It's got a new name on the outside and a new processor on the inside, but the MacBook Pro is in many ways indistinguishable from its predecessor, the 15-inch PowerBook G4. Yes, this first MacBook Pro model is a huge step forward in many different ways, but it also provides reassuring continuity for long-time PowerBook users. As you'd expect from the first model of its kind, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is a complicated beast. (We tested the 2GHz model.) When it comes to running Universal applications, it's clearly faster than the PowerBook. Yet it also has some quirks, and actually lags behind the PowerBook in some hardware and software areas. Still, the MacBook Pro's huge potential can't be fully realised until more programs are released that can take advantage of its strengths.
It's a potentially obvious point, but important to note: these Intel-based Macs are still Macs through and through. We put a PowerBook G4 into FireWire Target mode and attached it to the MacBook Pro, transferred its files via Apple's built-in Migration Assistant utility, and had the new laptop up and running in a couple of hours with no major hitches. All desktop windows were in the right places, file icons were properly strewn about the desktop – the new MacBook Pro felt exactly like the old PowerBook.
After the migration was complete, we experienced several annoying slowdowns, but a trip to Apple's Activity Monitor utility revealed that the culprit was Spotlight, which had to index the MacBook Pro's hard drive after the Migration Assistant utility finished its transfer. Once Spotlight was done with its work, most common operations felt much more responsive than they had on the PowerBook. (We did experience a few appearances of OS X's spinning rainbow ball of doom, but they abated after we discarded several old items that the Migration Utility had transferred to our InputManagers folder.)
Although several of the bread-and-butter applications we used aren't currently available in Universal versions, we rarely perceived any serious slowness in them. Occasionally Microsoft Entourage got a bit poky, and Microsoft Word seemed somewhat confused when we tried to use the MacBook Pro's Scrolling Trackpad feature. But, generally, applications running under Mac OS X's Rosetta code-translation technology – which converts instructions meant for PowerPC processors into those suitable for Intel chips – worked quite well.
Of course, not all of my applications worked. Virtual PC is a goner. Apple Remote Desktop was completely non-functional. Neither is a deal-breaker, but if you count on either one, the MacBook Pro may not be ready for you yet.
Otherwise, everything ran well and felt speedy. Safari generally felt quite responsive, but the biggest change I noticed was with iCal. On my PowerBook G4 it's an absolute dog most of the time; on the MacBook Pro it's actually responsive.
When it comes to Universal applications running natively on the MacBook Pro, they definitely felt perkier than on the G4 laptop – and the entire computing experience simply felt more responsive than the 1.67GHz PowerBook.
The speed's the thing
As with the first edition of the Intel-based iMacs (reviewed Macworld March 2006), the focus on these new MacBook Pro systems is going to be on their speed. For the past few years, PowerBook users have griped about the relatively small speed improvements in the product line.
Since Apple first announced its switch to Intel chips, there's been intense speculation that Intel-based laptops would be able to perform at speeds that were simply unavailable to PowerBook G4 users.
And the MacBook Pro new-look specs would seem to indicate that a major portable speed boost is in the offing. Compared with the older PowerBook G4's relatively meager specs (167MHz system bus, a single 1.67GHz G4 processor, and a Mobility Radeon 9700 video card), the MacBook Pro's architecture (667MHz bus, dual-core 2.0GHz processor, and Mobility Radeon X1600 card) makes it a potential portable speed demon.
So does the MacBook Pro deliver on its promise?
Unfortunately, there's no easy answer when it comes to speed. Like the iMac Core Duo, the MacBook Pro is the first Mac system of its type to feature a dual-core processor, the equivalent of two processors on a single chip. As a result, gauging its actual speed is a whole lot more complicated than back in the days when processor clock speed alone dominated the discussion.
So, yes, the MacBook Pro is generally faster than the 15-inch PowerBook G4 at running Universal applications. How much faster depends on several factors, including how well-optimised for Intel processors the applications are, how much the applications take advantage of the MacBook Pro's fast video card, and how well the software supports multiple processors.
