15in: 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 MacBook Pro review

Apple’s new 15in MacBook Pro line-up may look identical to its predecessor (the mid-2009 models that brought the fixed battery and SD card slot to the line), but under the hood, changes to both the CPU and GPU combine to make an impressive leap in performance over the systems these replace.

The new 15in MacBook Pro comes in three standard configurations. All three models come standard with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, two graphics processors, and a glossy 15.4in LED-backlit screen.

The £1,499 entry-level system comes with a 2.4GHz Core i5 processor and a 320GB hard drive. The next step up the line is a £1,649 system with a 2.53GHz Core i5 processor and a 500GB hard drive. At the top of the line sits a £1,799 model with a 2.66GHz Core i7 processor and a 500GB drive.

What’s new?

The new 15in MacBook Pro models drop the Intel Core 2 Duo processors (used in Apple’s laptop line since late 2006) in favour of Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 mobile processors. The Core i5 and i7 processors have a few interesting performance features, including Hyper-Threading, which uses virtual cores to double the amount of processing cores presented to the operating system. The processors have dual cores, but OS X treats them as having four cores. Another i5/i7 technology, Turbo Boost, allows the processor to speed up for a short period of time when necessary, or shut down unused cores and give the resources to the cores in use. Turbo Boost can increase the clock speed of the 2.4GHz Core i5 processor up to 2.93GHz, for example.

The mobile versions of the Core i5 and i7 used in the MacBook Pro differ from the desktop version found in the 27in iMac, which has four physical processing cores. The desktop Core i5 does not support Hyper Threading.

All 15in MacBook Pros now offer both integrated and discrete graphics – previously, the entry-level 15in MacBook Pro had only integrated graphics. The new models can use Intel HD integrated graphics (which shares 256MB of main memory with the CPU) for general-use applications. But for applications that require more horsepower, the system can use its discrete Nvidia GeForce GT330M graphics, with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory.

Not only are the graphics processors new to these systems, there’s also a new automatic graphics switching technology developed by Apple that looks for frameworks used by individual apps at launch (such as OpenGL and Core Animation) to decide when to switch from its energy-sipping integrated graphics to the higher-powered GT330M graphics processor. Previously, a user had to decide which graphics to use and switching between them required logging out and back into OS X. One interesting note about the automatic switching: any application that uses the required frameworks can trigger a switch from integrated to discrete graphics.

Also new is support for inertial scrolling on the Multi-Touch glass trackpad. If you have an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, the scrolling works the same way: swipe your finger up or down to scroll through a document, and the momentum continues the scrolling until it slowly stops. An Apple representative said that this feature is unique to the new MacBook Pros and is not available through a software update on older Mac laptops.

The 15in MacBook Pro’s Mini DisplayPort can now output multichannel audio as well as video. When using this port, make sure you are using a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI Adapter that supports the new MacBook Pro’s audio and video signals.

Battery life

The MacBook Pro’s built-in battery made its debut in the late 2009 models, extending the length of time you can use the laptop on a single charge. Now, lower power consumption by the graphics, and subtle battery changes help to increase battery life. In our movie playback tests, (a worse-case battery draining scenario that differs significantly from Apple’s methodology of determining battery life), the three laptops lasted on average 4 hours 35 minutes, an improvement of between 10 and 25 per cent.

To see how these internal improvements affected performance, we enlisted the help of our overall system performance benchmark, Speedmark 6, and the results were impressive.

Speed boost

The new low-end 2.4GHz Core i5 was 23 per cent faster overall than the previous low-end model with its 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo. The biggest gain was in 3D game performance, where the new model’s Nvidia GeForce GT330 graphics wiped the floor with the integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400 graphics in the previous low-end system.

The new entry-level MacBook Pro also proved to be faster than the previous ‘better’ and ‘best’ configurations in the 15in line-up, with 2.66GHz and 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processors, respectively. Comparing the new 2.4GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro with the previous top-of-the-line 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, the new entry-level 15in was 5 per cent faster in our Speedmark 6 testing, with 7 per cent faster scores in our Photoshop test, 17 per cent faster Cinebench CPU score, 16 per cent faster MathematicaMark 7 score, and 19 per cent faster Aperture score.

The £1,649 system, with a 2.53GHz Core i5, was only about 3 per cent faster than the low-end 2.4GHz Core i5 in our Speedmark 6 test suite. Some tests, like Cinebench and MathematicaMark 7 showed the benefit of the 2.53GHz’s faster processing speed, but other tests, like Aperture and Compressor were actually faster on the 2.4GHz system.

The top-of-the-line 2.66GHz Core i7 model was 7 per cent faster than the middle model and 10 per cent faster than the new low-end laptop. Compared to the model it replaced, the 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro was 15 per cent faster than that previous 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo model.

In our graphics tests, we found that the MacBook Pro’s new Nvidia GeForce GT330M graphics were able to display an average of about 19 per cent more frames per second (69.1) in our Call of Duty tests than the Nvidia GeForce GT 9600M graphics in the 2.66GHz and 2.8GHz 2009 Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros (58.2). We thought that bumping up the resolution from 1,024 x 768 (the resolution we use on all Mac systems as part of Speedmark 6) to the 15in MacBook Pro’s native 1,440 x 900 resolution might show a bigger difference, but it stayed pretty much the same at 19.6 per cent faster on the new MacBook Pros.

Comparing the new MacBook Pros to the iMacs that already have Core i5 and i7 processors showed that there is still a performance price to pay for going portable over desktop. The results underscored the iMac’s advantage of using the desktop Core i5 and i7 processors with four processing cores and a faster spinning 7,200rpm 1TB hard drive. (The 2.66GHz iMac uses the desktop version of the Core i5 that has doesn’t support for Hyper-Threading. The 2.8GHz version uses the desktop version of the Core i7 with Hyper-Threading. The MacBook Pros use the mobile version of the Core i5 and i7 with two cores and Hyper-threading on both.)

We found the high-end 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro to be 24 per cent slower overall than the 2.66GHz Core i5 27in iMac and 32 per cent slower than the 2.8GHz Core i7 27in iMac.

OUR VERDICT

The new 15in MacBook Pros leave little to complain about, offering better application performance, better battery life and very similar pricing. The extra £170 for the new low-end system seems like good value when you consider the addition of discrete graphics, larger capacity hard drive and new 2.4GHz Core i5 processor.

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