Showing that it still pays attention to the Macintosh side of its business, Apple has updated the entire MacBook Pro line at once, a welcome change from previous updates that have focused on a particular model to the exclusion of the others. Significant changes include new CPU options, better battery life, seamless integration of dual graphics processors, optional high-resolution displays, inertial scrolling on the Multi-Touch trackpad, and the option of higher-capacity solid-state drives. The changes aren’t evenly distributed across the line though.
The new 13-inch MacBook Pro continues to rely on the Intel Core 2 Duo processor, speed-bumped to either 2.4 GHz or 2.66 GHz. However, Apple claims that the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s new 48-core Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor will provide up to 80 percent faster graphics performance. The new graphics processor should be especially welcome for graphics-intensive applications and high-performance games. The other notable change that will be welcome across the board is the new model’s purported 10-hour battery life. The battery is built-in and cannot be swapped by the user, but it can be replaced by Apple.
While the 13-inch MacBook Pro is relatively unchanged, the 15-inch and 17-inch models see more significant improvements. They rely on either the Intel Core i5 (at 2.4 or 2.53 GHz for the 15-inch and 2.53 GHz for the 17-inch) or the Intel Core i7 (at 2.66 GHz) processor, for what Apple claims is up to 50 percent faster performance than previous models. Some improvements stem from how the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors integrate the memory controller and Level 3 cache to speed access to system memory. Apple says that additional performance improvements come from Hyper-Threading technology that improves data throughput by creating virtual processing cores. Then there’s Turbo Boost, which optimizes performance between the two processor cores, essentially accelerating the system from 2.66 GHz to 3.06 GHz for intensive dual-core tasks and up to 3.33 GHz for single-core tasks. How all this will play out in real-world usage remains to be seen.
Also improved in the 15- and 17-inch models is the graphics subsystem, which features a pair of graphics processors, the Nvidia GeForce GT 330M for top performance and the Intel HD Graphics for reduced energy usage. A welcome change from the performance split in previous generations is that the new MacBook Pro models switch between them automatically; you don’t need to choose a specific graphics mode, log out, and then log back in to apply the change. (Apple has already released MacBook Pro Software Update 1.3 to improve graphics stability for high-performance video and gaming applications. It’s a 258.32 MB update and is presumably available via Software Update to purchasers of these new Macs.)
Apple is also claiming better battery life on the new 15- and 17-inch models, with 8 to 9 hours per charge (up from the previous claim of 7 to 8 hours), thanks to tightly integrated hardware and software. The fact that the 15-inch model’s battery went from 73 watt-hours to 77.5 watt-hours probably helps, too (the 17-inch model’s battery remains at 95 watt-hours).
During a briefing with Apple, we learned more about how Apple calculates battery life numbers. The top end of Apple’s claims is rooted more in real-world usage than the “ideal circumstances” estimates of years past. On a device with the screen brightness set at 50 percent, Apple runs a battery test called Wireless Web. A script loads Web pages via Wi-Fi, creates and saves text documents, and otherwise emulates “light duty” usage.
Another test is designed to put the ultimate strain on the battery: screen brightness is set to 100 percent, the volume is cranked up to maximum, and a DVD is played (introducing the physical drive-spinning mechanism as well as on-the-fly MPEG decoding and playback). In this test, the 15-inch MacBook Pro averaged about 4.5 hours of battery life – a span that not too long ago represented good longevity in light usage conditions.
Something we’re looking forward to experiencing in person is the new “inertial scrolling” feature of the Multi-Touch trackpad. Apple mentions it only briefly, but we’re guessing the trackpad – and software that recognizes it – can scroll items with the same simulated physics found in the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. We have to admit there are times when we switch between using an Apple touch device and a Mac and expect the same behavior in both environments. (Adobe Photoshop CS4 implemented this type of scrolling, making it easier to “throw” a zoomed-in image around its window and reduce the amount of scrolling required.)
