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.

Even with the newer Core 2 Duo processors and the beefy 320M GPU, Apple says the smallest MacBook Pro now gets up to 10 hours of battery life for ordinary tasks such as Web browsing over Wi-Fi. The company estimates that the larger 15-in. and 17-in. models get between eight and nine hours, depending on which of the two graphics systems you're using.

Unlike the smallest MacBook Pro, the 15-in. model has both the Intel HD integrated graphics for light use and a GeForce GT 330M for more intensive graphics work. If you're surfing or writing a Word document, you're using the Intel HD graphics; if you're doing video work with Aperture or detailed jobs in Photoshop, you're using the 330M.

Here's the catch, and it's a good one: The laptop switches back and forth between the two without you having to do anything. That's a change from the last generation of MacBook Pros, where you'd have to stop whatever you were doing when you needed more graphics power, log out and then log back in. Talk about stopping workflow in its tracks.

(One thing this is not is Nvidia's Optimus architecture, which does much the same thing but with Nvidia chips only. Remember, in this case you're switching in the background between Intel's integrated graphics and Nvidia's discrete chip.)

The 330M, according to Apple, is about twice as fast as the Nvidia GPU in the 13-in. model, and about 20% faster than the Nvidia 9600M GT used in the last MacBook Pro line. That's something gamers should notice, because it allows for more details in graphically intense games. I'm not a gamer, though. When it comes to graphics, I judge how well a laptop plays back high-definition digital video: Are the colors rich and saturated? Is there any image "smearing" or obvious pixilation?

On those counts, the MacBook Pro's sharp, LED-backlit screen looks great. In fact, I watched three back-to-back episodes of Mad Men at full-screen resolution with the brightness turned all the way up and they looked almost as good as they do on my hi-def TV at home. As for battery life, at first I didn't see a major improvement over previous MacBook Pros. Apple says to expect 4.5 hours of use when watching DVDs full-screen at full brightness; I had to plug in the MacBook Pro after 3.5 hours of use. So I created a new account and tried again. Voila! I managed just over five hours of movie watching on battery power. (I haven't yet figured out what may be running in the background in my account that cuts down on battery time.)

When it comes to more mundane tasks such as surfing the Web over Wi-Fi, editing Word documents, checking e-mail and sending out tweets, the battery life is also better than before. (As with DVD viewing, I saw the biggest improvement logged into the "clean" test account.)

First, I set up the 15-in. MacBook Pro as I would normally, with the screen at about 80% brightness. I also turned off some of Apple's aggressive energy-saving settings in the Energy Saver preference pane, because I like to keep the screen from dimming on me if I turn away for a minute or two. While doing a combination of word processing, surfing the Web over Wi-Fi and listening to music through iTunes, the battery needed a recharge after 4.5 hours.

That's about 50% longer more than I get on my own last-gen 17-in. MacBook Pro, but a far cry from nine hours. (Doing the same tasks on that laptop drained the battery in three hours, though the older model's larger screen means it's not a direct one-to-one comparison.)

To extend the battery life, I went back to the default settings in the Energy Saver preference pane. This dims the display a bit, darkens it completely after a couple of minutes of idle time and puts the hard drive to sleep when possible. That bumped the battery life to just over five hours. Finally, using the test account, I set the screen brightness at the halfway mark, surfed the Web, did some text editing and listened to streaming radio over iTunes. This time, I was able to use the MacBook Pro for just over 6.5 hours. That's impressive, given that the new lineup has faster processors and better graphics chips.

The lesson's pretty clear: When you're on the go, stick with the default Energy Saver settings and turn the screen brightness down. If you're working in a dim locale or perhaps on the red-eye heading cross-country, turning the brightness way down and the Wi-Fi off will extend battery life even more. And if you find that your battery time is substantially less than you'd counted on, you might want to set up a new account and see if that helps. It did for me.

Core i5 Performance

As solid as the graphics system is -- I saw nary a hitch when watching videos or doing some light digital video exports -- it's the Core i5 and i7 processors in the 15-in. and 17-in. models that buyers will likely key in on. That's because they're relatively efficient for the punch they pack, and even though they're dual-core chips, they bring at least a pseudo-quad-core flair to the upper end of Apple's laptop line. Let me stress the word pseudo here: These are not the same as the real quadcore chips that the iMac desktop line uses.

