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

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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.

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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.

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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)
149
Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015)
212

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Razer Blade (14-inch 2015)
175
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)
190
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014)
194
Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015)
207
Apple 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)
1,080
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)
574
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2014)
561
Dell XPS 15 (4K, 2015)
351
Razer 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)
52.2
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)
34.2
Apple 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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