressed to justify a significantly higher price for a "nice to have."

        Sure, its a fact there are some out there who have the money, love Apple products and are ready and willing to pay for every new feature Apple is ready to supply. Most people are not.

        While its fair for someone to say "Hey!, I would pay for that!", its also appropriate to keep it real, as in keep the point of the article real as to how the average person is likely to see the situation if what your writing about is exactly that. Of course there are those who have the cash and love the retina display enough to fork over the dough. But I don't think thats a story on its own.

        There are people who can afford to buy Ferrari's, and do. Thats not a story on its own either.
      • Delivery is setting at 21 days or so.

        Sounds like people are very interested.
      • "I'd like a Ferrari, too"

        Sure? It largely depends on where you will drive it. If you need to drive it on less than ideal roads, the Ferrari is just an "failure" -- no matter how good it might be on the highway.

        It all depends on your needs, your abilities to make use if it and of course your budget. Someone might just love to crash the expensive Ferrari on the bumpy road, just for the fun of it.

        @ Cayble

        I might be able to buy myself a Ferrari. They would even likely approve me to be Ferrari owner. But.. I won't. I will surely enjoy driving it someplace. I just don't have safe place to park it, no good quality roads to drive it safely etc. This doesn't make the Ferrari any bad. Or my desire to have one any wrong. Maybe.. some day :) (when I build myself roads etc..)
  • I have my last MacBook.

    I bought a 17" late last year, and it will be my last. As a creative professional who works at a different office almost every day, I can't carry another monitor with me, so I rely on the largest screen available. If I could get my 27" iMac in a backpack, I'd carry that with me. I've tried working on a 15" and I don't care for it. As my eyes get older the retina display is also going to be tougher for me to use. I hate to say it, but I may be going back to a PC when this one dies.
    • Thanks for sharing.

      Great to hear from someone who's the target customer.
      • Is he really a target customer?

        Or a shill planted here to make up stories?
      • This proves your point?

        Then you have no point whatsoever, because that person said nothing, really.