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Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch Review
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Date: Mar 28, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Daniel A. Begun
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Introduction & Specifications
With the early 2011 refresh of the MacBook Pro family, Apple came out with both guns blazing. Not only is the entire lineup now powered by Intel’s second generation Core i5 and i7 mobile processors (commonly known by its codename, Sandy Bridge), but the new MacBook Pros also feature the brand-new Thunderbolt I/O technology (the official name of Intel’s Light Peak technology)--which supports up to 10Gbps bi-directional communications for high-bandwidth external peripherals, such as RAID arrays and HD displays. Add these new features to an outstanding chassis design, a sharp display, great keyboard and trackpad, and superb battery life and the MacBook Pro appears pretty compelling . And don’t forget, even if you’re not a Mac OS fan, you can run Windows on the MacBook Pro--either natively or via a virtual machine.



The new MacBook family is available in five different models: two 13.3-inch units, two 15.4-inch versions, and a 17-inch behemoth. The base prices for these models range from $1,199 up to $2,499, but with configuration options such as faster processors, more memory, and larger-sized hard drives or SSDs, you can easily boost the cost considerably. In the past we’ve dinged Apple for putting a premium price on its notebooks when compared against models with similar specs from other manufacturers. You could easily make the argument, however, that this is simply not a fair comparison--comparing apple and oranges if you will--you’re not going to find another laptop that runs the Mac OS (at least not legally) and you’re going to be hard pressed to find another laptop that comes even close to the MacBook Pro’s design aesthetics.



In the case of the 13.3-inch MacBook Pro that Apple sent us, we need not rehash our past critiques. While its $1,499 price tag puts it firmly out of reach of those looking for budget units, this price is commensurate with similarly configured Windows laptops that are powered by Intel Core i7 mobile processors. We should also point out that Sandy Bridge Core i7-based laptops are still a rare commodity these days--not many vendors have released models with the new processor yet. In addition to its dual-core 2.7GHz Core i7-2620QM processor, our unit also came with 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM, a 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and an 8x slot-loading DVD±RW drive. The unit’s graphics engine is Intel’s HD Graphics 3000, which is integrated into the Core i7 processor (see our story here for a technical deep-dive into the mobile Sandy Bridge technology). Perhaps the only disappointment with the system’s specs is that the LED-backlit display has a native resolution of only 1,280x800--you can find plenty of 13-inch laptops that come with a slightly higher overall 1,366x768 resolution On the other hand, there aren't many other 13-inch laptops that have displays as bright and vibrant as the MacBook Pro's--we'll gladly sacrifice a few extra pixels for the high-quality screen.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Laptop
Specifications & Features
  • Mac OS X 10.6.6
  • 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620QM520M (2 cores, 4 threads, Turbo Boost up to 3.4GHz, 4MB L3 Cache)
  • 4GB of 1,333Hz DDR3 SDRAM
  • 500GB 5,400-rpm Serial ATA hard drive
  • Integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000
  • 13.3-inch (viewable) LED-backlit glossy widescreen display
  • 1,280x800 native resolution (16:10)
  • 8x slot-loading SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
  • 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45 connector)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + Enhanced Data Rate (EDR)
  • Built-in FaceTime HD video camera (1,280x720 resolution)
  • Built-in stereo speakers
  • Internal omnidirectional microphone
  • Built-in full-size backlit keyboard with 78 keys
  • Multi-Touch trackpad with support for Multi-Touch gestures
  • Built-in 63.5-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 60W MagSafe Power Adapter with cable management system
  • 0.95 x 12.78 x 8.94 inches (HWD)
  • 4.5 pounds

Direct Price: $1,499 (as tested)

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Design & Features
The silver-clad MacBook Pro has one of the sturdiest chassis we’ve encountered on a laptop--13-inch or otherwise--it truly feels like it can take a beating and keep on ticking. This strength comes from the MacBook Pro’s “patented aluminum unibody design,” which actually carves the unit's central chassis piece from a single piece of aluminum. The sturdy design also gives the laptop a bit of heft--at 4.5 pounds it’s not the lightest 13-inch laptop on the market.



