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

Apple MacBook Pro (15 inch, Summer 2012)

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
7 min read

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).

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Summer 2012)

Apple MacBook Pro (15 inch)

The Good

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

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.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The actual application performance was modestly improved, mirroring what we saw in Windows laptops that switched to Ivy Bridge. If you get the $2,199 base model Retina MacBook Pro, you'll get the same chip, and essentially the same performance, with some minor improvement in some tests thanks to the Retina Pro's solid-state hard drive.

There's been a big switch in graphics from last year, however. A new Nvidia GeForce 650M replaces last year's AMD Radeon HD 6750M. In our admittedly dated Call of Duty 4 Mac gaming benchmark, we got 69.6 frames per second at the native 1,440x900-pixel resolution, which was much better than last year's 41.3 frames per second. Of course, we'd expect that from a newer, faster processor and video card. The GPU here is the 512MB version of the 650M. You can get a 1GB version, but only with the more expensive 15-inch Pro base model.

Juice box
Apple MacBook Pro 15.4-inch (Summer 2012) Average watts per hour
Off (60 percent) 0.28
Sleep (10 percent) 0.68
Idle (25 percent) 9.93
Load (5 percent) 54.77
Raw kWh 47.80
Annual energy cost $5.43

No big improvements to battery life were expected with the move to Intel's latest generation of CPUs, and this model's run time of 6 hours and 54 minutes in our video playback battery drain test is exactly the same result as last year's Pro (which was similar to the iteration before that). It's also about what you'll get from either the 15-inch Retina Pro or the 13-inch Pro. We've settled into a comfortable level of battery life with MacBook Pro laptops. It's impressive, but I'm looking forward to moving the goal posts again for the next generation.

Apple includes a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, but only 90 days of telephone support. Upgrading to a full three-year plan under AppleCare will cost an extra $349 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 e-mail with customer service, or through in-person visits to Apple's retail store Genius Bars, which, in personal experience, and as heard from others, is generally a frustration-free experience.

This revision to the 15-inch MacBook Pro looks minor from the outside, with nothing new to report designwise. But inside, sure, there are new Intel CPUs, but the Nvidia graphics and USB 3.0 may be a bigger deal. I've previously called this the most universally useful laptop you can buy. That title now has to be split with the Retina version, and honestly, if you buy this, there may always be a twinge of remorse that you didn't make the jump to the Retina model, budgets be damned.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Annual energy consumption cost
Apple MacBook Pro 15.4-inch (Summer 2012)

Benchmark testing by Julie Rivera.

Find out more about how we test laptops.

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Summer 2012)

Apple MacBook Pro (15 inch)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Battery 9Support 8