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Redesigned 15-inch MacBook Pro Unleashed

At first glance, Apple’s new MacBook Pro is clearly a new professional laptop, sporting the company’s first significant case redesign since the middle of the PowerBook G4 era. Apple has applied the manufacturing process invented for the MacBook Air to the rest of the laptop line, bringing a strong, unibody aluminum design that allows for more environmentally friendly manufacturing, and a stronger case that doesn’t weigh significantly more.

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro measures 0.95 inches (2.41 cm) thick and weighs 5.5 pounds (2.49 kg) – just slightly thinner than its predecessor (which measured 1 inch thick) but actually 0.1 pounds (45 g) heavier.

(Apple bumped the 17-inch MacBook Pro to 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard disk, but it doesn’t share the 15-inch model’s design improvements. Apple is rumored to be updating the 17-inch MacBook Pro in the near future, possibly at Macworld Expo in January 2009.)

In the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, as with the new MacBook, Apple has gotten rid of the separate trackpad button. Well, sort of – the Multi-Touch trackpad now is the button – made of etched wear-resistant glass. Simply press the trackpad area to click (the entire area depresses). The result of this button-absorption is a trackpad area that is 39 percent larger than past notebooks offered. Apple is taking advantage of that expansion with the incorporation of even more Multi-Touch functionality – now accommodating four-finger gestures for more complex actions such as a downward swipe to trigger Expose. It’s unclear yet as to how users will respond to this change – if the button proves too sensitive, too awkward, or too difficult to
customize satisfactorily. Presumably, Apple engineers have spent a lot of time attempting to ensure its ease of use and intuitiveness so hopefully the transition will be an easy one for users.

The MacBook Pro’s Core 2 Duo processor isn’t dramatically changed from the previous version; the new models offer speeds of 2.4 GHz or 2.53 GHz; 2.8 GHz is a build-to-order option. The graphics processors, however, are another story.

The MacBook Pro (and MacBook) includes an integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400M chip with 256 MB of DDR memory. According to Apple, the GeForce 9400M is up to five times faster than the Intel integrated graphics found on the previous MacBook and Mac mini models, incorporating 16 parallel graphics cores for 54 gigaflops of processing power. In other words, it’s fast.

But it also has company.

The MacBook Pro includes another Nvidia chip, the GeForce 9600M GT with either 256 MB or 512 MB of memory and 32 graphics cores. The laptop can use either one, but apparently not both at the same time. When you need more graphics processing power, you can switch to using the beefier processor. The option requires you to specify which graphics mode to use in the Energy Saver preference pane: Better Battery Life or Higher Performance. Then you log out and log back in; restarting the Mac would also work but isn’t necessary. Switching to the 9600M drops battery life to four hours per charge versus five hours using the integrated 9400M (keeping in mind that those are likely optimal battery estimates).

This emphasis on graphics processing is likely to make professional creative users happy, as more high-end applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Apple’s Aperture, and Final Cut Studio offload much of the processing workload to the GPU. It should also improve the MacBook Pro’s standing among hardcore gamers. (At the same time, the MacBook Pro’s glossy screen – the only option – is upsetting many pros; see “On the Way Out: FireWire and Matte Screens?,” 2008-10-18.)

Another significant feature new to the MacBook Pro (and also found in the new MacBook and MacBook Air) is the Mini DisplayPort that can drive external displays at up to 2560 by 1600 pixels, the resolution of 30-inch widescreen displays. DisplayPort is a relatively recent digital display interface standard put forth by the Video Electronics Standards Association. New adapters are available for using Mini DisplayPort with older generation VGA, DVI/HDMI, and Dual-Link DVI displays. The Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter, priced at $29, connects the new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air to monitors with a DVI connector, such as the old 20- or 23-inch Apple Cinema Displays. The Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter is also priced at $29 and
connects the new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air to a standard analog monitor, projector, or LCD that uses a VGA connector or cable. And the $99 Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter connects the new MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air to an external display or projector using a DVI connector, such as the 30-inch Apple Cinema HD Display.

Other changes to the MacBook Pro aren’t as flashy, but are worth noting. Only one FireWire port is included, and it’s a FireWire 800 port; you’ll need to connect FireWire 400 devices using an adapter or a cable with a FireWire 800 connector at one end and a FireWire 400 connector at the other. The battery indicator now appears on the right side of the case instead of on the bottom. Gone, thankfully, is the annoying clasp latch of old, replaced by the magnetic latch introduced in the MacBook years ago. And if you’ve ever tried to swap the hard drive from a MacBook Pro, you’ll be thrilled that the process no longer requires a Master’s degree in engineering: the hard drive is easily accessible behind the battery door.

The new MacBook Pro is available immediately in two models:

For $1,999, the base model offers:

  • 15.4-inch LED-backlit display
  • 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3 MB of L2 cache
  • 2 GB RAM
  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M
  • Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT with 256 MB memory
  • 250 GB hard drive
  • Slot-loading SuperDrive

At $2,499, the added perks include:

  • 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6 MB of L2 cache
  • 4 GB RAM
  • Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT with 512 MB memory
  • 320 GB hard drive

After unveiling the new notebooks, Apple immediately released MacBook, MacBook Pro Software Update 1.2. The update – for only the new notebooks – “improves compatibility with external displays and includes a variety of software fixes,” to quote Apple’s release notes in their entirety. The update is available via Software Update or as a 45 MB standalone download.

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