MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2009) review

The 15in MacBook Pro has historically been the most popular model in Apple’s pro laptop line-up. It’s certainly easier to tote around than its more powerful 17in big brother, though its feature-to-price ratio compared favourably. Now, with a 13in MacBook Pro in the family, the favourite has been relegated to the middle ground.

While this update to the 15in category delivers better value and even more specification options, the upgrades to this newly appointed mid-2009 model are more nuanced than flashy.

Look and feel

From the outside, the new 15in model doesn’t seem much different. The new models sport the same solid aluminium unibody enclosure with the indented thumb scoop for opening the lid. There’s the same huge touchpad that responds to the familiar range of finger gestures, and the same relatively stiff button that makes it easier to tap and swipe the touchpad with your fingers than to actually depress the button. There’s still the big glossy screen, which you either love or hate, with the same resolution of 1,440 x 900 pixels. All ports are still grouped together on the left side of the case, including the MagSafe power port, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, two USB ports, and separate audio in and out ports. The iSight camera is positioned in the same spot, as is the 8x SuperDrive. Despite these familiar features, Apple has applied significant changes to the mid-2009 15in models.

No ExpressCard/34 slot Replacing this flexible hardware receptacle for eSATA cards, network cards, TV tuner cards, and more, is something new – a Secure Digital (SD) card slot that you can use not only to transfer files to your Mac, but also to boot the laptop. The SD card slot is sure to be a welcome feature for people who shoot photos or videos with cameras that use SD cards. The slot recognises the card as a standard USB device. The feature worked well on the laptop we tested. The card showed up promptly and behaved as a memory card should. We tried loading OS X on to and then booting the machine with the SD card, which worked just fine, too. This capability is a genuine consumer-friendly convenience.

Apple says that the MacBook Pros support the following cards: SD (which holds 4MB to 4GB of data), SDHC (which holds 4GB to 32GB of data), microSD (with an adaptor), and miniSD (with an adaptor). It does not support SDXC, a brand new card specification that theoretically can support up to 2TB of storage, but this card is not yet available on the open market.

Users who have invested in ExpressCard hardware will lament the decision to eliminate the ExpressCard/34 slot, especially photographers and videographers who use the slot for a CompactFlash adaptor because their cameras do not support SD cards, or folks who use eSATA or 3G ExpressCards. Apple estimates that people who actually use the ExpressCard slot make up a single-digit percentage of its laptop customer base. The 17in model retains its ExpressCard/34 slot, making it the only option for anyone who really needs it.

Non-removable battery Apple is using a relatively recent battery technology for this new generation of 15in laptops, one that it introduced earlier this year for the 17in MacBook Pro. Apple has abandoned replaceable batteries in the newly configured professional line. That’s because embedding the batteries removes much of the wasted space required for removable components, according to Apple. The space recovered from a removable battery is now taken up by a larger, flatter, more-compact, and longer-lasting battery. The svelte new lithium-polymer batteries differ from the traditional lithium-ion cells of the past. A new characteristic of the battery, called Adaptive Charging, is designed to optimise each charge in order to prolong the battery’s lifespan. The new battery contains a chip that monitors things like charge level and temperature and communicates this information to the computer. An advanced algorithm processes this information to determine the optimal charging current.

Because of this, Apple says that instead of the typical 300 recharges that most notebook batteries get, the new MacBook Pro batteries can survive 1,000 charges, or approximately five years, before reaching 80 per cent of original capacity. Only time will tell if that claim meets the test of reality. It’s hard to objectively judge whether non-removable batteries is a pro or a con. Some people will be happy never to handle the battery. Others will feel positively deprived without the ability to swap batteries (on a long flight, for example).

Better screen graphics The glossy screen of the previous generation of MacBook Pros literally popped with vivid colour and smouldered with distinctive greyscale tones. Its blacks were deep and rich. Now, Apple says that the display is even better, offering 60 per cent greater colour gamut than earlier MacBook Pro generations. Colour gamut is not a measure of brightness, sharpness, or resolution. Rather, it represents the range of colours that a device can display. MacBook Pro displays are accompanied by LED (light-emitting diode) backlight technology that promotes better representation of a wider range of colours onscreen. And, while no one really expected it, there is still no matte screen option for this notebook display, and probably never will be. People who care about this (and there are many) will continue to be disappointed.

Greener than ever
The new line of MacBook Pros (including the 15in models) continue the environmental initiatives of the recent past to include arsenic-free display glass, BFR (brominated flame retardant)-free construction, mercury-free LED-backlit display, PVC (polyvinyl chloride)-free internal cables, recyclable aluminium and glass, reduced packaging, and an EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) Gold rating. And Apple’s notebooks now meet the EPA’s newest Energy Star Version 5.0 requirements.

The new line of 15in MacBook Pros feature three models instead of two. Like the new 13in pro models and the white 2.13GHz MacBook, the bottom-of-the-range 15in 2.53GHz MacBook Pro features only the Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chip. The other two new 15in pro models have both the 9400M and a discrete Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip. The new pro models also contain the more powerful DDR3 SDRAM, as compared with the MacBook’s DDR2 memory. The new 15in pro models also have 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, upgradable to 8GB.

