Editors' note: As of June 2009, the product reviewed here has been replaced by these updated models.
With the new 13-inch MacBook looking and feeling more like the more expensive 15-inch MacBook Pro line than ever, it's harder to tell the difference between the two laptops. Both models feature a "unibody" aluminum chassis, a buttonless (or more accurately, all-button) trackpad, and edge-to-edge glass on the LED backlit display. So aside from 2 inches of display space, what advantages does the MacBook Pro offer compared with the less expensive MacBook?
For starters, FireWire. The Pro is now the only current Apple laptop with a FireWire port--that connection was unceremoniously dumped from the less expensive 13-inch model with the new redesign. Conspiracy theorists may cry foul, but FireWire is becoming increasingly used only in professional applications (although it may not feel like that if you have a FireWire-only camera). One can't help feeling this move was made to push you toward the more expensive systems. But it's worth noting that the $999 basic MacBook model (essentially a less expensive version of the traditional MacBook Apple's been offering for the past couple of years) still has its FireWire port, so there is a low-cost option if FireWire is a must-have.
In addition to its FireWire 800 port, the MacBook Pro also boasts an ExpressCard slot, an expansion option not offered on the MacBook. Regrettably, neither model received a media card slot in the latest revision, an increasingly odd omission since nearly any Windows laptop has served up such an expansion port for years.
Internally, the big news is Apple ditching Intel for an Nvidia chipset with improved integrated graphics, which is then paired with a dedicated Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics card that can be turned off as needed to improve battery life or on to boost performance. Our $2,499 review unit had the 512MB version of the GPU; the $1,999 MacBook Pro features a 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M. The more consumer-focused MacBook relies on integrated GeForce 9400M graphics.
Compared with the models they each replace, both the MacBook and MacBook Pro operate on a faster frontside bus (from 800MHz to 1066MHz) and move from DDR2 memory to DDR3, but both new models turned in similar performance in CNET Labs. While the overall MacBook Pro package, while expensive, remains a go-to for media professionals, as well as Mac fans who want a bigger screen, given the fact that there is less to differentiate the MacBook Pro from the MacBook, we think it'll be harder for Apple to make the case that the extra money for the higher-end Pro model is worth it.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$2,499 / $1,999|
|Processor||2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo|
|Memory||4GB, 1,066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||320GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Nvidia GeForce 9400M|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 9400M (integrated) and 512MB Nvidia 9600M GT (dedicated)|
|Operating System||Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard|
|Dimensions (width x depth)||14.4x9.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.5/6 pounds|
While the aluminum chassis may look the same as previous model MacBook Pros, the construction is entirely different, following the MacBook Air model of starting with a solid block of aluminum, which is carved down, rather than a thin outer shell that has had support struts added to it. The result is a lighter and thinner yet stronger chassis that feels even more solid and substantial, although the previous chassis was very roadworthy on its own. Another notable new feature is a radically redesigned trackpad. This larger trackpad still uses the multitouch gestures found on the iPhone, MacBook Air, and previous MacBook Pro, but offers a much larger surface area than before--thanks to the elimination of a separate mouse button. In fact, the entire trackpad presses like a button, although simple tapping, as on a PC laptop, will also work once you turn that option on in the settings menu.
The all-button trackpad concept is a bit hard to get used to and feels a little awkward at first, compared with a traditional fixed-position trackpad. We were always accidentally pressing the button until we learned to use a lighter touch. On the other hand, there are some useful new gestures: you can hide all your applications by sweeping four fingers up on the pad, and you can also designate one corner of the trackpad as a "right-click" zone. Most useful perhaps is sweeping four fingers left or right, which brings up the application switcher. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular trackpad would be difficult.
The wide-spaced, flat-key keyboard is an Apple standard, and we're always a fan of backlit keys, which are standard on the Pro, and also now available on the higher-end 13-inch MacBook.
The 15.4-inch wide-screen display offers a 1,440x900-pixel native resolution, which is the same as on the old MacBook Pro and standard for upscale 15-inch screens (cheaper 15-inch models are often 1,280x800). The MacBook Pro's display was already using backlit LEDs, and now the 13-inch screens are as well, so that's one prior point of differentiation that no longer exists between the two lines. And both the 13- and 15-inch models now have the edge-to-edge glass we're seeing more often on multimedia systems. The colors are rich and deep, but the glass also grabs stray light rays with ease, making the glossy screen seem that much glossier--a problem if you prefer matte screen finishes.
|Apple MacBook Pro (Core 2 Duo 2.5GHz, Nvidia GeForce 9600M)||Average for category [thin-and-light]|
|Video||Mini DisplayPort||VGA-out, S-Video|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, FireWire||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
While only two USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, and a half-size ExpressCard/34 slot may not seem like much in the way of connections, it's more than you'll find in either the MacBook or MacBook Air. We'd still love to see an SD card slot, but at least there's an ExpressCard slot for added expandability. Apple is making a firm move to the DisplayPort camp by including a mini DisplayPort connection instead of mini-DVI or VGA, but a variety of external dongles (sold separately) will give you any video output you need.
With a 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, the MacBook Pro performed excellently on our standard benchmark tests, but only marginally faster than the previous version of the Pro we tested. MacBooks generally score better on our tests than similarly configured windows laptops (such as the Dell Studio 15), thanks in part to the efficiency of the Mac operating system, and the fact that applications such as Quicktime, iTunes, and Photoshop run more quickly on Mac OS X. The slightly faster processor and Nvidia GeForce 9600M GPU made only a minor difference compared with the new 13-inch MacBook.
Besides that dedicated GeForce 9600M, the new Pro also included the same integrated GeForce 9400 GPU found in the 13-inch MacBook. The settings menu has two power options: high performance or longer battery life. Choosing high performance turns the 9600 chip on, while choosing longer battery life turns it off, leaving you with just the integrated chip. The switch made virtually no difference in our standard benchmarks, although in our Quake IV test, we saw a notable improvement over the integrated graphics, going from 55.7 to 84.9 frames per second at a 1,024x768-pixel resolution.
One frustrating note about the power-saving option: switching between GPUs is simple, requiring only a button press on the power options menu, but the changeover isn't totally transparent. You have to log out and log back in, requiring you to close all your applications and save your data in the process.