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

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Comments

  1. BlogD says

    “Unlike previous MacBook Pros, users can’t upgrade these drives should they run out of space down the line.”

    Umm, actually the SSD is one of the ONLY parts which can be upgraded, as soon as 3rd-party makers create cards which will fit the unit. The same was thought of the Macbook Air until 3rd-party makers imitated that form, and now you can upgrade its custom SSD cards.

    I agree that Apple is being stupid about the limiting of the SSD in the low-end version, I think it was a mistake… but upgradeable or not, I think you make a wee bit too much of an issue about it. One solution I am trying: carrying a few extra $30 (well, $30 here in Japan, $40+ in the US) 64GB SDXC cards with me. Tiny, easy to carry or even slip in a small wallet pocket (or whatever carrying solution works best for you), and can store data which you might keep on your drive but not access all the time.

    When cheaper swappable SSDs become available, I’ll upgrade. Seriously, it’s not so huge a deal. Chill.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      Thanks for reading GBM and for your comment.
      We’ll have to wait and see how affordable custom upgrades are. I strongly advise against using SDXC cards as data storage for any Mac. Unlike some PC counterparts, the cards stick out of the card slot enough to get dinged by accident. More power to you if you can make it work.

      • BlogD says

        Got my Retina Pro Three days ago. Have been using the SD card almost continuously, and now almost don’t notice it. I knew it would stick out, and frankly thought it would be more of a trouble than it has been. However, it’s not really a big deal. Not to mention, in everyday use, I will not have the things stuck in there all the time–right now it’s still in there more because I forgot about it than anything else. Am definitely going to get three more cards to effectively double my portable storage.

        • Graham Quigley says

          Hi there! Could you speak on the speed at which the new SDXC cards can be read in the new 2012 Macbooks? If one wanted to put their music and photo collection on the card, could it be read at the same speed as internal memory? Is there any drawback aside from the card protruding that one should know about?
          Thanks so much!
          Graham

      • Graham Quigley says

        Hi there! Could you speak on the speed at which the new SDXC cards can be read in the new 2012 Macbooks? If one wanted to put their music and photo collection on the card, could it be read at the same speed as internal memory? Is there any drawback aside from the card protruding that one should know about?
        Thanks so much!
        Graham

    • Brkbeatjunkie says

      If you disregard the warranty, many of the parts, like the ssd, are upgradable. Going into the new Mac and replacing anything would void the warranty. And it’s pretty easy to tell when a user has been fiddling.

  2. Cunctator says

    Agreed completely. This article hyperbolized the issue. I edit video somewhat regularly. Yes, it’s far better to edit via the ssd, when I’m finished with a movie, though, the transfer to my backup via USB 3.0 or thunderbolt takes just a few seconds. Moreover, backup storage is somewhat cheap, so we can protect against data disaster by using a redundant backup for those who are especially cautious. The extra power and extra speeds make the 256 gb drive reasonable.

  3. Tony Glandil says

    This article… is the exact reason I returned my Retina a week ago.

    This is my first Mac, and more expensive computer purchase, and therefore hope this computer will last me 3-5 years instead of the typical 2-3 years for PC.

    I looked at my disk drive use over the last 10 years and it keeps climbing. Sure, I offload much into external NAS, but as a business freelance I also need more data in the computer, and want to be able to access it without a network or attached drive. I bought a 256GB because that’s all I could afford, but really need more.

    I thought 3rd party or even Apple will offer SSD upgrade. Apple says no. 3rd party got shut down by Apple, will surely will do the same for the Retina. Even if they won’t, the price of those thin and fast SSD remains prohibitive.

    What did it for me, as an equal factor to the SSD, was how glossy the screen is – although it is not glossy per say, coming from non-glare screens was utterly annoying. Asking people and reading about people who’ve had glossy screens, they still don’t like it even after years of use. I travel a lot and cannot often close the blinds, or simply want to be able to enjoy the weather and work outside – or by the airplane window.

    I gave it back and bought a MBP. It is still twice as much as a Windows PC, but hoping I’ll be more productive and won’t spend time tweaking my PC (7 min to boot my Win 7 on a dual 2.3 GHz; I also don’t have time to “rebuild” my PC every year).

    Another note: the Retina is really for pros. They can expense the machine in their accounting, they can justify the speed for better work output. For those in media and who can afford it, there is a justification. For business people, programmers, and consumers, I cannot see the justification – although if you have the means, the point is moot.

    Hope my input will help others avoid making the mistake I did.

    Tony

    • Brkbeatjunkie says

      Looks like this is the issue here: “I bought a 256GB because that’s all I could afford, but really need more.”

