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Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015) review: Old-school MacBook Pro is good for the dongle averse

This MacBook looks like last year's, but it has a new trackpad, faster flash memory and better GPU.

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Dan Ackerman
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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 semi-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

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Editors' note (June 27, 2017): At this year's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple gave its laptop line a modest makeover. The $1,299 12-inch MacBook and $999 13-inch MacBook Air have been updated with faster, more powerful Intel processors. The new MacBook Pros -- the $1,299 13-inch, $1,799 13-inch with Touch Bar, and $2,399 15-inch with Touch Bar -- have those new chips, too, along with upgraded graphics hardware. 

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8.3

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)

The Good

The 15-inch MacBook Pro has a brilliant Retina Display, powerful processor and new graphics card options, plus faster flash storage and a new Force Touch trackpad.

The Bad

It offers only the most minimal upgrades over last year's version, despite a very high starting price. The new AMD graphics don't do much for gamers.

The Bottom Line

Current 15-inch MacBook Pro owners won't feel the need to upgrade, but the handful of tweaks included here keep this expensive system at the top of the list for powerful midsize laptops.

Otherwise, aside from a RAM bump here and a slight price drop there, the 2017 batch is very similar to the one from 2016, with the same enclosures, ports, trackpads and screens. But be forewarned: Buying a new MacBook Pro may require you to invest in a variety of adapters for your legacy devices. Also note that the 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 has been discontinued, though the $1,999 15-inch model from that year, reviewed in full below, remains available for those who want all the ports and fewer dongles.

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Watch this: Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade
Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade
1:49

Apple's MacBook Air and Pro lines have remained steadfastly rock-solid in their look and feel for several generations. Each year brings a handful of tweaks and updates, typically only to internal components, from better hard drives to faster Wi-Fi to new processors. It's only because both the Air and Pro designs were so far ahead of the curve when first introduced that these laptops still look so up-to-date.

For 2015, nearly every MacBook has received an update of a some kind, although these have largely been of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. Both the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro have moved up to Intel's fifth-generation Core i-series processors, also known by the codename Broadwell, while the 13-inch Pro also added Apple's new Force Touch trackpad.

That clickless touchpad, which uses four sensors and some haptic feedback rather than a traditional hinge, was one of the highlights of the new 12-inch MacBook , a low-power, 2-pound ultraportable that was Apple's sole new laptop design in years.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Compared to all the changes listed above, and the entirely new 12-inch MacBook, the 15-inch MacBook Pro feels like it's been slighted in the update department. The 15-inch Pro gets the Force Touch trackpad, and a faster solid-state hard drive, plus updated graphics in the form of an AMD Radeon R9 M370X GPU. But arguably the most important component upgrade is missing, as the Core i7 CPU here is the same as last year's model (the fifth-gen Core i7 chips from Intel are only starting to trickle out now).

Despite the lack of major changes, the 15-inch MacBook Pro remains Apple's biggest and most powerful laptop, and a great all day, everyday productivity machine, especially if you need the extra GPU power for photo or video work, or the generous screen real estate the 15-inch Retina panel provides.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Prices stay the same, at $1,999 for the base model (£1,599, AU$2,799) and $2,499 (£1,999, AU$3,499) for our upgraded test unit, with a bigger 512GB hard drive and the AMD graphics. That makes this a major investment, especially compared with the 13-inch Pro, which can be had for as little as $1,299 (£999, AU$1,799). Unless you specifically need the size, power or features of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, that 13-inch model is our current pick for the most universally useful all-around MacBook.

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)

Price as reviewed $2,499
Display size/resolution 15.4-inch 2,880 x 1,800 Retina screen
PC CPU 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-4870HQ
PC Memory 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz
Graphics AMD Radeon R9 M370X
Storage 512GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Apple OS X Yosemite 10.10.3

Design and features

With only some minor internal changes, this MacBook Pro looks identical to the one we reviewed in mid-2014 , and in fact the product design has only slightly changed since 2012.

Aside from being a year older, most of our impressions about the design of the last several iterations of this laptop remain the same.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro is slim, but with a wide desktop footprint. Especially compared with newer, lighter laptops, it feels denser than it looks at first glance, but with that comes a certain sense of indestructibility, thanks to the flex-free aluminum construction. It's not a carry-all-day-every-day package, although one could tote it around to and from work, or on the occasional day trip without much trouble.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The keyboard remains essentially the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook. Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, with the possible exception of Lenovo, a company that invests heavily in keyboard design and development.

