First Look: Apple's Intel-Based MacBook Pro Laptop

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It has a new name on the outside and a new processor on the inside, but the $2499 MacBook Pro is in many ways indistinguishable from its predecessor, the 15-inch PowerBook G4. Yes, this first MacBook Pro model is a huge step forward in many different ways, but it also provides reassuring continuity for longtime PowerBook users.

Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro
As you'd expect from the first model of its kind, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is a complicated beast. (We tested the 2-GHz model.) When it comes to running Universal applications, it's clearly faster than the PowerBook. Yet it also has some quirks, and actually lags behind the PowerBook in some hardware and software areas. Plus, the MacBook Pro's huge potential can't be fully realized until more programs are released that can take advantage of its strengths. (For more Macworld coverage of the MacBook Pro, see Jason Snell's MacBook Pro Reviewer's Notebook.)

Making the Migration

It's a potentially obvious point, but important to note: These Intel-based Macs are still Macs through and through. We put a PowerBook G4 into FireWire Target mode and attached it to the MacBook Pro, transferred its files via Apple's built-in Migration Assistant utility, and had the new laptop up and running in a couple of hours with no major hitches. With all desktop windows in their appropriate places and file icons properly strewn about the desktop, the new MacBook Pro felt exactly like the old PowerBook.

After the migration was complete, we experienced several annoying slowdowns, but a trip to Apple's Activity Monitor utility revealed that the culprit was Spotlight, which had to index the MacBook Pro's hard drive after the Migration Assistant utility finished its transfer. Once Spotlight was done with its work, most common operations felt much more responsive than they had on the PowerBook. (We did encounter a few unexpected appearances of OS X's spinning rainbow cursor of doom, but they abated after we discarded several old items--including Smart Crash Reports and SIMBL--that the Migration Utility had transferred to our InputManagers folder.)

Though several of the bread-and-butter applications we used aren't currently available in Universal versions, we rarely perceived any serious slowness in those apps. Occasionally Microsoft Entourage got a bit poky, and Microsoft Word seemed somewhat confused when we tried to use the MacBook Pro's Scrolling Trackpad feature. But generally, applications running under Mac OS X's Rosetta code-translation technology, which converts instructions meant for PowerPC processors into those suitable for Intel chips, worked quite well.

When it comes to Universal applications running natively on the MacBook Pro, they definitely felt perkier than on the PowerBook--and the entire computing experience simply felt more responsive than on the 1.67-GHz PowerBook G4.

The Speed's the Thing

As with the first edition of the Intel-based iMacs, the focus on these new MacBook Pro systems is going to be on their speed. For the past few years, PowerBook users have griped about the relatively small speed improvements in the product line. Since Apple first announced its switch to Intel chips, speculation has been intense that Intel-based laptops would be able to perform at speeds simply unavailable to PowerBook G4 users.

And the MacBook Pro specs would seem to indicate that a major speed boost is in the offing: Compared with the PowerBook G4's relatively meager specs (167-MHz system bus, a single 1.67-GHz G4 processor, and a Mobility Radeon 9700 video card), the MacBook Pro's architecture (667-MHz bus, dual-core 2-GHz processor, and Mobility Radeon X1600 card) makes it a potential speed demon.

So does the MacBook Pro deliver on its promise? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer when it comes to speed. Like the iMac Core Duo, the MacBook Pro is the first Mac system of its type to feature a dual-core processor, the equivalent of two processors on a single chip. As a result, gauging its actual speed is a lot more complicated than back in the days when processor clock speed alone dominated the discussion.

So yes, the MacBook Pro is generally faster than the 15-inch PowerBook G4 at running Universal applications. How much faster depends on several factors, including how well optimized for Intel processors the applications are, how much the applications take advantage of the MacBook Pro's fast video card, and how well the software supports multiple processors. (For a much more in-depth look at these issues, see our story Inside Intel: Updated Lab Tests and Analysis.)

Some of our tests show major MacBook Pro speed boosts when compared with the PowerBook G4. The 3-D rendering program Cinema 4D XL was 3.3 times as fast at rendering a scene; the graphics-intensive game Unreal Tournament 2004 had a frame rate 2.2 times better; and an iTunes encode was 1.3 times as fast. Other tests of less processor-intensive tasks, such as creating a 1GB Zip archive in the Finder, showed more modest gains.

