Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 34 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

Apple Updates MacBook Pro Line with Thunderbolt

Leaving presumably bigger news—iPad 2 and iOS 5?—for the March 2nd media event, Apple has freshened up its MacBook Pro family of laptops, utilizing next-generation CPUs and graphics processing, the extraordinarily high-speed Thunderbolt peripheral networking technology, and a new FaceTime HD video camera. The aluminum unibody construction of the 13-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch MacBook Pros remains the same.

From a Light (Peak) Blue Sky — The marquee item in the new MacBook Pros is Thunderbolt, the first appearance in shipping hardware of an Intel I/O technology code-named Light Peak. Thunderbolt connects both to high-resolution displays and high-performance data devices using the same interface. (Light Peak was originally supposed to use fiber-optic cable; this first release relies on copper wire, but has the same planned speed.)

Performance-wise, Thunderbolt zooms at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) in both directions, a huge improvement over the 480 megabits per second (Mbps) of USB 2.0 and 800 Mbps of FireWire 800, and a significant jump past USB 3.0’s 4.8 Gbps. (USB 3.0 is just hitting the market in real quantities now.) Real-world performance will certainly be slower, as it is with USB 2.0; testing will be necessary to see how close to the theoretical 10 Gbps devices can get.

Apple says that Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express, the technology that links the high-performance components in a Mac, and DisplayPort, the display technology Apple has been using in the form of Mini DisplayPort jacks in recent Macs. In fact, the new Thunderbolt port appears identical to Mini DisplayPort. You can connect existing Mini DisplayPort-capable monitors directly to the Thunderbolt port; monitors using DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI, and VGA can be connected using existing Mini DisplayPort adapters, too.

A single Thunderbolt jack can accept a daisy-chain of up to six high-speed data devices or five data devices and a display, all without the need for a hub. Apple’s wording is quite specific, though: you cannot daisy-chain multiple displays. As a proponent of multiple-display Macs, I think that’s too bad, but perhaps a future version of Thunderbolt will support multiple displays, or Apple will provide multiple Thunderbolt ports to allow this option. (The Thunderbolt spec does support connecting up to two displays,
though the MacBook Pro configuration handles the laptop’s internal display and one external monitor; see “Secrets of Thunderbolt and Lion,” 27 February 2011.)

Apple’s press release says, “Freely available for implementation on systems, cables and devices, Thunderbolt technology is expected to be widely adopted as a new standard for high performance I/O.” That says you can expect to see Thunderbolt becoming standard across all new Mac models, and peripheral manufacturers will undoubtedly start releasing Thunderbolt-compatible versions of their devices shortly. Because Intel developed this technology, the firm will push heavily for its inclusion in PCs as well.

That said, apart from replacing the Mini DisplayPort jack on the MacBook Pros, Thunderbolt is purely an add-on at the moment, given that there are just a handful of storage devices that support it.

For compatibility with shipping peripherals, all three MacBook Pro models retain their FireWire 800 ports and USB 2.0 ports (two in the 13-inch and 15-inch models, three in the 17-inch). The 13-inch and 15-inch models also feature SDXC memory card slots (Secure Digital Extended Capacity, an update to the previous SD card slots), and the 17-inch model retains its ExpressCard/34 slot.

Dan Frakes and Dan Moren at Macworld have published additional information about Thunderbolt; check out their article for more useful information.

CPU and GPU — With the new MacBook Pro models, Apple increases the performance gap from the MacBook and MacBook Air. The 13-inch MacBook Pro offers a choice of either a dual-core 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5 or a dual-core 2.7 GHz Intel Core i7. And where the change really happens is with the 15-inch and 17-inch models, which feature quad-core Intel Core i7 processors running at 2.0 GHz (15-inch only), 2.2 GHz, or 2.3 GHz.

Also notable from a performance standpoint is the fact that the 2.0 and 2.2 GHz CPUs come with 6 MB of shared L3 cache, and the top-of-the-line 2.3 GHz processor has 8 MB of shared L3 cache.

All the processors support the Turbo Boost 2.0 technology that automatically increases the speed of the active cores to as much as 3.4 GHz when processor-intensive applications demand the power. Plus, Hyper-Threading is now standard on all the MacBook Pro models, enabling two threads to run simultaneously on each core, making Mac OS X think that there are eight cores on a quad-core processor and four on a dual-core processor and enabling tasks to be spread out more evenly.

