15-inch MacBook Pro

Like the iMac before it, Apple’s MacBook Pro has undergone an upgrade highlighted by a chip swap – the Core Duo processor that used to power Apple’s professional laptop has been replaced by the next-generation Core 2 Duo. As with the iMac, these updated Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro models show a modest performance gain when compared to older systems running on Core Duo chips with the same clock speeds.

Besides the switch to Core 2 Duo chips, the updated MacBook Pro models also received a bump in processor speed. The 15-inch models now feature processors running at 2.16GHz and 2.33GHz, compared to 2GHz and 2.16GHz in the old Core Duo systems. The 17-inch MacBook Pro now runs at 2.33GHz, up from 2.16GHz. Along with the boost to processor speed comes a jump in on-chip L2 cache – the latest MacBook Pros come with 4MB of shared L2 cache, twice the amount of their predecessors. The new laptops also ship with more RAM and higher capacity hard drives.

Need for speed
So what does this all mean in terms of performance? About the same thing it meant during our iMac testing. If you remember, we found that a 2GHz iMac Core 2 Duo tallied a 10 per cent higher Speedmark 4.5 score than an iMac Core Duo with the same clock speed – in line with what Intel CEO Paul Otellini predicted when the Core 2 Duo offerings were unveiled over the summer. As you can see, when comparing the now low-end 15-inch 2.16GHz MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo to its comparable Core Duo counterpart, the Speedmark improvement is the same.

Of course, that 2.16GHz MacBook Pro Core Duo was the fastest 15-inch model available among Apple’s old offerings. Now, you can get a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo chip; that laptop is 19 per cent faster than the older model.

Looking at individual tests, some results – specifically ones that taxed either the hard drive or the graphics card – showed smaller performance gains, while other more CPU-intensive tasks saw more substantial improvements, thanks to the Core 2 Duo’s improved processing efficiency. Compressor 2.3, for example, ran 30 per cent faster on the new 2.33GHz system than on the older 2.16GHz model. The 2.33GHz MacBook Pro was 40 per cent faster than the older 2.16GHz model at MP3-encoding using iTunes. Comparing the 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo to the 2.16GHz Core Duo, Compressor was 25 per cent faster on the Core 2 and iTunes was 28 per cent faster on the new system.

The only test where the 2.16GHz Core Duo bested its Core 2 Duo counterpart was creating a Zip Archive from a 1GB folder. As you might expect, the speed of the hard drive can play a key role in these results. So it’s no surprise that the older MacBook Pro with a build-to-order 7,200rpm hard drive that we included in this test was able to turn in faster times than a new 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo model with a 5,400rpm hard drive.

Of course, drive speed isn’t the only factor at play here – the 2.33GHz model scored the best time, even with a 5,400rpm drive. Credit the model’s faster processor speed and 2GB of installed RAM. (You might ask yourself: “What would happen if I had a 7,200rpm drive and a faster processor and more RAM?” Well, we can only guess, because the new 15-inch MacBook Pro doesn’t have that option available. Only the 17-inch model has a 7,200rpm drive available as a build-to-order option – it’s 60GB smaller than the standard 160GB, 5,400rpm drive, but you knock £70 off the 17-inch model’s £1,899 price tag.)

Double the memory
We mentioned that the MacBook Pro now ships with more RAM – 2GB of memory compared to 1GB in the older models. In terms of Speedmark performance, where tasks are run and timed individually, the additional RAM doesn’t make a huge difference, as you can see by the row in the benchmark table where we removed 1GB of RAM from the 2.33GHz MacBook Pro. Unreal Tournament, for example manages to squeeze out 0.7 more frames per second with twice the memory installed. The small subset of Speedmark’s tests that were affected by the RAM upgrade include the zipping and unzipping folders and Microsoft Word scrolling. We plan to run more tests to see if we can quantify the performance benefit of extra RAM.

One unexpected titbit we learned in our testing was how much the recent OS X 10.4.8 update affected Rosetta performance. Intel-based systems saw dramatic gains in Photoshop and Microsoft Office tests, enough to bump up Speedmark scores by more than a couple of points. For example, the 2.16GHz Core Duo MacBook Pro took 1:40 to complete our Photoshop test suite when tested with 10.4.6. After updating the OS to the most recent version, the same system finished the test suite 21 percent faster, with a score of 1:11.

Speaking of test results, we’re still waiting for the 17-inch 2.33GHz MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo to arrive in the Lab. Ditto the Core 2 Duo MacBooks that were announced as Macworld went to press. When they do arrive in our Lab, you can bet that we’ll have more benchmarks to share with you.

As it stands, the new Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro represents a step forward in processor speed, and getting 2GB of memory as standard is a bonus. However, one of our main gripes with the original MacBook Pro was that it didn’t address the issue of design – all the updates go on under the surface. The MacBook with its stylish new look represents the leap forward in laptop design that we were looking for – and it’s no surprise that the MacBook is outselling the MacBook Pro by a large margin. Once again we find ourselves calling on Apple to bring Jonathan Ive into the picture and request a redesign of the MacBook Pro.

OUR VERDICT

Aside from the processor (which has been recently matched by the MacBook) and memory boost – little has changed in the MacBook Pro. Many of the arguments for and against the machine remain the same. Whether you splash out the extra on a MacBook Pro or turn to the new-look MacBook depends on screen size and graphic card needs. If you need the larger screen then the MacBook Pro is the choice for you. Likewise, if you intend to play games or work with 3D graphics then you need a MacBook Pro, because the integrated graphics card in the MacBook can’t handle either task properly. However, if you’d prefer to save a little space on your desk and don’t intend to play games on the go then the MacBook offers pretty much identical speed for a fraction of the cost.

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