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Apple MacBook Pro 15 (Early 2011) review: Apple MacBook Pro 15 (Early 2011)

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-round powerhouse, with the new Thunderbolt I/O port as an added bonus.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
6 min read

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 AU$2499 review unit had a 2.2GHz quad-core i7, with 4GB of RAM and a huge 750GB hard drive (at only 5400rpm, however).


Apple MacBook Pro 15 (Early 2011)

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-round powerhouse, with the new Thunderbolt I/O port as an added bonus.

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 long-time 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 aluminium construction remains, as does the large glass multi-touch track pad. 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 Q2 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 AU$2099, following the usual Apple trajectory of 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.

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 aluminium, 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 multi-touch click pad-style trackpad that's been a staple of the MacBook Pro for years. Of the multi-touch gestures, our favourite 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 mid-year.

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

The 1440x900-pixel display is still a higher resolution than many 15-inch laptops (many of which are 1366x768 pixels), and two screen upgrades are available: a 1680x1050-pixel-resolution version for an extra AU$130, or a 1680x1050-pixel-resolution "anti-glare" version for AU$200. 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 1440x900-pixel resolution).

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 on-screen 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 article. 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 mid-size laptops, such as a Core i7 Alienware M15x.

To be sure, once more systems with these new Intel processors hit the streets, the competitive gap will close up significantly, but for now, this is the fastest laptop we've tested.

The switch from Nvidia to AMD in the graphics department came as a surprise. The AMD Radeon HD 6750M in our review unit is one of the better GPUs you can cram into a laptop right now. The less-expensive base-model 15-inch version of the MacBook Pro includes a still-good Radeon 6490M. As with the last generation of MacBook Pros, the discrete graphics automatically share the workload with the integrated Intel graphics as needed, saving battery life as you go.

Mac gaming, no matter what anyone says, is still a pretty fallow field, with many big games still available only for Windows systems. Fortunately, one of our most anticipated upcoming releases, Dragon Age II, will be Mac-compatible. Civilization V is another recent high-end game that will run on OS X. In our older Modern Warfare Mac gaming benchmark, we got 51.8 frames per second at a 1440x900-pixel resolution with high quality settings, which was significantly better than the 34.5fps we got with the Nvidia GeForce 330M in last year's 15-inch MacBook Pro (but when we turned the graphics settings down to medium, the two GPUs were much more similar).

For once, our battery life score actually exceeded a manufacturer's estimate. Apple says the system should run for seven hours on average, and in our video playback battery drain test, it ran for seven hours and five minutes. That's about an hour longer than last year's model, even with all the new, powerful hardware inside.

Service and support from Apple has always been a bit of a mixed bag. Apple includes a one-year parts-and-labour warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra AU$449 (AU$120 more than for the 13-inch MacBook Pro) and is pretty much a must-buy, considering the proprietary nature of Apple products and their sealed bodies. Support is also accessible through a well-stocked online knowledge base, video tutorials and email with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail store Genius Bars, which, in our personal experience, have always been fairly efficient, frustration-free encounters.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 2.2GHz 130Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 M620 2.66GHz 259Alienware M15x 427Acer Aspire 5742G-7200 663Dell XPS 15 669

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 2.2GHz 63Alienware M15x 81Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 M620 2.66GHz 90Dell XPS 15 105Acer Aspire 5742G-7200 106

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 2.2GHz 90Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 M620 2.66GHz 128Alienware M15x 129Acer Aspire 5742G-7200 138Dell XPS 15 140

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 2.2GHz 425Apple MacBook Pro 15 - Core i7 M620 2.66GHz 356Acer Aspire 5742G-7200 157Dell XPS 15 146Alienware M15x 106

(Longer bars indicate better performance)