Apple 15″ MacBook Pro (Feb 2011 model): Review


review Considered by many to be the gold standard for laptops, Apple’s line-up of MacBook Pros have garnered a reputation for stellar battery life, build quality and — Steve Jobs would have it no other way — a svelte design that catches attention. But does the latest batch, released in the opening months of 2011, keep the legend intact? Read on to find out.

The MacBook Pro’s design has been stable now for a while, with Apple changing only minor details in its latest iteration of the laptops. However, for those who are new to the family (converts from a Windows world, maybe?), we’ll go through the fundamentals.

The lid of the MacBook Pro is, like the rest of the laptop’s body, composed of a single piece of seamless aluminium. On the top sits Apple’s iconic logo, which lights up whenever the machine is awake. You’ll note the ABC tends to obscure this visible branding signal when it features Macs on its shows, due to editorial guidelines — but the glowing Apple sign regularly appears in US films and TV shows.

The aluminium cover is very attractive and resistant to fingerprints — but it is quite slippery, and you’ll have to grip it fairly tightly to hold on if you’re not holding it flat. On the bottom of the laptop are four cute rubber feet, along with the laptop’s serial number and some certification labels in a cryptic code which we were unable to deciper.

When you open the laptop up, you can instantly see that the screen is bright, clear and lovely to view. Unlike much earlier Apple laptops, there is no distinct locking hinge to keep the lid closed when it’s down — just a little ledge to get your fingers under to open it. But we haven’t found that the lid ever swings open unnecessarily — it’s secure.

Around the screen is a black border plastic, and the camera is just visible at the top as a small black dot. On the laptop’s left-hand side are an array of ports, including the power port, while on the right sits the DVD drive. This has been removed for Apple’s MacBook Air line, and we consider it very redundant and likely to be removed in the next MacBook Pro refresh. There’s also a little insert to attach a physical locking mechanism.

On the laptop’s main case below the screen sits its keyboard in black ‘chiclet’ style, with a sizable speaker grill either side. And a large trackpad rounds out the MacBook Pro’s design. Almost all of this is exactly the same as the prior MacBook Pro. Why change a winning formula?

Now here’s where things get interesting.

When Apple unveiled its new line-up of MacBook Pros on February 24 this year, it made a number of changes to them. For the 15″ model we tested, this means a Core i7 quad-core Intel CPU running at 2GHz, while the 13″ MacBook Pro comes with either an i5 or i7 dual-core chip. Higher speeds are also available — up to 2.3Ghz in the larger laptops. In addition, Apple has now swapped out its previous NVIDIA dedicated graphics chip for a combination of an on-board Intel graphics chip (on our model it was labelled as ‘Intel HD Graphics 3000’) and an AMD Radeon chip — with our machine it was a Radeon HD 6490M.

There’s also a new port on the MacBook Pro’s side — which connects to devices which use the ‘Thunderbolt’ standard developed by Intel and Apple. The port looks and functions exactly the same as the previous DisplayPort outlet on the previous MacBook Pros, which is used to connect MacBook Pros up to larger displays. Yup, that’s right — the Thunderbolt port can still be used as a DisplayPort port.

There aren’t many Thunderbolt-enabled devices on the market right now, so it’s hard to say how useful the new standard will be. But it’s nice to see Intel and Apple pushing the envelope with a new standard that’s still useful for other users.

Another new features include an improved camera above the MacBook’s screen — which will be welcomed by those who plan to use their MacBook Pro for Skype video calling or using Apple’s own FaceTime software. It’s still not that great — we’d like to see it up to par with the rear camera found on the iPhone 4, for example, rather than just being something in the range of traditional webcams, but it’s a definite improvement.

And of course, all of the old features you know and love about the MacBook Pro are still here — a magnetic power socket that’s easy to disconnect, Ethernet (gigabit) and Wi-Fi support (802.11b/g/n), a FireWire 800 port, audio lines in and out, a SDXC card slot and so on. Our model came with a normal 500GB standard hard disk, but you can upgrade it to a SSD drive, and the included DVD drive can both write and read DVDs and CD-ROMs. Bluetooth is also included.

One thing we’d like to see on the MacBook Pros is more USB ports. Quite frankly, two is not enough — it’s common to see people with USB hubs on their desks connected to their MacBook Pro. An extra one at least wouldn’t go astray — and there’s plenty of room for it on the MacBook Pro’s casing.

