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Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011 review: Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011

Scott_Stein.jpg
Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg
Scott Stein Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

10 min read

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is the most affordable of Apple's high-end laptops. With the admittedly supercharged 15-inch version starting at a princely $1,799, the 13-inch model's starting price of $1,199 is the one many consumers will likely consider first. Its size is also ideal and in fact, we've long considered 13 inches to be the sweet spot in laptops for usability and performance. The question is: does the smaller Pro deliver the processing punch that last year's lacked?

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011 (2.3 GHz Core i5, 13 in)
8.4

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011

The Good

The CPU updates to the 13-inch <b>MacBook Pro</b> offer big leaps in performance. The machine has phenomenal battery life, and excellent ergonomics, keyboard, and large, smooth, multitouch trackpad are still among the best available. It also comes with 720p HD Webcam.

The Bad

Graphics performance is slightly worse than last year's 13-inch Pro. The 13-inch screen resolution is still low compared with the MacBook Air. The Thunderbolt port is an unknown quantity until accessories become available. There are limited upgrade options, and no HDMI or Blu-ray.

The Bottom Line

The new entry-level $1,199 13-inch MacBook Pro's significant CPU updates and fantastic battery life are nearly as good as what you get in the more expensive $1,499 version.

In short: unequivocally yes. This year's 13-inch Pro gets a cutting-edge processor upgrade that many were waiting for--including us. That upgrade comes in the form of next-generation Intel Core i-series CPUs. The 2011 MacBook Pros are the first laptops we've reviewed at CNET with these processors; the entry-level 13-inch model features a second-generation 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, whereas the $1,499 configuration has a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7.

Though both configurations use differently branded CPUs, the Core i5/Core i7 difference turns out to be pretty insignificant between these two 13-inch Pros. In our benchmark tests, the Core i5 13-inch model performed so closely to the Core i7 version (and, in single-task tests, not that far off from the quad-core 15-inch Pro) that, for the $300 savings, it's arguably the better buy. The entry-level version has an identical screen, graphics, RAM, and ports to the $1,499 model, with the exception of a 320GB hard drive instead of 500GB.

One small drawback: the integrated (and nonupgradable) Intel HD 3000 graphics in both 13-inch models are a step backward from the integrated Nvidia graphics found in the 2010 13-inch Pro. Though it's a bit of a backslide, however, it still amounts to better graphics than low-end Nvidia GeForce GPUs, and it's leaps and bounds above Intel integrated graphics in 2010 Windows laptops.

The entry-level 13-inch Pro also still comes with the much-talked-about high-speed data/video port, Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is envisioned as a sort of future unified successor to USB, FireWire, and DisplayPort, allowing peripherals to carry data and video at 10Gbps. We don't know when Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals will be available (although Apple says the first ones should show up in the spring of 2011), how much they'll cost, or if Apple will be adding the technology to future displays or iOS devices. For now, it's a wait-and-see gamble on a future technology, but at least the port is backward-compatible with Mini DisplayPort, and a FireWire 800 port remains for legacy hardware.

In the end, the 2011 13-inch Pro is a big step up in processing performance for the same price as its predecessor. To put it in perspective, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is about as powerful CPU-wise as last year's $2,199 15-inch Core i7 model. And though its integrated Intel graphics are a bit less capable than the previous model's Nvidia 320M GPU, the payoff comes with a sizeable jump in battery life. To be honest, we'd rather have a longer-lasting battery.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,199 / $1,199
Processor 2.3GHz Intel Core i5
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM
Hard drive 320GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel H67
Graphics Intel HD 3000
Operating system OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard
Dimensions (WD) 12.8 x 8.9 inches
Height 0.95 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.5/5 pounds
Category Mainstream

There's nothing different design-wise about the new MacBook Pro. Walk up to the 2011 version and you'd have no idea that you were looking at a "new" Mac. The iconic design and unibody construction has remained intact, even identical, to last year's 2010 model, even down to the port layout. Ports line the left side, and the side-connecting MagSafe charging cable plugs toward the rear, staying out of the way. The slot-loading drive lines the right side. A wide expanse of aluminum and Apple's simple but excellently constructed keyboard feel like tech minimalism in a world of overwrought and overdesigned laptops, and the large multitouch clickpad is still--even nearly three years later--one of the largest we've seen. Construction quality is, as always, rock-solid: compared with other flexy laptops, the seamless metal body of the Pro feels like modern art.

