“Apple's knack for design is untouchable and it has definitely reached the pinnacle of refinement in the super-sleek MacBook Pro.”
- Rock-solid aluminum unibody; excellent display; large trackpad; power graphics card
- Expensive; screen glare; mediocre connectivity
While the MacBook Pro hasn’t grown a metallic shell from its plastic roots like its tiny little brother the MacBook, the grandfather of Apple’s signature notebook line hasn’t grown a year older without an update, either. The Pro picks up a bigger version of the one-piece aluminum shell that little brother also gets, along with faster hardware, an LED-backlit screen, and the biggest news, an enormous multi-touch trackpad with zero exterior buttons – the whole thing depresses to act as one giant button. Read on to see why the retooled 15-inch MacBook Pro is quite possibly Apple’s finest notebook yet. We can’t wait to see what suprises Apple has in store for their next revision of the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
*Editor Note 10/27/08 – As of this date, the 17-inch version of the MacBook Pro has not been redesigned, and as such uses older hardware components. The 17-inch version of the MacBook Pro uses an Nvidia 8600M GT video card (as opposed to the faster and newer 9600M GT in the 15-inch model), has a slower 800MHz front-side bus for the CPU, and uses slower 667MHz memory (as opposed to the 1066MHz in the 15-inch model).
Features and Design
The MacBook Pro comes in two basic configurations: fast and faster. The entry-level $1,999 model gets a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor at its heart, along with 2GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive, while the faster $2,499 version in the same shells gets a faster 2.53GHz processor, double the RAM at 4GB, and a fatter 320GB hard drive. Apple also offers one more shot of speed in the form of a $300 upgrade to a 2.8GHz processor.
Both actually sport the same unique graphics setup, coupling an efficient Nvidia GeForce 9400M with a blazing GeForce 9600M GT (8600M GT in the 170inch) as well, and the capacity to switch between them on demand. The faster model though, gets a GPU with 512MB of RAM, while the slower one packs only 256MB.
Like the ordinary MacBook, the Pro now gets an LED-backlit screen, which fires up instantly and uses less power than the traditional CCFL equivalent. As an added twist, the LCD and the surrounding black bezel have been sealed under a single pane of glass, giving it a sleek edge-to-edge glass look.
Apple’s Ubersexy Unibody
Apple’s old MacBook Pro set a high standard in build quality, but the new unibody design manages to demolish just about every other notebook out there in terms of feel. The tight tolerances, lack of gaps and sturdy construction all make the notebook feel almost like a solid slab of aluminum when it’s closed. According to Apple, that’s because it’s machined from one. And it shows. There’s not a bit of creaking, squeaking of flexing to be found.
Unfortunately, practicality does pay a price in two small ways. First, the aluminum takes on a cold feel when used in cool conditions, or if it’s been transported in a less-than-heated environment (like say, a backpack or trunk in the winter). It doesn’t take long to come up to temp, but in the mean time you’ll be pulling the edges of your sleeves up to cover your wrists. Which also brings us to the next problem: the edges around the laptop’s inner deck are about two strokes on a whetstone away from being razor blades. Apple has given the notebook straight, squared-off edges as a visual effect, but they also have the unfortunate side effect of being harsh on the wrists if you’re operating the laptop from the wrong angle. Neither was a deal-breaker, and seasoned MacBook Pro users are already accustomed to the problems, but the style does come with a price.
Weight and Dimensions
At 5.5 pounds, Apple’s MacBook Pro is actually admirably light compared with plastic-clad notebooks of the same size, unlike its little brother, which wears the aluminum shell like an anchor. Dell’s XPS M1530, for instance, starts at 5.78 pounds, and Sony’s NS starts at a hefty 6.4 pounds. We found it to be highly portable during testing, and the depth of 0.95 inches and beveled edges were especially refreshing when trying to slide it into a crowded backpack. While it’s not as tossable and tiny as many extreme travel notebooks, we wouldn’t rule out the MacBook Pro for travelling at all, and in fact appreciated its larger size and feature set for performing work on the go.
