Apple's latest 17-inch MacBook Pro--released as part of last month's laptop overhaul--offers an impressive mix of price savings and performance gains over the 17-inch model it replaces.
To recap the recent changes to Apple's MacBook Pro line--which also included new versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro as well as revamped 15-inch models--the new 17-inch looks identical to the $2499 17-inch MacBook Pro released last year. But that's only the outside--inside the new laptop, a 2.53GHz Intel Core i5 replaces the 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo used previously. Also new to the 17-inch model are updates to the dual graphics processors and the way you switch between them. The Nvidia GeForce GT 330M takes the place of the Nvidia GeForce GT 9600M processor as the higher-powered discrete graphics option. Intel HD graphics are now used as the lower-powered, energy-saving integrated graphics option, replacing the Nvidia GeForce 4200M used in the late 2009 17-inch MacBook Pro. As with the latest 15-inch MacBook Pros, a new automatic graphics switching technology seamlessly switches between the graphics processors depending on the needs of the applications currently running.
The number, type, and placement of ports remains the same on the latest 17-inch MacBook Pro, as does the model's 1400-by-900 resolution glossy screen with LED backlighting, 4GB of RAM, the 500GB 5400RPM hard drive, and its captive battery.
Given that the most significant changes to the 17-inch configuration take place under the hood, let's focus on performance. Using our Speedmark 6 system performance benchmarking suite to compare the new $2299 2.53GHz Core i5 model to the $2499 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo model it replaces, we found the i5 model to be nearly 12 percent faster than the more expensive Core 2 Duo model.
The new system made its biggest gains in processor-intensive tasks like Cinebench, which showed the new model to be 22 percent faster than the previous 17-inch offering, and MathematicaMark 7, where the new model beat the older system by 30 percent. The new MacBook Pro imported photos and built thumbnails and previews in Aperture 21 percent faster than the older model. Other tests, however, like Photoshop, zipping and unzipping files in the Finder, and iMovie exports showed little or no difference between the new and previous 17-inch MacBook Pro models.
Aside from the screen size and an extra 256MB of graphics memory, the new 17-inch MacBook Pro shares nearly all of the same specifications of the $1999 15-inch MacBook Pro, right down to the 2.53GHz Core i5 processor that powers each laptop. It's no surprise, then, to see that the two models performed very similarly--in fact, results were within one to two seconds of each other in more than half of the individual tests that make up Speedmark 6, including Photoshop, Cinebench, Mathematica, iMovie import, iTunes, iPhoto, Pages, and Handbrake. We found the biggest difference in our Compressor test, in which the 17-inch 2.53GHz Core i5 model was 10 percent faster than the 2.53GHz Core i5 15-inch MacBook Pro. (That 15-inch model hasn't fared well in the Compressor test for whatever reason; you may remember that it was also out-performed by the new 2.4GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro in that same test.)
But the 17-inch MacBook Pro couldn't top another 15-inch configuration--the $2199 model that runs on a Core i7 processor. That 2.66GHz Core i7 chip bested the 17-inch MacBook Pro and its 2.53GHz Core i5 processor by about 5 percent in our Speedmark 6 tests, with Cinebench and MathematicaMark showing the biggest differences. The two systems were neck and neck in our Handbrake, Finder unzip, iMovie, and iPhoto tests.
A comparison between the new i5 17-inch MacBook Pro and the 2.66GHzCore i5 iMac shows the lingering performance penalty to be paid for choosing a portable over a desktop. iMacs and Mac Pros use 7200 RPM hard drives, while MacBook Pros use slower spinning 5400 RPM drives. Additionally, the MacBook Pros use dual-core mobile versions of the Core i5 and i7, while the iMacs use quad-core desktop versions.
The mobile versions of both the Core i5 and Core i7 processors support Hyper-Threading, which uses virtual cores to double the number of processors visible to the OS. The desktop i7 supports Hyper-Threading, presenting itself to the operation system as an 8-core processor, but the desktop i5 does not support this virtual core scheme, working only with its four physical cores.
Both the desktop and mobile processors offer Turbo Boost, which allows the processor to speed up for a short period of time when necessary, or to shut down unused cores and give extra resources to the cores in use. For example, Turbo Boost can increase the clock speed of the 2.53GHz Core i5 processor up to 3.07GHz.
How does this translate in terms of performance? In our tests, the 2.66GHz Core i5 27-inch iMac was 37 percent faster overall than the 2.53GHz Core i5 17-inch MacBook Pro. The iMac performed better in every test, but the processor intensive tests revealed the biggest differences, including MathematicaMark 7, which showed the iMac to be 79 percent faster than the i5 17-inch MacBook Pro.
Changes to the graphics chips and subtle changes to the battery allow the i5 17-inch MacBook Pro to last longer on a single charge than did the previous 17-inch model. Our battery test times how long the computer can operate while looping a movie full-screen at full brightness using Quicktime while connected to a Wi-Fi network. When we tested the new 17-inch MacBook Pro, we found that it lasted about 8.5 percent longer than the system it replaces. Comparing the Core i5 17-inch to the new 15-inch models, we found the 15-inch 2.53GHz model to last about 5 percent longer on a single charge, and the 2.66GHz Core i7 15-inch lasted about 10 percent longer.
Note that these tests--and therefore the results--differ significantly from those cited in Apple's marketing materials. According to Apple's tech specs, the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros offer between eight and nine hours of battery life.
You've got options
Apple offers a number of options for customizing the 17-inch MacBook Pro. For more processing power, a 2.66GHz Intel Core i7 is available for an additional $200. Doubling the RAM to 8GB will cost an extra $400, and faster drives, including solid-state drives are also offered.
For those bothered by their reflections on the stock glossy display, an antiglare screen is available for an extra $50.
While we don't rate build-to-order products, we do plan on putting them through our benchmark testing so you can see what kind of performance return you get for your dollar. Check back soon for Macworld Lab's results of some build-to-order configurations we expect to receive later this week.
Macworld buying advice
The new 17-inch MacBook Pro offers better performance, a little more battery life, and costs $200 less than the system it replaces. (And it costs $500 less than the 17-inch MacBook Pro released in January 2009.) The smaller and lighter 15-inch 2.66GHz Core i7 costs less and performs better, but it you want a larger screen or require an ExpressCard/34 slot, the 17-inch is the only member of the MacBook line to offer such features. For mobile Mac users who favor larger laptops, this configuration is a definite improvement over previous 17-inch offerings.
[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]
This story, "Apple 17-inch MacBook Pro/2.53GHz (Core I5)" was originally published by Macworld.