MacBook Pro 15in (spring 2010) full review

Core i5 performance

As solid as the graphics system is -- I saw nary a hitch when watching videos or doing some light digital video exports -- it's the Core i5 and i7 processors in the 15in. and 17in. models that buyers will likely key in on. That's because they're relatively efficient for the punch they pack, and even though they're dual-core chips, they bring at least a pseudo-quad-core flair to the upper end of Apple's laptop line. Let me stress the word pseudo here: These are not the same as the real quadcore chips that the iMac desktop line uses.

Both the i5 and i7 have integrated memory controllers, either 3MB or 4MB of Level 3 cache and "turbo boost," which means the chips can max out at clock speeds higher than the baseline numbers advertised. And they offer hyperthreading, which means the operating system "thinks" it can access four cores instead of two -- it's just that two of the cores are virtual. Having more cores, whether physical or virtual, means software and operating systems can process commands faster because the work is being done in parallel, not sequentially.

When it comes to turbo boost, the concept is pretty simple. In this 15-in. model, the processor starts out at 2.4 GHz and stays there unless taxed. If you get into some heavy data-crunching, both cores can throttle up to 2.8 GHz. Or if the software you're using is running on one core instead of two, that lone core can throttle up to 2.93 GHz.

It's like having a turbocharger on your car. If you're cruising along at 65 miles an hour and stomp on the gas, you'll feel an extra spurt of acceleration as the turbocharger kicks in. When you let off the gas, the turbocharger cuts out and you're back to basic cylinders.

Essentially, the system is squeezing out as much processing power as possible from the Core chips when that power is needed most -- under heavy load -- and then backing off the juice when it's not. The result is an elegant combination of power and thriftiness.

Comparisons and benchmarks

Here's how the Core i5 MacBook Pro stacks up against a Core i5-based iMac and my own 17-in. MacBook Pro, which has a 3.06-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a superfast SSD drive. The iMac -- unlike the model I reviewed last fall -- has the 2.66-GHz quad-core Core i5 processor. And, unlike this particular MacBook Pro, it has four physical cores and a faster 7,200-rpm hard drive. (The 15in. MacBook Pro comes with a 5,400-rpm drive.)

First, I did a quick benchmark test of all three computers using Spiny Software's Xbench 1.3. The new MacBook Pro returned a score of 152.03 -- solid, but not stellar. (I expect the relatively slow hard drive is keeping those numbers down.) The iMac, not surprisingly, had a 204.18 score, and my own MacBook Pro topped out at 209 -- largely because of the OCZ Technologies SSD I installed right after I bought it last June. SSDs can throw off benchmarks by artificially inflating scores -- although they do make your computer feel darn fast. More about SSDs below.

Next, I used Primate Labs' Geekbench 2.1.5 to benchmark the three computers. The iMac led the way with a Geekbench score of 6,473. The new MacBook Pro turned in a speedy 4,783. And my own MacBook Pro trailed at 4,192. (Bare Feats did its own tests, in case you want even more data, comparing the faster Core-based MacBook Pros with a Core i7 iMac. The iMac won, by a long shot.)

Although benchmarks can give you a rough idea of how one computer stacks up against others, real-world tasks are usually better for putting a computer through its paces. With that in mind, I opened an 88MB video file in QuickTime and chose the "Save for Web" command. This essentially exports the same video into several different versions at the same time -- and it pegs the processor while doing so. (I use iSlayer's iStat Menus, a great free utility, to monitor what's going on with my computer; it places a series of icons in the menu bar showing you what the CPU is up to, how hot the computer is running, how your network connection is doing, etc.)

Using my own older MacBook Pro -- remember, it has the dual-core Core 2 Duo chip, but a fast SSD drive -- the video export task took 61 seconds. Doing the same thing on my iMac took just 29 seconds. And exporting the video on the new Core i5-based MacBook Pro took 51 seconds.

That might not sound like much of a leap over my last-generation MacBook Pro. But my laptop would have been left even further in the dust if it had a 5,400-rpm hard drive in it instead of an SSD.

If you want more power than the two Core i5 chips offer, you can opt for the £1,799 2.66GHz Core i7. The i7 can spool both cores to 3.06GHz or, if you're maxing out just one, hit 3.33GHz. The Core i7 is also an option on the top-end £1,899 17in. model. (The i7 processor would be good for something like high-definition video encoding, because it's 50% faster than the previous generation's 2.8-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, according to Apple.)