Base Features and Options — The standard features should sound familiar. All models come with a MagSafe power port, Gigabit Ethernet port, Mini DisplayPort for video out, one FireWire 800 port, and two USB 2.0 ports (three on the 17-inch model). The 13-inch model offers a single audio in/out port, whereas the 15- and 17-inch models have separate audio line in and audio line out ports. The 13-inch and 15-inch models feature an SD card slot, and the 17-inch model replaces it with an ExpressCard/34 slot. In terms of wireless networking, all of them have AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi wireless networking based on 802.11n, along with Bluetooth 2.1+EDR. And all models have a built-in iSight video camera.
4 GB of RAM is standard on each model, but each can be upgraded to 8 GB. Hard drive options are available up to 500 GB, and solid-state drives are available in 128 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB sizes for a $200, $650, or $1,300 premium over the 500 GB hard drive.
More Screen Resolution — All MacBook Pro models include glossy LED-backlit screens, but some custom configurations are available. The 13-inch model’s screen is glossy with a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels, with no option for an antiglare screen. The standard configuration for the 15-inch model is glossy with a resolution of 1440 by 900 pixels. For an extra fee, you can order a higher-resolution 1680-by-1050-pixel display with either a glossy ($100 more) or antiglare ($150 more) surface. The antiglare option is available only at the higher resolution, not the default resolution. The screen on the 17-inch model is 1920 by 1200 pixels, and an antiglare version is available for an extra $50.
Greener MacBooks — With the latest batch of MacBook Pros, Apple continues to demonstrate a commitment to producing environmentally friendly products. Each MacBook Pro in the new lineup has been awarded EPEAT Gold status (meaning it meets all of EPEAT’s required criteria and at least 75 percent of the optional criteria), and each one satisfies the requirements for the Energy Star 5.0 rating.
Features contributing to those achievements include the highly recyclable aluminum unibody enclosure, a mercury- and arsenic-free LED-backlit display, and the lack of any components containing brominated flame retardants (BFRs) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Additionally, the new graphics switching technology that enables the MacBook Pro to switch automatically between the powerful Nvidia GeForce GT 330M for heavy workloads and the energy efficient Intel HD Graphics processor for less intense operations increases battery life. Coupling that with a lifetime expectancy of 1,000 charges (roughly 5 years by Apple’s estimation) should result in less battery waste. When a battery is finally used up, Apple also provides an environmentally responsible program to deal with its removal and disposal, and the installation of a new battery – priced at either $129 or $179, depending on your model.
Pricing and Availability — All models of the new MacBook Pro are available now, in the following base configurations (the final 17-inch configuration isn’t actually a base configuration, but it seemed odd to leave it out of a list that was otherwise differentiated largely by CPU type):
- 13-inch ($1,199): 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 250 GB hard drive
- 13-inch ($1,499): 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 320 GB hard drive
- 15-inch ($1,799): 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5, 320 GB hard drive
- 15-inch ($1,999): 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5, 500 GB hard drive
- 15-inch ($2,299): 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7, 500 GB hard drive
- 17-inch ($2,299): 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5, 500 GB hard drive
- 17-inch ($2,499): 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7, 500 GB hard drive
Of Timing and Performance — It’s easy to see these new configurations as a specifications speed bump, but we think a larger leap has occurred, and at a fortuitous time. Reports from owners of the latest iMac models with Core i5 or i7 processors indicate a dramatic performance boost over the Intel Core 2 Duo. Given that Apple’s notebooks significantly outsell the company’s desktop models, the MacBook Pro needs the highest performance it can get. The fact that Apple has improved battery life, instead of sacrificing it for speed, and has eliminated the awkward method of switching between graphics modes indicates that the company is still expending the resources needed to improve its Mac products, and isn’t just tossing in slightly better components. We’re fans of the MacBook Pro, and these new models just improve our already positive feelings.