Some of our tests show major MacBook Pro speed boosts when compared with the PowerBook G4. The 3D rendering program Cinema 4D XL was 3.3 times as fast at rendering a scene; the graphics-intensive game Unreal Tournament 2004 had a frame rate 2.2 times better; and an iTunes encode was 1.3 times as fast. Other tests of less processor intensive tasks, such as creating a 1GB Zip archive in the Finder, showed more modest gains.
Given that the professional applications that are part of Apple's Final Cut Studio suite have long been designed to take advantage of Power Mac models with multiple processors, we would anticipate that the Universal versions of those applications will see dramatic speed boosts on the MacBook Pro. Those applications aren't expected to arrive until later in March, so we weren't able to test them, and we didn't receive the Universal Logic Pro 7.2 version in time to test it for this review.
The other major application that many MacBook Pro users will want to run is Adobe Photoshop CS2, and it may be a while before a Universal version arrives – probably as CS3. In the interim, the MacBook Pro will run Photoshop via Rosetta.
We found Photoshop to be quite usable on the MacBook Pro, but it doesn't run nearly as fast as it does on the most recent top-of-the-line PowerBook. The 1.67GHz PowerBook G4 performed our suite of 14 scripted Photoshop tasks 1.7 times faster than the 2GHz MacBook Pro. As a result, it's hard for us to recommend the MacBook Pro to heavy Photoshop users until Adobe ships a Universal version. However, casual Photoshop users should be fine.
Are two cores better than one?
There are numerous reasons for such variations in test results. But by far the most important has to do with the dual-core nature of the Intel Core Duo.
In the past, Macs got faster largely because the clock speeds of the processors got faster – for example, a 1.2GHz PowerBook G4 was clearly faster than a 1GHz PowerBook G4. However, there's another way to make a Mac faster: add more processors. Apple has used this approach before.
Multiprocessor Power Macs have been available for a while; all the current Power Mac G5 models use dual-core chips, which essentially contain two processors on one physical chip.
Here's the catch, though: adding processors to a Mac doesn't automatically boost system speed the way increasing the clock speed does. That's because programs must be specifically designed to support multiple processors to gain any benefit.
Since powerhouse Power Macs have supported multiple processors for years, many heavy-duty professional programs – including graphics tools such as Adobe Photoshop, 3D tools such as Maya and Cinema 4D, and video tools such as Final Cut Pro Studio and Adobe After Effects – have been modified to take advantage of multiprocessing. As Intel-specific versions of such applications arrive, they'll undoubtedly perform well on these new iMacs.
But many consumer-level applications don't really take advantage of multiprocessing. To really take advantage of the Core Duo's second processor, such programs will need to be updated to add better multiprocessor optimisation.
(Note that if you're running several programs at once, Mac OS X is smart enough to spread them out across multiple processors. That can provide a speed boost if a user is multitasking, switching between several processor-intensive programs at once.)
To find out just how much our test programs took advantage of the iMac's dual-core chip, we disabled one of the two cores and re-ran several of our tests. The results showed, for example, that some tasks in iPhoto (importing images and exporting a QuickTime movie) took advantage of the second processor core much more than others (exporting to files and web pages). iTunes is very good at using both processor cores for ripping MP3s, while the Finder seems to only use a single processor when creating our Zip archive.
Rosetta: Compatibility caveat
There's yet another wrinkle in the performance of these new Intel-based Macs: different processors speak different languages.
Programs compiled for the old PowerPC chips from IBM and Motorola can't run natively on these new Intel-made CPUs. Instead, they have to run through Apple's Rosetta, an emulation technology that lets Intel-based Macs run PowerPC apps by translating their commands into ones Intel chips can understand.
Our tests showed that PowerPC applications run much slower on an Intel MacBook than on the PowerPC PowerBook. But those speed differences are relative.
