Wait, the Retina MacBook Pro Costs Less than the Non-Retina Models?

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The other night while all the Windows tablet hoopla was going on, I was at the local mall killing time between a haircut and my wife shopping for maternity clothes, so I dropped by the Apple Store to play with their demo Retina MacBook Pros. I’m still waiting on a mid-range model myself, which my online receipt says I may not see until July.

I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to lay hands a Retina Pro — even Apple’s retail stores are fighting for allocation and crystal ball-gazing when customers ask about store availability. So much for Apple marketing VP Phil Schiller’s “available now” slide at the end of the company’s Retina Pro WWDC reveal.

(MORE: Apple Retina MacBook Pro Review: The MacBook Pro, Only More — and Less — So)

The next best thing? Fiddling with store models. I spent about 30 minutes with the 2.3 GHz version, shifting between it at one of the center tables and the updated non-Retina Pros, now relegated to side tables along the walls. The Retina screen is a wonder, no doubt, though running at the recommended “Retina” resolution — 1440 x 900 — made it apparent just how many apps need asset upgrades.

Soundtrack Pro for instance, the audio editing app in Logic Pro, looks a mess at that resolution, all the words jagged or blurred like lettering across hyper-stressed fabric. Both Pages and Microsoft Word exhibited similar issues, to the point I may just use TextEdit for word processing while waiting for vendors (including Apple) to upgrade their app interfaces.

But I noticed something else while surfing Apple’s online store and test-pricing various Retina and non-Retina builds: The Retina MacBook Pro is significantly less expensive than the non-Retina models if you build out the latter spec-for-spec.

Retina Pro > Non-Retina Pro

Take the baseline Retina Pro with its Intel Core i7 2.3 GHz processor, 8GB memory and 256GB flash drive. As-is, it lists for $2,199. Now build out  a 15-inch non-Retina Pro with the same specs — upgrade 4GB to 8GB and the default 500GB spindle-based drive to a 256GB flash drive. The new price? $2,399, or $200 more. Bump the resolution from 1440 x 900 to 1680 x 1050 and the price nudges up to $2,499. That’s a steep hike for a laptop that still has less than half as many onscreen pixels as the $200-$300 less expensive Retina Pro.

Do the same for the mid-grade Retina Pro with its Intel Core i7 2.6 GHz processor, 8GB memory and 512GB flash drive. As-is, that one lists for $2,799. The 15-inch non-Retina Pro with the same specs and a 512GB flash drive? $3,099. And when you add the 1680 x 1050 resolution bump for $100, the differential hits $300-$400, or $100 more than the differential range for the baseline model.

When I pointed this out to an Apple Store sales associates, he reminded me those upgrades are technically special config options, which means Apple has to manually touch the system, and I’m sure that accounts for some of the extra outlay, but $200 to $400 worth? And there’s still the screen downgrade to consider — you’re paying a lot more for the same internal components and still resigning yourself to a plain vanilla screen.

Why, therefore, would anyone want a non-Retina Pro? The baseline non-Retina Pros have a lower price barrier, sure, and you can get more hard drive space for less if you opt for a spindle-based drive. If $1,799 is the most you want to spend, it’ll get you a non-Retina Pro with a 500GB spindle drive and 4GB of memory. And if you really need a terabyte of local storage, you can upgrade to that for $200 and still keep the price at a buck under $2,000.

That’s it, though, and I wonder if we won’t see a higher incidence of buyer remorse with non-Retina Pros, especially if Apple and third party developers are prompt about upgrading existing apps to take advantage of the 2,880 x 1,880 pixel screen.

Non-Retina Pro > Retina Pro

But what if we compare not what’s under the hood, but how it’s built in? iFixit’s Kyle Wiens wrote a piece for Wired recently titled “The New MacBook Pro: Unfixable, Unhackable, Untenable,” in which he calls the Retina Pro “the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart.” On iFixit’s 1-10 repairability scale, 10 being the most user-friendly, the Retina Pro scored a dismal “1.” (Disclaimer: iFixit makes money in part by selling repair and upgrade tools — make of that hypothetical conflict of interest what you will.)


The list of design back-steps, according to Wiens: the Retina display is fused to the glass (the LCD can’t be swapped out of the assembly — it’s all or nothing now if you need to replace it), the RAM is actually soldered onto the logic board (forget memory upgrades — what you buy is what you get) and the battery is actually glued into the casing, requiring you take your laptop to an Apple Store (or mail it in) if you ever want the battery replaced.

Wiens also worries about the glue compromising the laptop’s recyclability, adding that his recycling industry contacts told him “they have no way of recycling aluminum that has glass glued to it.”

That said, a Lockheed Martin scientist has already suggested that may not a problem, noting that “the devices can be disassembled with heat or solvents and, at the very least, the raw materials can be ground/broken and then mechanically separated.”

Let’s assume this scientist is correct and that recycling is actually a minor (or non-) issue. What about the lack of upgrade options in the Retina Pro?

To be fair to Apple for a second, and this is something Wiens doesn’t acknowledge in his piece but probably should have: Prior MacBook Pros were never easy to upgrade. For the small percentile of enthusiast users who didn’t mind pulling out a dozen screws and mapping their different lengths to the correct holes, then pulling off tape and decoupling tiny ribbon cables and prying out delicate shock-absorption clamps, sure, it was user-upgradeable. But easy as that all seemed to someone like me, who did it routinely as a guy who’s been pulling gadgets apart for decades, for most, I’d wager swapping in something like a new hard drive was either a mail-in job or a trip to the local Genius Bar.

But yes, the glued-in battery and soldered memory are head-scratchers — locked-in components for less than a quarter-inch case width shrink (from 0.95 inches to 0.71 inches). And Apple surely benefits, charging $199 to replace the battery in the Retina Pro (you can’t upgrade the memory without replacing the entire logic board, so it’s not even an option).

Choice or Sex Appeal?

Are we shooting ourselves in the foot, trading upgradeability for compactness and pixel mania, as Wiens suggests? Perhaps. But it depends on something neither we (nor Wiens) can predict — whether Apple’s going to maintain this non-upgradeable design approach in future iterations of mobile devices like the Retina Pro. Also: There’s the question of whether Apple will continue to offer non-Retina Pro Macs that are upgradeable, as alternatives. That’s still a significant non-Retina Pro selling point, for those that need the upgrade path, i.e. Apple still technically offers an upgradeable MacBook Pro.

I’d like to see Apple get the non-Retina Pro configuration costs down somehow, because it’s kind of ridiculous that the Retina Pro ends up being significantly less expensive when a non-Retina Pro’s built to comparable spec. I’d also like to hear Apple speak publicly about its upgradeability vision for future laptop builds, be they Pros or Airs. Are we stuck with locked-in parts as we downsize (say these things get even thinner down the road with something like liquid metal)? Why (from a manufacturing standpoint)? And if we are, how much of Apple’s consumer base is meaningfully impacted? Twenty percent? Ten percent? Less than 5%? Should we care?

I say yes, we should, as long as the price is thousands of dollars and we’re looking at these things as longer-term investments, as opposed to an iPad or iPhone, where we’re probably upgrading every other year or even once a year.

MORE: The Retina MacBook Pro: More than an Apple Desktop Replacement?