Hands on with the new MacBook Pro 13- and 15-inch models

Apple's newest MacBook Pro has new CPUs, GPUs, and something called Thunderbolt. Read on for our hands-on impressions of the new hardware.

Update: You can find the full review of the 15-inch MacBook Pro here .

Apple's latest MacBook Pros are here, and we have both the 13- and 15-inch models at the CNET offices. The systems are currently running our benchmark tests, but here are our initial hands-on impressions after playing around with both for several hours.

MacBook Pro, 13-inch, 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7
Last year, we remarked that the popular 13-inch MacBook Pro, with its older Core 2 Duo processor, was due for an update compared with its faster 15-inch cousin. That time has come in a big way; the latest 13-inch MacBook Pros have skipped a generation, going straight to Intel's newest Core i-series CPUs.

Our $1,499 13-inch MacBook Pro is the high end of two available configurations, with a 2.7GHz second-generation dual-core Intel Core i7 CPU, a 500GB hard drive, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and those integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics. Oddly, screen resolution remains at 1,280x800 pixels, which is lower than the 13-inch MacBook Air. For quad-core CPUs and higher-end dedicated graphics, you'll need to turn to a 15- or 17-inch MacBook Pro.

The look out of the box is pretty much the same as last year's 13-inch Pro. Apple's laptops are still ahead of the curve in terms of having the largest multitouch clickpads we've seen. These new MacBook Pros also have new HD Webcams, which are compatible with the newly released and FaceTime Web chat app, which comes preinstalled. The system definitely feels zippier than the previous-generation 13-inch MacBook Pro, especially when it comes to video playback and encoding.

The integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 are a fixed feature: unlike the 15- and 17-inch models, no discrete graphics are available. These graphics are a significant step up from integrated graphics on the average 2010 Windows laptop, but keep in mind that 13-inch MacBook Pros previously had integrated Nvidia graphics, which were capable of mainstream gaming. As a result, the Intel HD graphics in the 2011 model seem like more of a lateral move. Bejeweled 3 played perfectly, as would be expected. Call of Duty 4 and Portal were playable, but not perfect. Civilization V, on the other hand, had an odd graphics glitch that removed all text from the game's menus. In our full review, we'll have actual benchmark results for comparison. In the meantime, you can watch our first hands-on video here .

MacBook Pro, 15-inch, 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7
Like the 13-inch models, the 15-inch MacBook Pro looks the same as the previous few models from the outside. If anything, the components get an even more radical makeover. The 15-inch also jumps to Intel's second-gen Core i CPUs, but only the higher-end quad-core versions. You literally cannot buy a dual-core MacBook bigger than 13 inches any more. Our step-up review unit had a 2.2GHz quad-core i7, with the same 4GB of RAM, but a huge 750GB hard drive (at only 5,400rpm, however).

The MacBook Pro line always felt fast and responsive, but with Intel's Sandy Bridge platform, the boot-up, shutdown, and wake-from-sleep speeds seemed closer to those achieved by the MacBook Air. The 1,440x900-pixel display is still a 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. The 13-inch MacBook Pro still doesn't have a glare-free or higher-res screen option (even though the current 13-inch MacBook Air has a stock 1,440x900-pixel resolution).

The biggest surprise is in the 15-inch MacBook's graphics processor. Instead of the Nvidia GeForce 330M graphics card previously found in these systems, the GPUs now come from Nvidia's longtime rival AMD. The base model 15-inch has an AMD Radeon HD 6490M, and our review unit had an even faster 6750M. We tried some basic Mac gaming, including Portal and Civilization V, and both worked great. When they're finished, our benchmark tests will provide some more exact comparisons between the AMD GPU and the previous Nvidia one.

FaceTime for Mac
Both of our new MacBook Pro units came with FaceTime software preloaded, but it's available for everyone else in the Mac App Store for 99 cents. In our anecdotal use, the 720p Webcam built into the new MacBooks worked well, and when conditions were right, jumping into full-screen mode was clear and stutter-free. The connection took a few seconds to settle down most of the time, and for the most stable connection, we used a hardwired Ethernet connection. Wi-Fi worked as well, but the image quality could move up and down during the course of a call.

Besides the full-screen mode, there's also an onscreen button for changing the video window from portrait mode to horizontal; this affects both the large image of your call partner, and the smaller, inset image of yourself. The person at either end of the call seems to be able to switch the orientation at will, and both parties will see the change. You can read more about FaceTime, and see it on video, here .

Thunderbolt
One significant design change in the new MacBooks is subtle: where the Mini-DisplayPort used to be, now an identically sized port is marked with a lightning-bolt icon. That's Thunderbolt , Intel's new high-speed powered port for data transfer and displays. Peripherals aren't available to take advantage of Thunderbolt yet--look for those sometime in the spring--but consider it an effective hybrid of Mini-DisplayPort and a super-high-speed data port, all in one, with an ability to daisy chain six devices at once.

We saw a demo of a prototype RAID product using Thunderbolt when we met with Apple, and the data transfer speeds were impressive--in fact, multiple uncompressed full-HD video files played back at once without a hiccup. The main issue right now is that we have very little idea of when exactly Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals will be available, 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.

 

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