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Apple MacBook Pro Fall 2011 review: Apple MacBook Pro Fall 2011

Apple MacBook Pro Fall 2011

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

Editors' note: On October 24, 2011, Apple updated the MacBook Pro line with new CPUs, larger hard drives, and new graphics options. The upgrades were very minor, and the bulk of our review of the 15-inch MacBook Pro from earlier in 2011 still stands. We've added upgrade and contextual notes below, as well as new benchmark test results.


Apple MacBook Pro Fall 2011

The Good

Incremental updates to the CPU help keep the <b>MacBook Pro</b> line a step above the now-mainstream MacBook Air. The trackpad and gesture controls are still the best of any current laptop.

The Bad

Unless you need an optical drive, the MacBook Air may be a better fit for most, and the Pro still lacks things we'd like to see, such as HDMI, Blu-ray, and USB 3.0.

The Bottom Line

A MacBook Pro is a significant investment, especially when adding in optional upgrades. Cost aside, there's not a better choice (there are, however, some close ties) for an all-around powerhouse that will work in the home, the office, and in between.

The latest round of updates to Apple's popular MacBook Pro line were modest enough that they simply appeared on the Apple Web site with little fanfare beyond a basic press release. Rather than a generational jump as we saw in February 2011 (when the Pro moved from Intel's original Core i-series CPUs to the latest second-generation chips, formerly code-named Sandy Bridge), this is perhaps better described as minor housekeeping.

In the 15-inch MacBook Pro, we previously reviewed the more high-end of two starting configurations. That $2,199 unit had a 2.2GHz quad-core i7, whereas the $1,799 model had a 2.0GHz CPU. The biggest change is that the $1,799 model now has that 2.2GHz quad-core i7, and the $2,199 model moves up to an even faster 2.4GHz CPU. The GPU options are now a 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750M in the lower-priced version and a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6770M in the more expensive one. Default storage remains the same for the 15-inch models, but the 13- and 17-inch MacBook Pros have their own set of CPU, GPU, and HDD updates, the details of which are here.

Note that this time around we tested the new $1,799 15-inch MacBook Pro, whereas our previous 15-inch MacBook Pro review sample was the $2,199 version, so we're effectively looking at the same CPU in both cases.

The iconic unibody aluminum construction remains the same, as does the large glass multitouch trackpad. Thunderbolt, Intel's new high-speed powered port for data transfer and displays, remains an interesting extra, but its promise is still hypothetical, with few available Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals.

This 15-inch MacBook Pro, at $1,799, follows the usual Apple trajectory of keeping the price steady but adding faster, more powerful components. The latest round of upgrades, while not revolutionary, helps give the Pro line a boost at a time when the less-expensive MacBook Air has become such an excellent mainstream laptop that it could easily substitute for the Pro for many potential MacBook buyers who don't need an internal optical drive or bigger screen.

Price as reviewed $1,799
Processor 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 quad-core
Memory 4GB, 1,066MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel H67
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6750M / Intel HD 3000
Operating system OS X 10.7 Lion
Dimensions (WD) 14.4x9.8 inches
Height 0.95 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.5 pounds / 6.2 pounds
Category Midsize

By now, the shape and size of the MacBook Pro should be very familiar. Even more recent designs, such as the second-generation MacBook Air, are variations on it. The basic building block remains the same: a solid chunk of aluminum, which is carved down into a shell with support struts. This unibody chassis has the benefit of being thin (for a 15-inch laptop), but strong and flex-free at the same time.

The touch philosophy that informs the iPad/iPhone line of devices can be said to have its roots in the large multitouch clickpad-style trackpad that's been a staple of the MacBook Pro for years. The multitouch gestures, slightly revamped recently for OS X Lion, are incredibly useful. Once you get used to them, going back to a regular touch pad is difficult. Several Windows laptops have added larger clickpads over the past year or so, with somewhat similar multitouch gestures, but we can easily say that none can yet compete with the MacBook's implementation.

The 1,440x900-pixel display is still higher-resolution than many 15-inch laptops (which are 1,366x768 pixels), and two screen upgrades are available: a 1,680x1,050-pixel version for an extra $100, or a 1,680x1,050-pixel "antiglare" version for $150. Of the current MacBook lineup, only the 11-inch Air has a 16:9 display; Apple is otherwise the only major computer maker still widely using 16:10 displays.

Apple MacBook Pro (Fall 2011, 15-inch) 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 2.0, SD card reader 4 USB 2.0, 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

The big difference between MacBooks and other laptops in the ports and connections category is the recent port based on Intel's Thunderbolt high-speed I/O technology. If it looks a lot like the Mini DisplayPort connection on older MacBooks, that's because it is the same, except for the tiny lightning bolt logo next to it. It still functions as a DisplayPort output, and in fact, you're able to daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt devices or displays to that single port.

Thunderbolt is technically capable of 10Gbps bidirectional transfer, and if Intel and Apple have their way, it may replace many other kinds of ports and connections in the future, but there are only a handful of peripherals that work with it currently.

Also notable on the 2011 MacBook Pro (including the version we tested earlier this year) is a 720p Webcam, which works with the new Mac version of FaceTime, the same video-conferencing app found on the iPhone and iPod Touch. With a solid Wi-Fi signal, jumping into full-screen mode was clear and mostly stutter-free. There's also an onscreen button for changing the video window from portrait mode to horizontal, and video calls can be made between MacBooks and iPhones as well. You can read more about FaceTime for Mac here.

But while Thunderbolt and FaceTime are interesting extras, the real muscle behind the new MacBook Pro is the quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU and AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU. These parts were previously found on the higher-end 15-inch Pro, and now are the default loadout for the less-expensive base model. In our CNET Labs benchmark tests, the new MacBook Pro performed impressively, and was almost exactly matched with the Winter 2011 MacBook Pro we tested. Keep in mind that we're comparing the April 2011 high-end configuration with the October 2011 entry-level configuration.

The AMD Radeon HD 6750M in our review unit is a solid GPU, and a nice jump over the Radeon 6490M previously offered with the $1,799 15-inch Pro. As with the previous few generations of MacBook Pros, the discrete graphics swap out with the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics as needed, saving battery life as you go.

Mac gaming, no matter what anyone says, is still a pretty fallow field, with many big games still only available for Windows systems. In our older Modern Warfare Mac gaming benchmark, we got 41.3 frames per second at 1,440x900 pixels, which was not quite as good as the 51.8 frames per second we got with the high-end $2,199 version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro earlier this year, which also had a 6750M card.

MacBooks are also known for offering long battery life, even in larger systems such as the 15-inch Pro. In this case, the system ran for 6 hours and 54 minutes in our video playback battery drain test, essentially the same result as the previous version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro we tested, which ran for 7 hours and 5 minutes. In comparison, Dell's XPS 15z, clearly aimed at the same audience, ran for only 3 hours and 30 minutes in the same test.

Service and support from Apple has always been a mixed bag. 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 our experience, have always been fairly frustration-free encounters.

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

Adobe Photoshop CS3 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 power consumption cost
Dell XPS 15z
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Fall 2011)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Fall 2011)
OS X 10.7.2 Lion; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750M / 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 500GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2011)
OS X 10.7 Lion; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Winter 2011)
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; Intel Core i7 2.2GHz; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6750M / 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Alienware M14x
Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-2820M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3GB Nvidia GeForce GT 555M + 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 3000; 720GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Dell XPS 15z
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 525M / 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm


Apple MacBook Pro Fall 2011

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 9Battery 9Support 7