MacBook Pro review (Early 2011)

The new MacBook Pro line consists of five models, all with 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory, and Intel's integrated HD Graphics 3000 processor. The £999 13in model has a 2.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor and a 5400-rpm 320GB hard drive. The £1,299 13in model has a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor and a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive. The £1,549 15in model has a 2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive, and a 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6490M discrete graphics processor. The £1,849 15in model has a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, a 5400-rpm 750GB hard drive, and a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete graphics processor. The £2,099 17in model has the same specs as the £1,849 15in MacBook Pro.

Welcome to Sandy Bridge
Intel's latest Core series of processors, known by the code-name Sandy Bridge, are found inside every new MacBook Pro. With the processor, cache, integrated graphics, and memory controller all residing on the same die, the Core i5 and Core i7 processors helped propel the new MacBook Pros well past their predecessors in CPU performance.

The Sandy Bridge processors feature Intel's HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics processor. In the previous generation of MacBook Pros, Apple used Intel's integrated HD graphics only in the higher-end models, which also had a second, discrete GPU, the Nvidia GeForce GT 330M. The GT 330M kicked in for graphically intensive applications. With the older 13in MacBook Pros, Apple didn't think the Intel HD graphics available at the time were powerful enough to be the only graphics option, so it stuck with Core 2 Duo processors and used Nvidia's integrated GeForce 320M graphics. With the new HD Graphics 3000 processor, Apple found the performance good enough to finally invite the 13in models into the new Core era.

Like its predecessors, the Sandy Bridge processors support Hyper Threading, which allows the system to address four virtual cores in the 13in models and eight virtual cores in the 15- and 17in models. Another technology, Turbo Boost, allows the processors to temporarily speed up when needed. The Sandy Bridge processors are using Turbo Boost 2.0, which Apple says is more efficient than the previous version.

New 2011 MacBook Pro line

Intel discovered a hardware problem that could possibly slow down performance over time in the first Windows-based Sandy Bridge computers, and recalled those processors. Apple says that these processors are free of this defect.

Enter Thunderbolt
The only change you'll notice to the exterior of the MacBook Pro is the tiny lightning bolt icon near what was once the Mini DisplayPort connector. It's now a Thunderbolt port, a new connectivity technology. The port looks identical to the Mini DisplayPort and you can connect Mini DisplayPort adapters or Apple's LED Cinema Display.

You can daisy-chain up to six devices to the Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt can supply up to 10 watts of power per channel and offers speeds of up to 10Gbps, twice that of USB 3.0 and 12 times as fast as FireWire 800. Apple and Intel are hoping for widespread adoption of Thunderbolt, but only time will tell if Thunderbolt will catch on. Several Thunderbolt-equipped products have been announced, but they've yet to start shipping, so at the moment it's impossible to fully test the Thunderbolt port. When Thunderbolt peripherals become available, Macworld Lab will revisit the speed claims with our own benchmark tests.

Out of iSight
Along with the other internal changes, the MacBook Pros feature a new integrated webcam called FaceTime HD, which replaces the iSight Webcam found the in the older MacBook Pros. Capable of capturing video at 720p resolution, the new webcam takes its name from Apple's video calling software that runs on iPhone 4, the latest iPod touch models, and most Intel Macs running Snow Leopard. The FaceTime for Mac software comes pre-installed on the new MacBook Pros, and is also available from the Mac App Store for 59p.

There was a noticeable difference in image quality between the FaceTime HD webcam and an iSight webcam in last year's MacBook Pro. When we held up a document to each camera, the text was much easier to read on the high-resolution image transmitted from the new MacBook Pro. The text on the image from the iSight was garbled and barely legible. The differences in image quality from each webcam were subtle when looking at people.

What hasn't changed
Everything you see and touch on the MacBook Pros (aside from the aforementioned Thunderbolt icon) is identical to the last generation. The glossy LED backlit screens each measure 13.3in, 15.4in, and 17in diagonally, with 1280 by 800, 1440 by 900, and 1920 by 1200 pixel resolutions, respectively. All models have a full-sized, backlit keyboard, and glass multi-touch trackpads with gesture support.

The stereo speakers and built-in microphone remain the same, as do the number of ports on every model: one FireWire 800, one Gigabit Ethernet, a MagSafe power connector, and one audio in and one audio out port. The 13- and 15in models have two USB 2.0 ports and a SDXC card slot. The 17in model has three USB 2.0 ports and an ExpressCard/34 slot.

To measure the overall speed of each MacBook Pro, we used our system performance test suite, Speedmark 6.5. The new 13in 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5 MacBook Pro, with a Speedmark 6.5 score of 140, was 35 per cent faster than the 13in 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro it replaces. The biggest leap in performance was in the iTunes AAC-to-MP3 encoding test, which was 57 per cent faster on the 13in 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro. In the Handbrake test, the 13in 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro finished 47 per cent faster.

The next step up in the line, the 13in 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7 MacBook Pro, showed improvement that was less dramatic, scoring only a 13 per cent gain over the model it replaces, a 13in 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. The 2.7GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro was 36 per cent faster in our iTunes test and 28 per cent faster in our Handbrake test.

