Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011 review: Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding
  • Overall: 8.6
  • Design: 9.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 9.0
  • Battery life: 9.0
  • Service and support: 7.0

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 6 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Powerful updates to the CPU and GPU; excellent battery life; still the best touch pad and gesture controls of any laptop.

The Bad Upgrades can get expensive; Thunderbolt is an unproven technology with as-yet no compatible products; still no dedicated HDMI, Blu-ray, or other wished-for options.

The Bottom Line It's a hefty investment, but the combination of new high-end Intel processor options and AMD graphics makes the 15-inch MacBook Pro an all-around powerhouse, with the new Thunderbolt I/O port as an added bonus.

CNET Editors' Choice Feb '11

Editors' Top Picks

After a now-customary period of rumors, leaks, and anecdotal evidence, Apple's new generation of MacBook Pro laptops has arrived. And though these new models may look the same as the ones they replace, the changes under the hood are some of the most far-reaching in the history of the MacBook Pro brand.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro moves from Intel's original Core i-series CPUs to the latest second-generation chips, formerly code-named Sandy Bridge . Not only that, you can forget about seeing an Intel Core i5 CPU in your 15-inch (or 17-inch) MacBook Pro--these use high-end quad-core Core i7 chips now. Our step-up $2,199 review unit had a 2.2GHz quad-core i7, with 4GB of RAM and a huge 750GB hard drive (at only 5,400rpm, however).

The biggest surprise is the 15-inch MacBook Pro'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 15-inch model has an AMD Radeon HD 6490M, and our review unit had an even faster 6750M. With Intel's improved integrated graphics in the 13-inch models, that means that Nvidia has been completely ousted from the MacBook Pro line.

The iconic unibody aluminum construction remains, as does the large glass multitouch trackpad. Most of the ports and connections also remain the same, with one very notable new addition. Where the Mini DisplayPort connection used to be, now an identically sized port is marked with a lightning-bolt icon. That's for Thunderbolt , Intel's new high-speed powered-port technology for data transfer and displays. The Thunderbolt tech is envisioned as a sort of future unified successor to USB, FireWire, and DisplayPort, allowing peripherals to carry data and video at 10Gbps (in the video above, we may have had a slip of the tongue and said Mbps, but we meant Gbps).

For now, at least, that promise is hypothetical. We have very little idea of exactly when Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals will be available (although Apple says the first ones should show up in the spring of 2011), 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.

The lowest-cost 15-inch MacBook Pro is still $1,799, following the usual Apple trajectory of keeping the price steady but adding faster, more powerful components. While we're still waiting for oft-requested extras such as HDMI, Blu-ray, and 3G, the speed and power of these new quad-core Core i7 CPUs is extremely impressive, and leaves even other recent MacBook Pros in the dust.

Price as reviewed $2,199
Processor 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core
Memory 4GB, 1,066MHz DDR3
Hard drive 750GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel H67
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6750M / Intel HD 3000
Operating system OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard
Dimensions (WD) 14.4x9.8 inches
Height 0.95 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 17.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.5/6.2 pounds
Category Mainstream

By now, the shape and size of the MacBook Pro should be very familiar. Even more recent Apple designs, such as the second-generation MacBook Air, are basically just variations on it. The core building block remains the same: a solid block of aluminum, which is carved down into a shell with support struts. This unibody chassis has the benefit of being thin (for a 15-inch laptop), but strong and flex-free at the same time.

The touch philosophy that informs the iPad/iPhone line of devices can be said to have its roots in the large multitouch clickpad-style trackpad that's been a staple of the MacBook Pro for years. Of the multitouch gestures, our favorite is sweeping up or down with four fingers to show or hide all your active windows. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular touch pad is difficult. A few new gestures are apparently coming to the next version of OS X, but you won't see those until this summer.

Several Windows laptops have added larger clickpads over the past year or so, with similar multitouch gestures, but we can easily say that none can yet compete with the MacBook Pro's implementation.

The 1,440x900-pixel display is still a higher resolution than many 15-inch laptops (many of which are 1,366x768 pixels), and two screen upgrades are available: a 1,680x1,050-pixel-resolution version for an extra $100, or a 1,680x1,050-pixel-resolution "antiglare" version for $150. That's a lot more flexibility than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which still doesn't have a glare-free or higher-resolution screen option (even though the current 13-inch MacBook Air has a stock 1,440x900-pixel resolution).

Apple MacBook Pro, 15-inch Average for category [midsize]
Video Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt I/O VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
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, eSATA
Expansion None ExpressCard/54
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

The big story in the ports and connections category is the new port based on Intel's Thunderbolt high-speed I/O technology. If it looks a lot like the Mini DisplayPort connection on previous MacBook Pros, that's because it is the same, except for the tiny lightning bolt logo next to it. It still functions as a DisplayPort output, and, in fact, you'll be able to daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt devices or displays to that single port.

While there aren't any Thunderbolt peripherals available yet, we did get to see a demo of a prototype RAID product when we met with Apple, and the performance passing multiple uncompressed HD video streams was impressive. Thunderbolt is technically capable of 10Gbps bidirectional transfer, and if Intel and Apple have their way, it may replace many other kinds of ports and connections in the future.

Also notable on the new MacBook Pro is a 720p Webcam, which works with the new Mac version of FaceTime, the same video-conferencing application found on the iPhone 4 and iPod Touch. With a solid Wi-Fi signal, jumping into full-screen mode was clear and mostly stutter-free. There's also an onscreen button for changing the video window from portrait mode to horizontal, and video calls can be made between MacBooks and iPhones as well. You can read more about FaceTime for Mac in this hands-on . It's also worth noting that the SD card slot is now SDXC-compatible, meaning it will work with higher-capacity SD cards.

But while Thunderbolt and FaceTime are interesting extras, the real muscle behind the new MacBook Pro is the quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU and AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU. In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, it absolutely clobbers the competition, including last year's 15-inch MacBook Pro, which had a first-gen Intel Core i7, and other high-end midsize laptops, such as a Core i7 Alienware M15x.

Editors' Top Picks

 

ARTICLE DISCUSSION

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Feb. 24, 2011
  • Resolution 1440 x 900 ( WXGA+ )
  • Installed Size 4 GB
  • Weight 5.5 lbs
  • Hard Drive 750 GB HDD / 5400 rpm
  • Optical Drive DVD±RW (±R DL) - fixed
  • Graphics Processor AMD Radeon HD 6750M / Intel HD Graphics 3000 - 1 GB GDDR5 SDRAM
  • CPU Intel Core i7 2.2 GHz
About The Author

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he's written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men's Journal.