In terms of graphics, the 13-inch MacBook Pro relies on integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 384 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory. As with previous models, the 15-inch and 17-inch units also support the same integrated graphics for reducing power consumption in normal conditions.

But the two larger MacBook Pros also feature discrete graphics processors for high-performance graphics needs. The 15-inch model comes with either the AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics processor with 256 MB of GDDR5 memory in the 2.0 GHz CPU configuration, or the AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics processor with 1 GB of GDDR5 memory in the 2.2 GHz CPU configuration. The 17-inch model always relies on the latter. (The automatic switching scheme between integrated and discrete graphics of the most recent MacBook Pros remains the same; for a free utility that manages switching for you, see “Improve MacBook Pro Battery Life with gfxCardStatus,” 21 February 2011.)

FaceTime HD Camera — With these new MacBook Pros, Apple is further emphasizing FaceTime, the video-calling technology that debuted with the iPhone 4 in June 2010 and came to the Mac in the form of a beta FaceTime application four months later (see “At Apple Event, Mac OS X Gets FaceTime,” 20 October 2010).

To encourage additional use of FaceTime, Apple has significantly improved the video camera in the new MacBook Pros, changing its name from iSight to FaceTime HD. (Apple started this terminology change with other Macs released in late 2010.) The FaceTime HD camera offers three times the resolution of the iSight, supporting high-definition (720p) calls between MacBook Pros and standard resolution calls with older Macs, the iPhone 4, and the fourth-generation iPod touch. (If the next revision to the iPad includes a video camera, as expected by many, it will be interesting to see if it’s a FaceTime HD camera or an older iSight camera.)

By the way, FaceTime HD requires the advanced graphics processing in a new MacBook Pro along with the higher-resolution camera. The new laptops have built-in hardware decoding for FaceTime HD, DVD playback, and iTunes playback.

The new MacBook Pros come bundled with a free copy of FaceTime 1.0. Apple simultaneously released the $0.99 application in the Mac App Store for other Macs. (For details about what has changed from the beta, see our TidBITS Watchlist item, “FaceTime 1.0,” 24 February 2011.)

Although we still haven’t seen FaceTime get much more than “Hey, look at this!” demonstration use among our family, friends, and colleagues, it’s possible that by making it ubiquitous across all Apple devices, FaceTime will eventually take off as did still image cameras in mobile phones. Initially, they were laughably bad and nearly universally ignored, but once their quality improved sufficiently and they become commonplace, people started using them heavily.

Other Features — The standard features you’d expect to see in a MacBook Pro remain, well, standard, including Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR on the communications side. The new models feature stereo speakers plus subwoofers, an omnidirectional microphone, digital/analog audio in and out ports (combined in the 13-inch model), and support for the Apple iPhone headset with microphone and volume controls.

Although the batteries and MagSafe chargers haven’t changed at all, it’s hard to tell how battery life will compare with the previous models, since Apple has changed how they estimate battery life from the previous generation of MacBook Pros, switching from a “wireless productivity” usage pattern to a “wireless web” pattern that results in lower battery estimates. For instance, the 13-inch model drops from “up to 10 hours of wireless productivity” to “up to 7 hours of wireless web.”

The 13-inch model offers 320 GB, 500 GB, and 750 GB hard disk options, while the other two give you the choice of either 500 GB or 750 GB. With any model you can instead opt for a solid-state drive in 128 GB, 256 GB, or 512 GB sizes, and all three include an 8x slot-loading SuperDrive.

All models come with 4 GB of RAM, with the option to increase that to 8 GB for $200. Get the extra RAM; you won’t regret it.

The 13-inch model offers only a 1280-by-800-pixel LED-backlit glossy display. However, with the 15-inch model, you can choose between a 1440-by-900 LED-backlit glossy display, or pay $100 more for a 1680-by-1050 glossy display. The higher-resolution display also comes in an anti-glare option for $150 more than the standard display. The 17-inch model’s 1920-by-1200 LED-backlit display is also available in an antiglare version for $50 more.

Prices of the low-end 13-inch model start at $1,199; the 15-inch model starts at $1,799; and the 17-inch model starts at $2,499. Trick a 17-inch MacBook Pro out fully, though, and you’ll hit $4,099. All models are available immediately.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.