The chassis has rounded corners, and when the cover is closed, the entire unit is almost all silver--the exceptions being the white (backlit) Apple logo on the top of the lid, a black strip running across the back edge of the unit, and four rubberized black feet on the bottom of the unit. The lid stays closed using a magnetic latch.



Open the lid and you're greeted by an island-style keyboard of black keys against a silver keyboard deck. The keys are backlit, which is controlled by an ambient light sensor (you can also set the keyboard illumination brightness level manually). The keyboard is roomy, has a great tactile feel to it with absolutely no flexing, and decent key travel. The spacious, 5-inch (diagonal) trackpad is actually made of glass, so it has a very smooth feel to it. The trackpad supports multi-touch gestures with up to four-fingers.



To put it simply, the 13.3-inch, LED-backlit display is gorgeous. It’s bright and shows crisp colors that remain uniform across the display. The glossy screen doesn’t throw back reflections nearly as bad as we’ve seen on many other glossy displays, and the screen has a very wide viewing angle. The display is surrounded by a black bezel, which houses the hi-res, 1,280x760 FaceTime HD camera on top.



Less impressive is the MacBook Pro’s audio. The stereo speakers, which are hidden beneath the keyboard, get plenty loud and don’t distort, but the lack of bass makes them sound tinny. That said, the speakers do deliver better-sounding audio than you’re going to find on most other 13-inch laptops. The MacBook Pro’s omnidirectional microphone is positioned just above the ESC key.



All of the MacBook Pro’s ports are located on the left side of the unit. Here you’ll find the MagSafe power connector, Gigabit Ethernet jack, a FireWire 800 port, the Thunderbolt port, two USB 2.0 ports, an SDXC media-card slot, and a combined line-in/headphone jack that supports digital-audio output. To the right of the audio jack are the battery charge indicator LEDs. Note that the MacBook Pro’s battery is not user-replaceable. The right side of the unit houses the slot-loading optical drive and security lock slot. The front edge of the unit has an IR port and a sleep indicator LED.


The Thunderbolt port takes the place of what was the Mini-DisplayPort connector on the previous iteration of the MacBook Pro. ThunderBolt has native support for PCI Express and Display Port, and it’s compatible with USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel, VGA, DVI, and HDMI protocols. This will make it very easy for peripheral manufacturers to create new products that support the Thunderbolt interface without having to worry about supporting any new protocols or making major changes to their devices' silicon. With support for up to 10Gbps bandwidth, and up to six daisy-chained devices, it also means you can attach a number of mighty speedy external peripherals to your MacBook Pro, or connect devices that send scads of data at any given time (like HD video streams). The only trouble is, there aren’t any Thunderbolt devices available yet. The wait won’t be much longer, however, as a number of manufacturers have promised to have Thunderbolt peripherals, such as external hard drives, available by this summer.


As do all new Mac laptops and desktops, the MacBook pro comes with the typical bevy of Mac OS X apps, including iTunes, Time Machine, Mail, iChat, Safari, Address Book, QuickTime, iCal, Photo Booth, and Front Row. The system also comes with the iLife suite, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, iDVD, and iWeb.
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Test Setup
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, and instead used set of tests that we had previously devised when we looked at last year’s MacBook Pro. With these tests, we could compare the MacBook Pro against a number of Mac and Windows systems. These tests are broken up into three sections: The first set 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 some 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 Mac comparison systems are as follows:

  • Last year’s MacBook Pro. Its config is a 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-520M, 4GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Integrated Intel HD Graphics and discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M GPU (256MB) with automatic graphics switching, a 350GB 5,400-rpm hard dive, and running Mac OS X 10.6.4.
  • An older MacBook Pro that dates back to what is referred to as a "Late 2006" model. This older MacBook Pro's config is: a 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo T2500, 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, an ATI Radeon X1600 (128MB), a 120GB 5,400-rpm hard dive, and running Mac OS X 10.6.4. We readily concede that due to the age and low-end components (comparatively speaking) of this model, it is not the best comparison system; however, we chose to include it to exemplify how far the MacBook Pro's performance has come since the model was first introduced.
  • A three-year old, 24-inch iMac. The iMac's config is: 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900, 4GB of 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, an ATI Radeon HD 2600 Pro, a 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, and running Mac OS X 10.6.4. When this iMac was released, it represented close to the top-end of available configs, and it is still considered somewhat powerful, albeit, getting a bit long in the tooth.
The Windows comparison systems include:

