Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch (2011) Review

If you’re looking for a notebook with all the power and creature comforts of a desktop, it’s hard to find a homier setup than Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro.
If you’re looking for a notebook with all the power and creature comforts of a desktop, it’s hard to find a homier setup than Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro.
If you’re looking for a notebook with all the power and creature comforts of a desktop, it’s hard to find a homier setup than Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro.

Highs

  • Ultra-solid unibody construction
  • Gorgeous high-resolution display
  • Fast, efficient Core i7 processor
  • Intel Thunderbolt, FireWire 800, ExpressCard 34
  • Superb speakers
  • Above-par battery life
  • Backlit keyboard

Lows

  • Glossy screen catches glare, doesn’t recline far enough
  • No SD card slot, crowded USB ports
  • Scarce Thunderbolt accessories, for now
  • Unnecessarily condensed keyboard
  • No Blu-ray drive option
  • Steep price premium
  • No user-replaceable battery

Steve Jobs may have waxed poetic about the “post-PC” age at the recent launch of the iPad 2, but as the most recent revamp of the MacBook Pro shows, Apple’s expertise at crafting a laptop remains as sharp as ever. While the MacBook Pro retains the same look and feel Apple has been milking for years, the addition of faster processors, graphics and Intel’s brand new Thunderbolt interface all put more zip beneath the outstanding unibody design. You may have to refinance your house to afford one, but once it’s in your hands, there’s little the folding powerhouse won’t do.

Features

Apple still offers the MacBook in 13-, 15- and 17-inch variants. We tested the 17 incher, which starts with at least a 2.2GHz Core i7 and AMD Radeon HD 6750 graphics, making it a brute even in its standard configuration. (At $2,499 and up, it should be). For graphics gurus and multi-taskers, the centerpiece of the desktop replacement model comes courtesy of an LED-lit, 17-inch LCD screen with 1920 x 1200 resolution, available in glossy or antiglare. Ours also came equipped with a 750GB Toshiba drive spinning at 5400RPM and of course, the new Thunderbolt interface.

Design

At first glance, the new MacBook Pro looks and feels exactly like the previous version. Come to think of it, it does on second glance, too. Apple has stuck with what works and left the clean, unibody design of the MacBook Pro stand unmolested for 2011.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 inchOur old cheers and jeers still stand. Apple’s aluminum unibody chassis feels like you could park a truck on it, but can still get a little chilly on the forearms, and the sharp 90-degree angles around the edges dig at your wrists. (You might not notice either problem if you wear long-sleeve turtlenecks every day.) Still, for sheer aesthetic value and build quality, the MacBook Pro remains at the top of the pack this year.

At 6.6 pounds at 15.47 inches long, you really won’t find yourself anxious to transport the MacBook Pro any further than the jaunt between couch and desk. But it holds its ground relative to other 17-inch notebooks. HP’s 17-inch ProBook 4270s, for instance, starts at 6.51 pounds, and Toshiba’s Satellite L670 hovers just around 6.6 depending on how it’s equipped. Dell’s Vostro 3700 does come in significantly lighter at 5.95 pounds, but measures 1.35 inches thick to the MacBook’s relatively slender 0.98 inches.

Keyboard and trackpad

Apple’s Chiclet-style keyboards succeed at delivering the clean, minimalist aesthetic the company is known for, and the standard backlight is certainly a boon for night owls, but we’ve never cared for the soggy-feeling key presses. We’re also boggled by why Apple chose to make the keyboard so narrow, shortening important keys like delete and omitting a number pad, when there’s so much room. The chassis spans a lengthy 15.47 inches wide, but the keyboard only occupies 10.75 inches. Sure, Apple used the space for the speaker grilles, but they could have easily been shuffled elsewhere.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch

Fortunately, the trackpad takes the opposite approach, casting a huge patch of finger-friendly glass over much of the area below the keyboard. Traditionalists may have to take some time to adapt to Apple’s buttonless design, which allows the whole pad to click, but we prefer it in the long run, especially combined with multi-touch gestures for options like right clicking, going forward and back, and Expose.

Intel Thunderbolt

Never have we seen so much fanfare for a new type of data connection as with Intel Thunderbolt, making it no small wonder that Intel piggybacked on the marketing gurus at Apple to debut it on the MacBook Pro – but at least there’s substance to match the flash. As the name would suggest, Thunderbolt is fast: It can operate at up to 10Gbps, which is twice as fast as USB 3.0 (5Gbps) and more than 20 times faster than USB 2.0 (480Mbps). Fast enough to transfer an HD movie in 30 seconds, as Intel likes to put it.

The actual Thunderbolt port looks identical to the old mini DisplayLink port because on a physical level, it is. Besides shuttling data around quickly for storage, Thunderbolt can be used for displays using the same old mini DisplayLink cables, and its daisy chaining capability actually makes it possible for the same port to connect up to six devices.

Unfortunately right now, you won’t be able to find anything but a display to test with: Not a single company is selling, for instance, a Thunderbolt-equipped hard drive yet. Canon has announced that upcoming cameras will support the standard, but at the moment even they’re hypothetical, so Thunderbolt’s potential, while vast, will go untapped for a while.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch

Other inputs and connectivity

Thunderbolt may stand out as the most unique port on the MacBook Pro, but it shares the left-hand side of the notebook with plenty of others. From back-to-front, they include Apple’s signature MagSafe power connector, Ethernet, FireWire 800, Thunderbolt, three USB ports, audio line in, headphones and ExpressPort 34. The right-hand side sports Apple’s typical slot-loading DVD drive. Sorry, no Blu-ray option, even though it’s one of the few notebooks with the resolution to really show it off.

We have a few other peeves here too. The ExpressCard 34 slot could come in handy for adding an SSD or any number of other accessories, but we really would have found more use for an SD card slot like the smaller MacBook Pros have. (You can buy an SD card reader to fill the slot, but it will cost about $30 online and mar the notebook’s all-important aesthetics.) Cramming all three USB ports together also causes issues with oversized accessories, like 3G modems, and offers no USB connectivity on the right side. Bottom line: Connectivity is good, but not perfect.

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