The key question which needs to be asked here, is has Apple’s new CPUs made a difference to the way the new MacBook Pros perform?

The answer is yes.

We’ve been using one of the previous generation of MacBook Pros for more than a year now, and the new model is noticeably faster in its user interface and carrying out basic tasks. The new model just delivers that extra ‘kick’ that you’re looking for when you buy a new PC, and we’re betting the difference would be even more noticeable with an SSD drive built in.

Applications load instantly and carry out their tasks quickly, no matter how many you have open (although this will change if you are doing video processing in the background), and there is just a ‘fresh’ feeling to using the machine that we loved. Multimedia is handled by the new MacBook Pro very easily and smoothly — even HD video in full screen while other applications are using CPU time.

In addition, Apple’s famous build quality is intact here. The trackpad is at least as responsive as it has been on previous models, the image quality on the MacBook Pro’s screen is fantastic (you’ll get used to, and probably end up preferring, the reflective glass surface after a while using it — many other laptops use matte), and the keyboard is divine, best in class. Dancing your fingers across the keyboard can sometimes be more in the nature of a caress rather than a work chore. And the casing of the laptop and the way it fits together is also great.

Having said that, there are some caveats to the MacBook Pro that you need to be aware of before buying one.

Firstly, this baby gets real hot.

We streamed a 1080p video from YouTube (a StarCraft II match, if you must know) for half an hour, and after that period, the MacBook Pro’s battery had taken a heavy hit and its underside casing was almost too hot to touch. You couldn’t cook an egg on it — but after another half an hour, it might be possible. This problem is something that previous MacBook Pros have shared, and we think it has something to do with insufficient ventilation. There are only a few small openings on the MacBook Pro’s case, and it doesn’t seem likely there’s enough airflow to keep an i7 CPU cool under load.

One note about the battery — we’re not saying that other laptops have better battery life. In our experience, they don’t, and if you need a laptop with the longest possible battery life, we recommend a MacBook Pro. Much of this seems to be down to better power management under Mac OS X compared with Windows — as our MacBook Pro loses battery much quicker when it’s running Microsoft’s operating system.

The new 15″ MacBook Pros are rated to last for 7 hours of wireless web use, according to Apple. In practice, expect a little less, depending on how much multimedia you’re using.

With this in mind, although the Radeon video card can clearly handle it, it’s hard to recommend a MacBook Pro as a substitute gaming PC. We’d be a bit worried about pushing this baby to the graphics and CPU limit on a daily basis — although it would be absolutely fine for sporadic use.

Secondly, it’s hard not to want to comment on some of Apple’s peripheral practices. Many people are going to want to connect their MacBook Pro up to an external monitor at some point during its life, and they will need to fork out an extra $45 for an adaptor to do so — as hardly anyone in 2011 owns a monitor which supports the DisplayPort standard. Add in a powered USB hub, and you’re looking at an extra hundred dollars which you just wouldn’t have to pay if you bought a rival laptop brand.

In addition, frankly the DVD-ROM drive on the MacBook Pro is fairly redundant. It seems strange that Apple has ditched the DVD-ROM capability for the MacBook Air, but maintained it for the MacBook Pro. We can’t think of a time when we’ve used the DVD-ROM on our MacBook Pro for the past year … and we never see anyone else doing so either. These days everything is about USB drives, or network access.

We’d like to see Apple lighten and cheapen the MacBook Pro dramatically by removing the DVD-ROM drive, and adding in some USB ports — or even some extra battery power. Add in a free DisplayPort adaptor and we’d be a lot more sold on upgrading to a new MacBook Pro.

We were also not that impressed with the MacBook Pro’s speakers. Sure, they’re more than functional for laptop use, but, as with most laptops, we recommend investing in a decent set of headphones instead of spending much time listening to their fairly tinny sound. Lastly, we recommend getting some stickers or some other form of cover if you take your MacBook Pro on the road a lot or carry it around the office under your arm. The aluminium is *slippery*.

Despite these caveats (many of which also apply to almost every other laptop on the market), in our opinion Apple still makes the best laptops on the planet. If you use your laptop on the road as much as we do, it’s hard to recommend anything else.

