The 13-inch MacBook Pro is the most affordable of Apple's high-end laptops. With the admittedly supercharged 15-inch version starting at a princely AU$2099, the 13-inch model's starting price of AU$1399 is the one many consumers will likely consider first. Its size is also ideal, and in fact, we've long considered 13 inches to be the sweet spot in laptops for usability and portability. The question is: does the smaller Pro deliver the processing punch that last year's lacked?
In short, unequivocally yes. This year's 13-inch Pro gets a cutting-edge processor upgrade that many were waiting for — including us. That upgrade comes in the form of next-generation Intel Core i-series CPUs. The 2011 MacBook Pros are the first laptops we've reviewed at CNET with these processors; the entry-level 13-inch model features a second-generation 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, and the AU$1698 configuration has a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7.
However, despite the processor improvements, the use of Intel's HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics is a step backward from the integrated Nvidia graphics found in the 2010 13-inch Pro. It's not a huge backslide, though, and for many it's a survivable loss. Plus, it does come with the much talked about high-speed data/video port, Thunderbolt.
IO, IO, it's off to work we go... (Credit: Apple)
Thunderbolt is envisioned as a sort of future unified successor to USB, FireWire and DisplayPort, allowing peripherals to carry data and video at 10Gbps. We don't know when Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals will be available (although Apple says the first ones should show up in the spring of 2011), how much they'll cost, or if Apple will be adding the technology to future displays or iOS devices. For now, it's a wait-and-see gamble on a future technology, but at least the port is backward-compatible with Mini-DisplayPort and can support HDMI out with the purchase of a cable. The 13-inch MacBook Pro also keeps its FireWire 800 port, so Thunderbolt is more of an added feature than a risk Apple's making you buy into.
In the end, the 2011 13-inch Pro is a big step up in processing performance for the same price as its predecessor. To put it in perspective, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is about as powerful CPU-wise as last year's AU$2798 15-inch Core i7 model. And while its integrated Intel graphics are a bit less capable than the previous model's Nvidia 320M GPU, the pay-off comes with another big leap in battery life.
Lastly, if you're on the fence between the AU$1698 13-inch and the AU$2099 15-inch Pros, that AU$401 buys you a lot more computer. On the other hand, we'd argue that most people won't see or don't need the extra performance and it is a larger, heavier laptop.
There's nothing different design-wise about the new MacBook Pro. Walk up to the 2011 version and you'd have no idea that you were looking at a "new" Mac. The iconic design and unibody construction have remained intact, even identical, to last year's 2010 model, even down to the port layout. Ports line the left side, and the side-connecting MagSafe charging cable plugs toward the rear, staying out of the way. The slot-loading drive lines the right side. A wide expanse of aluminium and Apple's simple but excellently constructed keyboard feel like tech minimalism in a world of overwrought and over-designed laptops, and the large multi-touch click pad is still — even nearly three years later — one of the largest we've seen. Construction quality is, as always, rock-solid: compared with other flexy laptops, the seamless metal body of the Pro feels like modern art.
That being said, we wouldn't mind some design improvements in the future, especially when it comes to thickness and weight. The 13-inch Pro is compact and thin, but compared to wafer-thin Apple products like the iPad and , it ends up feeling heavier. Then again, if thickness matters that much, you can always buy an Air.
A backlit keyboard still comes standard, even on the entry-level AU$1399 MacBook Pro. It's useful for typing in low-light conditions, and the ambient light sensors control screen brightness and keyboard lighting in perfect balance. The ergonomics work excellently, and the MacBook Pro also has some of the largest, deepest palm-rest zones in a 13-incher.
Edge-to-edge glass still frames the Pro's 13.3-inch screen, and, yes, there still isn't a matte screen option — although on the larger 15-inch line, anti-glare is offered. The display has excellent brightness, colour and contrast, and the screen's viewing angles are generous, but the 1280x800 native pixel resolution is identical to the 2010 model's. Oddly, the MacBook Pro might be the last laptop that hasn't switched to a 16:9, 1366x768-pixel display. Even more oddly, the 13-inch MacBook Air actually has a higher resolution than the current 13-inch Pros, at 1400x900 pixels. We're surprised that there wasn't a resolution upgrade in the higher-end AU$1698 configuration.
The screen is still the same old low resolution from the last generation. (Credit: Apple)
Speaker volume is adequate, and both music and movies sound good on the integrated stereo speakers. The MacBook Pro doesn't have audio that reaches out and grabs you, unless you're wearing headphones; then again, on a 13-incher this slim, it does better than equivalent competition.
A new HD webcam offers 720p widescreen web chats via the new FaceTime app, which comes pre-installed. FaceTime, which has been available as a beta release for a while, allows calls to both Mac users and iPhone 4 owners. iPhone 4 calls come in at a fuzzier resolution, but Mac-to-Mac calls looked relatively crisp over Wi-Fi. Swapping between portrait and landscape mode can be triggered with a single button-click.