That being said, we wouldn't mind some design improvements in the future, especially when it comes to thickness and weight. The 13-inch Pro is compact and thin, but compared to wafer-thin Apple products like the iPad and MacBook Air, it ends up feeling heavier. Then again, if thickness matters that much, you can always buy an Air.

A backlit keyboard still comes standard, even on the entry-level $1,199 MacBook Pro. It's useful for typing in low-light conditions, and the ambient light sensors control screen brightness and keyboard lighting in perfect balance. The ergonomics work excellently, and the MacBook Pro also has some of the largest, deepest palm-rest zones in a 13-incher.

Edge-to-edge glass still frames the Pro's 13.3-inch screen, and, yes, there still isn't a matte screen option--although on the larger 15-inch line, antiglare is offered. The display has excellent brightness, color, and contrast, and the screen's viewing angles are generous, but the 1,280x800 native pixel resolution is identical to the 2010 model's. Oddly, the MacBook Pro might be the last laptop that hasn't switched to a 16:9 1,366x768-pixel display. Even more oddly, the 13-inch MacBook Air actually has a higher resolution than the current 13-inch Pros, at 1,400x900 pixels.

Speaker volume is adequate, and both music and movies sound good on the integrated stereo speakers. The MacBook Pro doesn't have audio that reaches out and grabs you, unless you're wearing headphones; then again, on a 13-incher this slim, it does better than equivalent competition.

A new HD Webcam offers 720p wide-screen Web chats via the new FaceTime app, which comes preinstalled. FaceTime, which has been available as a beta release for a while, allows calls to both Mac users and iPhone 4 owners. iPhone 4 calls come in at a fuzzier resolution, but Mac-to-Mac calls looked relatively crisp over Wi-Fi. Swapping between portrait and landscape mode can be triggered with a single button-click.

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011 (Core i5, 13-inch) Average for category [Mainstream]
Video Thunderbolt (Mini DisplayPort) VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, FireWire 800, SDXC card reader, Thunderbolt 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None None
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

While most ports on the 13-inch MacBook Pro remain carbon-copy identical to those on last year's model, there are a few notable additions. The SD card slot now accepts SDXC cards. More importantly, the Mini-DisplayPort has subtly been transformed into the aforementioned Thunderbolt port. The Intel-developed data and audio/video port has extremely fast throughput at a maximum of 10Gbps, and compatible hard drives will be able to send files with blazing speeds. The tiny Thunderbolt port is powered, and will be able to daisy chain up to six connected devices, be they hard drives or even monitors. It's backward-compatible with old Mini DisplayPort monitors or cables, and like with last year's Pros, it can output audio and video over HDMI with a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter.

Thunderbolt may be a rival to USB 3.0, but devices that can use the port won't even be available until spring. Most people will simply use the USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports on the 2011 MacBook Pro and be completely satisfied. Still, it's comforting to know that future port support is there. Is it necessary right now? No. In two years, however, it could be indispensable. Consider it future tech on your MacBook Pro--a perk, rather than a necessity.

Apple's laptops have always had limited upgrade and configuration options; the new Pros are no different. The 13-inch MacBook Pro comes in $1,199 and $1,499 configurations, with 2.3GHz Core i5 and 2.7GHz Core i7 dual-core CPUs, respectively. The only real differences between the two models are their CPUs and included hard drives (320GB in our $1,199 configuration, 500GB in the $1,499 model). If you're dying for more hard-drive space, consider a custom order on Apple's Web site: that hard drive can be expanded up to a 500GB hard drive for just $50, or 750GB for $150. Either way, that comes to less than the high-end model's sticker price. Solid-state drives can also be added: 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB. Those aren't cheap: the 128GB upgrade costs $250, whereas the 512GB costs a whopping $1,250.

