Laptops

15-inch MacBook Pro: Same Look, More Speed

Let's get this out of the way first thing: Apple's new MacBook Pro line of laptops, unveiled late last month and almost lost in the din of publicity around the iPad 2 launch, do not -- repeat, do not -- use flawed Sandy Bridge processors.

If you follow these things, you may remember that back in January, Intel found a minor flaw in the Cougar Point chipset that's part of the latest Core series of processors. Intel stopped production, acknowledged the problem, and began shipping corrected chips by late February.

Ever since, would-be laptop buyers, especially those who track the ins and outs of chip technology, have wondered whether any of those early processors found their way into Apple's newest MacBook Pros.

According to Apple: No.

Now, with that piece of business out of the way, we can turn our attention to what the new MacBook Pros did get: noticeably faster quad-core Core i5 and i7 processors in the 15-in. and 17-in. models and dual-core chips in the 13-inch models, an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor (with a separate AMD Radeon graphics chip in higher-end models, some of which deliver 1GB of video RAM) and perhaps most notably, a new high-speed I/O technology that Apple and Intel have dubbed Thunderbolt. (It used to be called Light Peak; they're the same thing.)

There's also a new webcam, still built into the top of the black bezel surrounding the screen, that allows you to conduct high-definition, 720p video chats using FaceTime.

In other words, virtually all of the changes in the MacBook Pro family are under the hood. The latest generation looks just like the previous few versions: unibody aluminum case, black chicklet keys with white lettering, a phenomenally bright LED-backlit screen, and the usual retinue of peripheral ports: two USB, the aforementioned Thunderbolt (which now replaces the Mini DisplayPort and works for external monitors) and an SDXC card slot. (The 17-in. model soldiers on with an ExpressCard/34 slot.)

Clearly, Apple focused more on function instead of form this time around, but I'm still hoping that the next generation will take on the slimmer, more wedge-shaped look of the MacBook Air unveiled last fall.

The current line-up

The model Apple loaned me for this review is the pricier of the two 15-in. MacBook Pros Apple now sells. It has a quad-core Core i7 processor running at 2.2GHz, though that speed changes depending on what you're doing. There's an integrated Intel graphics chip plus an AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete graphics processor for more intense work. (You don't have to switch between the two; the MacBook Pro does that for you depending on whether you're, say, surfing the Web or playing a graphics-rich game.) It also comes with a slow (5,400rpm) but rather roomy 750GB hard drive.

Price for this model: $2,199. That's $400 more than the slightly slower 15-in. model and $300 less than the biggest MacBook Pro, which offers the same components with a 17-in. screen. The 17-in. model now costs $2,499, $200 more than the last 17-in. model did -- a sign that Apple thinks the recession truly is over, at least for wannabe 17-in. laptop owners.

The line starts at $1,199 for a 13-in. MacBook Pro with a 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5 chip, the integrated graphics processor and a 320GB hard drive -- meaning there's a MacBook Pro for a range of pocketbooks.

All MacBook Pros come with 4GB of RAM, though you can double that to 8GB for an extra $200, and you can really turn your laptop into a screamer by having Apple swap out the hard drive for a solid-state drive (SSD). I have a two-year-old 17-in. MacBook Pro -- same basic design, look and feel as the current version -- and it zips along with a 256GB SSD I added.

Sandy Bridge arrives

In the old days of the megahertz wars, say, five or 10 years ago, computer owners could always one-up friends and foes by getting a new computer with the latest, fastest chip. But the arrival of dual-core, then quad-core, processors, made it harder to easily compare chips on a megahertz basis. Here's why: You can crunch more data with multi-core processors rated at slower speeds.

For example, the Core i7 in this MacBook Pro generally runs at 2.2GHz if all four cores are needed. But with Intel's Turbo Boost technology, if only a couple of cores are needed, those two run at a higher clock speed. In this case, that's 3.3GHz. Four cores at 2.2GHz, two cores at 3.3GHz. That's why an i7 rated at 2.2GHz is actually faster than the 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo processor in my own MacBook Pro.

There's more to these new processors than just clock speeds, however. The biggest advance is that everything is integrated in one place: the processor itself, the Intel integrated graphics, the memory controller and cache. That allows the sum to work faster than the parts.