Apple’s MacBook Pros are at least among the best laptops on the market today, if not the best, and the 15″ model is a prime example of the species. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good — and what deficiencies it does have are minor and shared by much of the competition.

One last thing you’ll need to consider is the price. The entry level price for a 15″ MacBook Pro is $2,099 — which we consider to be pretty steep, given some of the specials that go around constantly with regards to laptops from Dell and Lenovo. If you want to kit out your MacBook Pro for serious use, you’ll be adding a few extras that will start to push the cost up beyond $2,500 and maybe even to the $3,000 mark. That’s a lot of money.

For what it’s worth, we’d recommend asking yourself what you’re actually going to use the MacBook Pro for. If you mainly work in an office but are on the road a bit as well, it may be worth considering using a desktop PC normally and the smaller, lighter and cheaper 13″ MacBook Pro, or even the MacBook Air, on the road. You’ll lose a bit of screen size and power when working remotely, but you’ll save a lot of money on the laptop aspect and the machine itself will be lighter to lug around.

And just one last thing.

If you do decide to buy a MacBook Pro, make sure to buy one as soon as possible after Apple refreshes the line — which happens every year, at least. The company has a habit of springing updates on users without any notice. You don’t want to buy a new MacBook Pro, only to find out there’s a new line out only a few weeks or months later.

Image credit: Kate LeMay (Delimiter)


  1. The Macbook’s have always gotten hot, this is what happens when you have the vents near the screen and use the keyboard and not at the bottom of the case like most other laptops. My 13″ Macbook Pro hasn’t been hot since I got it 2 weeks ago but mind you I have been through 2 in that period as well.

    • It’s hard to say, as I’m not an expert on laptop design, but I think Apple has made the right design choices here, given what choices it had. If you put too many vents in, you run the risk of leaving circuitry open to the elements — spillage and the like.

      However, we still have to note the heat problem for the review. The unit was almost too hot to touch. If you’re watching a HD video on your lap on the plane, you had better watch out that the crown jewels don’t get burnt after 45min.

      • The heat from the laptop will get worse in summer, some days I could never use my laptop because it was 35C and the laptop would almost burn my hands.

  2. Unlike much earlier Apple laptops, there is no distinct locking hinge to keep the lid closed when it’s down — just a little ledge to get your fingers under to open it. But we haven’t found that the lid ever swings open unnecessarily — it’s secure.

    I believe the lid is held in place magnetically. At least, it feels like that when you open/close it.

    One thing that annoyed me was, if you want to connect to a > 1280×1024 monitor (I think that’s the limit) then you need a DisplayPort to dual DVI adapter, and that baby sets you back a whopping $90. Mind you, if you’re forking out $2000 for a good quality 30″ monitor, I guess an extra $90 is not too much to ask… still!

    I’ve been using my MacBook Pro for about 2 months now and while I like the build quality and battery life, I still can’t bring myself to really like Mac OS. I tend to switch between Windows 7 and Ubuntu on my PC, and I prefer both of those to Mac OS. Horses for courses, I say.

    • Ah yes, you could be right about the magnetic lock — it does feel that way.

      I still prefer the user interface of Ubuntu over anything else — it seems geared for power users. I guess this isn’t a surprise, as I always used to prefer Windowmaker over Windows/Mac OS X etc.

      These days, my user interface preference goes:

      Ubuntu > Windows 7 > Mac OS X.

      Having said that, I understand why users who are less technically adept like the Mac OS X interface. I just find it rather annoying for many simple tasks … such as maximising windows to take up the entire screen.

        • Oh I definitely agree. I think one of the problems for me is the degree to which Apple tries to take all the complexity out of its interface. It means it’s a bit hard to access the advanced features.

          I think in an ideal Apple world, there would be no control panel ;)

          • I use Terminal a lot, and also I find that tools like Alfred ( help a lot. I guess it depends on which advanced functionality you need. I’m happy to trade off a reasonable amount of tweakability if it means that everything else works well and, having used Windows laptops, Mac laptops and even a FreeBSD laptop for a while, I find that on Mac I have to stuff around a hell of a lot less and can just get work done. This is, naturally, highly subjective though. =)

    • The single link DVI adapter will do up to 1920×1200 fine, it just won’t be the 27 & 30″ screens (2560×440 or 2560×1600).

