Thunderbolt and performance improvements make this more than just "this year's model."
The new MacBook Pro models released by Apple in late
February take new strides in graphics performance and will allow the company
to show off the forthcoming Lion release of Mac OS X on an elegant but powerful
computing platform. It breaks new ground in storage by offering a powerful new
interface that could make the bottleneck of external storage a not-so-fond memory.
This year's edition of Apple's premium portable notebook computer should prove
to be a good investment for anyone requiring a high-power machine for gaming or
video processing, and for the casual user, it won't be "just another upgrade."
This round of MacBook Pros are powered by Intel's latest
generation of processors, the 32nm "Sandy Bridge" series, with quad-core Core i7
processors in the case of the 15- and 17-inch models. The 13-inch models are
available with either a dual-core 2.3GHz Core i5 or a dual-core 2.7Ghz Core i7
processor. The basic 15-inch MacBook Pro now features a quad-core 2.0 GHz i7,
with the option of upgrading to the same quad-core 2.2 GHz CPU that the 17-inch
model sports, or a quad-core 2.3GHz CPU.
The 15- and 17-inch models also include the addition of an
AMI Radeon 6750 GPU for the 17- and top-end 15-inch models, and an AMI
Radeon 6490 on the basic 15-inch machine. The "better" 15- and 17-inch
model have 1GB of video memory, the basic 15 inch has 256MB of memory and the
13-inch models use 384MB of shared memory. All models use an Intel HD Graphics
3000 GPU to handle workhorse graphics processing. The Radeon GPU is reserved
for (on those machines so equipped) specialty work, and the result is a
significant improvement in graphics performance over last year's model.
In initial benchmark testing of a "better" 15-inch, with
4GB of memory and a 750GB hard drive partitioned for Mac OS X and
Microsoft Windows, I found an almost 50 percent performance improvement
applications for the better of the 15-inch models, compared to the
similar testing I performed last year. Even prosaic areas such as
more than mere incremental improvements over last year. My own machine
2007 vintage is starting to look rather ragged in comparison.
For my benchmarking, I used essentially the same test plan
as before. I installed 64-bit Windows 7 via the Mac OS X Boot Camp dual boot
feature, and followed with the Futuremark PCMark Vantage benchmarking
suite. I then ran three passes of the PCMark Vantage tests on an installation of
Windows 7 patched up to early March 2011. This was done first without, and then
with, the recently released Service Pack 1 for the operating system.
Compared with a similarly equipped MacBook Pro of last year,
the benchmarks showed an overall score improvement of 23 percent. In the
graphics-intensive gaming and multimedia categories, the new MacBook Pros rang
up improvements ranging from 35 percent in "Memories" to a rather impressive 48-51
percent in "TV & Movies" and 46-47 percent in "Gaming."
My testing indicated 11-12 percent improvement in the "Hard
Disk" score, and a 6-12 percent improvement in "Communications." The remaining
categories of "Music" and "Productivity" showed improvements of 6-7 percent for
the former and 15 percent for the latter.
This latest generation of MacBook Pros all offer as part of
the basic package for connectivity Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11n
WiFi networking. All models have two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, an SDXC
card slot and, replacing the Mini DisplayPort of recent MacBook Pros, the
next big thing in expansion technology. Apple calls it Thunderbolt, and it is
the company's implementation of Intel's new Light Peak technology, which claims
the ability to sling data at speeds up to 10G bps.
In the short term, this ability doesn't mean much to users because
the external devices such as disk arrays and removable storage
that will be benefit from Light Peak-Thunderbolt don't exist yet. But
won't be a problem for long. Promise Technologies expects to begin
shipping a Thunderbolt
RAID unit in the second quarter, and LaCie appears to be in the lead to
the first Thunderbolt removable storage device, with availability in
But in the long term, ultra-high-speed file transfer such as
that offered by Light Peak-Thunderbolt is going to make a big difference by
enabling users to slosh around terabytes of data quickly. This may be a curse
as well as a blessing for some organizations, as they will find it necessary to
rethink device management strategies and adopt tools that can exert the same
controls over the Thunderbolt port as they currently have on the FireWire, SD
Card and USB ports.
Other notable options include a 1680 by 1050 display, in
antiglare or glossy finishes, and the built-in camera (formerly the iSight, now
branded by Apple under the FaceTime videoconferencing label) that captures 1280 by 720
HD video. Solid-state drive options range from 128 to 512GB, and a 750GB 5400 rpm
drive is standard on the "better" 15-inch and 17-inch models.
Overall, the new MacBook Pro is going to delight the Apple
customer, and provide the company with a solid showcase for the next
the evolution of its desktop operating system, with only a few more
until the release of Mac OS X Lion. It is in many ways far more than
the incremental improvements expected in "this year's machine,"
the year. As the first computer to support the Light Peak-Thunderbolt
specification, it marks the most dramatic advancement that Apple has
the area of connectivity in the quarter century since it declared SCSI
standard feature of the Macintosh Plus.
P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.