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Like everything Apple does, the new MacBook Pro lineup spawned a great deal of Internet chatter among Mac faithful. Some welcomed the new 13-inch Pro with open arms, remembering the well-loved 12-inch PowerBook—and happy to have a small MacBook with pro-level features as an option. Others were less than pleased with the loss of the ExpressCard slot in most MacBook Pro models (see “MacBook Semi-Pro?” below), which Apple replaced with an SD Card slot in all but the 17-inch model. With no fewer than six different models available—not to mention BTO options—there’s a wide range to choose from. And with a $1,300 price spread across all the MacBook Pros, it’s clear that Apple is targeting the new Pro models at a wider audience than ever.
The new Pro models all feature the aluminum unibody design—only the single remaining MacBook model still sports the white polycarbonate case. They all feature AirPort, Bluetooth, multitouch trackpad, iSight, and other standard Apple features. And for the first time, there’s a 13-inch Pro model. All but the 17-inch model sport a new SD card slot, which we found more useful than an ExpressCard slot, although we certainly understand the chagrin of Mac users who already have a significant investment in ExpressCard gear. The LED-backlit screens are beautiful, showing brighter, more saturated colors than the previous generation. We just wish Apple would relent a little and offer an option for matte screens once again.
The 15-inch MacBook offers an improved display, better battery life, and an optional discrete graphics card for demanding applications.
MacBook Pro models feature a new, nonremovable battery, which Apple claims can give you seven hours of “wireless productivity” on the 13- and 15-inch models. In our tests, Apple’s results held true—we were able to get almost all the way through the workday on battery power, under normal-use conditions. The drawback, of course, is that the batteries aren’t swappable, so if you’ve been holding out hoping Apple would bring them back, you’re still out of luck. Although for some, the increased battery life may negate the need to pack a spare anyway. In our power-intensive DVD rundown test, the 2.8GHz 15-inch Pro and the 2.26GHz 13-incher lasted an impressively long 3 hours, 39 minutes, and 3 hours, 29 minutes, respectively.
Since the majority of users will be choosing between 13- and 15-inch models—if you need the behemoth 17-inch model, you probably already know exactly why—we focused our testing on those machines. We were also curious to find out what an additional $1,100—the price difference between the entry-level MacBook Pro and the high-end 15-incher—nets you in the way of performance and features.
For day-to-day tasks (email, Internet, productivity apps), we found that the new MacBook Pros are all pretty sweet. They’re plenty fast, and the choice of what to buy will most likely come down to how much screen space you need—especially since RAM and hard drives are user-upgradable across the whole line. When we ran some of our more heavy-duty benchmarks, the differences began to stand out. The 2.26GHz 13-inch model sports Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, as do all the MacBook Pros. On higher-end 15-inch models, however, you can choose to kick in the 9600M GT graphics card, which comes with its own memory. Battery life will take a hit, but for certain tasks, the performance boost is worth it. On our 2.8GHz test unit, we averaged 41.2 frames per second using Call of Duty 4 with the 9600M enabled, versus 24.4fps with standard graphics engaged (the 2.26GHz Pro model also hit 24.4fps). For gamers, video editors, and the like, the secondary discrete graphics card is probably a worthwhile investment, but everyday users don’t need to spend the extra scratch.
In our Photoshop Actions test, the 2.8GHz unit with 4GB RAM was 88 percent faster than its 2.26GHz sibling, which comes with only 2GB of RAM. This memory deficit was also apparent in our H.264 video-conversion test, where the 15-inch configuration was 32 percent faster. In our WAV-to-AAC audio-conversion test, speed gains were more modest, but the 15-inch model was 22 percent faster than the base MacBook Pro. Still, the base model posted respectable times across all our tests, and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a laptop that strikes a balance between power and portability.
Does the new 15-inch MacBook Pro snub Pro users?
Although the new 15-inch MacBook Pro has the word “Pro” in its name, Apple removed its most pro-level feature: the ExpressCard/34 slot. The fastest interface on the machine, the ExpressCard slot passed data to the system at up to 2.5Gbps through its direct connection to the system bus, enabling blazing fast speeds and almost unlimited expansion capabilities. Compare this to a maximum speed of 0.36Gbps for an SD card slot, which could have been added for a miniscule cost with an ExpressCard adapter anyway. Professional videographers and photographers depended on the ExpressCard slot to connect eSATA drives (whose theoretical speeds could reach 3.0Gbps, while real-world usage usually hovers around 1.5Gbps), to add extra FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 ports onto their own dedicated buses without interruption from additional peripherals, and to add comprehensive card readers that could read dozens more types of cards than just SD. We hope that Apple brings back the ExpressCard slot to future 15-inch MacBook Pros. In the meantime, perhaps Apple should rename this machine the MacBook Semi-Pro.
Apple's newest line of MacBooks offers choices for a wide array of users. We're especially pleased with the significant price drops and stellar battery life. But we still wish Apple would bring back a matte-screen option, and the SD card slot might bum some people out.
2.26GHz 13-inch MacBook Pro
SPECIFICATIONS: 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 3MB shared L2 cache, 5,400-rpm 160GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of shared DDR3 SDRAM, 13-inch glossy LED-backlit widescreen display, two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, SD Card slot, Mini DisplayPort, analog/optical audio output, selectable analog audio input, iSight, 802.11n AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
$400 less than previous equivalent model. Bright LED display. Backlit keyboard. Excellent battery life. FireWire 800 port. Great value.
No matte display option. Only ships with 2GB RAM.
2.8GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro
SPECIFICATIONS: 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, 6MB shared L2 cache, 5,400-rpm 500GB hard drive, Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor and Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 512MB GDDR3, 15-inch glossy LED-backlit widescreen display, two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, SD Card slot, Mini DisplayPort, analog/optical audio input & output, iSight, 802.11n AirPort Extreme, Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR
$200 less than previous model. Bright LED display. Excellent battery life. Discrete graphics card offers better performance.
No matte display option. Pro-level users might miss the ExpressCard slot.