And Intel's Hyper-Threading technology adds even more speed: It allows two threads of work to run at the same time across four cores, essentially giving you four real processor cores and four virtual processor cores. The computer thinks it has eight cores, even though there are only four.

What's this mean? For day-to-day stuff like Web surfing, text editing and listening to iTunes, not a lot. Web page rendering is still going to be limited by your Internet connection and your browser. But if you're doing something like encoding video or laying down audio tracks, you should see a big gain in speed.

More about performance in a bit. But I will say it's weird to glance at my iStat menus in the menu bar and see eight "CPUs" sitting up there.

Thunderbolt

In many ways, the biggest change -- one that most users may not need or use right away -- is the adoption of Intel's Thunderbolt technology for connecting peripherals. Think of Thunderbolt as a super-high-speed data transfer technology that most people haven't yet figured out how they'd use.

Thunderbolt is sort of like USB on steroids (it's as much as 20 times faster than USB 2.0, 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and more than twice as fast as USB 3.0) because it delivers 10Gbit/sec throughput in both directions. That's serious data transfer speed. And on top of that, you can daisy chain several peripherals to the same port, meaning you can plug in a RAID array, a digital video camera and a high-resolution display and use them all at the same time without losing any throughput. If you're working with high-definition video in the field, this is a big deal.

Note: Thunderbolt is based on DisplayPort technology, meaning an external screen that uses the Mini DisplayPort can plug right in. But you'll need an adapter for other displays.

I like the way the folks at mac-thunderbolt.com put it in describing Thunderbolt: "A Thunderbolt port's 10Gbps data transfer rates are enough to dump an entire DVD's worth of data in seconds, or back up a full terabyte drive in a few minutes ... AND drive an LCD display at high resolution at the same time, while you're chatting on a Thunderbolt high-definition Web cam at 1080 resolution -- and still have bandwidth to spare on just ONE of it's DUAL-CHANNEL capabilities. Mind-blowing to say the least."

Get the picture?

But for now, not many MacBook Pro owners fall into that category. No doubt if you're working with a lot of video, especially high-def video, and you want to be able to edit that video in real time on the go, Thunderbolt should be a boon. For the rest of us, it's a little early to tell how much it will figure into day-to-day use. In fact, it's not easy even finding peripherals that use Thunderbolt so you can take advantage of its speed. LaCie, for, instance, has a variety of disk drives that support Thunderbolt -- but they won't be out till this summer.

Apple's move to incorporate the technology -- and essentially skip the bandwagon toward USB 3.0 -- is a bit of a gamble. It's betting that its customers in the years to come will be doing more with things like high-definition video and looking to move as much of their data around in as short a time as possible. If they're right, Apple's ahead of the competition in a serious way. If not, this could wind up being a serious, but seriously nichey, technology for only a small number of users.

Hi-def FaceTime

What does offer a lot of promise for many users is the new webcam built into the MacBook Pro. Apple has had built-in webcams in its laptops for years, and boosting the resolution of the cameras now is a smart move. A built-in hardware encoder that's part of the integrated graphics chip is what makes the HD video possible.

FaceTime, Apple's videoconferencing app, works exceedingly well: I've chatted with friends in Brazil, as well as with co-workers and friends here in the States. The move to high-resolution, wide-screen video -- it displays at 1280 x 720 pixels, or 720p -- makes the experience even more lifelike. The only hitch is that for both sides of the chat to see high-def, both have to be using one of the new MacBook Pros. While those you're chatting with can see you in crystal clear HD -- you have the new camera, remember -- they won't look as good to you.

As you'd expect, FaceTime on the Mac integrates with FaceTime on the iPad 2, iPhone 4 and iPod Touch, allowing you to do video chats with users of those devices -- as long as everyone is on a Wi-Fi connection. (You don't have to be on the same Wi-Fi network, of course, but FaceTime chat over 3G networks hasn't been rolled out, and may never be given the bandwidth requirements needed for it to work well.)

The FaceTime app is available through the Mac App Store for 99 cents. It's worth it if you do a lot of video chatting.