    • Grantman says

      Toally agree with you Tony. Was all set to shell out the $2k plus for thecretinavdosplay and after talking to a friend and reading a couple articles. Will be buying a MBP. This wil be my first Mac and I expect it to last 3-5 years as well. Unlike my last 2 pc’s that lasted half.

      Grantman…

    • Mr. H. says

      And how does that work for you when you are away from your server and you “need” those files stored you’ve stored on your server? I would think that external hard drive is starting to look like a pretty good idea. Though watching someone pulling out an external HDD after they paid $2,200 for a laptop is kinda like seeing someone who just bought a Rolls Royce walking around with battery jumper cables asking people to give him a jump to start his car.

  4. Ramon says

    I’m about to buy a MacBook Pro Retina Display but I don’t know if I just get the late 2011 model since apple took down many important stuff from the Late MacBook Pro. The disk drive or optical drive I don’t know what it’s called is missing and I got a friend who can hook me up with photoshop, microsoft, and Sony Vegas cheap, but it’s on a disk. Should I get the Late 2011 MacBook Pro model or the Retina Display ?
    I need to know by Friday because I oredered the retina display for friday and I don’t want to regret buying it. Thank you.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      If the optical drive is the only thing holding you back from keeping the Retina Display I recommend buying an external DVD drive. Apple sells their own, but you can get a cheeper model elsewhere.

      • Ramon says

        Thanks for the help but it’s also the different ports and battery and all that. I don’t really know a lot of computers and I need to decide so your decision is to get the Macbook Pro Retina Display?

        • Brkbeatjunkie says

          I suggest educating yourself then, we cannot suggest something that doesn’t make sense to you, that is a waste of time

  5. Mr. H. says

    With all the technology that is available to Apple when making a “great” product, it amazes me that Apple still uses such an out-dated scheme to screw – or squeeze more dollars out of their most loyal customers. Non consumer replaceable batteries (this is whole other story) and Memory – storage!

    iPod, iPhone, and the iPad, have been source of great profit for Apple, solely based on this very marketing scheme. Even now in the age of the 64Gb micro SD cards, Apple still gets away with this marketing scheme and Apple customers seem none the wiser gladly forking out hundreds of more dollars for something which could and should be had much cheaper.

    Where iPods, iPhones, and iPads only cost 700 or 800 plus dollars with the max amount of memory, a $2,200 laptop is something else – but I guess in the end Apple figures, if it worked for their other “i” products, it’ll work for these new laptops and dropping upwards of $2,800 to $3,500 from Apple loyalties should be no big deal.

    • Brkbeatjunkie says

      We all want smaller and smaller. If you think engineering a space inside the laptop big enough to get users hands inside with out breaking anything else, then you’ve got yourself a computer from a few years ago.

      But no, we demand smaller, more portable machine that have to be faster than the last. I ask you this: even if it had a removable battery, wouldn’t you still be up in arms as tithe cost of said replaceable batteries?

  6. Kento says

    If you don’t want one, don’t buy one. I don’t understand why people try to convince the world of Apple’s evil empire. Get a Dell or an Acer and get on with your life. :p

  7. Mojo311 says

    I just bought the Macbook w/ Retina. I mainly bought it for the screen, otherwise I’d’ve opted for the earlier 15” Macbook. I did feel slightly jipped in paying an extra $600 to double the storage on my computer, but as the writer of the article explained, I did not want to regret the purchase. That being said, the screen is absolutely amazing. I’ve been on it most of the day and doing some data transfer between my other PC that has a 1080p screen and it looks pixelated. I will be using the computer to edit photo’s a lot. The added clarity will help tremendously I feel. Yes $3000 is a lot for a laptop but I think this should last a good 5 years. I have friends who buy and update their PC’s every year spending $600-$700 on them. All and all, it’s a wash. We all know Apple charges a premium on their products, but there’s a reason. They are the people controlling the future of the industry. All other manufacturers always follow suit.

  8. Reklaw says

    I got this model, I have disabled safe sleep and erased the sleep image, I also trimmed down the OS. Currently I have 250gb of free space. I plan to use a combo ad small drives/online storage. I’m just going to change the way I use my space.

  9. Reklaw says

    I got this model, I have disabled safe sleep and erased the sleep image, I also trimmed down the OS. Currently I have 250gb of free space. I plan to use a combo of small drives/online storage. I’m just going to change the way I use my space.

  10. PaintStar says

    LaCie 1 TB USB 3.0 external HD should do the trick.

    Don’t upgrade just for more HD space, save your money!

    The base model 2.3Ghz, with upgraded ram to 16GB and 256GB HD will be a powerhouse machine.

    Save your money!

