Apple MacBook Pro (15 inch) review: Apple MacBook Pro (15 inch, Summer 2012)

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MSRP: $1,799.00

The Good A faster processor, improved graphics, and USB 3.0 highlight a series of internal improvements in the new 15-inch MacBook Pro.

The Bad The unchanged design is starting to feel a little dated. Any real structural changes, HDMI, higher-res displays, were reserved for the Retina display version of the MacBook Pro.

The Bottom Line Another year of incremental improvements for the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro help it maintain its lead as a useful, powerful, attractive midsize laptop, but the competition is closer than ever to catching up.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9
  • Support 8

Not very long ago, to be the 15-inch MacBook was to be the life of the laptop party. Big and powerful, yet still slim and attractive, the college kids wanted MacBook Airs, while the designers and artists wanted the 15-inch MacBook Pro (or, in a few cases, the bigger 17-inch version).

That logic has shifted with the release of Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Despite the similar names, these are two very different beasts.

One is nearly ultrabook-thin, with solid-state storage, an HDMI port, dual Thunderbolt ports, no optical drive, and a unique 2,880x1,800-pixel display. And, it starts at $2,199. The other is the same 15-inch MacBook Pro we've known and loved for a couple of years, but upgraded to Intel's third-generation Core i7 processors (both models have Nvidia graphics and USB 3.0 ports). That starts at $1,799 (as reviewed here), but is easily upgraded to $2,199 or more.

Except for the optical drive, higher storage capacities, and lower staring price, it's hard to think of a way in which the full-size MacBook Pro is superior to the new, thinner Retina Display version. That model is clearly the new flagship MacBook, while this 15-inch Pro exists to serve those who are tied to what Apple may consider legacy features -- DVD drives, Ethernet cables, and even FireWire.

The math should be simple. If you can afford the Retina version, and can live with its connectivity and storage limitations, go for that. If not, the standard 15-inch MacBook Pro is still a great laptop, with excellent build quality, amazing battery life, and powerful performance. But, despite a long-term fondness for this particular product, the overall design, unchanged for the past few cycles, is starting to feel a bi dated, especially the default 1,440x900-pixel screen resolution.

Price as reviewed $1,799
Processor 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM
Memory 4GB, 1600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 650M / Intel HD 4000
Operating system OS X Lion 10.7.4
Dimensions (WD) 14.4 x 9.8 inches
Height 0.95 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.7/6.4 pounds
Category Midsize

While its internal components have been updated to include the latest hardware from Intel and Nvidia, the 2012 version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro looks and feels the same as previous iterations. It's still one of the best overall laptop designs around, and still one of the thinnest full-power 15-inch models, but thanks in part to competition from ultrabooks (an Intel marketing program to design and promote thinner laptops across several screen sizes), Windows laptops are catching up quickly.

The basic building block should be familiar by now: a solid chunk of aluminum, which is carved down into a shell with support struts. This unibody chassis has the benefit of being thin, but strong and flex-free at the same time.

The keyboard and trackpad are essentially the same as those seen on the last several generations of MacBook Pros. Holding the Retina Pro side by side with this model, the only discernible differences are slightly shallower keys in the thinner Retina model, and a separate power button in the upper-right corner of the interior panel (on the Retina Pro, the optical drive eject button has been replaced by a power button). It's still one of the best laptop keyboards, perhaps a close second to Lenovo for overall ease of use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The large glass trackpad, with its multifinger gestures, remains the industry leader. Many Windows laptops have added larger clickpads over the past year or so, with somewhat similar multitouch gestures, but none can yet compete with the MacBook's gesture implementation. (But, here's a quick Mac touchpad tip. The tap-to-drag functionality is turned off by default. To turn it back on, look in the Universal Access settings menu, not the trackpad settings menu.)

The 1,440x900-pixel display is one of the few weak spots in this system. It's similar to the 1,366x768-pixel display you'll find on less expensive midsize Windows laptops, but anything even close to this price range should start off with a much higher resolution. A 1,680x1,050-pixel display is a $100 option, and money well spent (plus, there's also an antiglare version of that higher-res screen). Of course, even that resolution can't compete with either the 1,920x1,080 found on many premium Windows laptops, or the 2,880x1,800-pixel resolution on the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Interestingly, both this and the Retina version are still 16:10 aspect ratio displays -- some of the only laptops to keep that standard.

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, June 2012) Average for category [midsize]
Video DisplayPort/Thunderbolt VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader 2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

Apple is clearly sticking with Thunderbolt, even upping the number of ports to two in the Retina Pro. Here, you still just get the one, which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort output. The only big change in connectivity options is the jump to USB 3.0 ports. Unlike Windows laptops, which label those ports in blue, to differentiate from USB 2.0, Apple says they're all USB 3.0 now, across the MacBook lineup, so there's no need to label them as such. One upgrade I miss here is the new HDMI port found on the Retina Pro. I'm also not a fan of the new power connector, dubbed MagSafe 2, on this and the other Pros. Having one universal connector any MacBook could use was very useful for multiple-MacBook families.

Like nearly every new laptop right now, the 2012 version of the MacBook Pro includes Intel's latest Core i-series CPUs, previously known by the code name Ivy Bridge. In this case, it's a quad-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM, with a 2.6GHz version available in the $2,199 upgrade model.

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