Editors' note: On October 24, 2011, Apple updated the MacBook Pro line with new CPUs, larger hard drives, and new graphics options. The upgrades were very minor, and the bulk of our review of the 15-inch MacBook Pro from earlier in 2011 still stands. We've added upgrade and contextual notes below, as well as new benchmark test results.
The latest round of updates to Apple's popular MacBook Pro line were modest enough that they simply appeared on the Apple Web site with little fanfare beyond a basic press release. Rather than a generational jump as we saw in February 2011 (when the Pro moved from Intel's original Core i-series CPUs to the latest second-generation chips, formerly code-named Sandy Bridge), this is perhaps better described as minor housekeeping.
In the 15-inch MacBook Pro, we previously reviewed the more high-end of two starting configurations. That $2,199 unit had a 2.2GHz quad-core i7, whereas the $1,799 model had a 2.0GHz CPU. The biggest change is that the $1,799 model now has that 2.2GHz quad-core i7, and the $2,199 model moves up to an even faster 2.4GHz CPU. The GPU options are now a 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750M in the lower-priced version and a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6770M in the more expensive one. Default storage remains the same for the 15-inch models, but the 13- and 17-inch MacBook Pros have their own set of CPU, GPU, and HDD updates, the details of which are here.
Note that this time around we tested the new $1,799 15-inch MacBook Pro, whereas our previous 15-inch MacBook Pro review sample was the $2,199 version, so we're effectively looking at the same CPU in both cases.
The iconic unibody aluminum construction remains the same, as does the large glass multitouch trackpad. Thunderbolt, Intel's new high-speed powered port for data transfer and displays, remains an interesting extra, but its promise is still hypothetical, with few available Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals.
This 15-inch MacBook Pro, at $1,799, follows the usual Apple trajectory of keeping the price steady but adding faster, more powerful components. The latest round of upgrades, while not revolutionary, helps give the Pro line a boost at a time when the less-expensive MacBook Air has become such an excellent mainstream laptop that it could easily substitute for the Pro for many potential MacBook buyers who don't need an internal optical drive or bigger screen.
|Price as reviewed||$1,799|
|Processor||2.2GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core|
|Memory||4GB, 1,066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6750M / Intel HD 3000|
|Operating system||OS X 10.7 Lion|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.4x9.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.5 pounds / 6.2 pounds|
By now, the shape and size of the MacBook Pro should be very familiar. Even more recent designs, such as the second-generation MacBook Air, are variations on it. The basic building block remains the same: a solid chunk of aluminum, which is carved down into a shell with support struts. This unibody chassis has the benefit of being thin (for a 15-inch laptop), but strong and flex-free at the same time.
The touch philosophy that informs the iPad/iPhone line of devices can be said to have its roots in the large multitouch clickpad-style trackpad that's been a staple of the MacBook Pro for years. The multitouch gestures, slightly revamped recently for OS X Lion, are incredibly useful. Once you get used to them, going back to a regular touch pad is difficult. Several Windows laptops have added larger clickpads over the past year or so, with somewhat similar multitouch gestures, but we can easily say that none can yet compete with the MacBook's implementation.
The 1,440x900-pixel display is still higher-resolution than many 15-inch laptops (which are 1,366x768 pixels), and two screen upgrades are available: a 1,680x1,050-pixel version for an extra $100, or a 1,680x1,050-pixel "antiglare" version for $150. Of the current MacBook lineup, only the 11-inch Air has a 16:9 display; Apple is otherwise the only major computer maker still widely using 16:10 displays.
|Apple MacBook Pro (Fall 2011, 15-inch)||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||DisplayPort/Thunderbolt||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The big difference between MacBooks and other laptops in the ports and connections category is the recent port based on Intel's Thunderbolt high-speed I/O technology. If it looks a lot like the Mini DisplayPort connection on older MacBooks, that's because it is the same, except for the tiny lightning bolt logo next to it. It still functions as a DisplayPort output, and in fact, you're able to daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt devices or displays to that single port.
Thunderbolt is technically capable of 10Gbps bidirectional transfer, and if Intel and Apple have their way, it may replace many other kinds of ports and connections in the future, but there are only a handful of peripherals that work with it currently.
Also notable on the 2011 MacBook Pro (including the version we tested earlier this year) is a 720p Webcam, which works with the new Mac version of FaceTime, the same video-conferencing app found on the iPhone and iPod Touch. With a solid Wi-Fi signal, jumping into full-screen mode was clear and mostly stutter-free. There's also an onscreen button for changing the video window from portrait mode to horizontal, and video calls can be made between MacBooks and iPhones as well. You can read more about FaceTime for Mac here.
But while Thunderbolt and FaceTime are interesting extras, the real muscle behind the new MacBook Pro is the quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU and AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU. These parts were previously found on the higher-end 15-inch Pro, and now are the default loadout for the less-expensive base model. In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, the new MacBook Pro performed impressively, and was almost exactly matched with the Winter 2011 MacBook Pro we tested. Keep in mind that we're comparing the April 2011 high-end configuration with the October 2011 entry-level configuration.
The AMD Radeon HD 6750M in our review unit is a solid GPU, and a nice jump over the Radeon 6490M previously offered with the $1,799 15-inch Pro. As with the previous few generations of MacBook Pros, the discrete graphics swap out with the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics as needed, saving battery life as you go.