Ports and Connectors
Though better equipped than its runty little brother that comes with barely the essentials for connectivity, the MacBook Pro is still relatively Spartan when it comes to exterior ports. On the left-hand side, you’ll find a MagSafe power jack, Ethernet jack, FireWire 800, two USB 2.0 ports, a Mini DisplayPort, audio inputs and outputs, plus a ExpressCard slot. On the right-hand side: just an optical drive.
Though the FireWire 800 port is an essential given the media-editing capabilities of the MacBook Pro, we were less fond of the Mini DisplayPort, which requires adapters to function with any screen, but Apple doesn’t bother to include any, making it an essentially a useless port out of the box. We would have rather seen a native DVI port, which would not only provide the same flexibility, it would eliminate the need for Apple’s arcane and expensive adapters, which start at $29 and run all the way up to $99 for the dual-DVI version. The lack of a USB 2.0 port on the right-hand side is also an inconvenience for users of wired travel mice.
Apple’s signature MagSafe power adapter makes it easy to connect and disconnect the notebook’s power cord by snapping the cord to the notebook with only magnetic cling, but we also discovered an annoying side effect: The magnetized power port sucked up tiny magnetic particles from the bottom of a backpack, jamming it up and preventing the power cord from sticking. The ferrous sandy bits were also difficult to remove, due to the magnetism locking them into the crevice.
If normal touchpads are like backyard swimming pools, the one on Apple’s new MacBook Pro is like the Olympic-sized one down at the YMCA. It spans roughly four inches across and three inches tall, leaving plenty of room for multitouch acrobatics. And as anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod Touch can testify, the ability to use more than one finger to navigate a touch device makes an enormous difference in ease of use after figuring out all the tricks and shortcuts it opens up. A four-finger swipe to the right, for instance, brings up Apple’s application switcher, while the same gesture down opens Expose. Two fingers will scroll, and three act like a back-forward button. After getting the hang of these few basic features, the pad began to feel a lot less like a mouse and a lot more like a desktop control center.
The lack of a mouse button didn’t turn out to be much of an issue, but at the same time, it doesn’t add much to the experience either. It’s clearly an aesthetic choice on Apple’s behalf. While we adjusted easily to clicking down on the touchpad, it did bother us in a few circumstances, like when dragging items. It’s possible to press and hold the pad as a button and simultaneously move your finger (or touch with one finger and move with the other), but it’s more of a pain than with a conventional pad. The one-finger-touch-and-drag really annoyed us for certain applications, like Google Maps (which, oddly enough, does not support any multitouch tricks for navigation).
Image Courtesy of Apple
Our MacBook went from dead to ready-to-surf in just 38 seconds, which decimates almost any Vista-equipped machine we’ve tried and even improves upon the smaller MacBook significantly, which was already a major . Where it really shines, though, is in waking up from standby. Almost as fast as you can flip open its wafer-thin lid, it’s ready to go. Both are stellar traits for a machine meant to be lugged around everywhere and popped open on a whim.
Wi-Fi has traditionally been a sore spot for Apple’s previous metal MacBooks, since their shells interfered with reception, but the company seems to have found a workaround for the latest version. While it still has some problems finding fringe networks, the MacBook did a respectable job sniffing out usable networks in residential areas, almost on par with conventional plastic-shell notebooks. It also outperformed most PCs in connection time, latching on to networks with high signal very quickly and with minimal hassle.
As we’ve come to expect from Apple products, OS X responded to input quickly and smoothly, snapping open applications on demand and delivering seamless performance during most everyday tasks. Even under the load of nearly every preloaded application, it refused to chug and continued operating smoothly.
Switching to the high-performance GeForce 8600M GT card makes a barely noticeable difference for most everyday applications, but performance will definitely speed up in demanding applications like editing movies and playing games. Though you won’t find many Mac games that will challenge the 9600 GT, Toca Race Car Driver 3, a relatively demanding game, ran silky smooth on our system, meaning the MacBook Pro should handle the rather limited selection of Mac titles just fine.