  11. Jeanie Murphy says

    I didn’t think I would miss having a DVD player/burner on my MBPro Retina Display but once I got it home, I am concerned.
    I know they said I could buy an external DVD to hook up, but will it work as well for burning a DVD from iMovie?
    I may take this back and get the top of the line Mac Book Pro … currently have the middle of the line Retina Display.

    Also worried that 500 GB will not be enough for me…although I currently have 342 GB free space. (Transferred data from previous MBP.

    Thoughts on the DVD player for wanted to add music from CDs, making pictures CDs and movies??????

    • Reklaw says

      Jeanie, I don’t think you need be concerned. Apples’ external drive is a super drive so will do everything. Also, for most ppl 500gb is plenty. I was concerned with my HD being 256 but I will just be more critical of what I keep on my computer. Another option is if you have another Mac in the house, you can use its disk drive remotely from your pro

  12. Ray Agrella says

    OWC (macsales.com) will have a MBP Retina SSD upgrade soon. Keep your eyes on their website. It will give users the option at least to buy the base model and upgrade at a cheaper price than what Apple wants to charge. You can also use the 256GB in their external USB 3.0 case so it doesn’t go to waste.

  13. hello says

    The writer is right, the 256 GB is too low. I have 120 GB of music, 70 GB of photos. Couldn’t import 20 years of documents without having to get rid of music and photo.

    • Jeanie says

      hello..
      would 512 be enough for you?
      Just wondering.
      I just bought the 512 and hope it’s enough. Transferred from a 5 year old MBP and have around 320 free space, but keep wondering if I should go up a step. Of course, since our APPLE store in Des MOines does not have any in stock I guess it’s a mute point.

      • Hello says

        Jeanie, you should be okay with 512 for the next several years.

        The retina is an excellent computer, but the base GB should be 512. The error on Apples part reminds me of this:

        When we set the upper limit of PC-DOS at 640K, we thought nobody would ever need that much memory. — William Gates, chairman of Microsoft

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  15. Seung says

    Well, I figured 256 is perfect for a couple months of temporary storage of files such as videos and photos until they can all be transfered into an external hard drive which stores everything. I think this goes for many other people because of the very fact that those who actually need a lot more space than 229GB for storage of their files already own one or more external devices (most likely with USB 3.0) that have capacities of terabytes. I have one 3TB USB3.0 stationary device that requires a power adapter, for use at home for the archiving of all my files, and a 1TB USB3.0 external hdd for the temporary storage of my 720/1080p video files to view when on the go. Transferring a file worth 1.5Gb only takes me a mere 15 seconds. Of course this number grows if transferring a large number of smaller files, but it’s still not as slow as USB 2.0 and I find it acceptable since I can let it transfer while I’m busy with another activity.

    Therefore, I don’t see this as a large problem, nor a problem worth $600 since both USB ports are 3.0 and there are two thunderbolt ports for the growing market of Thunderbolt External HDDs.

    • Seung says

      Of course, many would argue that a $2200 laptop should carry a larger default storage. However, it is what it is; Apple decided that 256 was enough for the general group of consumers, successfully rendering the smaller group of professionals actually needing more space to pay up a pricey premium. Apple’s marketing scheme… genius…

    • Pavel Murnikov says

      Wrong. The flash storage chips are soldered to a daughterboard, and the daughterboard plugs into to the logic-board, aka the motherboard. The daughterboard *is* the SSD – just not a standard one. It’s quite removable, and it’s possible that Apple themselves would be willing to upgrade it in the future, when they have larger/cheaper storage options. Third parties will also have them.

  16. Jason says

    I just wanted to address the many points in the article where the author insinuated that the premium a consumer had to pay to get an iPad or retina MBP with more storage capacity was essentially price gouging (correct me if I’m wrong, but thats the impression I got). I’ll use an analogy from the pharmaceutical industry to explain my point: people often complain about the high price of brand-name drugs, saying that the companies shouldn’t charge (insert high price) per pill since it only costs them like 5 cents to manufacture each pill. While it is true that manufacturing the pills isn’t expensive, the argument completely overlooks the fact that it costs a company billions of dollars to take a compound from the design stage to when its being used in patient care. In other words, the “excessive” cost of the pills is actually not excessive at all, the cost is high so the company can recoup the billions of dollars it spent bringing the product to market. Since Apple developed a new configuration of SSD so the retina MBP could be so thin, I’m sure that a significant portion of the cost of the upgrade is to help cover R&D costs and any applicable regulatory bulls*it fees. Also, keep in mind that SSDs are expensive no matter where you get them. For example, if you look on the bestbuy website, its not possible to get an SSD with around 768GB for less than $1000 (most were several times more expensive).

