At a Glance
- Huge, beautiful glossy screen
- Large multitouch trackpad
- Excessive screen glare
- “No-button” touchpad learning curve
Apple’s largest laptop gains speed and options while dropping in price, making for a great value.
During WWDC, Apple revamped nearly the entire Mac laptop line, leaving only the $999, entry-level white MacBook unchanged–and that model had been revised just two weeks earlier. But while most models gained new capabilities, the 17-inch MacBook Pro was the sole Mac laptop that retained its design and feature set. That isn’t surprising, considering that Apple’s largest laptop had joined its siblings in donning a unibody enclosure only a few months earlier. Even so, the company has improved the performance and upgrade options of its 17-incher while making it more affordable.
The latest version of Apple’s top-of-the-line pro laptop has the same basic features as the model that debuted at January’s Macworld Expo (and shipped in February). Along with the aluminum unibody enclosure and the impressively long-life battery (more on that below), the flagship feature is the 17-inch, mercury-free, LED-backlit display. Sporting a 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution, the screen resides behind a thin sheet of glossy, arsenic-free glass. The screen seems enormous, especially if you’re used to a 13- or 15-inch model; it’s great for working with multiple windows or applications simultaneously.
On the other hand, the screen’s high resolution means that items are quite small; often I had to enlarge the type size, especially when browsing the Web. And while the screen produces exceptionally vivid colors and deep, dark blacks (this display uses the same 60-percent-greater-color-gamut technology that Apple is touting on the smaller MacBook Pros), the frequent criticism of glossy screens remains valid: If the laptop is positioned poorly, you end up with glare, and the large dimensions make reorienting the screen to avoid the glare that much more difficult. Apple still offers a $50 build-to-order option for an antiglare, matte screen.
The 17-inch MacBook Pro continues to feature dual video cards: the nVidia GeForce 9600M GT with 512MB of dedicated memory, and the lesser-performing nVidia GeForce 9400M, which shares 256MB of system memory. You can easily switch between them to get better performance or battery life, respectively, although switching requires you to log out and then log back in. You still get a 1066MHz frontside bus, 4GB of 1066GHz DDR3 memory (upgradable to 8GB), an 8X slot-loading SuperDrive, gigabit ethernet, three USB 2.0 ports, a single FireWire 800 port, AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi (supporting 802.11n draft and 802.11a/b/g), Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), an iSight camera, a backlit keyboard, and separate audio input and output jacks, each of which autoswitches between optical-digital and analog. It also includes built-in stereo speakers, a mono microphone, Apple’s MagSafe power jack, and a Kensington lock slot. All of the ports are on the left side of the laptop, with the optical drive slot on the right.
Like all current MacBook Pro models, the 17-inch version features Apple’s large, multitouch trackpad. The trackpad makes multitouch gestures easy and fun to use, although it requires an adjustment period for people accustomed to a traditional touchpad with separate buttons. The physical click, which requires you to depress the entire trackpad, feels especially odd. Even after using a recent 13-inch MacBook with a similar trackpad for several months, I prefer the touch-sensitive tap approach, which you can enable in Trackpad preferences.
The Mini DisplayPort jack supports VGA, DVI, and dual-link DVI video output using the appropriate adapter. Unfortunately, no video adapters are included, not even the basic DVI version, which will cost you another $29. Similarly, you can use an Apple Remote with the 17-inch MacBook Pro, but you have to pony up another $19 to get it. These omissions seem cheap given the price you have to pay for the computer.
This 17-inch model retains the dimensions of its short-lived predecessor, measuring 15.5 inches wide, 10.5 inches deep, and just under an inch thick; it weighs 6.6 pounds. Unlike its 15-inch siblings, which now have an SD Card slot, it keeps the popular-with-pros ExpressCard/34 slot, making it the only Mac laptop with such expandability.
But with the few changes Apple did make, the 17-inch MacBook Pro has become a better value. First, the stock processor is now a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo, up slightly from the previous model’s 2.66GHz. (Level 2 cache remains at 6MB.) Second, you get a 500GB, 5400-rpm hard drive, up from 320GB. While those are relatively minor changes, Apple lowered the price of the laptop, from $2799 to $2499–the same price as the best previous-generation 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Apple also improved the build-to-order upgrade options. You can now bump the processor up to 3.06GHz for $300; the previous CPU upgrade, priced similarly, topped out at 2.93GHz. An upgrade to a 7200-rpm drive with the same 500GB capacity is $50. And the cost of upgrading to a solid-state drive is now lower: A 128GB model will set you back $200 (compared to $300 previously), and a 256GB model costs $650 (compared to $750 before).
As you might expect, given the small bump in processor speed, the latest 17-inch MacBook Pro doesn’t exactly leave its predecessor in the dust. In fact, the differences between 2.66GHz and 2.8GHz are barely noticeable–a few seconds here and there in Macworld’s testing. In day-to-day use, however, it offers impressive performance for a laptop. With the exception of hard-drive-intensive tasks, which usually suffer on the 5400-rpm laptop hard drive, moving from my Mac Pro to this MacBook Pro didn’t result in a noticeable drop in performance. Similarly, the battery life is essentially unchanged from that of the earlier model, with this machine lasting 4 hours, 18 minutes in Macworld’s tests. What’s interesting is that when thrown the PC WorldBench 6 gauntlet, this 17-inch machine didn’t fare quite as well. In our tests, it scored a 101 in WorldBench (running in Windows Vista through Boot Camp). To put this in perspective, the cheaper, smaller 15-inch MacBook Pro outperformed its big brother in the same exact test. As for PC World’s battery life tests, this machine only lasted 3 hours, 33 minutes — certainly not bad for a desktop-replacement class machine.
The latest 17-inch MacBook Pro is by all measures a minor hardware upgrade over its predecessor, offering only slightly faster processor options and an increase in hard-drive capacity. The more significant change is the value you get for your money. If you purchased a 17-inch MacBook Pro after February’s unibody introduction, you have little reason to upgrade now–or to regret your purchase. But if you’ve been on the fence about splurging for the monster of all MacBooks, the decision to buy just got easier: This is the lowest price Apple has ever charged for a top-of-the-line notebook.