Both the i5 and i7 have integrated memory controllers, either 3MB or 4MB of Level 3 cache and "turbo boost," which means the chips can max out at clock speeds higher than the baseline numbers advertised. And they offer hyperthreading, which means the operating system "thinks" it can access four cores instead of two -- it's just that two of the cores are virtual. Having more cores, whether physical or virtual, means software and operating systems can process commands faster because the work is being done in parallel, not sequentially.

When it comes to turbo boost, the concept is pretty simple. In this 15-in. model, the processor starts out at 2.4 GHz and stays there unless taxed. If you get into some heavy data-crunching, both cores can throttle up to 2.8 GHz. Or if the software you're using is running on one core instead of two, that lone core can throttle up to 2.93 GHz.

It's like having a turbocharger on your car. If you're cruising along at 65 miles an hour and stomp on the gas, you'll feel an extra spurt of acceleration as the turbocharger kicks in. When you let off the gas, the turbocharger cuts out and you're back to basic cylinders.

Essentially, the system is squeezing out as much processing power as possible from the Core chips when that power is needed most -- under heavy load -- and then backing off the juice when it's not. The result is an elegant combination of power and thriftiness.

Comparisons and Benchmarks

Here's how the Core i5 MacBook Pro stacks up against a Core i5-based iMac and my own 17-in. MacBook Pro, which has a 3.06-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a superfast SSD drive. The iMac -- unlike the model I reviewed last fall -- has the 2.66-GHz quad-core Core i5 processor. And, unlike this particular MacBook Pro, it has four physical cores and a faster 7,200-rpm hard drive. (The 15-in. MacBook Pro comes with a 5,400-rpm drive.)

First, I did a quick benchmark test of all three computers using Spiny Software's Xbench 1.3. The new MacBook Pro returned a score of 152.03 -- solid, but not stellar. (I expect the relatively slow hard drive is keeping those numbers down.) The iMac, not surprisingly, had a 204.18 score, and my own MacBook Pro topped out at 209 -- largely because of the OCZ Technologies SSD I installed right after I bought it last June. SSDs can throw off benchmarks by artificially inflating scores -- although they do make your computer feel darn fast. More about SSDs below.

Next, I used Primate Labs' Geekbench 2.1.5 to benchmark the three computers. The iMac led the way with a Geekbench score of 6,473. The new MacBook Pro turned in a speedy 4,783. And my own MacBook Pro trailed at 4,192. (Bare Feats did its own tests, in case you want even more data, comparing the faster Core-based MacBook Pros with a Core i7 iMac. The iMac won, by a long shot.)

Although benchmarks can give you a rough idea of how one computer stacks up against others, real-world tasks are usually better for putting a computer through its paces. With that in mind, I opened an 88MB video file in QuickTime and chose the "Save for Web" command. This essentially exports the same video into several different versions at the same time -- and it pegs the processor while doing so. (I use iSlayer's iStat Menus, a great free utility, to monitor what's going on with my computer; it places a series of icons in the menu bar showing you what the CPU is up to, how hot the computer is running, how your network connection is doing, etc.)

Using my own older MacBook Pro -- remember, it has the dual-core Core 2 Duo chip, but a fast SSD drive -- the video export task took 61 seconds. Doing the same thing on my iMac took just 29 seconds. And exporting the video on the new Core i5-based MacBook Pro took 51 seconds.

That might not sound like much of a leap over my last-generation MacBook Pro. But my laptop would have been left even further in the dust if it had a 5,400-rpm hard drive in it instead of an SSD.

If you want more power than the two Core i5 chips offer, you can opt for the 2.66 GHz Core i7. The i7 can spool both cores to 3.06 GHz or, if you're maxing out just one, hit 3.33 GHz. Of course, to get that speed, you'll have to buy the $2,199 15-in. MacBook Pro or get an i7 as an option on the top-end 17-in. model. (The i7 processor would be good for something like high-definition video encoding, because it's 50% faster than the previous generation's 2.8-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, according to Apple.)