Given that the professional applications included in Apple's Final Cut Studio suite have long been designed to take advantage of Power Mac models with multiple processors, we would anticipate that the Universal versions of those applications will see dramatic speed boosts on the MacBook Pro. Those applications aren't expected to arrive until next month, so we couldn't test them, and we did not receive the Universal Logic Pro 7.2 version in time to test it for this review.

The other major application that many MacBook Pro users will want to run is Adobe Photoshop CS2, and it may be a while before a Universal version arrives. In the interim, the MacBook Pro will run Photoshop via Rosetta. We found Photoshop to be quite usable on the MacBook Pro, but it doesn't run nearly as fast as it does on the most recent top-of-the-line PowerBook. The 1.67-GHz PowerBook G4 performed our suite of 14 scripted Photoshop tasks 1.7 times faster than the 2-GHz MacBook Pro. As a result, it's hard for us to recommend the MacBook Pro to heavy Photoshop users until Adobe ships a Universal version. However, casual Photoshop users should be fine.

New Book, Similar Cover

In terms of physical appearance, the MacBook Pro is almost identical to the 15-inch PowerBook G4. It weighs the same, though it's slightly wider and thinner, and its trackpad, mouse button, and front latch are also a tad wider than the PowerBook's.

However, the MacBook Pro's screen is 60 pixels shorter than the most recent 15-inch PowerBook G4, offering a native resolution of 1440 by 900 pixels. The screen is definitely brighter than the PowerBook's. Nestled right above the screen is the MacBook Pro's built-in iSight camera, and next to it is a green light that illuminates whenever the camera is in use. (The iSight worked well in all the video chats we tried; however, because the MacBook Pro's microphone is embedded in the left speaker grille, our iChat audio was restricted to the right speaker and sounded a bit too quiet.)

The MacBook Pro is Apple's first laptop model to come with an infrared remote control and Front Row software, and a corresponding infrared port sits on the front edge of the system, to the left of the latch. The version of Front Row on these systems is essentially the same as the one on Apple's iMacs--and it includes all the same limitations, including a lack of robust music-play features and weak video- and slide-show-playback controls.

That said, the combination of Front Row, a remote control, and a small Mac that can process external video output makes for some very interesting scenarios. For example, you can use the MacBook Pro and a video adapter to drive a TV in a home theater. Unfortunately, I was unable to simply close the MacBook Pro, attach it to my TV set, and then recline with the included remote--the MacBook Pro wouldn't stay awake. Plugging a mouse into one of the MacBook's USB ports worked, but it would be nice if it were easier to use the MacBook Pro as a TV or a projector-playback system.

Users of the last-generation PowerBooks will notice that the MacBook Pro is also missing several features found on those models. The S-Video port is gone, though Apple's $19 DVI-to-video adapter easily replaces it. As with the iMac, the MacBook Pro has no modem, so those who need one will need to invest $49 in Apple's USB modem; and the PowerBook G4's FireWire 800 port is also a goner.

Adding FireWire 800 to the MacBook Pro is possible, but it requires use of the ExpressCard slot, a new slot that replaces the PowerBook G4's PC Card slot. The ExpressCard/34 slot lets cards run at full PCI Express speeds, but it's incompatible with PC Cards (as well as wider ExpressCard/54 cards), and currently few ExpressCards exist. Still, we expect that the MacBook Pro will spur development of Mac-compatible ExpressCards, not only for FireWire 800 but for numerous other uses, including support for other storage formats, expanded wireless connectivity, and video-out capability.

Battery Life

Unlike the data accompanying previous laptop models, Apple has refrained from making any claims about the MacBook Pro's potential battery life. Testing battery life is extremely tricky, since different types of usage (and different energy-saving preferences) can dramatically vary the results of battery life tests as well as real-world total battery life. In an all-out power drain test, in which we turned off all power-saving options and played a DVD on both the MacBook Pro and the PowerBook G4, the MacBook Pro died 4 minutes earlier than the PowerBook--a test that suggests the two models' battery life will be similar. In regular use over several days with normal power settings, we found that we could get more than 3.5 hours' worth of work done, with charge to spare. As a result, we think it's safe to say that while the MacBook Pro isn't going to win any last-laptop-standing battery challenges, its battery life will be in line with the experiences of PowerBook G4 users.

