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)