  • 2.13GHz Intel Core i3-330M, 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Integrated GMA HD, 320GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit).
  • Lenovo ThinkPad T410S: 2.53GHz Intel Core i5-540M, 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, integrated Intel Graphics and Nvidia NVS 3100M, 128GB SSD, and running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.
  • Samsung R580: 2.27GHz Intel Core i5-430M, 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Nvidia GeForce GT 330M, 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit.
  • Toshiba Satellite E205-S1904: 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-430M, 4GB 1,066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, Integrated Intel HD Graphics, 500GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.
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Cross-Platform Tests

CineBench R11.5 (64-bit)
Content Creation Performance
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation chores and it tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads to process more than 300,000 total polygons; while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.



If you’re wondering why the Core i7-2820Q laptop's CPU score trounces every other system listed here--including the MacBook Pro--it's because the Core i7-2820Q is a four-core processor with Hyper-threading support, for a total of eight simultaneous threads. Cinebench R11.5's CPU test is very processor intensive and it takes full advantage of every available core, physical and virtual. The MacBook Pro comes in behind it, however, with its second-generation i7 processor--the Core i7-2620QM--which has two cores and Hyper-Threading support (for up to four simultaneous threads). The system’s Mac OS performance is better than its Windows performance, which goes to show that at least in some cases, the same task can run faster on some platforms over others. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Mac OS is faster than Windows; it just means that the Mac OS is faster than Windows when it comes to Cinebench.

The MacBook Pro’s OpenGL performance is strong, but it can’t keep up with the performance of most of the systems here that use discrete graphics. The Intel GMA 3000 that’s integrated into the Core i7 processor is easily the most powerful integrated graphics solution we’ve seen from Intel yet, but it still can’t compete with most discrete graphics solutions. Curiously, our MacBook Pro froze up on us twice during the OpenGL test, but we didn’t experience this problem during any of our other testing. We did notice throughout out testing, however, that when the MacBook Pro's CPU or GPU (or both) were heavily engaged, the unit's fan kicked in, and it tended to be on the loud side.

Photoshop CS5
Real-World Photo-Manipulation Software
Using the latest version of Photoshop, we ran a Photoshop Action on a 254MB PSD file that has a resolution of 3,600x4,800, a bit depth of 300-dpi, and has 5 layers. The Action duplicates a layer; applies a number of filters, including Dust & Scratches, Reduce Noise, Diffuse Glow, Lens Blur, Palette Knife, Accented Edges, Unsharp Mask, Water Paper, and Tetxturizer Canvas; reduces the image size; flattens the image; and finally converts the image to a Working CMYK file. The test was hand-timed with a stopwatch.



Our good old 2GHz Core Duo T2500-based MacBook Pro from 2006 is still kicking and still gets a fair bit of use. But taking one look at the Photoshop CS5 results quickly sobers us up, showing just how much performance has improved in the MacBook family in the intervening years. Running our Photoshop task on the older MacBook Pro took nearly three and a half minutes, but less than a minute on the new MacBook Pro. The new MacBook pro is even more than 20 seconds speedier than the MacBook Pro model we looked at last year. And our Photoshop Action appears to also be more efficient on the Mac OS than on Windows--the same task on Windows took 12 seconds longer.

iTunes
Real-World Audio-File Transcoding
We loaded 15 M4A audio files into iTunes that were encoded with the Apple Lossless codec. The files ranged in size from 6.2MB to 25.2MB, for a total of 268.8MB. We hand-timed with a stopwatch how long it took the system to convert all 15 M4A files to 192Kbps MP3 files. Note that some of the test results below were run last year with iTunes 9.2. The new MacBook Pro was tested with the latest version of iTunes, which was 10.2.1. As such, when looking at the results below, some of the performance differences can possibly be at least partially attributed to variances in how the different versions of iTunes were coded.


