Review: Apple's MacBook Pro With Intel Core Duo Chip

The MacBook Pro is clearly poised for the next generation of laptop use, with a faster architecture and more refined details than previous models.

Glenn Fleishman, Contributor

March 7, 2006

7 Min Read

Call me Homer Simpson. I stand before the apotheosis of Apple's new computer architecture direction, a MacBook Pro containing an Intel Core Duo, and all I can say is, "Cord goes in, cord goes out, cord goes in, cord goes out."

Why? Because one of the MacBook Pro's many new features is MagSafe, a magnetically coupled power cord connection that can withstand powerful yanking without taking the computer with it. Mechanical connections wear out; this withstands Simpson-scale idiocy.

Fortunately, Lisa Simpson kicks in at some point, and I start reveling in the speed, design, light weight, and thin form factor of this completely overhauled computer which started shipping to consumers in February.

According to Apple, the PowerBook line became out of date due to what the company said was IBM and Freescale's inability to produce substantially faster PowerPC G4 and G5 chips that didn't also produce enormous additional amounts of heat -- which was impractical for laptops. The switch to Intel allows this new model to leap a generation beyond PowerBooks while, through emulation, still supporting most existing software applications as programmers update them.

Speeding Up
Apple's benchmarks show a speed boost of four- to five-fold for certain numerical operations. In normal use, you won't see anything like this. But in a real-world comparison between my workhorse two-and-a-half-year-old 15-inch PowerBook G4 (1 GHz) and the MacBook Pro, the Intel system simply blows away the earlier device's performance. (Newer PowerBook G4s run nearly twice as fast and have other improvements, but still fall far short of the MacBook Pro's specs.)

Part of the speed, weight, and thickness improvements are due to Intel's Core Duo processor, which packs two separate computing cores into a single chip without a dramatic increase in power or heat. Apple also redesigned their system around a 667 MHz system bus and PCI Express; the former increases RAM and storage performance, and the latter improve graphics and networking speed. Setting Up
Setting up a MacBook Pro is a breeze because of Apple's simple Getting Started wizard. When first booting a new system, you enter basic registration information, create an administrative account, connect to a local network, and even input your .Mac account details, if you're a subscriber to the $99/year email and storage offering. (In Tiger, you can use .Mac for backups, synchronization of contacts and other data, and for third party synchronization where they've tied into its interface.)

Even though the review system was shipped just days ago, I had to download nearly 150 MB of software updates, including Mac OS X 10.4.5, the first minor release to have separate downloads for PowerPC and Intel-based systems. Still, the downloads installed rapidly and with no glitches.

Apple has added Rosetta, a PowerPC emulator that ships with all systems running the Intel version of Mac OS X. Be aware that some software won't run at all under Rosetta, such as Apple's pro video and audio programs, due to be released in compatible versions this month. Fans of older applications are out of luck as well -- Apple has abandoned Classic emulation, a method of running pre-Unix Mac OS 9 applications within Mac OS X 10.0 and later

On the whole, though, software worked as expected: Applications designed or rewritten to contain code for both PowerPC and Intel processors (known as "universal binaries") ran extremely fast, far outstripping the same programs on a PowerBook. Programs that hadn't yet been rewritten, such as Adobe's Creative Suite 2 (CS2), performed the same as they would have on a PowerBook or recent PowerPC. However, since I've been using an older PowerBook and a three-year-old dual-1.25 GHz Power Mac G4, even a memory and processor hog like Adobe GoLive CS2 seems lively.

One important side note: Companies like Adobe and Microsoft may charge full-version upgrade fees when they release universal versions of their suites. Both companies will release interim updates to improve Rosetta emulation, however, at no cost. A Seat In The Front Row
This laptop model is the first to come with Front Row, Apple's first cut at turning the Mac into a home entertainment console. With the infrared remote control included in the package, and using the notebook's 15.1-inch LCD or an external monitor, you can browse music, movies, and photographs, and play DVDs. The MacBook Pro has DVI support for up to a 30-inch external LCD display, and includes a DVI-to-VGA adapter. A television adapter with S-Video and composite is available separately for $19.

Front Row works well enough, using large, easy-to-read menus and graphics, although navigation is slightly fussy. For instance, a greater-than sign points right from sub-menus, but the right-arrow button on the Front Row remote control does nothing at that point; you have to hit the center select button to proceed.

Also, Front Row clips longer titles, such as the TV show I downloaded, "Saturday Night Live - Best of - Jimmy Fallon," which displays as "Saturday Night Live - Be…" (Which might have provoked an Emily Litella rant on the subject of why Saturday Night Live already "is" and doesn't need to "be." Never mind). Limited text territory is a reasonable design choice for an iPod, but the fact that it doesn't scroll or show more information is bizarre for a full-screen display.

(Incidentally, rebooting is a thrill with the MacBook Pro -- it takes less than a minute. I actually thought the machine had failed to reboot when I turned around for what seemed like a few seconds and turned back to find a clean Finder window. Checking the Unix "uptime" utility confirmed it had had a fresh start. ) Additions And Subtractions
Apple cut a few corners over their previous PowerBook model, however. They removed the dial-up modem, now a $50 USB-connected extra, and the power adapter is a bit larger than the previous model's. There's no built-in S-Video port, although a $19 adapter is available, and FireWire 800 was dropped. (FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 remain.) Sixty pixels were shaved from the screen's horizontal dimension. There's no PC Card slot. And the SuperDrive (DVD/CD burner) writes DVD-Rs at 4x instead of 8x.

But they also added a few goodies, like a built-in iSight camera (640 by 480 pixels) for video conferencing via iChat AV and recording video; an ExpressCard/34 slot for expansion; dual-link DVI support for 30-inch LCDs; optical digital audio (Toslink) input and output; and better range for its Wi-Fi connections. Reports indicate that the Wi-Fi adapter will connect to 802.11a (5 gigahertz) networks as well as 802.11b/g (2.4 GHz), but I was unable to test this.

The absence of a PC Card/CardBus slot might trouble some, although I'm hard-pressed to think of a single typical use for that slot other than a flash card reader. The ExpressCard/34 slot ties directly into the PCI Express bus offering 2 gigabit per second (Gbps) data transfer in each direction. Because of this higher throughput, dual independent FireWire 800 ports will almost certainly be one option for those using a MacBook Pro for video editing.

I compared the 2.0 GHz $2,499 MacBook Pro to a similarly equipped Dell Inspiron 9400: Dell's price was a few hundred dollars more (Dell's prices change almost daily, so this is subject to change). Dell's model has a larger screen and built-in modem, while Apple includes the iSight video camera and more included software than it's possible to bundle with Dell's purchasing options. Suffice it to say that Apple and Dell are neck and neck, despite a world of difference in their operating systems.

The MacBook Pro is clearly poised for the next generation of laptop use, though its lack of a modem disregards the reality of the present generation. Apple kicked out the floppy drive from its computers before offering viable alternative; that choice feels the same here. That misstep aside, users like myself with older PowerBooks will already find the MacBook Pro a significant and worthwhile upgrade. More recent PowerBook purchasers or those considering a purchase should evaluate their current software use to make sure universal binaries exist before committing to the next great thing.

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