Yes, if you're upgrading to an Intel-based MacBook from a PowerBook G4 you bought just a few months ago, your PowerPC apps will run around half as fast. But if you're upgrading from a two- to four-year-old PowerBook, you're unlikely to see any slow down – and you might see a speed boost.
When Universal isn't enough
But just because a program is Universal doesn't mean that it's reached its full speed potential on Intel-based Macs.
Software development is an evolutionary process. Even if software vendors (including Apple) have delivered Universal versions of their applications in time to run on these first Intel Macs, there's every reason to believe they'll continue to tweak and refine those applications to work better and better on the new CPUs. For example, Apple officials have admitted to us its iLife ‘06 programs could stand to be better optimised.
Those developers have already gone through that optimisation process for PowerPC-based Macs. Some programs, for example, offer features written to specifically take advantage of the G4 and G5 processors' Velocity Engine, a special set of accelerated commands. Many of these features will need to be modified to take advantage of SSE/MMX, the Intel equivalent of Velocity Engine.
In addition, the tools that developers use – Apple's Xcode development environment and Intel's collection of code compilers – are also likely to improve, making it easier for developers to wring even more performance out of their Intel-compatible software. Even portions of Mac OS X itself, although they do run natively on Intel processors, will probably benefit from further optimisation.
Running Classic and Windows
The release of Intel-based Macs is a major milestone for users of Mac OS 9 software.
Intel-based Macs don't support Mac OS X's Classic mode. So if you rely on old-school Mac OS 9 applications to get your job done, these new Macs simply aren't for you. While it's extremely unlikely that Apple will ever bring back Classic, you may be able to use a Mac emulator, sort of like a Mac equivalent of VirtualPC. At press time, two emulators were already available in “experimental versions” for Intel Macs: SheepShaver, which emulates a Power Mac, and Basilisk II, which emulates either a Mac Classic or Mac II. But keep in mind that, since they're both emulators, they'll be running those Classic applications at low speed.
Anyone who's had to keep a spare PC around the office to run Windows programs, on the other hand, might well have rejoiced at the news of Apple's switch to Intel. But such rejoicing is, for now, premature.
There isn't yet a verified way to install Windows on your Mac and boot into it. (Intel-based Macs use a boot system called EFI, rather than the more traditional BIOS, which makes things harder: Windows XP doesn't support EFI, although the forthcoming Windows Vista will.) But plenty of clever hackers are working hard at the problem, and it's only a matter of time before someone figures it out.
Still, it's likely that Microsoft will also update Virtual PC so that it runs on Intel-based Macs. When that happens you can expect that it'll run Windows at speeds approaching those you'd find on a normal PC. (It won't be full-speed, however, because Windows will be running inside an application and sharing space with the rest of your Mac.) Other Windows-in-a-box products will probably appear as well. So the future of running Windows stuff on your PC will be bright, eventually.
New Book, similar cover
In terms of physical appearance, the MacBook Pro is almost identical to the 15-inch PowerBook G4. It's slightly wider and thinner, and weighs the same. The MacBook Pro's trackpad, mouse button, and front latch are also slightly wider than the PowerBook's.
However, the MacBook Pro's screen is 60 pixels shorter than the most recent 15-inch PowerBook G4, offering a native resolution of 1,440 x 900 pixels. The screen is definitely brighter than the PowerBook's. Nestled right above the screen is the MacBook Pro's built-in iSight camera, and next to it is a green light that comes on whenever the camera is in use. (The iSight worked well in all the video chats we tried, although because the MacBook Pro's microphone is embedded in the left speaker grille, our iChat audio was restricted to the right speaker and sounded a bit too quiet.)
The MacBook Pro is Apple's first laptop model to come with an infrared remote control and Front Row software, and there's a corresponding infrared port on the front edge of the system, to the left of the latch. The version of Front Row on these systems is essentially the same as the one on Apple's iMacs – and includes all the same limitations, including a lack of robust music-play features and weak video- and slideshow-playback controls.
