13in: 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro review

The latest crop of MacBook Pro laptops from Apple boasts several new features, such as a new generation of Intel processors, improved dual graphics, and increased battery life. Most of the changes, however, are to be found in the 15in and 17in models. The 13in models remain the least expensive of the Pro line, but also the most similar to the previous generation.

What’s changed?

Both new 13in MacBook Pro models include Nvidia’s GeForce 320M integrated graphics, which share a minimum of 256MB of main memory. This replaces the GeForce 9400M integrated graphics in the previous generation (which shared the same amount and type of RAM). In our testing, the new 13in models achieved much better frame rates on our Call of Duty test. For example, at 38.9 frames per second, the new 2.4GHz MacBook Pro did 15.2 frames per second better than the higher-end, 2.53GHz 2009 model – an improvement of 64 per cent. They still lagged behind the new low-end 15in MacBook Pro, though, which garnered 68.4 frames per second thanks to its discrete graphics.

The new MacBook Pros have the same Multi-Touch glass trackpad as before, but the line-up adds a new trick. All the new MacBook Pros now have inertial scrolling. Just as on an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, if you swipe your finger down to scroll through a long web page, for example, the momentum continues the scrolling until it gradually dies off. The feature seems right at home on the MacBook Pro and will be familiar to anyone who has used Apple’s iPhone OS devices.

Another new feature, common to the entire MacBook Pro line, is the ability for the Mini DisplayPort connection to output multichannel audio in addition to the video signal it has always carried (the MacBook Pro supports mirroring or extending your desktop on an external display up to 2,560 x 1,600 pixels, but the adaptors needed are all optional accessories). To test it out, we purchased a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter. We connected the MacBook Pro to an HD TV using the HDMI cable and input that we usually use for the Blu-ray player. Although it worked for video (letting us play 720p video without problem) the audio didn’t play through the TV, instead coming out of the MacBook Pro’s built-in speakers. We asked Apple about it and the company recommends higher-quality cables such as the Griffin Video Display Converter (coming soon to the UK), saying that some lower-priced cables don’t deliver audio.

What’s the same?

Although the 15in and 17in MacBook Pros include Intel’s new Core i5 or Core i7 mobile processors, the 13in MacBook Pro continues to use the Core 2 Duo line of processors. In the 13in size, Apple offers a 2.4GHz dual-core processor in the £999 model, and a 2.66GHz dual-core processor in the £1,249 model. Each has 3MB on-chip L2 cache shared between the two cores.

Some users have wondered why Apple decided to stick with Core 2 Duo processors instead of using the new Intel Core i3 in the 13in line. Although one could cynically speculate that it’s designed to ‘cripple’ the low-end MacBook Pro with old technology to force people to spend more, it seems more likely that Apple didn’t want to use the Intel HD integrated graphics that such a move would require (the 15in and 17in models include Intel HD graphics, but have dedicated Nvidia graphics processors as well).

Both 13in models now include 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 RAM, and support a max of 8GB (previously, the entry-level MacBook Pro came with 2GB). Just as before, there are two USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, a Mini DisplayPort graphics connection, a Gigabit Ethernet port, 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR wireless technology, an SD card slot, a full-sized backlit keyboard, an 8x slot-loading dual-layer DVD SuperDrive, built-in stereo speakers (which sound quite good), a single port for audio in and out (including support for digital output), and a built-in iSight camera. The new models include 250GB or 320GB 5400-rpm hard drive (up from 160GB or 250GB drive, respectively, at the same speeds).

These MacBook Pros use the same LED-backlit 1,280 x 800 pixel glossy display as the previous models (there are no antiglare or high-resolution display options, as there are on the 15in and 17in models). The displays are very bright, and the viewing angle is respectable in the horizontal direction, but not that great vertically – you really need to adjust the angle of the display to achieve optimum viewing.

Put to the test

The Macworld Lab performed its standard bevy of tests on these new models, and compared them to the previous generation of 13in MacBook Pro, the new 2.4GHz 15in MacBook Pro, and the 13in unibody MacBook.

In our Speedmark 6 suite, the new models scored 118 for the 2.4GHz model and 126 for the 2.66GHz model (compared with 107 and 123 for the previous generation, respectively, and 112 for the MacBook) – the difference is due, mostly, to the improved frame rate scores, thanks to the Nvidia 320M graphics.

Other tests showed rather negligible deltas, with the new models generally doing slightly better than their same-price counterparts from 2009. The one big anomaly was our Compressor test on the 2.4GHz 2010 13in MacBook Pro, which took longer to complete than even the white MacBook. And in our folder duplication and Parallels WordBench 6 multi-task tests, the old higher-end 13in model beat even the new model with a faster processor by a little bit.

In some hands-on testing running Adobe Photoshop CS3 and CS4 and Aperture 3, we found even the 2.4GHz model to be adequate. And while running Windows XP in Parallels Desktop 4, encoding an HD MKV file for Apple TV using VideoMonkey, and playing a streaming TV show in Safari simultaneously (with the computer sitting flat on a desk), the back of the MacBook Pro got warm where the battery is, but not uncomfortably so. After running for about 15 minutes, the maximum external temperature (at the very back, near the serial number) was 107 degrees as measured by an infrared temperature device used to monitor HVAC systems in our office.

OUR VERDICT

If you already have the previous 13in MacBook Pro, there’s not a lot of reasons to upgrade unless you simply must have the newest version of everything. The changes to the 13in line-up are mostly about improved graphics and battery life – they aren’t all that different from the year before – and it’s hard to justify the £1,249 model based only on its larger hard drive and slightly faster processor, which didn’t translate to much difference in our tests. To get the most from the new generation of MacBook Pros, you’ll need to step up to the larger sizes, which take advantage of the i5 and i7 processors and their own graphics improvements. Still, at 2.54kg and less than 24.9cm deep, the 13in MacBook Pro is the most portable Pro model available, and for many users the small weight and size make up for the somewhat limited (comparatively) performance. Also the new models create a wider gap between the 13in MacBook Pros and the similarly sized, £816 MacBook. Starting at £183 more than the MacBook, you get a faster processor, an aluminium enclosure, a FireWire port (of the 800 variety), twice the standard RAM, Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics, a built-in SD card reader, a backlit keyboard, a longer-lasting battery, and a trackpad that supports inertial scrolling.

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