The MacBook Pro -- for so long the final word in high-end multimedia laptops -- is back. It now sports a new aluminium chassis and twin graphics cards, and promises significantly better performance than its predecessors. Prices for the entry-level machine start at £1,399, while the slightly faster model retails for £1,749.
Our first impression of the MacBook Pro, apart from noticing how pretty it is, was that it seems more solid than the vast majority of laptops -- its predecessor included. That's because it uses a new 'unibody' enclosure forged from a single piece of aluminium. This pretty much eliminates the flexing you get in laptops built from multiple panels and gives the Pro an almost indestructible feel.
Despite the use of metal, the MacBook Pro is relatively thin and light. Both new 15.4-inch models tip the scales at just 2.49 kilos and measure 364mm by 249mm by 25mm. That's just 450g heavier than the 13.3-inch standard MacBook.
As ever, all the MacBook Pro's ports are positioned on the left side in a logical arrangement. Going from left to right, you'll find a Magsafe power AC connector, which allows easier and safer connection of the power source. Next to that there's a Gigabit Ethernet port, FireWire 800, two USB ports, a MiniDisplayPort connector, audio in and out, ExpressCard/34 and a side-mounted battery indicator light.
It all sounds pretty straightforward in principle, but it isn't. Our main gripe is that the Mini DisplayPort is such an unusual -- and largely unsupported -- connector. We can't think of a many monitors that directly support it, even those made by Apple. Those who wish to connect the laptop to an external display of up to 24 inches in size will need to spend an extra £20 in the Apple store on a Mini DisplayPort to DVI adaptor. Those who want to go larger will need to buy an adaptor costing £69.
While we're complaining, we should also mention that the MacBook Pro also lacks many of the features we take for granted on ordinary desktop replacement laptops. There's no memory card reader, it has fewer USB ports than a netbook, there's no dedicated numerical keypad, no hardware wireless switch to turn the Wi-Fi off in a hurry, no status LEDs and no emergency power-fail disc eject feature.
On the surface, it's really rather basic, but there are also touches you won't get on a Windows-based laptop The keyboard is backlit, which makes it easy to use in the dark; the enormous mouse trackpad has a silky, smooth feel to it and supports gesture inputs, which can make it easier to navigate. Our only gripe is that it has no buttons -- instead, the entire trackpad can be depressed and used as a selector. You'll almost certainly grow to hate it when you're dragging and dropping files and find your finger has reached the edge of the trackpad, but the cursor is still some way from where you want it to be. Lifting your finger means releasing the button and cancelling the drag and drop operating.
There are three versions of the MacBook Pro on offer -- a 17-inch model that uses the old chassis and two new aluminium 'unibody' versions. The entry-level 15.4-inch version uses a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 2GB of RAM and has a 250GB hard drive -- all for a rather pricey £1,399. The high-end 15.4-inch model gets a slightly faster 2.54GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, although you'll have to pay a whopping £1,749 for the privilege.
The graphics adaptors in the two new MacBooks bring the most surprises. Instead of just a single card, they now come with two. The first is an Nvidia GeForce 9400M card that's integrated on the MacBook Pro's Nvidia chipset. That's paired with a more potent Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT card, which on the entry-level machine has 256MB of dedicated memory, and on the top-end model, 512MB of dedicated memory.
Visit the settings menu in the operating system and you'll see two power options: high performance or longer battery life. Selecting high performance switches the 9600M GT card on, while selecting longer battery life turns it off. Annoyingly, switching between modes requires you to log out and log back in again, which involves closing applications and saving any open files.
Like the standard MacBooks, the new Pros can be customised at the time of purchase. Using the entry-level MacBook as an example, you can add up to 4GB of RAM (£100), a 7,200RPM 320GB drive (£105), or a 128GB solid state drive (£420). Software includes Time Machine for creating backups, Mail, iChat, the Safari browser, Photo Booth, Front Row, Boot Camp (for installing Windows XP in addition to OS X), and the iLife '08 suite.
The MacBook Pro has always been a strong performer, and a long-time favourite of video editing professionals. If you fit that bracket, you'll be pleased to learn the new models are, on the whole, just as quick as those that came before it.
The 2.53GHz MacBook Pro completed our multimedia multitasking test in 402 seconds. That's around 67 seconds quicker than the 15.4-inch MacBook Pro from the previous generation, and 29 seconds quicker than the current generation MacBook we reviewed recently.
Graphics performance was solid, too. With the single GeForce 9400M card enabled, it ran Quake IV at 55.7 frames per second. With the two running in tandem, this jumped to 84.9 frames per second. Don't get too excited, though: we hardly noticed any difference in desktop graphics applications when running the two cards simultaneously.
With the two cards enabled, the MacBook Pro lasted 3 hours and 16 minutes in our video playback test, which isn't bad for a laptop of this size. With just the integrated 9400M enabled, it lasted a more impressive 4 hours and 5 minutes. That's not quite the 5 hours claimed by Apple, but it's impressive nonetheless.
The MacBook Pro is an excellent laptop, but we find it difficult to recommend. It's great in its own right, but it offers relatively little in comparison to the standard MacBook, except perhaps in gaming terms. If you can afford it and can live with its numerous foibles, it'll be fine, but given the price, our money's with its little brother.
Edited by Marian Smith