Editors' note (February 24, 2011): Apple has updated its line of MacBook Pros with new second-generation Intel Core i-series processors, AMD and Intel HD 3000 graphics, and high-speed Thunderbolt I/O ports. See CNET's coverage of the Winter 2011 MacBook Pros for more information.
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 GPU.
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. The lowest-priced 15-inch model costs $1,799, which is $100 more than the previous low-end 15-inch MacBook Pro--but that system now includes discrete graphics instead of only integrated graphics. Overall, this round of updates follows the usual Apple trajectory: keeping the price steady but adding faster, more powerful components.
We continue to pine 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 a Core 2 Duo CPU, this revamped 15-inch MacBook Pro now feels like the line's powerhouse flagship model.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$2,199 / $1,699|
|Processor||2.66GHz Intel Core i7 M620|
|Memory||4GB, 1066MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 330M + Intel GMA 4500MHD|
|Operating System||OS X 10.6.2 Snow Leopard|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.4 x 9.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.5 / 6.2 pounds|
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 that 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 trackpad 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 difficult. We've noted in the past year or so that many PC makers have added some form of multitouch functionality to 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). Still, for a $2,000 laptop, the higher-resolution screen should be included by default.
|Apple MacBook Pro - Spring 2010||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Video||Mini DisplayPort||VGA-out, HDMI|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, FireWire 800, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
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 (although we're excited that the DisplayPort output now supports audio as well as video).
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 5,400rpm to a faster 7,200rpm model is a $50 upgrade, and 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 is locked into particular CPU/GPU combos.
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. 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. In the Mac version of Call of Duty 4 we got 34.5 frames per second at 1,440x900-pixel resolution, with 4XAA and other high-end graphics options turned on, and 59 frames per second at the same resolution, but medium in-game graphics settings.