The new MacBook Pros are clearly in their own class, as reflected in their Speedmark scores. While our benchmarks show that, overall, the three new systems are fairly close in terms of overall performance – the high-end 2.8GHz model outpaced the low-end 2.53GHz model by 9.7 percent – a more compelling performance narrative based on the dual graphics chips is told with our Quake 4 frame rate test. In Quake, the high-end model was more than twice as fast as the low-end model and outpaced the mid-model 2.66GHz by more than 10 per cent. We observed similar disparities with the Call of Duty 4 test: again the high-end model squeezed more than twice as many frames per second as the low-end model but was on par with the mid-model. If you’re a gamer, you’ll benefit from the dual graphics setup. Plus, the high-end 15in unit has twice the video RAM of the mid-model.

Value

Compared to the previous MacBook Pro generation, prices for all of these models have dropped substantially, at first glance. If you take a closer look on a model-by-model basis compared to previous MacBook Pro models, you'll find some compromises were made.

Take, for example, the new £1,299 entry-level 2.53GHz pro model. It's £70 cheaper than the older 2.4GHz model released in October 2008, but the new 2.53GHz model lacks the 9600M GT graphics chip that the older model had. Another example: the new £1,499 2.66GHz pro model with the dual graphics setup is £213 less than the 2.66GHz MacBook Pro released in March 2009, but the new model has half the amount of video memory as the older model. The new top-of-the-line 2.8GHz model with a 500GB hard drive goes for £1,699, as opposed to the previous £1,949 high-end model with a 320GB hard drive.

In addition to its upgraded RAM configurations, the new 2.53GHz and the 2.66GHz models come with 3MB of shared L2 cache. The 2.8GHz model ships with 6MB of shared L2 cache. All models retain the 1,066MHz frontside bus and built-in AirPort Extreme WiFi with 3Mbps Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. The 15in MacBook Pros come standard with Serial ATA 5,400rpm hard drives of 250GB, 320GB, or 500GB respectively. Both of the higher-end 15in models have the dual graphics setup with the Nvidia GeForce 9400M and GeForce 9600M GT, but the amount of video RAM for the 9600M GT differs – the 2.66GHz MacBook has 256MB, while the 2.8GHz has 512MB.

Another part of the increased value of these notebooks is their expandability. The new models have more upgrade capacity than they did before and additional build-to-order options, including: a 3.06GHz processor; a maximum of 8GB of RAM; a 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive; and a 256GB solid state drive.

If you want a smaller, lighter notebook to tote around, you may be glad to note that the 13in 2.53GHz MacBook Pro’s benchmarks results were nearly identical to the 15in 2.53GHz model, but it costs £150 less.

Battery life
How long can you sit on a plane and work (or play) on your machine? Apple says the batteries on the 15in MacBook Pro will last 7 hours without having to be recharged, basically a day’s work, if you’re using only the Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor. Cut about an hour off that total if you’re using the higher-powered graphics of the Nvidia 9600M GT graphics processor.

Macworld Lab tested the batteries in the new 15in models in their ‘Better battery life’ mode, meaning that testing was conducted with only the Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip. We set the screen to full brightness, dimmed the keyboard, turned off AirPort, and looped a movie ripped to the internal hard drive at full screen until the battery was drained.

We found that the new models ran for 4 hours 3 minutes, 4 hours 1 minute, and 3 hours 56 minutes for the 2.53GHz, 2.66GHz, and 2.8GHz respectively – an average of 4 hours. That represents significant improvements in battery life compared to earlier models. For example, comparing the 2.53GHz MacBook Pro of today to one of the same clock speed in October 2008, reveals a 63 per cent increase in battery life. Comparing the new 2.66GHz model to the older 2.66GHz model (from March) reveals nearly a 26 per cent boost in battery life. As of the last full generation of MacBook Pro 15in models, only the previous 2.66GHz MacBook Pro released last March broke the 3 hour mark for battery life with this test.

Better colours
The new MacBook Pros also live up to Apple’s claim of expanded colour gamut. In a side-by-side comparison with the previous generation Pro notebook, we observed fairly significant differences in the rendering a colour photo test image. Viewing this image in each machine separately, most eyes would perceive the vibrant colour we’ve come to expect from these glossy screens. However, viewing them together, the heightened intensity of the red and green spectrums made the difference obvious. Mere eyeball observations were born out by Apple’s Colour Sync utility. In comparing the last generation MacBook Pros with the new models, the range of visible colour was specifically expanded in the red and green areas. The blues stayed about the same.

OUR VERDICT

The 15in MacBook Pro 2.53GHz, 2.66GHz, and 2.8GHz sport faster processors on the high end, higher RAM capacity, a larger solid-state drive option, longer-life battery, an improved display, and an SD memory-card slot (in lieu of the ExpressCard/34 slot found on the previous version). All of these changes are accompanied by lower prices. If you already have a unibody MacBook Pro, you will already have most of the great features these new models have to offer. However, if you’re a switcher, a new buyer, or have one of Apple’s older laptop models, you have a host of excellent choices at more advantageous prices than before. Gamers will want to consider only the mid- or high-end 15in model.