New for this year, however, is Apple's Force Touch trackpad. Already available in the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Force Touch trackpad eliminates the top hinge that previously required you to physically depress the glass top of the pad, usually from somewhere on the lower half to register properly. Instead, the new pad places four sensors under the pad, one under each corner. This replaces a design some describe as a "diving board" with one that's a simple, flat surface.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The four sensors make it so you can "click" anywhere on the pad's surface with identical results, and the Force Click effect, which combines the sensors with haptic (or "taptic") feedback, allows you to have two levels of perceived clicking within an app or task. That deep click feels to the finger and brain like the trackpad has a stepped physical mechanism, but in fact, the movement you feel is a small tactile haptic tap, which, even when fully explained, still feels like you're depressing the trackpad two levels.

On one hand, it's a brilliant bit of engineering that will help future laptops be thinner, with fewer moving parts. On the other hand, it's so seamlessly done, you might never notice the difference.

The 15-inch Retina Display was forward-looking when first introduced, but now better-than-HD screen resolutions are common in laptops across many sizes and prices. Still, it remains a main selling point here, and it looks as clear, bright and sharp as any high-end laptop. The Retina screen has a 2,880x1,800-pixel resolution, and is best demonstrated when displaying text or professional high-res photography. In 2015, every Apple laptop, save for the two Air models and the lone "classic" MacBook Pro that is surprisingly still available, has a better-than-1080p display.

Ports and connections

Video HDMI, mini-DisplayPort (x2)
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, 2 Thunderbolt 2, SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth

Connections, performance and battery

This is about as far removed from the single USB-C port on the new 12-inch MacBook as one can get. Here, you get two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, which also double as Mini DisplayPort outputs, an SD card slot, along with Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. You won't find an optical drive or Ethernet jack, but both of those are increasingly rare, even in 15-inch laptops.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is a premium laptop, and you can rightly expect premium performance scores from it. That said, this model does not upgrade its CPU from the previous fourth-generation Intel Core i-series to the current fifth-generation chips (as seen in the 13-inch Pro and Air), so the year-over-year gain is minimal. It's also difficult to directly compare the the 2014 and 2015 configurations we tested, as our 2014 15-inch MacBook Pro had only Intel's integrated Iris graphics, while our 2015 configuration has a discrete graphics card from AMD, the Radeon R9 M370X.

Compared with premium midsize Windows laptops running Core i7 processors, both the 2014 and 2015 15-inch MacBook Pros were closely matched with the Razer Blade , and a bit faster than a new Dell XPS 15 with Nvidia graphics and a 4K display. And all of the above are significantly faster than the fifth-generation Core i5 CPU in the 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The AMD graphics card included in the more expensive MacBook Pro configuration is helpful for high-end photo and video editing. When it comes to gaming, it's perhaps less so. Gaming on OS X is still anemic at best, with even high-end games such as BioShock: Infinite and Metro: Last Light only available for Macs in crippled forms that lack some high-end resolution and detail settings. Even then, midrange GPUs from Nvidia, such as the GeForce 750M in the Dell XPS 15 we tested are better tuned for mainstream gaming, at least in the case of this head-to-head comparison, using the cross-platform game Tomb Raider.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple claims tweaks to the operating system and battery chemistry should give you about an hour of extra battery life in this 2015 MacBook Pro, versus a comparable 2014 model. Again, perhaps because this year's test unit has to support a separate graphics card while the one we tested last year did not, the battery life we saw in the 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro versus the 2014 model was nearly identical. This system ran for 9:34 in our video playback battery test, about 15 minutes longer than the 2014 configuration we tested.

Conclusion

The 15-inch MacBook Pro is a powerful, but still portable, laptop that feels more at home on a desk (perhaps tethered to external hard drives and docking stations) than in your travel bag. But it's also slim and light enough to make an occasional trip without being a burden, which is why Apple feels free to charge such a premium for it above both other high-end 15-inch laptops and the rest of the MacBook line.

It's the biggest and most powerful laptop Apple makes, and unless you're moving up to a 5K iMac or the Mac Pro desktop, it's going to be on the wish lists of photographers, designers, video makers and others.

But for everyone else, there may be a better choice in the MacBook lineup. The 13-inch Pro is the current champ for combining price, performance and features, while the 13-inch Air is, while a bit dated in its design, still a tremendously useful laptop available at a very accessible price.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015) 149Razer Blade (14-inch 2015) 166Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 171Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015) 212Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch 2015) 370
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Razer Blade (14-inch 2015) 175Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015) 190Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 194Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015) 207Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch 2015) 268
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch 2015) 1,080Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015) 574Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) 561Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015) 351Razer Blade (14-inch 2015) 276
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

Tomb Raider gaming test (1,920x1,080)

Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015) 52.2Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015) 34.2Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch 2015) 11.4
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (FPS)

System configurations

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.3 Yosemite; 2.5 Intel Core i7-4870HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M370X; 512GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014) Apple OSX 10.9.4 Mavericks; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-4770HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MBB Intel Iris Pro Graphics; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015) Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-4712HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 750M; 512GB SSD
Razer Blade (14-inch 2015) Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7 4720HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970M; 256GD SSD
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8.3

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Battery 9