* iTunes 9.2
** iTunes 10.2.1

Our iTunes test is yet another example of a particular task that’s more efficient on Mac OS than on Windows--in this case, by quite a large margin. Of course, iTunes is first and foremost an Apple product and has been produced for the Mac OS platform for longer than the Windows version, so iTune’s Mac OS performance lead shouldn’t come as a surprise. Neither should the new MacBook Pro’s dominance on this test either with the Mac OS--in fact, it was the only system that was able to transcode all of our audio files in under a minute.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2
Real-World 3D Gaming Performance
Using the most updated Mac and Windows versions of Half-Life 2 from Steam, we played back a custom-recorded timedemo. We ran this test at 1,024x768 and 1,280x800, and set most of the in-game settings to High.



The Integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics engine is actually pretty decent. Not only did we see very playable frame rates with the admittedly older Half Life 2:Episode 2 title, but we played a few rounds of the newer Left 4 Dead title as well and saw great results (see the video on page 1). Left 4 Dead is a midrange title and we used mostly medium-quality settings, so we certainly didn’t try to bring the MacBook Pro to its knees. But if you plan on playing relatively modest 3D titles and are okay not cranking the eye candy up to 11, you’ll find the MacBook Pro can be a capable gaming machine. Our Half Life 2: Episode 2 test is one area where the Windows performance is noticeably better than the Mac OS performance.
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Mac-Only Tests

Final Cut Pro 7
High-End Video Production Software
Using the latest version of Final Cut Pro, we used a Final Cut Pro project of an approximate 6-minute video (the project we used for this test is from the video that appears here) that has a total of 64 elements, and which includes video clips of several different formats, multiple audio tracks, still images, and titles. The project includes a number of overlapping video and audio elements as well as audio and video transitions. We copied all of the media files to the system's hard drive, reconnected the project to all the media files, and deleted all existing render files before running each test run. The system's hard drive was set as the scratch disk. Once the project was properly set up on the system, we hand-timed how long it took for Final Cut Pro to render the project with a stopwatch. 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.






Perhaps the only thing more maddening that watching paint dry is waiting for a video project to render and then encode. The new MacBook Pro’s Sandy Bridge processor made short work of our processor-intensive Final Cut Pro 7 render, finishing the task the quickest of the bunch in just 14 minutes. With the encode, however, the new MacBook Pro was bested by the three-year-old iMac. While the new MacBook Pro made a very impressive showing on this test, it was likely slowed down somewhat by its mobile-based components, such as its 5,400-rpm hard drive--as opposed to the 7,200-rpm hard drive in the iMac. That said, the new MacBook Pro’s strong performance makes it our prime candidate for the next time we need to do video editing when on the road.
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Windows-Only Tests

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance
This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC--watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth--is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.



The MacBook Pro puts in a very strong showing on our PCMark Vantage test. For those times that you need to run Windows on your MacBook Pro, you can rest easy knowing that it can also be a very capable Windows machine. Just keep in mind that if you plan on installing Windows on a Mac, you need to make sure that the system’s hard drive is large enough to accommodate both operating systems, all the apps you need to install for both operating systems, and any files you plan on storing in the two partitions. Note that Windows can't access anything on the Mac OS partition (HTFS), and the Mac OS can only read Windows NTFS partitions, it cannot write to NTFS partitions (at least not unless you install a third-party utility that enables NTFS-write support, such as Paragon Software’s NTFS for Mac OS.

Futuremark 3DMark06
Synthetic DirectX Performance

3DMark06 is a 3D rending benchmark that includes Shader Model 2.0, Shader Model 3.0, and HDR tests. Scenes are rendered with very high geometric detail and shader complexity, and with extensive use of lighting and soft shadows. The maximum shader length 3DMark06 supports is 512 instructions. The 3DMark06 Overall Score is a weighted average based on the SM 2.0 and HDR / SM3.0, and CPU scores.

As we saw with the MacBook Pro's Half-Life 2: Episode 2 performance, the laptop's showing on the 3DMark06 test indicates that this laptop is a capable machine for only 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. That said, the MacBook Pro we looked at last year has better 3D graphics performance, but this is because it had a discrete Nvidia GT 330M GPU. If you want a new MacBook Pro with a discrete GPU, you’ll have to consider one of the 15-inch or 17-inch versions and be prepared pony up more money—the 15-inch MacBook Pro with a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6490M GPU starts at $1,799.

