MacBook Pro with Retina Display Review: 256GB is Not Enough…

The new MacBook Pro with Retina Display is perhaps the best notebook Apple’s ever produced, but 256GB simply isn’t enough storage capacity for a $2,199 notebook. In this part of our extended MacBook Pro with Retina Display review, I’ll explain why the base configuration isn’t the best choice for many Apple users and what your options are.

Selling a $2,199 computer with a 256GB drive is like selling a $60,000 Mercedes sedan without a back seat, then charging customers $16,000 if they want to haul around their kids.

(Read: MacBook Pro with Retina Display Review: First Impressions)

Apple is selling a 512GB version of its latest computer at retail, but the extra 256GB of storage runs $600, which works out to a 27% premium. Sure, you get a faster processor as an added bonus, but the drive capacity is what people will be after. Unlike previous MacBook Pros, users can’t upgrade these drives should they run out of space down the line.

The New MacBook Pro with Retina Display

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We expect every gadget to have its compromises, but the MacBook Pro with Retina Display’s 256GB SSD is embarrassingly small. A drive of that size might fly in the MacBook Air, especially for those who use it as a secondary computer. But at $2,199, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display should be able to stand on its own as a primary computer without any serious compromises. Thinking twice about what applications to install, whether to store your photo library on it and what kind of external drive to pair with it are the kinds of headaches owners shouldn’t have to worry about.

Dell and other PC manufacturers sell $400 notebooks with 500GB hard drives. Sure, they’re different animals in terms of build quality and features, but a $400 notebook shouldn’t have a leg up on a $2,199 machine.

A 256GB drive may have satisfied those spending north of $2,000 on a computer a few years ago, but things have changed. Video files are much larger now and people are are shooting more of them since everyone with a current smartphone is essentially walking around with HD camcorders in their pockets. Backing up iPads, iPhones and other devices eat up huge slices of drive space. Have a 64GB iPad and a 64GB iPhone filled with apps and media files? There goes half of the MacBook Pro’s drive capacity.

To the right is a screenshot of what the $2,199 MacBook Pro with Retina Display’s SSD looks like straight out of the box. About 21GB are occupied by the computer’s operating system, Apple’s pre-installed applications and the recovery partition. That leaves  229GB of free space, which quickly dwindles after installing applications and transfer files over to it. For example, Adobe’s Creative Suite needs 15.5GB to install. It’s pretty easy to see how this drive can get filled up in a matter of months, especially if you download a lot of movies, synchronize mobile devices or shoot a lot of pictures and video.

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The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is built to serve as a primary computer, complete with an Intel Core i7 processors, NVIDA graphics and speedy SSD. Anyone that needs this kind of feature set over the other Apple notebooks probably needs more than 256GB of storage. Yes, you could buy an external drive for media files, but lugging around portable drives is a crappy experience and increases your chances of a data disaster.

It’s still very difficult to actually find a MacBook Pro with Retina Display at retail. Units are trickling in at Apple stores, but Best Buy still isn’t selling them. Apple seems to be selling more base models with the 256GB drive than the $2,799 model with the 512GB drive, driving some customers to settle for the former, even if it doesn’t meet their long term needs.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display Drive Options

My advice is to buy the MacBook Pro with Retina Display with more drive space than you think you need or opt for a different MacBook.

Apple larges differentiates price points across its iOS lineup with drive capacities. For example, a 64GB iPad ($699) costs 40% more than the base 16GB iPad ($499). Of course the added capacity doesn’t cost Apple nearly that much, but some users will happily pay the premium to avoid regretting their iPad purchases down the line.

Apple does the same with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t allow people to customize the base MacBook Pro with a larger SSD. Instead, they’re railroaded into a more expensive processor as well.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display Drive Options

Apple does allow users to custom configure drive options once you bump up to $2,799 MacBook Pro with Retina Display. For $500 you can opt for a 768GB SSD, pushing the total price tag to $3,499. That’s a lot of dough to spend on a notebook and out of most buyers’ budgets.

If drive capacity is a big concern and you don’t want to break the bank, you might want to consider another MacBook model. The standard 15″ MacBook Pro is thicker and doesn’t come with a Retina Display, but it does come with a 500GB hard drive. An optional 750GB hard drive is a $100 premium and a 1TB hard drive is a $200 premium. The tradeoff for the extra capacity on this model is that these are traditional hard drives, not speedy SSDs, which are largely what makes the MacBook Pro with Retina Display and MacBook Air perform so well.

You can outfit the standard 15″ MacBook Pro with a SSD, but Apple doesn’t really want you to do that. The company charges $500 for a 256GB, which pushes the price past the MacBook Pro with Retina Display’s $2,199 starting price. A 512GB drive on the standard 15″ MacBook Pro costs $1,000 over the base price, equaling the premium MacBook Pro with Retina Display’s $2,799 price point.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display compared to 13" MacBook Air

If these sky-high price points aren’t in your budget, you may want to consider a smaller MacBook. The 13″ MacBook Air is much thinner and lighter than the MacBook Pro with Retina Display and its relatively affordable at $1,499 with a 256GB SSD. A 512GB drive is a $500 add-on, bringing the total to $1,999. Sure, it doesn’t have as much raw power as the MacBook Pro or the Retina Display, but it’s a better computer for highly mobile users.

 Conclusion

The $2,199 MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a solid computer, but the small SSD is its Achilles heel. Most buyers will need to use this kind of computer for several years to make it pay off. It may be difficult to predict how much drive space you will need in 2015 or beyond.

If you opt for this computer, buy as much storage as you can afford, even if that means waiting a few weeks for a custom-configured Mac.