|Introduction and Specifications|
|With the latest iteration of its 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pro laptops, Apple finally jumped onto the Intel Core i3 and Core i5 bandwagon—bringing its flagship line of laptops up to the same performance level as the Windows-based competition (the 13-inch MacBook Pro laptops still use Intel Core 2 Duo processors). With a starting price of $1,799 for the 15-inch model, and $2,299 for the 17-inch version, MacBook Pros are far from your garden-variety bargain-basement laptops. But Macs have always come with a premium price tag—at least when compared against comparably configured Windows systems—and many will argue that their elegant designs and the intuitive user interface are well worth it.
Many will choose a MacBook Pro over a Windows laptop, simply because it is a Mac. And this goes far beyond just members of "the cult of Mac" or those influenced by the iPhone's "halo effect." There are plenty of "switchers" too--former Windows users who, for a variety of reasons, have chosen to eschew the OS from Redmond, and gone down the path of the Cupertino OS. For some it is akin to taking the red pill or the blue pill. It also doesn't hurt that you can still run Windows on a Mac--either natively using Apple's Boot Camp utility, or virtually via a number of software virtualization options.
Direct Price: $1,799 (as tested)
We had the opportunity to take a look at the base 15-inch MacBook Pro model, which comes with a 2.4GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, a 320GB hard drive, DVD±RW DL optical drive, and switchable graphics using the Intel GMA that is built into the Core i5 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPU. This base model sells for $1,799, but there are a number of configure-to-order options for components such as the CPU, memory, hard drive capacity and type (HDD and SSD), and even for the display's native resolution. Factor in the three-year AppleCare Protection Plan--which we recommend--and you can add another $349 to the total cost.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, we wanted to take a moment to point out a few of the MacBook Pro's unique features.
One is the unique way that the chassis is constructed. The top portion and sides of the chassis are made from a single piece of aluminum--Apple calls this a "Unibody Enclosure." This gives the MacBook Pro a very sturdy design as well as insuring that every MacBook Pro should assemble perfectly in the factory.
Another set of unique features has to do with the trackpad. First of all, it is made of glass, which gives it a very slick surface. Secondly, it measures 5-inches diagonally--which is noticeably larger than what you'll typically find on most other laptops. Next up is that there is no visible mouse button--the mouse button is integrated directly into the trackpad--you just click anywhere on the trackpad to activate a mouse click. (The MacBook has only one mouse button--for right-clicks you either hold the Control button while clicking or click using two fingers). Lastly, the trackpad supports a wide-range of multitouch gestures--just like you'd find on the iPhone or iPad (see the image above for some of supported gestures).
With an Intel Core i5 humming away under its hood, the MacBook Pro uses the processor's integrated graphics. But it also includes a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPU as well. Similar to how Nvidia's Optimus technology works on some switchable-graphics Windows-based laptops, the MacBook Pro uses a technology that Apple calls "automatic graphics switching" to automatically switch from using one GPU to another, depending on the demands of the running applications. The goal is to use the discrete GPU only when it is truly needed in order to best conserve battery life.
The final set of features we want to point out have to do with the MacBook Pro's battery. By using a malleable Lithium-Polymer battery technology and by integrating the battery into the design (it is not user replaceable), Apple was able to strip away the infrastructure of the battery that would ordinarily be used to put the battery in a removable housing, and instead used this reclaimed space for cramming a higher capacity battery (77.5Wh) into the space for a battery life that Apple claims lasts 8 to 9 hours. (Our testing didn't net quite as impressive numbers, but what we saw was still nothing to sneeze at--more on the MacBook Pro's battery life shortly.) While road warriors might not be pleased that they can't just swap in a fresh battery for a marathon-long battery-powered session, at least the integrated battery should last for a good long while before it needs to be replaced: Apple claims that the battery will retain at least 80-percent of its original capacity for up to 1,000 recharges. Apples estimates that this is equivalent to "up to 5 years of regular use versus 1½ years in other notebooks."
The 15-inch MacBook Pro weighs 5.6 pounds and measures 0.95x14.35x9.92-inches. Its entire body is made of brushed aluminum.
The lid includes the ubiquitous Apple logo that glows in proportion to the brightness of the display--if the display's backlight is turned off then so is the light source for the logo.
