15-Inch MacBook Pro Unites Power with Economy

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.

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