Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch (2011) Review

Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch

Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch (2011)

“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.”
  • 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
  • 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.

Performance

The combination of Intel’s latest Core i7 with the Sandy Bridge architecture and AMD’s potent new Radeon HD 6750 make the 17-inch MacBook Pro a capable workhorse, whether you’re piling up dozens of tabs researching or dabbling in video editing. Around the desktop, 4GB of RAM and a quad-core processor gives the MacBook plenty of headroom for multitasking, which is fortunate considering the 17-inch screen.

Despite packing a full-power Radeon HD 6750 inside, the MacBook actually retains onboard Intel HD graphics as well, and reverts to that chip to save battery when you’re not doing any heavy lifting. The transition is seamless: no warning, no black screen, no hiccups. The only indication we ever got that the Radeon was finally at work was a fan faintly whirring when we finally undertook some gaming.

And game it does. Though titles are hard to come by on OS X, what games you can play run marvelously. We were able to play Half Life 2 at native 1920 x 1200 resolution with every setting cranked to high, and frame rates never dropped below 90 fps.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 inchAs equipped, our MacBook Pro achieved a score of 221.97 in Xbench and Geekbench score of 9,943. While that doesn’t quite bear out Apple’s hyperbolic claims of twice the speed from the latest processors and three times the speed from the latest GPU, it does put it handily at the top of the heap as far as MacBookss are concerned. (Oddly, it’s behind our last souped-up iMac in Xbench and ahead in Geekbench, which might be as much a testament to the variability of benchmarks as much as the speed of the MacBook Pro.)

Sound

Given the sheer size of the 17-inch MacBook Pro and the real estate dedicated to the up-firing speakers, it should come as little surprise that it pumps out more sound than we’re used to hearing from laptops. You can easily place the MacBook Pro at a distance and watch TV shows or movies without headphones, and it even produces enough bass to vibrate a bit with music playback at full volume. The distance between left and right speakers also helps produce a pronounced stereo effect that’s rare to find on laptops – even this size.

Battery life

After consistently popping the inflated battery life numbers we often see held aloft by most players in the notebook industry, we’re actually grateful to see Apple revising numbers downward with more strenuous – and allegedly accurate – battery-life testing. The latest version uses a script that surfs 25 of the most popular websites with the display brightness a bit under maximum. The company claims the 17-inch MacBook Pro delivers 7 hours of battery life under these conditions, and anecdotally, it delivers. That’s not bad considering HP’s comparable ProBook 4720s only delivers a claimed 6 hours, and probably less under the same testing conditions. We credit the hefty 95-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery. While it isn’t user replaceable, you get more capacity in exchange. The default battery in the ProBook 4720s, for instance, is rated at only 73 watt hours. We were also pleased with the charging time from the 85-watt power supply. Bringing the MacBook up to a full charge from 50 percent took less than 50 minutes.

Display

Apple has never been known to skimp on displays, and the 17-inch beauty in the MacBook Pro is no exception. Though it hasn’t changed at all since the last generation, the 1920 x 1200 LED-backlit LCD panel has a lot going for it, including superb brightness, inky blacks and eye-popping colors. The biggest drawback: You’ll want to draw the blinds and turn down your lamps every time you fire it up, because the exceptional gloss makes it tough to see just what’s going under the mirror-life surface when you have other light sources – especially in dark gaming environments. Apple offers an anti-glare option, but you’ll lose the slick edge-to-edge glass bezel and it tacks $50 on to the purchase price.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch

A hinge that spans nearly the entire width of the MacBook Pro body helps keep a display with this size and weight from bouncing, but we’re still disappointed that it leans to only 45 degrees from horizontal – a disappointment compared to the full 180-degree hinges on the likes of Lenovo ThinkPads and HP ProBooks.

Camera

One of the lesser-known upgrades on this year’s new MacBook turns out to be a webcam that now captures true 720p HD video. Nice in theory, but bandwidth restrictions usually crush video conferences to quality well below 720p anyway, so you might not notice the extra pixels except on your YouTube rants. The camera’s automatic exposure compensation also let us down sometimes, often prioritizing surroundings (like the clouds and sky) rather than an object in the center of its field of view, like a face.

Conclusion

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. Gamers and pros like video editors will appreciate the additional processing power, graphics power and speedy new Thunderbolt interface, but at $2,500, you had better plan on really leveraging them to make the leap. Less demanding users might be better off picking up last year’s model at a discount, or even a 17-inch Windows notebook (the aforementioned HP ProBook starts at $720, and Dell’s Vostro 3700 at $700). Despite the steep price premium, Apple’s flagship MacBook Pro 17-inch remains a shining example of the company’s cut-no-corners engineering at its best.

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

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