New MacBook Pros Offer Performance at a Price

The newest MacBook Pros stand up for themselves, as eWEEK Labs found when it spent some time with Apple's newest notebooks. The 15-inch and 17-inch models, which offer a choice between Intel's Core i5 and i7 processors and automatic switching of graphics processors, bring a mix of portability and extreme performance. Meanwhile, the 13-inch models combine portability and affordability, without skimping on performance.

Revolution isn't always everything it's cracked up to be; sometimes, evolution accomplishes enough on its own. At least, that's what I found in Apple's newest MacBook Pro models.

The big difference from previous Apple notebook computers is under the hood; although the 13-inch models continue to use Intel Core 2 Duo processors and the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor, the 15- and 17-inch models can be configured with Intel's newest notebook CPUs, the Core i5 and i7. The 15- and 17-inch machines feature dual graphics processors and use the Nvidia GeForce GT 330M when performance is the objective, while switching to an Intel HD graphics processor for operations that can run in a more energy-efficient mode.

Intel's Core i5 and i7 include an integrated memory controller and a Level 3 cache that provide efficient access to system memory, and can create virtual processing cores by way of hyper-threading, but what I find more impressive about these CPUs is a feature Intel calls "Turbo Boost." In the case of the 2.66GHz Core i7, this can crank both cores up to 3.06GHz and accelerate one core to 3.33GHz when every last bit of processing power is required.

All of the new MacBook Pro models have a stock configuration of 4GB of RAM and can address up to 8GB; a few years ago, the smaller figure was a rather spiffy server configuration, so I'm gobsmacked when I think about what I could do with a fully loaded rig.

As for on-board storage, there are plenty of choices. The stock 2.4GHz 13-inch units have a 250GB SATA (Serial ATA) hard drive, and the stock 2.66GHz 13-inch and 2.4GHz 15-inch models have a 320GB drive. The stock 2.53GHz and 2.66GHz 15-inch models offer a 500GB drive, as does the stock 17-inch configuration, which is based on a 2.53GHz CPU. Build-to-order storage options include three sizes of solid-state drives, at 128GB, 256GB and 512GB; and the 500GB SATA drives on the 15-inch and 17-inch models can be upgraded to 7,200-rpm drives; drives in stock configurations run at 5,400 rpm.

From the perspective of connectivity, all of the new MacBook Pro models include Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n wireless networking, a FireWire 800 port and a Mini DisplayPort that (with separately sold adapters) supports DVI, HDMI and VGA monitors. The 17-inch models add a third USB port to the two that are on the 13-inch and 15-inch chassis, and replace the SD card slot on the smaller units with an ExpressCard/34 slot. The 15-inch and 17-inch models have separate audio line-in and line-out jacks, while the 13-inch models use a single jack for both functions.

The capacity of the lithium polymer battery in the new MacBook Pros varies by model: The 13-inch chassis has a 63.5-watt-hour battery, while the 15-inch and 17-inch units boast 77.5- and 95-watt-hour batteries, respectively. As for battery life when actually in use, Apple claims 8 or 9 hours for the larger machines, and 10 hours for the 13-inch models. The MagSafe power adapters for each model feature a new right-angle connector that clears a little extra room on the side of the computer.

The MacBook Pro I tested was the stock 2.66GHz 15-inch model; its suggested retail price is $2,199, which is certainly pricey when compared with the least expensive model of the same size, to say nothing of the 13-inch MacBook Pros, which cost almost half that figure. But for that, I wound up with a computer that runs both Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7, and does so well. Apple's claims of a working day's life for the battery appeared to hold up as well, although if anything about a notebook computer would fall under the "your mileage may vary" heading, battery life would lead the list.

But like every sufficiently advanced piece of technology, the MacBook Pros have a quirk or two, the most notable being the all-glass Multi-Touch trackpad. Even after using this on two different generations of Apple notebooks over the last few months, I'm still not quite used it; it becomes confused when my thumb tends to rest on the device as I'm scrolling through a long page.

But when it comes to paging through documents, I'm a clicker rather than a dragger, and I'm sure that with time I would learn to float my thumb over the near end of the trackpad while I'm reading. As complaints go, I concede that this is a minor beef.

Other reviewers have complained about the lack of a built-in HDMI interface, or the absence of a Blu-Ray disc option; I can't say that I miss either of these, but everyone has different priorities. Personally, I want a notebook computer to combine performance, portability and sturdiness, and that much Apple has accomplished, in spades.