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Battery Performance

Battery Performance
Testing With Video Playback
To measure the battery performance, we played back a 2GB MP4 video file (3ivx MPEG-4) from the laptop's hard drive--the file had been transcoded and compressed from the main feature title of a DVD movie. On Mac laptops, the file was played back using the QuickTime Player. On Windows laptops, the file was played back using Windows Media Player. Brightness and volume were set to 50-percent, headphones were plugged into the laptop's headphone jacks, and the video was playaed full-screen. The Windows systems' power settings were set to Balanced. In those instances when the movie ended before the battery died, the movie was started again from the beginning.



Apple claims that you should get up to 7 hours of battery life from the new MacBook Pro’s battery--and this estimation is based upon a relatively light workload of surfing the Web over a Wireless connection. We gave the MacBook Pro the more demanding task of continuously playing a video, and it still managed to last almost seven and a half hours. Battery life of this caliber is virtually unprecedented. That said, the MacBook Pro’s battery life with Windows was less than half what we saw with the Mac OS--the MacBook Pro is simply not optimized for Windows’ power management features anywhere near its Mac OS capabilities.
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Summary and Conclusion
Performance Summary: The MacBook Pro did not disappoint on any of our benchmarks. Across the board it exhibited stellar application performance, even on our more demanding tests, such as the Cinebench CPU test or our Final Cut Pro rendering and encoding tests. And while it didn’t blow the roof off with its 3D graphics performance, the second-generation Core i7 (Sandy Bridge)’s integrated graphics has enough power behind it to keep up with mid-level game titles. Even though Apple doesn’t push it as a selling point, the MacBook Pro can even act as a very capable Windows laptop. The one major downside to running Windows on the MacBook Pro, however, is that you miss out on the power-conservation features that give the MacBook Pro such a long-lasting battery when running the Mac OS.

All in all, the new MacBook Pro impressed us on many fronts, not just its performance. It’s got a great-looking design, has one of the sturdiest chassis we’ve seen, a fantastic-looking display, and a keyboard and trackpad that are a pleasure to use. We’re also impressed that the cost of the unit we looked at is competitive with its similarly-configured Windows brethren. And don’t forget the Thunderbolt port--there might not be any peripherals today that can take advantage of this high-bandwidth I/O port, but the deluge will start very soon. You’re also going to start seeing systems from plenty of other manufacturers joining the Thunderbolt bandwagon soon as well. Thunderbolt is here to stay.

As much as we liked it, the new MacBook Pro is not perfect. We wish it was possible to swap the battery out. We also wouldn’t mind seeing the display with a higher native resolution, so that it matched up better with what we’ve seen on other 13-inch laptops. Lastly, we found the noise the fan made when it kicked in to be somewhat distracting.

But let’s put this in perspective. Seven and a half hours of battery life significantly minimizes the need for a swappable battery. There’s not that much difference between the MacBook Pro’s 1,200x800 screen resolution and the 1,366x768 resolution often found on other 13-inch laptops (1.024MP vs 1.049MP), and the quality of the MacBook Pro’s display is far superior to what you’re likely to find on any just about any other 13-inch laptop. As to the fan noise, that’s just the price you have to pay to ensure that the unit doesn’t overheat with such a powerful processor inside a small chassis--there’s probably not a whole lot that can be done about that. The MacBook Pro’s few distractions are minor at best, and far outweighed by everything else that is great about it. Apple has done a great job this time around and produced its best MacBook Pro model to date.

 

     
  • Great overall performance
  • Decent 3D gaming performance
  • Amazing battery life
  • Excellent-quality display
  • Elegant design
  • Thunderbolt technology
  • Sturdy "unibody" design
  • Multi-touch gesture trackpad
  • Great Keyboard
  • Battery is not removable
  • 1,280x800 native resolution
  • Fan Can Get Noisy Under Load
  • No Thunderbolt peripherals available yet



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