Laptops

Benchmarks: New Built-to-order MacBook Pros

Apple recently updated its entire line of MacBook Pros with new graphics; the 15-inch and 17-inch models also got new Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors. While Macworld reviews only the standard configurations of Apple's desktop and laptop offerings, we will from time to time test custom configurations.

We were able to get our hands on two built-to-order laptops: a 15-inch MacBook Pro with twice the standard RAM and a faster spinning hard drive; and a 17-inch model with an optional i7 processor. We put them though their paces and found that these optional upgrades, not surprisingly, improved overall performance. Whether they're worth the additional cost is debatable.

Let's get specific

The high-end standard configuration 15-inch MacBook Pro ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) costs $2199 and comes with a 2.66GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Our customized system replaces the two 2GB, 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM sticks with two 4GB sticks, at a cost of $400. Next we replaced the 500GB, 5400 rpm hard drive with a 7200-rpm model of the same capacity, adding another $50 to the price. And finally, we replaced the standard 1440-by-900-pixel resolution glossy display with a anti-glare, high-resolution (1680-by-1050 resolution) screen, a $150 option. The total for our custom system is $2799.

The $2299 17-inch MacBook Pro ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) in its standard configuration features a 2.53GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. A 2.66GHz Core i7 is available as a $200 build-to-order option.

Result oriented

To see how the additional memory and faster hard drive affected performance in our 15-inch MacBook Pro, we used our overall system performance test suite, Speedmark 6, on the standard configuration, the custom system with the 7200 rpm hard drive and stock 4GB RAM, and then again with the faster hard drive and 8GB of RAM.

The standard system received a Speedmark 6 score of 161. The stock system with the 7200 rpm hard drive upgrade received a score of 170, about 6 percent faster, overall. As you'd expect, there was little or no difference in the processor intensive, individual tasks included in Speedmark 6; for example, our CineBench CPU tests were identical. Not surprisingly, our disk tests showed dramatic improvement, with the MacBook Pro with the 7200-rpm hard drive duplicating a 1GB folder 19 percent faster than the system with the 5400-rpm drive. Creating a compressed archive of a 2GB folder took 8 percent less time on the 7200 rpm drive, and unzipping the archive was 11 percent faster. Importing JPEGs into iPhoto was 19 percent faster on the MacBook Pro with the 7200-rpm drive, while importing a camera archive into iMovie was 12 percent faster and ripping a chapter from a DVD using Handbrake was 10 percent faster.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro with the faster hard drive and 8GB of RAM scored a 173 in Speedmark 6, about 2 percent faster than the custom system with just the faster hard drive. Comparing the scores of the individual tests that make up Speedmark, there is little difference between the two custom systems, with most tests being within 1 or 2 seconds of each other. The biggest difference was in the iPhoto import, which was 12 percent faster with the additional RAM.

Interestingly, the standard 15-inch MacBook Pro we tested was a bit faster than either custom configuration laptops in a few tests, finishing 6 percent faster than the 7200 rpm model in our Photoshop test suite and 5 percent faster than our faster hard drive and more RAM model. Compressor showed our stock system to be about 2 percent faster than the custom configurations.

Even with the upgrades, our custom 15-inch MacBook Pro, with its dual-core mobile version of the Intel Core i7 processor, ran well behind the 27-inch iMac ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) with a quad-core desktop version of the Core i5. Speedmark 6 showed the iMac to be 22 percent faster overall than the built-to-order MacBook Pro. The i5 iMac was tops in 12 of the individual tasks that make up Speedmark 6, with biggest gains in tests that take advantage of four processing cores, like MathematicMark 7, Cinebench and Compressor. The custom MacBook Pro was 9 percent faster in our iMovie import, 3 percent faster in are Zip archive tests and a second or two faster in Pages and iTunes.

We also ran Speedmark on the custom 17-inch MacBook Pro with the 2.66GHz i7 upgrade. In those tests, we found the 17-inch i7 model to be a little more than 5 percent faster overall than the stock 17-inch model with the 2.53GHz Core i5 processor. The biggest performance improvements were in processor-intensive tasks like Cinebench with a 10 percent faster time, MathematicaMark with 11 percent better performance, and Compressor, finishing the task 7 percent faster. There was only one Speedmark point separating the 15-inch 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro and our build to order 17-inch model with the identical processor.

Comparing these three upgrades, the 7200-rpm drive upgrade seems like the best deal, offering better performance while adding only $50 to the overall price. The Core i7 adds about 9 percent to the overall purchase price, while offering only a 5 percent overall performance increase. If you are a professional using processor-intensive applications on a regular basis, the upgrade might well be worth the extra cash. The $400 for extra RAM didn't show as big of a performance benefit, about 2 percent overall, while adding about 18 percent to the purchase price.

Mirror, mirror

Apple offers an optional anti-glare screen for the i5 and i7-inch MacBook Pros, though it's only available in combination with a higher-resolution display on the 15-inch model for $150 (a high-resolution glossy version is available for $100). A matte version of the 17-inch display with the same standard resolution is available for $50.

Comparing the 15-inch model's standard 1440-by-900 glossy display with the available anti-glare, high-resolution screen with a resolution of 1680-by-1050, the differences are readily apparent. What strikes me first is the lack of the black border that surrounds the glossy screens. Instead, the screen has an aluminum border, making it look more like a pre-unibody MacBook Pro. Secondly, you don't see your reflection or glare when looking at the anti-glare screen, though colors are more muted and blacks don't appear as rich as on the standard glossy screen. Lastly, the resolution--having more pixels per inch allows you to fit more documents, windows and palettes onscreen. Opening an Excel spreadsheet, I found that I could view 10 more rows on the high-resolution screen. I could also fit more of a large image in Photoshop.

The downside is that everything is smaller, including menu text and icons, which can be harder to read. I prefer what I can't have--a 15-inch, standard resolution, anti-glare display. The right screen for you depends on how you plan on using your MacBook Pro and your sensitivity to reflection and glare.

Check back soon for results from Apple's recently announced new 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook.

[James Galbraith is Macworld's lab director.]

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