Benchmark results

Xbench test

Geekbench test

QuickTime export test

April 2010 MacBook Pro 15 with 2.4-GHz Core i5 and 5,400-rpm HDD

152.03

4,783

51 seconds

June 2009 MacBook Pro 17 with 3.06-GHz Core 2 Duo and SSD

209

4,192

61 seconds

October 2009 iMac with 2.66-GHz quadcore Core i5 and 7,200-rpm HDD

204.18

6,473

29 seconds

How the 15-in. MacBook Pro stacks up to a Core i5 iMac and Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.

That kind of power is great if you're a video editor or rendering something in a 3D modeling app like Modo. If time is money, you might be able to justify the extra expense. But for most not-quite power users, the i5 should suffice. Not only is it fast and energy-efficient, but it also runs at a relatively cool 115 degrees Fahrenheit during general use. (Watching hi-def videos in full screen through iTunes kicked the temperature up to 153 degrees, but I could barely hear the cooling fans turning.)

In fact, if I were buying a MacBook Pro this year, I'd be fine with the Core i5. Although I typically lust after -- and often buy -- the fastest processor available, this time around I'd opt for the low-end 15-incher instead of the high-end model and use the $400 I'd save to buy an SSD drive.

Options I'd Choose: SSD and High-Res Display

I've been an SSD convert ever since I used a MacBook Air with one; that's why I installed one in the MacBook Pro I bought last summer. It feels just as supercharged now as it did last summer. I've had zero problems with the drive or the laptop itself. In fact, it's been the best laptop I've ever owned, and over the years, I've had several.

When it comes to SSD options for the 15-in. MacBook Pro, Apple gives you three ways to spend money: You can go lean and get a 128GB SSD for $300, go extravagant with a 256GB SSD for $750, or go money-is-no-object outrageous with the 512GB SSD for $1,400. Going all out would boost the price of this $1,799 laptop to $3,199, which is almost 44% more. Since I don't need a lot of room for data, the 128GB drive works fine for me.

Put simply: Any of these Core-based MacBook Pros would be a screamer with an SSD.

I'd also go for another new option Apple is offering on this particular model: a higher-resolution screen. The 15-in. MacBook Pro comes with a 1440-by-900-pixel screen; for an extra $150, you can order one that's 1680 by 1050 pixels. Like fast processors and SSDs, I like pixels. My 17-in. MacBook Pro has a 1920-by-1200-pixel screen, and I flat-out love it. So the prospect of a higher-resolution screen in the 15-in. MacBook Pro is a welcome addition. In fact, I'd be happier if Apple offered a 1920-by-1200-pixel screen in this model, but I'm not holding my breath.

Although higher resolution can make things look a little smaller, the increased sharpness -- and the extra screen real estate -- is well worth it. If you're keeping track, the pixels-per-inch count on the stock model works out to about 106; on the optional higher-resolution screen, it's 129. (On my own MacBook Pro, it's 133.)

The standard resolution on the 15-in. model is my only nit to pick. Given that I'm used to a higher resolution, everything on the new MacBook Pro felt slightly oversized, whether it was menus, text or Web pages. That's why, personally, I'd opt for the upgraded screen resolution in the new model. Again, though, resolution is really a matter of personal preference -- and eyesight. The same is true for Apple's now-standard glossy screens. You can't get the anti-glare finish on the 13-in. models, but you can get it on the 15-in. and 17-in. versions. But it'll cost you an extra $150.

Bottom Line

All in all, Apple has delivered a laptop that's more than just an evolutionary upgrade with unseen updates under the hood. It has moved its higher-end MacBook Pros closer to true quadcore speeds, while improving battery life and adding serious GPU performance. Given that the prices across the line are roughly the same as those of the last generation, depending on exactly which model you choose, that should be enough to make these laptops a sweet deal for anyone looking to upgrade.

Me? I'm standing pat for now with the MacBook Pro I have; my new iPad should keep my techno-lust engaged for the time being. But it's good to see that Apple hasn't lost sight of the fact that the iPad, as phenomenal as it is, is but one of several options for would-be Mac buyers. For users who need the horsepower of a full-featured laptop, the latest MacBook Pro models should more than fit the bill, offering stylish construction, rock-solid design, long battery life and more than enough processing power to get them through any digital task.

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