capsule review

Apple MacBook Pro: A New Look

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Pro Notebook

    PCWorld Rating

    The MacBook Pro's new design aesthetic -- and new GPU solutions -- makes it a good, but not great, notebook.

At first glance, it appears nearly identical to its predecessor, but it's not. Inside and out, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops--with speeds of 2.4 GHz and 2.53 GHz--have been remodeled, redesigned, and reengineered. (Note: On December 10, Apple released firmware updates for its new notebooks; this review doesn't cover those updates.)

While all the previous Macbook Pros felt rock solid, these models seem even more so, due to a new manufacturing process introduced with this generation of MacBooks and MacBook Pros. Instead of assembling the laptops piecemeal and splicing the components together, the new models sport a unibody architecture that constructs the entire machine out of a single piece of recyclable aluminum.

In one small design change, no clasp keeps the lid shut; instead, you simply grip the thumbscoop etched into the bottom of the case, and it opens right up. Even without a clasp, it feels secure when closed.

The unibody composition also makes these new laptops easier to service and fix, and great for do-it-yourself types who, in the past, have lamented how difficult it was to do things like swap out the hard drive or battery. The redesigned MacBook Pro makes it very easy to access these particular components--just push the lever on the bottom of the case, and you're in. Upgrading RAM, though, requires removing eight screws (the previous MacBook Pro had only three screws).

All ports are grouped together on the left side of the case, including those for MagSafe power, gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800, USB (two ports), and audio in and out, plus an ExpressCard/34 slot. The microphone is under the left speaker grille. And this MacBook Pro is slimmer than its predecessor.

Side-by-side, the difference between the current and previous models is arresting. The new chassis is slightly larger than the previous generation at 14.3 inches across (versus the previous 14.1 inches), and a tad wider too, though it's also a shade thinner and more rounded at the edges to give it a more natural feel. It's also about one ounce heavier, but nothing you'd notice by simply lifting it.

The 2.4-GHz model comes with 3MB of shared L2 cache, 2GB of 1066-MHz DDR3 memory, and a 250GB SATA hard drive (5400 rpm). The 2.53-GHz version comes with 6MB of shared L2 cache, 4GB of memory, and a 320GB hard drive (5400 rpm). Apple also offers a 7200-rpm drive and a solid-state drive (SSD) as built-to-order options. The new memory is the faster DDR3 variety--an upgrade over the DDR2 SDRAM that shipped in the previous models. Both have a 1066-MHz frontside bus and built-in AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi with 3-megabits-per-second Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.

A new port makes its appearance in this model: the Mini DisplayPort, which connects to Apple's new 24-inch LED Cinema Display ($899). You can connect other monitors to the new MacBook Pros, but you'll have to buy a $29 Mini DisplayPort to VGA or Mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter, or $99 for a Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI adapter. The right side of the machine has the slot-loading SuperDrive and a Kensington lock slot. (A Kensington lock will automatically lock the access door underneath, thus protecting the hard drive and the battery.) An elegant battery indicator on the side of the case glows green through eight tiny dots when all is well and flashes five times when the battery needs replacement.

Side note: Apple has also quietly updated the 2.5-GHz, 17-inch MacBook Pro to include a 1920-by-1200-pixel screen (updated from the older 1680-by-1050 pixels), in either glossy or matte form. RAM has been raised from 2GB to 4GB, and hard drive size has increased from 250GB to 320GB. The standard drive is still 5400 rpm, with (as before) the option of a 320GB, 7200-rpm drive. The 17-inch MacBook Pro also has a new option for a 128GB solid-state drive, as used in the updated MacBook Air (which was to start shipping in November).

Now, back to the updated 15-inch MacBook Pro.

A View to a Thrill

Opening up the new MacBook Pros reveals a bright, glossy, 15.4-inch (viewable) wide-screen LED-backlit monitor that's pure joy to behold. The 1440-by-900-pixel screen is no longer encased in a metal bezel, but rather seems to float on its own, ringed by a deep black frame. It's all glass, with only the thinnest hint of a bezel if viewed at a particular angle. These displays are just beautiful, and a lot more attractive than those of previous MacBooks. They're also ecologically friendly, being both mercury- and arsenic-free.

You no longer have a choice of screen finishes, unfortunately, and many users will grumble about the glossy screen. Personally, the more I look at glossy screens (especially on laptops where they don't remind me of a huge negative mirror) the more appealing they become. The trick is finding that balance between a glossy finish and a good backlit LED, which makes viewing easy under any lighting conditions. And that's the case here. Not only is the graphical contrast visually striking, but these new screens show grayscale gradations that are virtually undetectable on matte screens. They also have a 3D quality that makes everything on screen burst with energy and vivid color. However, I still wish a matte screen were offered as an option.

As was recently revealed, it's the brand-new graphics chips that make the difference in how the laptop handles high-intensity graphical applications such as 3D, video, professional imaging and design applications, and games. The updated MacBook Pros employ nVidia's Hybrid SLI technology--a pairing of two graphics chips, one integrated in the motherboard (a GeForce 9400M) and the other discrete (a GeForce 9600M GT). The 9400M has 16 parallel processor cores and is capable of 54 gigaflops, while the latter has 32 parallel processor cores and is capable of 120 gigaflops. As for video memory, the 9400M uses 256MB of main memory. The 9600M GT has dedicated video memory; the 2.4-GHz MacBook Pro gets 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM, and the 2.53-GHz model has 512MB of DDR3 SDRAM.