Speaking of the LED-backlit, 1,440x900 display--it supplies a bright and crisp image on the 15.4-inch (16:10) glossy screen. Like so many glossy screens we've seen on other laptops, we found that the MacBook Pro's display has a propensity to capture distracting reflections. If you are the type who is easily annoyed by reflections on a glossy screen, you might want to consider spending another $150 for the "Hi-Res Antiglare" option. Not only does this option help ameliorate potentially irritating reflections, but it also bumps the native resolution to 1,680x1,050. If you want the higher native resolution, but don't need the anti-glare coating, you can choose the $100 "Hi-Res Glossy" option instead.
Essentially, all of the MacBook Pro's ports are located on the left side of the unit. The left-most port is the MagSafe power connector, which attaches to a magnetically attached connector that detaches when tugged--so as to prevent the laptop from toppling off a table or desk if someone accidentally trips on the power cord. You'll also find a Gigabit Ethernet port, FireWire 800 port, Mini DisplayPort connector, two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot, two audio jacks, and battery indicator lights. The DisplayPort connector is the only video-out source; so in order to send the video signal out to a monitor with a VGA, DVI, or HDMI connection, you'll have to invest in an adapter cable (which range in price between $29 and $35). There is also a pair of audio line-in and line-out mini jacks that both support analog and digital connections; the line-out supports analog stereo and 5.1-channel digital. If you want an ExpressCard slot, you'll find one only on the 17-inch MacBook Pro.
There's not much to see on the right side of the laptop: Just the optical drive slot and a lock slot.
The front of the MacBook Pro is equally barren, with just the magnetic latch for the lid, the sleep indicator, and an IR port. (We're not including an image of the back of the MacBook Pro, so you'll just have to take our word that there's nothing to see here, move along...)
One of the notable features of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is its deep, 4.5-inch-long wrist rest--one of the largest you are going to find on a 15-inch laptop. Whether you like such a deep wrist rest it or not is up to your own personal preference. The full-sized, chiclet-style keyboard is black and is automatically illuminated when used in dark environments. The keys have decent travel and thankfully, there is no noticeable flex at all beneath the keyboard when typing--which is quite a rarity to find on laptops these days. On either side of the keyboard are a pair of stereo speakers that pump out surprisingly loud and clear audio.
For those not familiar with Macs, once you log into the Mac OS, the MacBook Pro (by default) places a group of icons located on the bottom of the screen.
This is called the Dock and it includes shortcuts to a number of applications. Similar to Windows' Taskbar, you can control where and how the Dock appears and what applications you want to include in it.
Similar to Windows' Start menu, you can also access all of the system's pre-installed applications from the Applications icon in the Dock.
All new Macs ship with Apple's iLife suite (which sells for $79 as a stand-alone software suite). iLife is a very robust software suite that provides a number of multimedia-based, consumer-grade applications. A couple of the iLife apps are similar in functionality to Microsoft's free Windows Live Essentials apps for Windows PCs; but the iLife applications tend to be much more in-depth and feature rich than what the Windows Live Essentials apps offer. For managing your photo library and doing some light image editing, the included iLife app is iPhoto. The Windows equivalent would be Windows Live Photo Gallery.
For video creation and editing, the included app is iMovie. The Windows equivalent would be Windows Live Movie Maker.
GarageBand is a surprisingly sophisticated audio-creation and editing app that is ideal for budding composers and podcasters. For some potential Windows-based software titles that share at least some similarities with GarageBand, check out the article on the Microsoft at Home Website here.
The iWeb app is a fairly simple tool for designing, editing, and publishing Websites. It is primarily meant to be used with Apple's MobileMe subscription service ($99 per year, or $69 per year if purchased with a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad), but it can be used to design and upload Websites to virtually any host. There is no loss of Windows-based Web creation/editing software titles, including a handful of free apps, such as The CoffeeCup Free HTML Editor and Mozilla's SeaMonkey--albeit, neither of these apps are as easy to use as iWeb (note: SeaMonkey is also available for the Mac OS as well).
