Our Macworld colleagues in the US have benchmarked Apple's latest MacBook Pro models using Mac-specific tools - and the initial results are impressive. In testing conducted by Macworld Lab, the laptops released last Thursday turned in Speedmark scores between 13 and 53 percent faster than the systems they replace.

Apple overhauled its MacBook Pro offerings with new processors, new graphics, and a new peripheral connector. The new lineup consists of two 13-inch models, two 15-inch models (down from three in the previous generation) and one 17-inch model. The 13-inch models come with Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 3000, and either a 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5 processor and a 5400-rpm 320GB hard drive for £999, or a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7 processor with a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive for £1,299.

Both 15-inch models come with Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 3000. The £1,549 configuration sports a 2GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, a 5400-rpm 500GB drive, and a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics processor with 256MB of GDDR5 video memory, while the £1,849 offering features a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, a 5400-rpm 750GB drive, and a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics processor with 1GB of GDDR5 video memory.

The £2,099 17-inch model has the same specs as the £1,849 15-inch model. All MacBook Pros have 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory.

The only external clue to any changes comes in the form of a tiny icon near what was the Mini DisplayPort connector. It’s now the Thunderbolt port, a new technology that Intel developed with input from Apple. The port looks like the Mini DisplayPort and you can still connect a LED Cinema Display or Mini DisplayPort adapter, but you’ll also be able to connect up to six peripheral devices, such as hard drives. Thunderbolt-equipped products have been announced, but they are have not started shipping, so unfortunately, Macworld is unable to test the speed of the Thunderbolt connection in this round of testing.

What can be tested is the effect the new processors and graphics have on performance. Intel Core i series processors (known by the code-name Sandy Bridge), are found inside every new MacBook Pro. With the processor, cache, graphics, and memory controller all residing on the same die, these Core i5 and Core i7 processors helped propel the new MacBook Pros well past their predecessors in CPU performance.

The integrated graphics processor in each MacBook Pro has also changed, with Intel’s HD 3000 graphics installed across the line. In the last generation of MacBook Pros, Apple used Intel’s integrated HD graphics only in the higher-end models that had a second, higher-powered GPU, the Nvidia GeForce GT 330M, for graphically intensive applications. Apple didn’t think the older Intel HD graphics were powerful enough to be the only option in those older 13-inch models, which couldn’t support two graphics chips, so the company stuck with Core 2 Duo processors and used Nvidia’s integrated GeForce 320M graphics. With the new HD Graphics 3000, Apple found the improved performance good enough to finally invite the 13-inch models into the Core i era.

13-inch MacBook Pros
Overall, the new entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, with a Speedmark 6.5 score of 141 was 35 percent faster than the 106 score by the 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo model it replaces. The new system was faster at just about everything, except for the benchmark Call of Duty test, which was only able to display 26 frames per second versus the 33 frames displayed by the older model with Nvidia graphics. The lower game performance will probably be seen by many as a reasonable price to pay for the increased performance found in other applications. The biggest leap was in the iTunes AAC-to-MP3 encoding test, which was 57 percent faster on the new system. The Handbrake test finished 47 percent faster on the newer system than on the one it replaces.

The 13-inch 2.7GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro’s improvement was less dramatic, scoring only a 13-percent gain over the model it replaces, a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo system. The new system was 36 percent faster in our iTunes test and 28 percent faster in our Handbrake test. Again, Call of Duty was 26 percent (7 frames per second) faster on the older Nvidia-powered 13-inch model.

The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro was found to be 31 percent faster overall than the 13-inch 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Air. The Pro was much faster in processor intensive tasks, but the MacBook Air was much faster at duplicating and unzipping files, thanks to the flash storage. The Air’s Nvidia graphics were also faster than the Intel HD Graphics 3000.

15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros
The 15-inch 2.0GHz quad core Core i7 MacBook Pro was 33 percent faster overall than the 15-inch 2.4GHz dual core Core i5 system introduced last April. The new MacBook Pro’s Handbrake time was 51 percent faster than the older system, while its iTunes encoding times were 24 percent faster. Duplicating and Unzipping files didn’t see much improvement between the systems, and the Call of Duty framerate was slower than the older system.

The 15-inch 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 MacBook Pro, and the 17-inch model that has similar specifications, were finally able to outperform their predecessors in game performance, thanks to the Radeon HD 6750M graphics with 1GB of dedicated video memory. The new models were able display 31 percent more frames per second than the 15- and 17-inch models with Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics that they replace. Overall, the new 15-inch 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 MacBook Pro was 38 percent faster than last year’s fastest 15-inch model and the new 17-inch model was 53 percent faster than last year’s largest Mac laptop.

What’s more interesting was how well the new MacBook Pros compare performance-wise to the iMacs. The new 2.0GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro beat out the entry-level 3.06GHz dual core Core i3 iMac by one Speedmark point, with Call of Duty and disk-intensive tasks running faster on the iMac and processor-intensive tasks running faster on the MacBook Pro. The 15- and 17-inch 2.2GHz MacBook Pros were about 7 percent faster overall than the high-end standard configuration iMac, a 27-inch model with a 2.8GHz quad-core Core i5 processor. The three Macs scored identically in our Aperture import test, as well as our Photoshop and iMovie export tests. Call of Duty was 9 percent faster on the iMac.