Power? It's a Snap

It's hard to get people excited about a power cord, but Apple did its best when it introduced the MagSafe connector at Macworld Expo in January. The MacBook Pro's MagSafe port is a small rectangular indentation on the computer's left-rear edge; the rectangular end of the MacSafe power cord attaches to it magnetically for a secure connection--though one that is easily broken under moderate force.

The idea behind MagSafe is that tripping over the laptop's power cord won't do something horrible like ripping off the power jack or yanking the computer off your desk and onto a hard floor below. And it works as advertised: During our several attempts to topple the MacBook Pro, the MagSafe connector did its job, releasing its attachment to the computer and falling harmlessly to the floor.

The cable connecting the MagSafe connector to the AC adapter's power brick is noticeably thicker and stiffer than the one on Apple's previous generation of laptop power cords, which is good news for anyone who has shredded one after many months of heavy use. The power adapter's power brick is larger, closer to the size of an AirPort Express.

Hard-core PowerBook users (and IT managers, for that matter) will roll their eyes at the introduction of a new Apple power-cord style, because it will force them to buy more new adapters as supplements and extras. But it's been several years since the last time Apple switched adapter styles, and the advantages of the MagSafe connector are worth the slight inconvenience.

All Features Great and Small

With a product as new and hotly anticipated as the MacBook Pro, the list of details that prospective buyers might be curious about is nearly endless. Here's a roundup of other items we noticed while testing this system:

Wireless range: In our observations, the MacBook Pro appears to have better wireless range than the PowerBook G4. At the same distances, we were able to see more bars in Apple's Internet Connect utility and a higher signal strength in iStumbler on the MacBook Pro. However, when we tested an iBook in the same conditions, its performance was notably better than the MacBook Pro's.

Heat: The MacBook Pro is definitely not a cool system. After an hour of use, we found ours to be quite warm, particularly on the left side toward the back. However, we didn't find the heat level uncomfortable, and it seemed roughly in line with the heat generated by PowerBook G4 models.

Noise: In general operation, the MacBook Pro is fairly quiet. However, several users of the first batch of MacBook Pro models have reported a quiet hum emitted by the computer under certain circumstances. We did notice this on a few of the MacBook Pro models we looked at, and while we didn't find it particularly distracting, it's worth noting in case you're someone who is particularly sensitive to noise or who works in a quiet environment.

Optical Drive: While the MacBook Pro massively improves most of the PowerBook G4's specs, one area has suffered a serious backslide: the optical drive. Because the MacBook Pro is thinner than the PowerBook, Apple had to use a new optical drive that's approximately 3mm thinner. So rather than the optical drive used the previous-model PowerBook, which featured an 8X SuperDrive with support for dual-layer DVD burning, the MacBook contains only a 4X SuperDrive model that can't burn dual-layer discs--hard-core disc burners be warned.

Macworld's Buying Advice

The 2-GHz MacBook Pro is a fitting successor to the PowerBook G4. While its new internal architecture makes it noticeably faster than its predecessor--and blazingly faster in certain high-end tasks--it's still comfortably a Mac laptop.

If most of the applications you use are available in Universal versions, or are relatively low-power programs running in Rosetta, buying a MacBook Pro will be to your advantage. If you're upgrading from a two- or three-year-old PowerBook G4, you'll notice a massive speed boost in Universal applications, while Rosetta applications will run at the speed you're used to.

However, if you rely on programs that won't run in Rosetta (some of Apple's Final Cut Studio apps or Microsoft's Virtual PC, for example), you should delay your purchase until Universal versions of those programs become available. And if you use a resource-intensive program such as Photoshop CS2, or you need to wring every last bit of performance out of your system when you're on the road, you'll likewise be better off waiting until your software has been updated before buying a MacBook Pro.

Jason Snell is Macworld's editorial director and has been using Mac portables since 1992.

This story, "First Look: Apple's Intel-Based MacBook Pro Laptop" was originally published by Macworld.

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