Unfortunately, switching to the faster card isn’t nearly as smooth or easy as most users would expect from Apple. Rather than using an exterior switch as other manufacturers with the same setup have done, Apple requires users to switch through the OS, and the option isn’t exactly easy to find. It’s rather ambiguously labeled “higher performance” under the Energy Saver menu, which took us longer than expected to find, especially since the included documentation makes no reference to it. Furthermore, it requires you to log out to switch cards, meaning you’ll have to save and close everything you have open before unlocking the higher performance of the 8600M GT – a rather inconvenient process.
Image Courtesy of Apple
The MacBook Pro’s 15.4-inch LED-backlit display is among the finest we’ve encountered – on a notebook or otherwise. Its colors are extraordinarily vibrant, its 1440-by-900-pixel resolution makes images and text sharp, and it fights off the sun like none other thanks to its punchy LED backlight. Even with the midday sun streaming in a window or beating down directly onto it, images on the screen remain bright and easily legible, defeating one of the most common complaints about LCDs. As another convenient side effect of the LED backlight, it reaches full brightness instantly upon firing up from sleep, doing away with the weak, barely usably light that most conventional notebook displays throw off while they yawn and warm up.
Unfortunately, the ultra-glossy coating on the screen that makes it so incredibly crisp-looking also catches loads of glare in some scenarios. While you won’t notice it as much for typing and surfing, where white seems to be the dominant color, dark screens, such as those in games, definitely bring out the worst in the display.
Additionally, the screen only cranes back from vertical about 45 degrees, which isn’t quite enough flex room when you’re contorted into certain tight situations. On the plus side, though, the full-length hinge then runs along the bottom of the screen feels sturdy, and offers just the right amount of friction to keep the screen locked in place most of the time.
For a 15.4-inch notebook, the speakers on the MacBook Pro really threw off an impressive level of sound. At full volume, they were actually able to fill a room to the point where we had to raise our voices to talk over it, and there was amazingly little distortion at that level, either. Of course, being notebook speakers, they are almost completely devoid of bass, but for but for sharing a YouTube clip with friends or taking in few tunes while you surf at home, they’re actually more than ample.
Like previous MacBooks, the newest version uses “chiclet-style” keys, meaning they’re recessed into the keyboard like individual buttons with aluminum filler between them, rather than with crumb-catching crevices, as on normal keyboards. This definitely produces a clean design, and Apple has complemented it with a respectably neat set of keys, but we weren’t blown away with the typing experience. It felt more muddled than we were used to, lacking the crisp, clean feedback of a keyboard like those found on Lenovo’s ThinkPads. It’s very usable in every sense, but the satisfaction factor wasn’t quite there as much as we’ve experienced on some our top-rated keyboards.
In testing, the MacBook Pro delivered Apple’s claimed five hours of battery life, but only by turning down brightness and using features like Wi-Fi sparingly. Turning on discrete graphics will cut that figure even more to four hours, but realistically, you probably won’t be turning on high performance mode then using processor power sparingly, so prepare for much less in actual usage. While it’s a passable travel machine, you won’t be getting much done or using its most powerful features when separated from a wall outlet for too long.
The new MacBook Pro’s discrete Nvidia graphics and LED-backlit display make a practical usability addition to the MacBook Pro, but the unibody frame and buttonless multi-touch pad can mostly be called frivolous revisions – albeit pretty ones. If anything, the Pro’s price of $1,999, or $2,499 for the premium version, would be the biggest deterrent to purchasing one, since the same performance can definitely be had cheaper from other manufacturers. Apple’s knack for design, though, is untouchable, and it has definitely reached the pinnacle of refinement in the super-sleek MacBook Pro.
• Rock-solid aluminum unibody
• Class-leading display
• Large multi-touch trackpad
• Powerful discrete graphics card
• Screen glare
• Mediocre connectivity
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