      New screens of those sizes should come with display-port or HDMI & the adapters are cheaper.

  3. The other reason there aren’t more vents is also the reason there aren’t more USB ports: there’s nowhere to put them.

    Yes there’s lots of dead space on the edges of the chassis, but if you go hunt up the teardown photos at iFixit you’ll see that the space occupied by the ports on the side is roughly the length of the logic board. The other side of the chassis at the back is occupied by the optical drive, and all the area forward of that is occupied by the HDD/SSD or battery, and the back is occluded by the lid due to the hinge design and the location of the vents (just in front of the hinge). To fit more USB ports you’d probably have to sacrifice space toward the front which would mean losing battery capacity since that’s the only thing that can change size.

    • I guess if they dropped the optical drive they’d have more space. I know there was a bit of an outcry when the Air came out with no drive, but personally, I think it’s kind of pointless…

      • If you check out the teardown photos of the Air it’s even more sparse. The logic board is a strip at the back of the chassis with the storage device on one side and the front is battery, hence the wedge shape.

      • Well you’d need to make room on the side of the logic board that has the ports, and like I said there’s no room. Even jamming the ports closer together wouldn’t get you another USB port’s worth of space so you’d have to drop something. I’m guessing that at some point FW800 will go once Thunderbolt’s more established so you might see another one then but until then you’d either need to make the case larger or the battery smaller.

        These two images should illustrate what I’m talking about:

        Logic board:
        Case layout, with logic board and battery removed:

        • I do see what you’re saying; but I think the removal of the DVD-ROM drive would free up enough space to expand the circuitry ;)

          I’d also question why the SDXC card slot needs to be there, when most still and video cameras these days can have their data transferred by USB? I believe this is a question Apple has also wrestled with at times.

          • Well yes, but then you’d have a legion of people complaining about it being gone, which also happened but to a far lesser extent when they ditched ExpressCard in favour of the SD slot. As to whether the SD slot should go in favour of more USB, I dunno. =)

            As someone who’s been using a MacBook Pro for years, I don’t really find the USB port count too low to be honest. That said, I generally only need to hook more than two devices up when I’m at my desk and I generally have USB hubs kicking around at that point. The only thing I tend to hook up to my laptop when I’m out and about is my iPhone (for charging or syncing) and the occasional memory stick.

          • Not to mention it took Apple years to get the DVD burners across all laptops. My White macbook from 2008 was one of the first that had a DVD burner in it, the ones before were only combo drives.

            Apple does things weirdly, the way the logic board is placed inside and the heat sinks have a purpose but honestly, I dislike how hot the macbooks get and I always need a coolpad underneath with atleast 3 fans (using 1 of only 2 usb ports on the macbook mind you) to keep it cool.

            Hopefully if all the rumors about an Apple Dock and if it is made available to Macbooks will bring USB 3.0 plus spare usb ports I’ll be a happy camper (For this look on Macrumors under patents).

  4. Nice review.

    Can you review the new Sony Vaio SB range and Samsung Series 9 laptop next? Both I believe are superior to the MacBook Pro range.

      • I would say it’s mostly my opinion. If you prefer the look of a MCP to the look of a Sony, and you’d not want to run Windows, and you don’t play games, then the MCP would be a better machine. That said, if you do want to compare, the easiest comparison to make is between the i5 13.3″ MCP and the VPCSB16FGB Sony. Both have a $1.4k RRP, a 2.3 GHz processor, and 4GB of RAM. Here’s where I see the differences:

        Sony has a Radeon HD 6470M graphic processor, in addition to an Intel 3000. This is probably the major difference for me. The Radeon has 512 MB of its own video memory, whereas the Intel 3000 is integrated (and can only allocated 384MB). The MBP only has the Intel.

        The Sony has a resolution of 1366×768, which is 16:9 and standard for TV shows, etc, The Mac sticks with their 1280×800, which leaves black bars when watching 16:9 content.

        The MCP comes with Snow Leopard, the Sony with Windows 7 Home Premium. To discount the argument of which is better, assume I’m going to want to dual boot both OS – it costs about $40 to acquire Snow Leopard, $200 for HP.

