Hands on with the new 15-inch MacBook Pro

Our review sample is the highest-end 15-inch base configuration, with the 2.66GHz Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT330M graphics. At $2,199, it is expensive, but it's still $100 cheaper than the previous high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration.

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Updates to Apple's MacBook line of laptops are always closely watched, and they generally fall into two categories: there are major evolutions, such as the switch to aluminum unibody construction in 2008, and then there are minor spec upgrades, typically small bumps to processor speed and hard drive size.

The newest version of the MacBook Pro line surprisingly falls outside of those two extremes. The iconic unibody aluminum construction remains, as does its large glass multitouch trackpad (in fact, from the outside, the new MacBook Pro looks identical to its predecessor). But the revamped internal components are much more than a simple spec upgrade.

The 15- and 17-inch Pro models have moved to Intel's newer line of Core-i CPUs, from the older Core 2 Duo models (the 13-inch Pro, unfortunately, still uses a Core 2 Duo CPU). Both mainstream Core i5 and high-end Core i7 versions are available. This requires a new chipset architecture (courtesy of Intel) and a switch from the integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400 to Intel's built-in integrated graphics for the systems' default graphics.

Our review sample is the highest-end 15-inch base configuration, with a 2.66GHz Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT330M discrete graphics. At $2,199, it's definitely expensive, but it's still $100 cheaper than the previous high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration.

We continue to hope for oft-requested extras such as HDMI, Blu-ray, and 3G, but at the same time, the Core i7 CPU is extremely impressive, both on paper and in action. With the 13-inch model still stuck with older Core 2 Duo CPUs, this revamped 15-inch MacBook Pro now feels like the line's powerhouse flagship model.

As with the previous MacBook Pro models, the unibody chassis starts with a solid block of aluminum, which is carved down, rather than a thin outer shell which has had support struts added to it. The result is a thin yet strong chassis that feels very solid and substantial. Even the $999 white polycarbonate MacBook now uses a similar body type.

We remain fond of the large touch pad that uses multitouch gestures for much of its functionality. In fact, touch controls are almost as vital to the MacBook as they are to the iPhone or iPad (plugging in a mouse is also an option, but you miss out on a lot of time-saving gesture controls that way).

Of the multitouch gestures, our favorite is sweeping moves with four fingers--left or right brings up the application switcher, and up hides all your active windows. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular touch pad is going to be difficult. We've noted in the past year or so, that many PC makers have added some form of multitouch functionality to many of their touch pads, but we have yet to find any that work as well as Apple's.

This year's version also includes a small behavioral tweak, which Apple calls "inertial scrolling." Like on the iPhone and iPad, flicking two fingers up or down to scroll now feels like there's more mass behind the effort, and the page will continue to move slightly after you've lifted up your fingers. The recent Magic Mouse peripheral from Apple included a similar effect.

The 15.4-inch wide-screen display offers a 1,440x900-pixel native resolution, which is what we're used to from previous 15-inch MacBook Pro models. But with the growth of online HD video, and ever-higher resolutions for digital still and video cameras, some users will want more pixels to play with. A 1,680x1,050-pixel display option is now available, which costs an extra $100 (or $150 for a version that also includes an antiglare coating). Previously, only the 17-inch MacBook Pro offered any kind of antiglare or matte options.

Apple embraced the simple joys of the SD card slot in last year's MacBook Pro update, but this time around there are no comparable new features. You do, however, have several ways to push the 15-inch MacBook Pro well past its $1,799-$2,199 default configurations. Bumping the 500GB hard drive from 5400rpm to a faster 7200rpm model is a $50 upgrade, while SSD drives are available from 128GB ($200) to 512GB (a whopping $1,300). RAM can be doubled to 8GB for $400, but each of the three base 15-inch models are locked into their particular CPU/GPU combos.

CNET\Sarah Tew

The 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros have "automatic graphics switching," an Apple-engineered variation on Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology. The concept is simple: the system uses its integrated Intel graphics by default, and when an app launches that requires the discrete Nvidia GeForce 330M GPU, it seamlessly switches over to that, then turns it off when it is no longer required.

Previously, switching between the (integrated) GeForce 9400 and the (discrete) GeForce 9600 found in last year's MacBook Pros required you to manually flip a software switch on the power options menu, and then log out and log back in.

The GeForce 330M (available in 256MB and 512MB versions) is not a hard-core gaming powerhouse, but it should be capable of playing just about any current PC game--although you may have to dial down the detail levels or resolution for optimal frame rates (we're currently conducting gaming tests on the system). It's the seamless switching between GPUs that interests us more, as it lets you take advantage of the discrete graphics for HD video and gaming, but won't run down the battery when not in use.

You're likely to get a much bigger performance boost from the 2.66 Intel Core i7 CPU (or even the lower-end 2.4GHz Core i5 version). We've generally found these new Intel chips, which started turning up in systems around January, to be faster and provide better battery life than their older Core 2 Duo counterparts. Our Core i7 MacBook Pro is currently running the CNET Labs' benchmark tests, but in anecdotal use the system certainly felt very fast and responsive--although you'd probably need a heavy workload to really feel the difference between last year's version and this one.

The batteries in the entire 13-to-17-inch MacBook laptop lineup are currently non-removable, but Apple claims the new Intel architecture (and some modest changes to the battery itself) will lead to improved battery life. We've always been impressed with Apple's performance in this area, and are currently testing the battery in this 15-inch MacBook Pro. The last 15-inch MacBook Pro we tested ran for 5 hours and 5 minutes on our video playback battery drain test.

Apple has an above-average reputation for support, thanks in part to its collection of retail stores (as long as you live in a market served by one). MacBooks continue to include a standard, one-year, parts-and-labor warranty, but come with only 90 days of toll-free telephone support, which always strikes us as odd. This, along with the proprietary nature of Apple's products, makes purchasing an extended Apple Care warranty almost a necessity, at $349 for three total years of coverage.

Stay tuned for updates and a full rated review as we complete our benchmarking and battery tests on the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

 

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