Like the Mac Pro desktop, Apple's MacBook Pro is just about as good as it gets in its class. From start to finish, this is a class act, offering admirable performance married to a clean, elegant industrial design.
Apple MacBook Pro
The first iteration of Apple's high-end MacBook Pro laptop in early 2006 (replacing the previous PowerPC-based Powerbook line) was a solid, impressive performer, especially considering that it was also the first of Apple's laptop models to make the jump to Intel chips. This new model takes that success and smoothes out the few remaining rough edges, while bringing the CPU up to Intel's 64-bit Core 2 Duo chip.
Revving Up The Speed
The Intel CPU bit in the review unit was speed-bumped up to the maximum 2.33 GHz (2.16 Ghz also is available), and has a significantly larger (4-Mbyte) L2 cache shared among the two processor cores. Yes, there is a performance boost compared with the prior MacBook Pro model, though perhaps not significant enough to make an upgrade worthwhile in itself. However, the move to a 64-bit processing core helps future-proof this laptop, looking ahead to when most operating systems and applications are 64-bit versions.
Like other laptops currently using Intel's Core 2 Duo CPU, while there is physical ability to accommodate 4 Gbytes of RAM, the chipset can actually address only approximately 3 Gbytes of that memory. Some manufacturers have disingenuously listed 4-Gbyte capacity for their Core 2 Duo laptops, but Apple, to its credit, lists only the usable 3 Gbytes as the maximum available. The next iteration of Intel's chipset for Core 2 Duo CPUs, Santa Rosa, should remove this barrier, along with boosting front-side bus speed (and thus overall system performance), but Santa Rosa-based systems probably won't be available for at least six months, since the chipset itself won't be available from Intel until the second quarter of 2007.
For graphics, Apple kept the same ATI Mobility Radeon X1600, with the higher-end MacBook Pro configurations sporting an unchanged 256-Mbytes of SDRAM. The X1600 is still a solid performer with a good balance of performance, power consumption and cost, but is starting to show its age. Supporting dual-link DVI, the X1600 can drive Apple's largest 30-inch external display, as well as any smaller monitor. (Look to see updated graphics capability in the next generation of MacBook Pro -- ATI has released three new iterations of its Mobility line since the X1600, most recently the as-yet unannounced -- but reportedly shipping -- Mobility X1900, which promises to be a true screamer of a mobile graphics solution.)
The 15.4-inch screen, available in both matte and glossy versions, has the same native 1,440-by-900 resolution as the previous model, and the screen is everything you would expect from a high-end laptop -- crisp, bright, and with excellent contrast.
The review unit came with a 160-Gbyte 5400 RPM Hitachi Serial ATA drive, which did well in performance testing. A 120-Gbyte 5400 RPM drive is standard in the lower-end model, but those needing the maximum possible internal storage can opt for a 200-Gbyte drive, which will, however, drop you down to a slower 4200 RPM.
A slightly off-note was the choice of a slot-loading DVD drive. The dual-layer Matsushita UJ-857D CD/DVD drive experienced some occasional glitches, and in at least one case simply would not read a Windows CD that other drives could read perfectly. In addition, the performance of the drive in tests showed it to be adequate but not stellar. Some users on a number of Mac forums have reported read or write problems with this model of drive, and apparently some newer MacBook Pros are now shipping with a different Hitachi drive which doesn't appear to experience the same issues.
One of the causes of the most griping about the first generation of MacBook Pro laptops was the missing FireWire 800 port. Video professionals and other users who depend on the fastest available external drives were mystified by the loss of a feature that had been available in Apple's previous PowerBook line, and which was included in the 17-inch MacBook Pro, but not the 15-inch model.
So for those who need FireWire, it's back -- along with a full set of I/O ports: Gigabit Ethernet, three USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 400, audio line-in and headphone-out (analog or optical digital audio), an ExpressCard/34 slot (the successor to the PC Card), and DVI-out (a VGA adapter is included, but you''ll have to buy an S-Video connector if you need one).
Video professionals and other users who were mystified by the loss of the FireWire port...it's back .
The MacBook Pro trackpad supports scrolling, a feature I've become addicted to, and the keyboard is illuminated with a sensor to automatically set the level of lighting, as well as the screen brightness, according to current ambient light conditions. The built-in iSight video camera allows impromptu videoconferencing using Apple's included iChat AV software. The included infrared Apple Remote and Front Row system makes the MacBook Pro into a great presentations machine.
The slick MagSafe magnetic power adapter available since the first MacBook Pro does indeed protect laptop and charger from the effects of a sudden tug on the cable, and Apple now has a MagSafe power adapter available for those flying in seats with power ports. Battery life is adequate, but not great, comparable to other laptops in its class. Rundown tests with various mixes of battery-intensive tasks, such as DVD playback or very heavy wireless and drive use, fell in the 2.5 to 3 hour range. Less demanding tasks, such as general word-processing and e-mail, could eke out more than four hours of use.
Road warriors may wish to note that, as with the previous MacBook Pro, there is no built-in modem. While not quite as controversial as Apple's decision years ago to ditch the floppy drive, if you (like me) still need to use one of those old-fashioned dial-up connections from time to time, you can purchase a tiny USB modem from Apple for $49.
A Powerful Performer
In benchmark testing, the new MacBook Pro proved to a powerful performer, solidly in the top tier of its class across a variety of tests. Overall performance ranged from two to eight times as fast as the 1-Ghz G4 PowerBook reference platform, and in many of the tests it came in at roughly 50% as fast as the blazingly-fast high-end dual-3-Ghz processor Mac Pro desktop.
For instance, the MacBook Pro chewed through the MP3 rip/encode test in 5 minutes, 13 seconds as opposed to 7 minutes, 2 seconds for the PowerBook and 3 minutes, 13 seconds for the Mac Pro, while it came through the audio file format conversion test at 1 minute, 55 seconds, versus 9 minutes, 29 seconds for the G4 and 1 minute, 21 seconds for the Mac Pro.
Word processing, file loading, and scrolling tests came in at similar ratios, and the Photoshop filter tests showed the MacBook Pro coming in somewhat ahead of the G4, and about half the speed of the Mac Pro desktop. The obvious reason for the minimal performance gains over the older G4 in Photoshop is that Adobe's products aren't yet available in a Universal version (Intel-native) for Macs, so it ran under Apple's Rosetta enabler. When I put the MacBook Pro through the same tests under Windows XP SP2 using Apple's Boot Camp, speed more than doubled across the board, giving a preview of what can be expected when a Universal version of the Adobe suite is out.
Testing using Apple's Universal versions of Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, and Aperture all showed the MacBook Pro to be a blazing mobile performer, handling just about anything I could throw at it at a speed that was consistently impressive for any laptop. Xbench benchmarks showed the MacBook Pro to be roughly three times as fast overall as our G4 reference platform, and 60% as fast as the Mac Pro, while tests using Cinebench 9.5 generally maintained similar ratios.
The list price for the MacBook Pro as tested (2.33-GHz, 2-Gbytes RAM, 160-Gbyte hard drive) is $2,599, certainly not by any means the cheapest laptop on the market -- but arguably one of the best values, if you need the power and capability this high-performer can offer. For an inexpensive, lightweight travel companion, the 13-inch MacBook (also using the Intel Core 2 Duo) or any of a number of ultra-portable Windows laptops may be worth a look. But for a true full-featured desktop replacement, you can't get much better than this.