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

Apple's new MacBook Pro with Retina display won't sell like hotcakes. It's not supposed to.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on


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.

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