        The MCP has two RAM slots, but comes with two 2GB sticks, meaning to upgrade to 8MB you need to buy two 4GB sticks. The Sony comes with two slots, but only one filled (with a 4GB stick).

        The Sony is 300g lighter than the MCP, Roughly the same size (Sony is about .5 cm wider). Sony available in five colours. :-)

        The Sony has an HDMI out. The MCP requires an adaptor.

        The Sony has a USB 3.0 port (in addition to two USB 2.0 ports). The MCP has Thunderbolt and FireWire.

        The Samsung is harder to compare – although comparing it to a high-end MBA might be more appropriate. But it looks awesome!

        • If you want to dual boot those two OSs, you need to buy the Mac- Mac OS on other hardware is not supported, against the licence agreement and unlikely to work 100% (you’ll never gets drivers for EVERYTHING to work properly).

  5. Apple would lose a significant chunk of its market if they got rid of the optical drive.
    Everyone I know (in the IT profession) with a Macbook Pro uses them a fair bit – there is a awful lot of corporate software, documentation etc that still comes on CD/DVDs.

    Similarly, I suspect many keen photographers would switch to another brand if Apple removed the SD slot – yes you can download via USB, but that means you have to find the cable, and many if not most cameras have a quite slow USB interface.

    The lack of a USB3 port is a major drawback for me, as is the lack of a few keys on the keyboard that makes running Windows (& Linux) annoying.

    The Macbook Pro’s screen is very good, but I would be much more impressed if it was an IPS screen.

    The removal of a dedicated graphics chip on the 13″ model is not mentioned in the article. Pity, if it had that, an IPS screen, and a few more keys, I’d buy one.

    • Perhaps you’re right, Graham, but I haven’t seen anybody using the DVD drive on their MacBook Pro for some time … in addition, is USB really that slow for transferring photos? We have a digital SLR here at Delimiter, and transfer photos from that via USB without a problem or any real slowdown.

      I take your point via USB3 — but are there actually any laptops out there that do have USB3 right now?

      Just a quick question also — what laptop are you currently using, if you don’t mind me asking?

      • Many (if not most) of the new model laptops from Toshiba, Asus, Sony, HP etc are now coming with USB3.

        Digital SLR’s transfer reasonably fast, but most compacts don’t. My Canon 60D is OK, but my other Canon compacts are terrible, as all of my friends various branded compacts. The other important problem with USB connected cameras is that many of them (including my 60D) require drivers loaded before connecting the camera. This is a real pain when on holidays and you want to copy the photos off your friends camera.

        My current laptop is an Asus M51S with an added 500GB Hybrid hard drive. It’s quite fast but has a crap screen and is getting a bit old now with no HDMI output. It’s also too big for travelling, but I’ve been quite happy with it for other use.
        I’m looking for a 13″ laptop for travelling, and haven’t found anything I like yet – I also have a fairly old 10″ Asus EeePC 1000H which is OK for email and internet, but doesn’t have enough grunt for much else.

        • Cables will be available to convert Thunderbolt to USB 3.0 “soon”, so its not a big deal. Not much has USB 3.0 yet either.

          • I haven’t personally seen anyone with a USB 3.0 device such as an external hard disk yet … my bet is they won’t become popular for a long while.

        • Interesting. I’m going to try and do some more laptop reviews over the coming months, so will be interesting to see what specs they have. I personally love my 13″ MacBook Pro — I take it on the road constantly with a Next G mobile broadband dongle. However, my next machine will be a MacBook Air — it just does everything I need, without the additional weight of the DVD-ROM and a few other things etc.

    • The 13″ never had dedicated video- they just swapped from Nvidia Integrated to Intel Integrated (a sideways move).

      • Yes OK, you are correct, the 2010 Macbook Pro 13″ had a NVidia GT320M GPU integrated with the chipset with shared memory. And I guess performance of the new HD 3000 graphics unit is similar to the GT320M, although the HD3000 in Windows struggles with, in particular, many games, due to very immature drivers (and the driver situation is even worse with Linux).
        It would be nice though to have the grunt of a discrete graphics.

      • My 13″ MacBook Pro says it has a NVIDIA GeForce 9400M — bus type PCI. 256MB of VRAM. Not sure if it’s integrated or not. I would guess that it’s an on-board thing, as last time I tried to play StarCraft II with it, the performance was abysmal.

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