    http://www.bestbuy.com/site/searchpage.jsp?_dyncharset=ISO-8859-1&_dynSessConf=-3182196429768605842&id=pcat17071&type=page&ks=960&st=SSD&sc=Global&cp=1&sp=&qp=q535344~~cabcat0500000%23%236%23%23l0~~cabcat0504001%23%233%23%23gg~~cpcmcat201300050005%23%230%23%237w~~nf35%7C%7C3735304742202d203939394742&list=y&usc=All+Categories&nrp=15&iht=n

  17. Niladri Haldar says

    Im planning to get the baseline MBP Retina here in India (baseline costs $2750, standard upper model $3500 here!!) and I worked out how to use memory less as compared to my current 500GB Macbook Pro, by compromising on files available on board.
    Taking out all movie files onto a external drive seems to be the best bet to shave off file load.
    Music and Pictures need to be in the Macbook, no question, need them all the time.

    So unless you are a serious software developer or photographer or whatever, 256GB might just suffice if you are ready to trim your computer off excess unused stuff.

    For the just-in-case movies and stuff that I may need at times but can’t keep it on board, I’m planning to get a high capacity USB 3.0 thumb drive that I can carry around in my pocket.

    Remember its a Mac not just a regular PC, so compromising is justified… ;)

    Cheers!

  18. james braselton says

    hi there i dissagree becase me i have used 97 gb out of 256 gb for me 128 gb i can get buy not every one needs 500 gb hard anouther problem i have no 10,000 or 15,000 rpm hard drive no hybride hard drive i want faster hard drives then 7,200 rpm hard drives

  19. Mark B says

    From the article: “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.”

    I’m no Apple fanboy, but this is like comparing caviar to Marmite. The 500Gb hard drive in a $400 PC notebook is going to to be a bog standard noisy hot chuggingly slow 5400rpm hard drive that costs $60 or less and makes the laptop run like a dog.

    A decent SATA3 SSD like that in the MBP really does make a difference to your machine… it’s probably the best upgrade you can get for any computer for daily use.

    I agree they’ve been a bit stingy as regards capacity on such an expensive machine (and I’d add that the 64gb they put in the base Macbook Air is unforgiveable) but whatever you think of Apples SSD choices I think it’s only fair to compare like-for-like. How much would an equal spec Dell notebook be with a similar SSD?

    • Nate says

      @Mark – You might be the only one on here that knows what is up. Glad you commented about that so I didn’t have to.

      I have looked into this in the past and I am guessing an equally spec’d out Dell would be roughly around $2k (easily). Apple’s products are solid. Hell the retina displays resolution is 2880×1800 – that is ridiculously high (and on a 15″ screen even). I doubt any dell would compare when it comes to build quality. There is a reason these are priced the way they are.

      • Giallograle says

        Well the reason is that people are willing to pay – hence the high price of extra memory.

  20. Leo says

    It’s like having a car with a 5 liter tank in order to be light and fast and be forced to take with you gas gericanes in the passenger seat…pointless

    make it 2 mm deeper and put some real storage…

  21. Gav says

    The best part about the generic MBP not Retina is that it has an Optic Drive. What you can do is to remove it and place your generic HDD in that space. And to the free slot you have now from your old HDD you put SSD that you can buy on Newegg 3 times cheaper Apple tries to charge (and not some no-name crap). There – you will have 2 drives (one could be also upgraded on your own, not necessary to buy big drive from Apple) and a speedy SSD. Woot!

  22. ispaure says

    Server through Hamachi for the win! :) Fixed the problem for me (and I knew before that 256gb wouldn’t be enough, just found a way to add 14 Tb seamlessly :))

  23. Felix says

    I have had the Mac Book Pro Retina for almost a year, i previously had the 17″ inch model with 1TB, I work in production the past year has been a joke and a complete pain in the ass Apple clearly does not care about the customer any more? i spent $2200 and i have to carry a hard drive like its 2001! 12 years later!!!! this computer is not worth it PLEASE dont buy it! it is an apple scam? Apple has to know this is bull shit!!!! what ever you have now is better than this down grade?

    imagine working on a brand new retina computer and on a daily basis you have to think about how you will store everything. imagine living in a manhattan luxury condo with no parking, no closets just one dresser for everything!!!and here is the kicker YOU CANT UPGRADE???? GTFOH!!!!!

    this computer is for children 10 years and younger or grown folk 70 and above

    PLease dont buy the retina mac its an apple scam like: iCloud, most apps, Apple TV, the ipod and its shrinking memory and lastly the constant change in charge points for no reason!!!!!

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