That's it as far as configurations go. The 1,280x800-pixel glossy screen can't be upgraded, unlike on the 15-inch Pro. There's no option to add discrete graphics, either. It's an odd disconnect: even the 13-inch MacBook Air has a higher-resolution screen, and the lack of higher-end graphics feels cheap for such an expensive laptop.

The new second-generation Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5 CPU is a huge improvement on last year's 13-inch Pro. Benchmark tests show that this model is nearly twice as fast in multitasking and the iTunes test. Start-up boot time is also zippy, although nowhere near as fast as on the MacBook Air. This is the processor upgrade we were hoping for last year, and then some. While you should obviously keep in mind that the 15-inch Pro is even faster, for the price and the size, it's hard to beat what the 13-inch offers. Even more surprisingly, the entry-level 13-inch Core i5 CPU wasn't all that much slower than the more expensive Core i7 13-incher we reviewed. Photoshop test scores slowed from 68 to 78 seconds, and iTunes from 92 to 99 seconds, but these results still leave most other last-generation Core i-series laptops in the dust.

If there's one compromise on this year's 13-inch MacBook Pro, it's in the graphics. Instead of the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics in last year's Pro, this year's models use integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000, part of the second-generation Core i-series' improvements. They're a big leap up from what we're used to from integrated graphics, but they're not ideal for hard-core gaming. We played Call of Duty 4 and got a reasonable 31.7fps at native resolution and anti-aliasing turned off, but only 17.8fps with 4x anti-aliasing turned on. Last year's MacBook Pro, with the same settings, achieved 36.3 and 32.2fps, respectively.

However, for a normal, everyday user, the Intel integrated graphics are a success. They're effectively invisible; they "just work" to use Apple's words, ably running media and most casual 3D gaming. For those who want to seriously render or play upscale games, the 15-inch Pro's ATI Radeon graphics offer a major step up. Honestly, the Mac landscape is devoid of many big games, and the 13-inch Pro can at least play most of what's out there (Bejeweled 3, for instance, ran silky smooth). Also keep in mind that these integrated graphics are still better than the average low-end Nvidia GPUs and integrated Intel graphics seen on most thin 13-inch Windows laptops in 2010.

Juice box
Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011 (Core i5, 13-inch) Average watts per hour
Off (60%) 0.23
Sleep (10%) 0.66
Idle (25%) 5.79
Load (05%) 45.84
Raw kWh Number 34.55
Annual power consumption cost $3.92

Annual power consumption cost

For the second year in a row, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has made another leap in battery life. Matching the promises made by Apple, the 13-inch Pro's integrated battery lasted 6 hours and 42 minutes using our video playback battery-drain test. That's about three-quarters of an hour better than last year's 13-inch Pro, and one of the best battery lives on any laptop we've ever reviewed. With roughly 7 hours of runtime (on the conservative end), you'll probably be able to carry your MacBook Pro for the day and leave your charger behind, if you're so bold.

Service and support from Apple has always been a bit of 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 $249, 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 personal experience, have always been fairly efficient, 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)

System configurations:

Apple MacBook Pro - Core i5 Sandy Bridge 13.3-inch - 2.3GHz
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 2.3GHz Intel Core i5; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 320GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Pro - Core i7 SandyBridge 13.3-inch - 2.7GHz
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Pro - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 15.4-inch - 2.2GHz
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 2.2GHz Intel Core i7; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6750M / 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 320M; 128GB Apple SSD

Apple MacBook Pro - Core 2 Duo 13.3-inch - 2.4GHz
OS X 10.6.3 Snow Leopard; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce GT 320M; 250GB Seagate 5,400rpm

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011 (2.3 GHz Core i5, 13 in)
8.4

Apple MacBook Pro Winter 2011

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 9Support 7
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