Benchmark results

Xbench test

Geekbench test

QuickTime export test

April 2010 MacBook Pro 15 with 2.4-GHz Core i5 and 5,400-rpm HDD

152.03

4,783

51 seconds

June 2009 MacBook Pro 17 with 3.06-GHz Core 2 Duo and SSD

209

4,192

61 seconds

October 2009 iMac with 2.66-GHz quadcore Core i5 and 7,200-rpm HDD

204.18

6,473

29 seconds

How the 15in. MacBook Pro stacks up to a Core i5 iMac and Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.

That kind of power is great if you're a video editor or rendering something in a 3D modeling app like Modo. If time is money, you might be able to justify the extra expense. But for most not-quite power users, the i5 should suffice. Not only is it fast and energy-efficient, but it also runs at a relatively cool 115 degrees Fahrenheit during general use. (Watching hi-def videos in full screen through iTunes kicked the temperature up to 153 degrees, but I could barely hear the cooling fans turning.)

In fact, if I were buying a MacBook Pro this year, I'd be fine with the Core i5. Although I typically lust after -- and often buy -- the fastest processor available, this time around I'd opt for the low-end 15-incher instead of the high-end model and use the $400 I'd save to buy an SSD drive.

Options I'd choose: SSD and high-res display

I've been an SSD convert ever since I used a MacBook Air with one; that's why I installed one in the MacBook Pro I bought last summer. It feels just as supercharged now as it did last summer. I've had zero problems with the drive or the laptop itself. In fact, it's been the best laptop I've ever owned, and over the years, I've had several.

When it comes to SSD options for the 15in. MacBook Pro, Apple gives you three ways to spend money: You can go lean and get a 128GB SSD for £240, go extravagant with a 256GB SSD for £600, or go money-is-no-object outrageous with the 512GB SSD for £1,120. Going all out would boost the price of this £1,499 laptop to £2,618.99, which is almost 44 per cent more. Since I don't need a lot of room for data, the 128GB drive works fine for me.

Put simply: Any of these Core-based MacBook Pros would be a screamer with an SSD.

I'd also go for another new option Apple is offering on this particular model: a higher-resolution screen. The 15in. MacBook Pro comes with a 1440-by-900-pixel screen; for an extra £80.01, you can order one that's 1,680 by 1,050 pixels. Like fast processors and SSDs, I like pixels. My 17in. MacBook Pro has a 1,920-by-1,200-pixel screen, and I flat-out love it. So the prospect of a higher-resolution screen in the 15-in. MacBook Pro is a welcome addition. In fact, I'd be happier if Apple offered a 1,920-by-1,200-pixel screen in this model, but I'm not holding my breath.

Although higher resolution can make things look a little smaller, the increased sharpness -- and the extra screen real estate -- is well worth it. If you're keeping track, the pixels-per-inch count on the stock model works out to about 106; on the optional higher-resolution screen, it's 129. (On my own MacBook Pro, it's 133.)

The standard resolution on the 15in. model is my only nit to pick. Given that I'm used to a higher resolution, everything on the new MacBook Pro felt slightly oversized, whether it was menus, text or Web pages. That's why, personally, I'd opt for the upgraded screen resolution in the new model. Again, though, resolution is really a matter of personal preference -- and eyesight. The same is true for Apple's now-standard glossy screens. You can't get the anti-glare finish on the 13in. models, but you can get it on the 15in. and 17in. versions. But it'll cost you an extra £120.

All in all, Apple has delivered a laptop that's more than just an evolutionary upgrade with unseen updates under the hood. It has moved its higher-end MacBook Pros closer to true quadcore speeds, while improving battery life and adding serious GPU performance. Given that the prices across the line are roughly the same as those of the last generation, depending on exactly which model you choose, that should be enough to make these laptops a sweet deal for anyone looking to upgrade.

Me? I'm standing pat for now with the MacBook Pro I have; my new iPad should keep my techno-lust engaged for the time being. But it's good to see that Apple hasn't lost sight of the fact that the iPad, as phenomenal as it is, is but one of several options for would-be Mac buyers. For users who need the horsepower of a full-featured laptop, the latest MacBook Pro models should more than fit the bill, offering stylish construction, rock-solid design, long battery life and more than enough processing power to get them through any digital task.

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