You can switch between these two chips to achieve either better video performance or longer battery life, but to do so, you must log out and then back in. This technology is certainly welcome on the Mac, but it's worth noting that similar approaches have been used on Windows notebooks for some time now. In fact, we've seen several Sony VAIOs that offer a similar feature come through the PC World Test Center.

Hands Down on the Mousepad

While we noted that the last batch of MacBook Pros supported the new MacBook Air-style hand gestures, the updated models support even more gestures on bigger trackpads. The new multitouch trackpad looks huge, measuring about 4.13 inches horizontally and 3 inches vertically versus 3.94 inches horizontally and 2.81 vertically (with 0.88 inch taken up by the clickable button) on the older model. It's silky smooth glass and has no separate button because the entire pad is a button. According to Apple, the new trackpad has 39 percent more tracking area than the previous one.

You can use one finger to click, drag, drag-lock, and right-click (called secondary click), and two fingers to scroll, rotate, pinch open and close, and zoom your screen, as well as make a secondary tap. A three-finger swipe will navigate you through a photo album, for example, and pulling four fingers up and down will activate the Exposé functions; four fingers swiped to the right or left gives you the Application Switcher. You can tap to click, double-tap to choose and move a window, and to lock it in place again, and choose the right-bottom or left-bottom corner of the trackpad to designate a right-click function.

As someone who's used the Mac's trackpad buttons for years, I found this new design hard to get used to. The unified trackpad/button may cause you to fundamentally change the way you use your Mac laptop. Because the button is so large (and to my hands, harder to click with my thumb as many people are used to doing), some will wind up using hand gestures almost all the time. Instead of leaning on the pad/button whenever you want to click, just single-tap or double-tap with your forefinger to expedite most commands. This is much easier on the hands over time, and a much quieter way of computing as well. All that button-pushing is gone.

Within System Preferences, there's now a new Trackpad preference pane that gives you video-enhanced information and demonstrations on how to use the new hand gestures.

The laptop's front panel has undergone a significant redesign. The power button at the upper right-hand side of the case is small, and blends into the panel. The speaker mesh on both sides of the keyboard is likewise very delicate. And there's a tiny iSight camera embedded in the lid--so small, it blends into the monitor's black border so that you can barely see it.

Within a shallow well sits the keyboard. The keys are black and scissor style, similar to those on the black, previous-generation MacBooks, but have nothing compressed about them. The generous, flat-topped keys have just enough travel to avoid being hard on the hands, and register a solid press without being mushy. While in somewhat the same style as desktop aluminum keyboards, I find this keyboard more comfortable to use. And an ambient light sensor illuminates the underside of the keys if you're working in a low-light environment.

Performance in and out of Windows

Now performance is where we need to clarify things a little. MacWorld uses different tests than WorldBench. The most obvious thing is that MacWorld compares the latest MacBook Pro to every other MacBook that's come before. As discussed below, we run WorldBench 6--our own suite of test applications--in Boot Camp to compare the MacBook with Windows-based laptops. If you want to get the full breakdown on the OS X side, check MacWorld's review. For that matter, Game On blogger Matt Peckham also took a very close look at how well the new MacBooks work as gaming machines.

For PC World's WorldBench 6 suite to work, we need to run Vista through Boot Camp. As such, our numbers show that the MacBook Pro is a good performer, scoring a 93 in WorldBench in high-performance mode. And thanks to the 9600M, it can play Doom 3 at 125 frames per second (at 1024 by 768 resolution). For a little perspective, the highest score we're currently seeing in the all-purpose laptops pack is the Micro Express JFL9290, which earned a score of 115 in WorldBench.

Problem is, we aren't able to test both GPUs in this unit with WorldBench, as we can't switch between the two GPUs in Windows--we can test only the high-end GPU. That also means it's affecting scores in our battery life tests since we can't run this machine in its power-conserving mode with the 9400M chip. As a result, the MacBook Pro only survives for 1 hour, 54 minutes in our tests. That isn't that much different from the results Macworld had: 2 hours, 12 minutes.

If you're thinking about buying a new professional-level laptop, these 2.4-GHz and 2.53-GHz MacBook Pros present more challenges and ambiguities than in the past. The MacBook Pro's new design and features definitely come out on the plus side of the ledger, with some outstanding aesthetic and engineering improvements to recommend it--not least, its significant attention to environmental issues--at exactly the same price as the previous 2.4-GHz and 2.5-GHz notebooks.

However, the mandatory glossy screen may be a deal killer for some people. I personally find the screen very engaging and wasn't especially bothered by its reflective quality--I enjoyed the 3D optics and its feeling of space and depth. But it's too bad that Apple is not offering a matte display as an option for the visual professionals (the MacBook Pro's target users, after all) who consider a glossy screen less than optimal. The all-in-one trackpad is another question: It takes getting used to, though it will likely grow on you. And the battery life is disappointing because, despite the energy-saving integrated graphics option, it has diminished significantly compared with the previous model.

--Jackie Dove

This story, "Apple MacBook Pro: A New Look" was originally published by Macworld.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The MacBook Pro's new design aesthetic -- and new GPU solutions -- makes it a good, but not great, notebook.

    Pros

    • Finger-friendly keyboard
    • Great unibody (MacBook Air-like) design

    Cons

    • Disappointing battery life
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