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Apple's Retina Macs: A little too elite?

Ouch! Video makers asked to dig deep for work-able models

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Analysis Apple loves to be ahead of the competition on the technology curve, but has it shuffled up that curve a little too far? The new retina MacBook is causing angst among Apple's most loyal professional users.

The problem isn't the retina display: that's a technological marvel. It's the absence of serious storage. The default storage capacity of the basic new Retina Mac is 256GB. Apple removed the optical drive but also removed the option for spinning storage. All of which means that video professionals must pay dear.

"256GB does not even last a day of video work," complains one commenter at MacWorld. This might seem like an exaggeration to you if you're not familiar with the world of professional editing. Compressed movies are typically 700MB and Apple HD video is 2.6GB. So what's the problem? Uncompressed, it's a quite different story. Video at 1080 HD uncompressed clocks in at 9GB a minute of footage. You can see how 256GB isn't enough.

Fine, Apple offers the 512GB model for £2,299, which is £200 more expensive than the 17-inch MacBook Pro – which was available until it was chopped on Monday. For £400 more, you can bump that up to 768GB, but that brings the total to almost £2,700. You can start to see the 'problem' here - the optimal video editing Mac just got a lot more expensive this week.

Apple's prices here don't reflect its advantages in the supply chain as the world's largest purchaser of flash memory. On eBay today a 512GB SSD can be picked up at auction for around £280. Yet Apple's pricing for a 512GB is almost exactly three times that: £720. It's clearly in no rush to pass on the volume savings it makes in buying flash memory to its users in the form of lower margins – although it accepted lower margins for the iPad, to stimulate the market.

Thankfully, Apple still maintains the older spinning-platter 15.4 inch models, but these come with the same screen sizes as before.

Apple has an interesting trade-off in this new model. The decision to drop the optical drive isn't controversial - Apple did so with the first Air four years ago. But Airs were typically second machines - users loved the weight saving, and didn't expect to keep their life's luggage on the machine. But with the Retina Mac, a professional machine, Apple has used the space saved by the optical drive to bulk up the battery instead, rather than storage options.

It's a pity that Apple hasn't included both a conventional spinning drive and flash. And it's probably an even greater pity that the storage market hasn't come up with more hybrid options.

I'm currently typing on a machine that offers both the speed of flash and the capacity of spinning platters, with a first generation Seagate Momentus XT drive. At times you get the best of both, and at times you get the worst of both – the laggardness of spinning storage, and its accompanying heat and noise, but without anything like the performance gains of flash. Seagate refreshed this model late last year, but no other manufacturers – and correct me if I'm wrong – appear to have followed Seagate down this path.

There's certainly room in the Retina Macs for both.

We're almost certainly looking at a short-term situation. Spinning platters will soon seem as quaint as recorded music being distributed on shellac; flash prices will fall and capacities increase. For now, though, video professionals who want the best in screen technology are going to have to dig deep. ®

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