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

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MSRP: $2,499.00

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.

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8.2 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8
  • Support 6

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.

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.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $2,299 / $1,699
Processor 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory 4GB, 1066MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Nvidia GeForce 9400M
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 9400M (integrated) and 512MB Nvidia 9600M GT (dedicated)
Operating system Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard
Dimensions (WD) 14.4 x 9.8 inches
Height 0.95 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 15.4 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.4/6.0 pounds
Category mainstream

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.

  Apple MacBook Pro (Core 2 Duo 2.5GHz, Nvidia GeForce 9600M) Average for category [thin-and-light]
Video Mini DisplayPort VGA-out, S-Video
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, FireWire 800, SD card reader 4 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None ExpressCard/54
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

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.

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