Performance and battery life

When it announced the new MacBook Pros, Apple noted that the batteries deliver "up to 7 hours" of use on a charge. That's less than the battery life estimates Apple used to tout -- not because the length of time they last has dropped, but because Apple has changed the way it calculates battery drain. I've always found Apple's estimates to be on the optimistic side, and this change brings those numbers closer to what I found with the new 15-in. model.

Apple now relies on what it calls a wireless Web test that uses a script to mimic how a laptop user would surf the Web. It visits 25 top sites, watches embedded videos -- including Flash videos -- and performs searches. The same test applied to earlier laptops would have generated about the same results, meaning you're getting substantially more horsepower with the new hardware without a hit on battery life.

For my own battery test, I downloaded and installed several recent Apple updates, imported a 62.8MB movie into iMovie (then exported it as a "large" 960-by-540-pixel movie), fired up Safari to surf a variety of sites, opened iTunes and played a streaming radio station (over Wi-Fi), and worked on this review. The MacBook Pro lasted 5 hours and 1 minute before running out of power -- 2 hours short of Apple's 7-hour estimate, but still pretty good.

As for that movie file, I did the same import/export test using a Core i5-based iMac -- the 2.66GHz version that debuted late in 2009 -- and found that the MacBook Pro and the iMac performed the task in almost the same time. The iMac exported the movie in 1 minute and 5 seconds; the laptop needed 9 seconds more. (The same process took 2 minutes and 9 seconds on my older MacBook Pro.)

Next, I ran Xbench 1.3 for a quick benchmark test to compare this laptop to my iMac and my older MacBook Pro. Given the different hardware configurations, it's not strictly an apples-to-apples test: The new laptop has that slow 5,400rpm hard drive; the iMac has a 3.5-in. 7,200rpm drive and my own MacBook Pro has the SSD (which can heavily skew the final results because SSDs are so much faster).

The new MacBook Pro more than held its own. It scored 218 on Xbench -- higher than I expected, given its slow hard drive. My own MacBook Pro scored 245, but its advantage came from the SSD I installed after I bought it. As for the iMac, it returned a score of 217, one point lower than the new MacBook Pro.

The new MacBook Pros also garnered high scores in Macworld's battery of benchmark tests.

A word about storage

As those Xbench scores -- and real-life use -- demonstrate, the type and speed of the storage in your computer makes a big difference in how fast it is and how quickly you can complete the task at hand. CPUs and graphics chips are only part of the equation.

The default drive in all of the MacBook Pro models is a 5,400rpm hard drive. The advantage? Lots of room. As noted earlier, this laptop has three-quarters of a terabyte of space, room for a lot of digital videos, tunes, files and projects. But if speed is more your thing, I'd recommend opting for the faster 7,200rpm drive available for the 15-in. and 17-in. models.

You can still get a reasonable amount of storage -- 500GB -- and you'll notice the difference in daily use. And if you can afford to give up even more storage space for speed, you'll be blown away by how fast an SSD will make your laptop.

But there's a price to pay. SSDs, while more common than they were even a couple of years ago, still cost vastly more per gigabyte than hard disks. A 128GB SSD costs an extra $100 on the higher-end 15-in. MacBook Pro, a 256GB SSD adds $500, and a 512GB SSD sets you back a whopping $1,100 -- the proverbial arm and a leg. But if you're looking to buy something great with this year's tax refund, an SSD sure would fit the bill. You won't be sorry.

Final thoughts

The latest generation of MacBook Pro laptops represents a solid advance to a line-up that has proved to be popular among Mac buyers -- and with good reason. They're well-designed, solid, reliable, feature-rich and offer a measure of cutting-edge technology.

The Sandy Bridge-based processors offer noteworthy speed advances over past models, with little trade-off in battery life or heat. The updated graphics system should handle any gaming or digital video tasks you throw at it, and the inclusion of Thunderbolt offers a glimpse of future I/O technology that -- if you can take advantage of it -- will make these laptops a smart investment.

Although they look just like recent iterations of MacBook Pros, they're anything but when it comes to the technology inside.

Ken Mingis is Managing Editor, News at Computerworld and also oversees the site's Macintosh Knowledge Center. His e-mail address is kmingis@computerworld.com. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter @kmingis or subscribe to Ken's RSS feeds:

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