The final member of the iLife family is iDVD. As its name implies, it is meant for simple authoring of DVDs for home movies and similar projects. It comes with a number of templates that make setting up the DVD's menu design as simple as dragging and dropping. A couple of free Windows alternatives are DVD Flick and DVD Styler.
|Test Setup and Cross-Platform Tests|
Our Test Methodologies: As the MacBook Pro uses the Mac OS, we weren't able to use our normal arsenal of Windows-based comparative benchmarks. So we devised a number of new tests that we could use to compare the MacBook Pro against a number of other Macs and Windows systems. These tests are broken up into three sections: The first set (below and on the next page) are cross-platform tests, where the same workload was run on both the Mac and Windows systems. The second set is Mac-only tests. The third set is Windows-only tests that were run on the Windows comparison systems, and the MacBook Pro using Boot Camp and a native installation of Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit). All tests were run several times on each system to ensure consistency. The comparison systems are as follows:
It's no surprise that the Core i5-based MacBook Pro is the best performer of this group; but there are two interesting take-aways here. The first is that both the OpenGL and CPU scores of the MacBook Pro with the Mac OS are just a hair faster than when the laptop was running Windows. While the performance difference is between only 1- and 2-percent, it indicates the potential for more efficient code with the Mac OS than the Windows OS with some tasks. Even a 1-percent difference adds up after a while when you are crunching workloads that can take hours to complete. The second interesting observation is that the Core i5-based MacBook Pro trounces the 2.8GHz Core 2 Extreme X7900-based iMac. Despite that fact that the iMac's processor has a faster clock speed, the MacBook Pro's processor--with support for up to four simultaneous threads (two cores plus HyperThreading)--gets the advantage on this multi-threaded test.
|Cross-Platform Tests Continued|
Once again the Core i5-based MacBook Pro doesn't surprise us with its top performance. As opposed to what we saw with the CineBench tests, however, here we see the MacBook Pro's Windows performance take about a 2.5-percent lead over its Mac OS performance--just as some code is more efficient on the Mac OS, other code is more efficient in Windows. Also, the performance difference between the Core i5 MacBook Pro and the iMac is almost negligible.
What we saw with the iTunes test is that the Mac OS version of iTunes is far more efficient than the Windows version--in the particular case of the Core i5-based MacBook Pro, iTunes was nearly 37-percent faster under the Mac OS than with Windows. Perhaps this doesn't come as a surprise, given that iTunes is an Apple product, and the company has been making the Mac version for many more years than the Windows version, and therefore has had plenty more time to streamline the code. The iMac was only 6 seconds behind the Core i5-based MacBook Pro, because iTunes encoding performance is very dependent on raw CPU speed and the faster clock speed in the iMac gives it a notable boost.
With an Nvidia GeForce GT 330M providing its 3D graphics power, the new MacBook Pro puts out excellent performance on the older Half-Life 2 game--garnering 117.6 frames per second (FPS) at 1,024x768, and 109.1 FPS at 1,280x1,200, under the Mac OS. Half-Life 2 is an admittedly older game and is not truly representative of the graphics processing demands on some of today's more robust titles. That said, the GT 330M should be able to provide moderate capabilities for any title that isn't too hardcore--especially if you are willing to turn down some of the image-quality settings and lower the resolution. The MacBook Pro can be used for a fair bit of 3D gaming.
The list of Mac games is growing all the time--with Steam frequently announcing games being ported over to the Mac OS and new titles arriving simultaneously with Windows and Mac versions. Even with the Mac platform finally starting to become a real gaming platform, we're still seeing better performance under Windows than with the Mac OS. In terms of the selection of titles and best-possible performance, anyone looking to use the new MacBook Pro for gaming would be best served by installing Boot Camp and playing the games in a native Windows session.
Once the project was fully rendered, we next hand-timed with a stopwatch how long it took the system to perform a multi-pass encode, exporting the video to a 1,280x720, H.264 file, with a 672Kbps bit rate, and 128Kbps stereo AAC-LC audio.
The Core i5 MacBook Pro managed to best the iMac on the Render Time test by a couple of minutes. Its advantage can likely be attributed to its processor's multi-core rendering capabilities when multithreading is supported, and its faster Turbo Boost speeds when thermal and power conditions permit the CPU to throttle at higher speeds.
The Encode Time test, however, had different results. In this case, the iMac was the winner by a landslide, taking just under an hour to encode the video. The Core i5 MacBook Pro took almost twice as long, clocking in at 1 hour and 53 minutes. Our four-year-old MacBook Pro took over four hours to perform this same workload. Many video editors use Final Cut Pro on their laptops--some as their primary systems, others as their secondary systems when they're away from their editing bays. Encoding video can be a very time-intensive task--and it's one where the system is often chugging away, performing this single task for hours on end. Certainly the Core i5 MacBook Pro represents a monumental improvement over the four-year-old MacBook Pro--shrinking the encode of our project down from over four hours to less than two--but when it comes to system-wide, intensive tasks like this, it's often hard to beat the power of a robustly configured desktop system. One advantage for the iMac desktop, in this test case, is its 7200RPM hard drive, versus the 5400RPM drive employed in the new MacBook Pro model we tested.
