Teardown shows Retina MacBook Pro is nearly impossible to upgrade, difficult to work on

Bill Detwiler shows you why the MacBook Pro with Retina Display is nearly impossible to upgrade, a pain to work on, and lacks an essential Pro feature.

Cracking Open the MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Apple's MacBook Pro with Retina Display is one of the most powerful and portable laptops on the market. But in this week's episode of Cracking Open, I show why it's also nearly impossible to upgrade, a pain to work on, and lacks what many consider an essential Pro feature.

There's a lot to like on the Retina MacBook Pro. It's thinner and lighter than the traditional MacBook Pro, measuring 0.71" (H) x 14.13" (W) x 9.73" (D) and weighing 4.46 pounds.

It's also powerful. Our MacBook Pro with Retina Display test unit had a 2.3GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics processor, 16GB RAM, and a 256GB SSD. And, the 15.4-inch LED-backlit Retina display (2880 by 1800 pixel resolution at 220 ppi) delivers a wonder image.

Unfortunately, all these positives are offset by some serious negatives--at least for fans of the traditional MacBook Pro line.

Full teardown gallery: Cracking Open the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Cracking Open observations

  • Tamper-resistant case screws: This is the first MacBook Pro with pentalobe case screws. Apple uses these annoying tamper-resistant screws on the MacBook Air and iPhone 4S. Apple doesn't want you inside this machine. And once I popped off the back cover, I saw why. Unlike the standard MacBook Pro, which is designed to be upgraded and serviced by you--should you so choose, the Retina MacBook Pro isn't.
  • Can't remove the battery: Instead of being a single, removable unit, each battery cell is glued to the machine's case. This makes the battery nearly impossible to remove without damaging it or the components underneath. It also means you can't get to components under it, like the TrackPad.
  • Proprietary solid state drive (SSD): As on the MacBook Air, the Retina MacBook Pro has a proprietary solid state drive, which will make it difficult (if not impossible) to swap it out for a larger, third-party one.
  • Can't upgrade RAM: Also like the Air, this machine's RAM is soldered to the motherboard, which makes adding more memory impossible.

Missing "Pro" features

And if all this wasn't enough, Apple also dropped two features that set the MacBook Pro apart the thinner, but less "professional" MacBook Air--an Ethernet port and optical drive.

I don't think losing the optical drive will anger many Pro fans. I have an optical drive on my 2011 Pro and can't remember the last time I used it. But, the Ethernet port is another matter.

When Apple first announced the new Retina MacBook Pro, I asked TechRepublic members if they or their co-workers still needed machines with an Ethernet port. A resounding 88 percent said yes. Sure, you can use a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter, but that's one more thing you have to buy and carry.

Honestly, this new machine is more like a MacBook Air than a MacBook Pro. And as such, you'll need to plan your purchase carefully. It's may be pricey, but you'll want to buy all the RAM, storage, and processing power needed for the life of the machine.

Bottom Line

Now as of this taping, Apple still sells traditional 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros (Ethernet ports, optical drives, and all).

But, I can't imagine they'll keep both Pro lines around for very long. Once the price of solid state drives and the Retina display are low enough, all MacBook Pros will probably look like this one, at least until all that hardware will fit into an Air.

For more information on the Retina MacBook Pro, including performance and battery life benchmark test, check out Dan Ackerman's full CNET review.

Internal hardware

Our MacBook Pro with Retina Display test unit has the following hardware:

  • 2.3GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 processor
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M graphics processor with 1GB of GDDR5 memory
  • 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM (Hynix H5TC4G83MFR x 32)
  • 256GB Flash Storage (Samsung Model: MZ-DPC2560/0A2)
  • 15.4-inch LED-backlit Retina display (2880 x 1800 pixel resolution at 220 ppi)
  • Broadcom BCM94331CSAX wireless adapter
  • Broadcom BCM57100 Integrated Gigabit Ethernet and Memory Card Reader Controller (BCM57100B0KMLG)
  • Parade Technologies PS8401 HDMI Jitter Cleaning Repeater
  • Intel BD82HM77 Platform Controller Hub (PCH) (E209B413 SLJ8C)
  • Intel Z213T010D L213TA57 DSL3510L (Thunderbolt controller?)
  • Texas Instruments/National Semiconductor VM21AC 45-EXTJ
  • Texas Instruments (58872D TI 1CI A37S E4)
  • Intersil ISL8014A 4A Low Quiescent Current 1MHz High Efficiency Synchronous Buck Regulator (8014AIRZRF213JC)
  • TL02043A 6352.113 ZSD205
  • SMSC USB2512B USB hub controller
  • Texas Instruments/Stellaris LM4FS1AH microcontroller
  • Maxim MAX15119 GTM 203 ISM0QAF
  • Intersil ISL62882C multiphase PWM Regulator (62882C HRTZ F209DMD)
  • Pericom PI3VDP12412 Thunderbolt signal switch - x4 Lane, DisplayPort 1.2 switch with support up to HBR2 (PI3VDP 12412NEE 1145EG ES12)
  • Renesas Semiconductor R2F2113 16-Bit Single-Chip Microcomputer (R4F2113 XLG A02 AD00279 1215JPN)
  • Hynix H5GQ2H24AFR GDDR5 SGRAM (2Gb x 4 = 1GB)
  • Texas Instruments TPS51980 TI 21K CSCV G4
  • Intersil ISL6259A battery charger (6259A HRTZ F207BZ)
  • Cypress Semiconductor CY8C24794 PSoC Programmable System-on-Chip (CY8C24794-24L TXI 1207 A 04 CHI CYP 606491)
  • Linear Technology LT3957B DC/DC inverting switching regulators (215 3957 B68413)
  • Cirrus Logic CS4206B Audio codec (4206BCNZ C2LH1203 MAL)
  • Texas Instruments CD3210 A0 TA 221 A4Sk (x2)
  • 02313 06SD201

By Bill Detwiler

Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the ...