We found the 13in 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro to be 31 per cent faster overall than the 13in 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air (). The Pro was much faster in processor-intensive tasks, but the Air was much faster at duplicating and unzipping files, thanks to the flash storage. The Air's Nvidia graphics were also faster than the HD Graphics 3000 in the Pros.

Unlike the 13in models of the last generation of MacBook Pros, the new 13in models really separate themselves from Apple's entry-level laptop, the $999 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. Where only seven Speedmark points, a FireWire 800 port, and $200 separated the old 13in 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro and its plastic cousin, the new 13in MacBook Pros were 41 and 57 per cent faster overall than the MacBook.

The 15in 2.0GHz quad-core Core i7 MacBook Pro was 33 per cent faster than the 15in 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 MacBook Pro introduced last April. The 2.0GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro's Handbrake time was 51 per cent faster, while its iTunes encoding times were 24 per cent faster. Duplicating and Unzipping files didn't see much improvement, however.

The new 15in 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 MacBook Pro was 38 per cent faster than last year's fastest 15in model, a 2.66GHz dual-core Core i7 MacBook Pro. The new 17in 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 MacBook Pro was 53 per cent faster than last year's largest Mac laptop, a 17in 2.53GHz dual-core Core i5 MacBook Pro.

What's even more interesting is how well the MacBook Pros compare performance-wise to the current iMacs. The 15in 2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro beat the 21.5in 3.06GHz dual-core Core i3 iMac by one Speedmark point. Call of Duty and disk-intensive tests ran faster on the iMac, while processor-intensive tests ran faster on the MacBook Pro. The 15- and 17in 2.2GHz MacBook Pros were about 7 per cent faster than the 27in 2.8GHz quad-core Core i5 iMac. These three Macs scored identically in the Aperture import test, as well as the Photoshop and iMovie export tests. Call of Duty was 9 per cent faster on the iMac.

Getting graphic
To see how the new graphics processors handle game performance, we ran a 1024-by-768-resolution Call of Duty 4 test and a Cinebench R11.5 GPU test, which are part of Speedmark 6.5. We also ran the Call of Duty test and a Portal timedemo at 1280-by-800, the native resolution of the 13in MacBook Pro.

The new 13in MacBook Pros and their Intel HD Graphics 3000 processors weren't that impressive in our games tests, scoring lower than the older 13in systems with Nvidia GeForce 320M integrated graphics. In the 1024-by-768-resolution Call of Duty test, the 13in 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro displayed 26 fps (frames per second) on average, while the 13in 2.7GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro averaged 27 fps. Those results are well below the 33 fps displayed by the older 13in 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro with Nvidia graphics.

The Call of Duty scores at 1280-by-800 showed an even wider performance gap with the 13in models, with the older Nvidia-powered 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro posting frame rates that were 55 per cent higher than the 13in 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro, and 48 per cent higher than the 13in 2.7GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro. The new 13in MacBook Pros fared better in the Portal tests, displaying just two fewer frames per second than the older 13in 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. All three of the 13in MacBook Pros new and old posted Cinebench R11.5 scores of 11. The slower game performance may be seen as a reasonable price to pay for the increased overall performance, but even casual gamers may want to consider a Mac portable with discrete graphics.

The 15in 2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro, with its discrete 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics, shows a big jump in performance, with 1024-by-768 Call of Duty frame rates and Cinebench GPU scores nearly double those of the new 13in models. The 15in 2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro also more than doubled the scores of the 13in MacBook Pros in Call of Duty at 1280-by-800. Portal was also significantly faster, displaying 86 per cent more frames per second.

When comparing the 15in 2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro to last year's 15in 2.53GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro, the Call of Duty numbers are slower on the new model, while Portal was a few frames faster. Cinebench scores were actually 31 per cent faster on the 15in 2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro.

The 15- and 17in MacBook Pros with 2.2GHz Core i7 processors were the top graphics performers overall, thanks to the discrete Radeon HD 6750M graphics processor with 1GB of dedicated video memory. In the 1024-by-768 Call of Duty tests, the 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pros were able to display 31 per cent more frames per second than the older 15in 2.53GHz Core i5 and 17in 2.53GHz Core i5 MacBook Pros, both with Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphic processors. The 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pros absolutely smoked through the Portal test, with frame rates that were nearly doubled that of the other machines. And the 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pros more than doubled the Cinebench GPU score of the older 15in 2.53GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro.

Battery life
Since the MacBook Pro battery is built-in, you can't swap in a fully charged battery. So how long the built-in battery lasts on a charge becomes much more important, and Apple says the MacBook Pro battery should last up to 7 hours. Apple changed the way it tests battery life, so it's hard to know whether 7 hours represents an improvement over last year's MacBook Pros. For the old models, Apple claimed up to 10 hours of battery life for the 13in MacBook Pro, and between 8 and 9 hours for the 15- and 17in models.

Find the best price