Hands On: 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro

The 13-inch aluminum unibody MacBook has been promoted to join the MacBook Pro family. It's a move that makes sense, as the differences between the two lines were becoming increasingly blurred.

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Radically overhauled last year, Apple's MacBook line of laptops moved to aluminum construction, edge-to-edge glass over LED displays, and oversize multitouch-touch pads (with the exception of the lone $999 white plastic model ). The latest round of updates is more of a refinement than another revolution, but it adds some much-sought-after features, while lowering prices on many configurations.

Most notable, the 13-inch aluminum unibody MacBook has been promoted to join the MacBook Pro family. It's a move that makes sense, as the differences between the two lines were becoming increasingly blurred. To complete the transformation, the 13-inch Pro regains its missing FireWire port, making it even more useful for creative professionals on the go.

New to the Pro line is something we never thought we'd see on a MacBook--an SD card slot. Standard on the 13- and 15-inch Pro laptops, this corrects one of our main MacBook annoyances. We're also pleased to see the backlit keyboard--previously found in only the more expensive 13-inch versions--filter down to even the $1,149 base model (which is a nice discount from the previous $1,299 entry price).

Some have strong feelings about the nonremovable battery--similar to those already found on the MacBook Air and 17-inch Pro. It's a legitimate concern, but we think the promise of better battery life (Apple claims up to a 40 percent improvement), and three times as many recharge cycles as older batteries is just as important.

There are still a few items on our 13-inch wish list--matte screens, mobile broadband options, Blu-ray--but Apple has done an admirable job in filling in some of the major missing pieces. By offering more features for less money, the 13-inch MacBook Pro remains one of the most universally useful laptops available.

The design and construction of the system remain largely the same as last year's model, with a solid block of aluminum carved down, rather than a thin outer shell that has had support struts added to it. It's both lighter and sturdier than the older plastic versions of the 13-inch MacBook.

The new Pro also retains the same oversize touch pad, where the entire surface depresses like a button--although a simple tapping (as on a PC laptop) will also work once you turn that option on in the settings menu. We've become accustomed to the two-, three-, and four-finger multitouch gestures, which let you hide all your apps by sweeping four fingers up on the pad, or bring up the application switcher by sweeping four fingers left or right. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular touch pad is difficult.

Apple says the new display offers a wider color gamut, and the screen certainly looks bright and colorful, but we wish the same matte-screen option offered on the 17-inch MacBook Pro was available across the line. The 13.3-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is standard for screens this size, but we'd love to see Apple try its hand at a 16:9 laptop display. While the LED screen means a thinner lid and some battery life benefits, the edge-to-edge glass covering the entire display panel grabs stray light rays with ease, making the glossy screen hard to see in some lighting conditions.

By bringing back the FireWire port (now FireWire 800) and adding an SD card slot, Apple has addressed most of our most pressing issues with the previous 13-inch model. Pro photographers will point out that they usually use CF cards, but the rest of us won't have to always remember to pack a USB card reader or cable to directly connect our cameras.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is currently running our benchmark tests, but in anecdotal use, the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU performs as expected, and for most tasks, we've always been satisfied with the lower-end processors (currently 2.26GHz). A 3.08GHz version is available on the 15-inch MacBook Pros, but the 13-inch model tops out at 2.53GHz.

We found the same Nvidia GeForce 9400 graphics as last time--a GPU that redefined the meaning of integrated graphics. We're still testing this system, but the previous 13-inch MacBook gave us almost 60 frames per second in Quake IV (admittedly not the most hardware-intensive game) at 1,024x768 resolution. Only the 15- and 17-inch versions offer the second, discrete GeForce 9600 GPU.

The new battery in the 13-and 15-inch MacBook Pros is nonremovable, but Apple claims the system can last up to 7 hours while surfing the Web, and about half that for video playback. To assuage concerns about the sealed battery, the company says the new models are good for at least 1,000 full recharge cycles--which they estimate to be about five years of use. We'll update with battery life scores from our video file playback test after we run the battery down a couple of times.

Stay tuned for a full review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, with full benchmark and battery life scores, plus hands-on video.

> Need more laptop news? Follow me at twitter.com/danackerman.
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