Intel's Core i5 processor currently marks the sweet spot for performance and price--at least for Windows laptops--and the Core i5-520M happens to sit in the midrange for standard-voltage mobile Core i5 processors (it is flanked by the 2.53GHz Core i5-540M and the 2.26GHz Core i5-430M). As the chart above shows, the MacBook Pro's performance sits in-between that of two other laptops that are each powered by these other standard-voltage mobile processors. With a PCMark Vantage score of nearly 6,000, the MacBook Pro can be a very capable Windows machine, which should be able to make short task of nearly any mainstream, consumer app you might think to run on it. Unfortunately, the MacBook Pro's use of the Core i5 processor doesn't necessarily translate into a noticeable savings--not unless you consider that the starting price for a Core i7-based MacBook Pro starts at $2,199 (which uses a dual-core, 2.66MHz Core i7-620M). With a starting price of $1,799, the Core i5-based MacBook Pro can be significantly more expensive than similarly equipped Windows laptops..
As we saw with the MacBook Pro's Half-Life 2 performance, its showing on the 3DMark 06 test indicates that this laptop is a capable machine for modest 3D games. You'll probably want to stay away from demanding, newer DX11 titles or perhaps even some of the higher end DX10 games out there, but plenty of DX9/10 games should run just fine with medium-level in-game graphics-quality settings.
We didn't get the 8 to 9 hours that Apple claimed, but 6 hours is still very respectable. In fact, this is more than enough time to last a full transcontinental flight. When we test Windows laptops, we typically use Battery Eater Pro; with that test, the best we typically see is in the 3 to 4 hour range--sometimes 5 hours. We can't really compare the video playback results here to the Battery Eater Pro results, as the two methodologies use very different workloads; but consider that the video playback approach we took here is actually more taxing than Battery Eater Pro's workload.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: The MacBook Pro makes a very impressing performance showing whether it is running the Mac OS or Windows. Most consumer-level applications will run on it just fine. In terms of professional-level apps, that's going to depend on what kind of workload you're taxing the system with. In our tests, the MacBook Pro easily held its own in Photoshop CS5, and it even surprised us with its speedy Final Cut Pro 7 rendering time. But when it came time to encode the rendered Final Cut Pro project, the MacBook Pro faltered a bit--showing a limitation that is inherent in the mobile platform in general. The MacBook Pro's 3D gaming performance didn't disappoint, with more than respectable performance with an older DX9 title and on 3DMark06. There aren't many 3D Mac games to choose from--but that is changing, and the Mac is well on its way to becoming a legitimate gaming platform. (Until Macs have a greater selection of more robust GPUs, however, this evolution will likely take its sweet time.) Where the MacBook Pro truly shines is with its prolonged battery life.
That excellent battery life also has a trade-off, however, and that comes in the form of a battery that is not removable. For most users this probably won't be an issue; but for those who spend more time on the road than at a desk, this issue could prove more significant. Another "feature" of the MacBook Pro that can also turn into a minor annoyance for some users is that its sole video-out connection uses DisplayPort. Using the new-fangled DisplayPort interface is all well and good and forward-looking, but the vast majority of us have monitors that don't have DisplayPort inputs. This means that anyone who wants to connect a MacBook Pro to a display that has VGA, DVI, or HDMI inputs, has to make an additional investment in an adapter cable. At a time when so many laptops come standard with HDMI and VGA ports, this feels like an oversight on Apple's part. Another potential issue is that some users will be turned off by the reflective glossy display, though this is a common, small annoyance with the high quality panel employed in this MacBook model.
The only other significant detraction is the MacBook Pro's expensive price tag. Even with the 15-inch base model, you'll easily be spending over $2,200 once you add in the AppleCare Protection Plan, taxes, and shipping. But if you do make the investment, you'll have an elegantly designed laptop with a number of unique features, such as the MacBook Pro's sturdy "unibody" chassis and, its multi-touch/gesture trackpad. The Mac OS also has an intuitive interface that has earned many devoted fans over the years. Price not withstanding, the MacBook Pro is an impressive looking laptop, with great performance, excellent battery life, and it can serve the needs of everyone from the casual user to students, business workers, and multimedia professionals. Our recommendation is: If you can afford it, it's definitely worthy of your consideration.