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Apple MacBook Pro Summer 2009 review: Apple MacBook Pro Summer 2009

Apple MacBook Pro Summer 2009

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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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7 min read

Editors' Note (April 13, 2010): Apple has updated its line of MacBook Pros with new Intel processors and improved Nvidia graphics. See CNET's coverage of the Spring 2010 MacBook Pros for more information.

8.2

Apple MacBook Pro Summer 2009

The Good

Price cut from previous version; new SD card slot; keeps the same solid unibody construction and oversize trackpad.

The Bad

Loses the ExpressCard slot; switching GPUs not as seamless as it should be.

The Bottom Line

Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro makes only minor tweaks to the previous version, but cutting prices and swapping the ExpressCard slot for an SD card slot are enough to make it a solid improvement over its predecessor.

The latest round of MacBook revisions are nowhere near as radical as the aluminum unibody construction rolled out in late 2008. Instead, the 13-inch MacBook has been promoted to the Pro family, while the 15-inch MacBook Pro gets a handful of minor component upgrades. More important than that, however, is a series of price cuts for all of the base model MacBook Pros, including this $2,299 version--the comparable 2008 version originally cost $200 more.

Now that the 13- and 15-inch models have the same basic feature set, including Nvidia's excellent integrated GeForce 9400 graphics, a high-capacity (if unremovable) battery, an SD card slot, and FireWire connection, the main points of differentiation are minor CPU speed boosts, a bigger screen, and the availability of a separate discrete GPU (the GeForce 9600) that can be turned off if needed to improve battery life. Our $2,299 review unit had the 512MB version of the GPU, while the $1,999 version has a 256MB version.

Most users will be ably served by the less-expensive 13-inch MacBook Pro, which starts as low as $1,199, but the combo of a faster CPU, better battery, larger 500GB hard drive, the SD card slot, and a $200 price cut makes the new 15-inch MacBook Pro a solid improvement over its predecessor.

The aluminum chassis is essentially identical to the last 15-inch MacBook Pro. The construction starts with a solid block of aluminum, which is carved down, rather than a thin outer shell, which has had support struts added to it. The result is a light and thin, yet strong, chassis that feels solid and substantial. Except for the $999 white polycarbonate MacBook, Apple's entire laptop line now uses this type of body.

We're especially fond of the larger trackpad that uses multitouch gestures similar to those found on the iPhone. It offers a much larger surface area than most laptop trackpads, thanks to the elimination of a separate mouse button. While the entire trackpad depresses like a button, simple tapping, as on a Windows laptop, will also work once you turn that option on in the settings menu. Of the multitouch gestures, most useful perhaps is sweeping four fingers: left or right brings up the application switcher, while up hides all your active windows. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular trackpad is difficult.

The 15.4-inch wide-screen display offers a 1,440x900 native resolution, which is standard for premium 15-inch screens (cheaper 15-inch models are often 1,280x800). All of the MacBook Pro screens are backlit LEDs, which allow for thinner lids and provide some power-saving benefits. We like the look of the edge-to-edge glass over the screen, but it's also very reflective, and we wish Apple would offer a matte screen option on all its systems, not just the 17-inch MacBook Pro.

The biggest news is probably that Apple has at long last embraced the simple joys of the SD card slot. After claiming for years that photographers could just use an external USB adapter to access their SD cards, the 13- and 15-inch Pros now include this very common component. The cost, however, is the ExpressCard slot, which is now found only on the 17-inch Pro. Most people used their ExpressCard slots, if at all, for card-reading adapters or mobile broadband antennas. While we use SD cards, even in our dSLR camera, several pro photographers have reminded us that Compact Flash cards are their preferred format.

The 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU in our review unit is a bump up from the 2.5GHz version we saw in the last high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro. The least expensive configuration still has that 2.53GHz version, but an extra $300 (for a total of $2,599) adds an optional 3.06GHz processor--the fastest one you can get in an Apple laptop. While our MacBook Pro had a clear advantage over both the 13-inch MacBook Pro and previous 15- and 13-inch MacBooks, most users can feel comfortable using any of the current Intel processors Apple offers for basic Web-surfing, productivity, and multimedia playback.

Besides that dedicated GeForce 9600M, the new Pro also included the same integrated GeForce 9400 GPU found in the 13-inch MacBook. The settings menu has two power options: for high performance or for longer battery life. Choosing high performance turns the 9600 chip on, while choosing longer battery life turns it off, leaving you with just the integrated chip. The switch made virtually no difference in our standard benchmarks, although those interested in high-end video and photo editing may see a more practical benefit.

One frustration remains about this entire process: switching between GPUs is simple, requiring only a button press on the power options menu, but the changeover isn't totally transparent. You have to log out and log back in, requiring you to close all your apps and save your data.

The new battery in the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros is nonremovable, but Apple claims the system can last up to 7 hours while surfing the Web, and somewhat less for DVD playback. To assuage concerns about the sealed battery, the company says the new models are good for at least 1,000 full recharge cycles--which they estimate to be about five years of use. We were able to run the system for 5 hours and 5 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, with the GPU set for the better battery life option. That's about an hour longer than last year's 15-inch MacBook Pro, and an impressive result.

Apple has an above-average reputation for support, along with a series of accessible retail stores (as long as you live in a market served by one). But MacBooks continue to include a standard one-year parts and labor warranty, with only 90 days of toll-free telephone support. This, along with the proprietary nature of Apple's products, makes purchasing an extended Apple Care warranty almost a necessity, at $349 (or $249 for 13-inch laptops) for three total years of coverage.

Juice box
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch  
Off (watts) 0.63
Sleep (watts) 0.8014
Idle (watts) 19.772
Load (watts) 65.4
Raw (annual kWh) 75.96
EnergyStar compliant Yes
Annual operating cost (@$0.1135/kWh) $8.62
Multimedia Multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT)
390 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
396 
Apple MacBook - 2008 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.4GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
431 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.26GHz
472 
Apple MacBook - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.13GHz
506 
Dell Adamo
1,864 

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT)
116 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
120 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.26GHz
137 
Apple MacBook - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.13GHz
145 
Apple MacBook - 2008 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.4GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
146 
Dell Adamo
345 

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
135 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT)
135 
Apple MacBook - 2008 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.4GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
158 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.26GHz
165 
Apple MacBook - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.13GHz
178 
Dell Adamo
357 

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.26GHz
342 
Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT)
305 
Apple MacBook - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.13GHz
253 
Apple MacBook - 2008 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.4GHz (Nvidia GeForce 9400M)
243 
Dell Adamo
156 

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 15.4 inch - 2.8GHz
OS X 10.5.7 Leopard; Intel Core 2 Duo 2.8GHz; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M / 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Core 2 Duo - 2.4GHz / 13.3-inch (2008 Edition)
OS X 10.5.5 Leopard; Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz; 2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M; 250GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Dell Adamo
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U9300; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 779MB (Shared) Mobile Intel GMA 4500MHD; 128GB Samsung SSD

Apple MacBook - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.13GHz
OS X 10.5.7 Leopard; Intel Core 2 Duo 2.13GHz; 2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 800MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M; 160GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Pro - Summer 2009 - Core 2 Duo 13.3 inch - 2.26GHz
OS X 10.5.7 Leopard; Intel Core 2 Duo 2.26GHz; 2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M; 160GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

8.2

Apple MacBook Pro Summer 2009

Score Breakdown

Design 10Features 8Performance 8Battery 8Support 6