15-Inch MacBook Pro Unites Power with Economy

It took Apple Inc. all of 10 days to remind the tech world -- still in the thrall of the iPad launch on April 3 -- that it hasn't taken its eye off the laptop business.

While new iPad owners were wondering whether the Apple tablet would sound the death knell for laptops (and netbooks), Apple was putting the finishing touches on the next generation of its professional laptop line. On April 13, Apple delivered the goods, unveiling updated 13-, 15- and 17-in. MacBook Pros, the two larger models sporting fast Intel Core i5 or i7 processors and all three getting upgraded graphics chips and the prospect of longer battery life.

In other words, the laptop is alive and well at Apple -- and I say that as the owner of a new iPad, which I do think will change the way a lot of people use computers and access data and the Web.

Virtually all of the changes rolled out last week are under the hood. (Take a look at iFixicom's teardown if you really want to see under the hood of the new MacBook Pro.) The by-now-familiar unibody aluminum-and-glass look of the lineup is unchanged.

This is a good thing, since these laptops remain the benchmark for solid construction. They simply ooze quality, from the operating-room-bright LED screens to the glass-coated trackpad to the illuminated keyboard.

Prices range from $1,199 for the 13-incher to $2,299 for the 17-in. version, though of course you can bump up the processor and add RAM -- boosting the price in the process. That's especially true if you spring for the optional 512GB solid-state drive (SSD), the largest SSD Apple has ever offered. That option alone adds between $1,300 and $1,450 to the baseline price (depending on which MacBook Pro you're buying). But isn't it nice to dream of all that SSD space?

For review purposes, Apple sent over the basic 15-in. MacBook Pro, though there's really nothing basic about it. For $1,799, you get a 2.4-GHz Core i5 processor from Intel, 4GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD graphics and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics processor with 256MB of video RAM, a 320GB hard drive, a SuperDrive for burning and playing CDs and DVDs, the usual retinue of ports and wireless connectivity and -- probably most important for laptop lovers -- a tweaked battery design that Apple says now offers up to nine hours of juice. Weight is unchanged at 5.6 pounds.

Still not enough for you? For $200 more, you can opt for a 2.53-GHz Core i5 processor and a 500GB drive. Spend another $200, and you can move to the Core i7, which clocks in at 2.66 GHz and offers more video RAM (512MB).

Faster Graphics, Better Battery Life

Enough with the specs. What's noteworthy about this revamp -- and what Apple officials most like to talk up -- is that these laptops are not only faster at data-crunching because of those Core i5 and i7 chips, but they also offer substantially faster graphics -- and do both of those things while delivering much improved battery life. My experience so far shows that Apple appears to have hit the mark all around.

Before getting into the details about the 32nm Core i-series processors, I should point out that the 13-in. MacBook Pros still use Core 2 Duo chips. That's because the Core i3 processor that a lot of Mac fans were hoping for -- nay, expecting -- didn't fit the bill for the smallest MacBook Pro. According to Apple, using the Core i3 would have meant relying on the integrated Intel HD graphics subsystem. Instead, Apple went with the more powerful Nvidia GeForce 320M GPU and those Core 2 Duo processors (2.4 GHz in the $1,199 13-in. version, 2.66 GHz in the $1,499 model).

Apple says the GeForce 320M is basically a discrete processor working in an integrated fashion, meaning it uses up to 256MB of system RAM. It also has 48 processing cores, triple the number in the old Nvidia 9400M, and is up to 80% faster, according to Apple.

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