That said, the combination of Front Row, a remote control, and a small Mac that can process external video output makes for some very interesting scenarios. For example, you can use the MacBook Pro and a video adaptor to run a TV in a home theatre. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to simply close the MacBook Pro, attach it to my TV set, and then recline with the included remote – the MacBook Pro wouldn't stay awake. Plugging a mouse into one of the MacBook's USB ports worked, but it would be nice if it were easier to use the MacBook Pro as a TV or projector-playback system.
Users of the last-generation PowerBooks will notice that the MacBook Pro is also missing several features found on those models. As with the iMac, the MacBook Pro has no modem, so those who need one will have to invest £35 in Apple's USB modem; and the PowerBook G4's FireWire 800 port is also a goner.
Adding FireWire 800 to the MacBook Pro is possible, but it requires use of the ExpressCard slot, a new slot that replaces the PowerBook G4's PC Card slot. The ExpressCard/34 slot lets cards run at full PCI Express speeds, but it's incompatible with PC Cards (as well as wider ExpressCard/54 cards), and currently there aren't very many ExpressCards on the market. Still, we expect that the MacBook Pro will spur development of Mac-compatible ExpressCards, not only for FireWire 800 but for numerous other uses, including support for other storage formats, expanded wireless connectivity, and video-out capability. However, we were unable to test any ExpressCard/34 cards in the MacBook Pro.
The S-Video port is also gone, although Apple's £15 DVI-to-video adaptor easily replaces it. I didn't know even a couple of people were using that port on the PowerBook. Of course, now that the MacBook Pro has built-in Front Row and an infrared remote control, having a built-in TV-style video port finally makes sense.
Unlike the data accompanying previous laptop models, Apple has refrained from making any claims about the MacBook Pro's potential battery life. The attitude seemed to be this: most other computer vendors don't quote battery-life figures, so we aren't going to play the game either. Fair enough, but it's led people to assume that this was Apple's attempt to hide some terrible battery-life results.
Testing battery life is extremely tricky, since different types of usage (and different energy-saving preferences) can dramatically vary the results of battery life tests as well as real-world total battery life. In an all-out power drain test, in which we turned off all power-saving options and played a DVD on both the MacBook Pro and the PowerBook G4, the MacBook Pro died four minutes earlier than the PowerBook – a test that suggests the two models' battery life will be similar.
In regular use over several days with normal power settings, we got more than three-and-a-half hours' worth of work done with charge to spare. As a result, we think it's safe to say that while the MacBook Pro isn't going to win any last-laptop-standing battery challenges, its battery life will be in line with the past experiences of PowerBook G4 users.
(Note that the MacBook Pro uses a new battery type, so if you've invested in spare batteries for your PowerBook – d'oh! – there's another new duplicate investment to make.)
My colleague Rick LePage, a true 15-inch PowerBook hound, has been playing with his own MacBook Pro. He reports that he's getting three to four hours of life out of the battery on a full charge, just doing normal stuff – Entourage, Safari, Excel, etc – without any special power-optimisation settings. “It's a little more than what I've been getting on my 1.67GHz 15-inch PowerBook, but not by much,” he concurs.
All features great and small
With a product as new and hotly anticipated as the MacBook Pro, there's an almost endless list of details that prospective buyers might be curious about. Here's a round-up of other items we noticed while testing this system:
Wireless range In our observations, the MacBook Pro appears to have better wireless range than the PowerBook G4. At the same distances, we were able to see more bars in Apple's Internet Connect utility and a higher signal strength in iStumbler on the MacBook Pro. However, when we tested an iBook – the king of the WiFi mountain – in the same conditions, its performance was notably better than the MacBook Pro's. However, we've seen some reports that the MacBook Pro can't successfully connect to LEAP wireless networks. So look before you – er, well, you know.
Heat The MacBook Pro is definitely not a cool system. After an hour of use, we found ours to be quite warm, particularly on the left side toward the back. However, we didn't find the heat level uncomfortable, and it seemed roughly in line with the heat generated by PowerBook G4 models.
Noise In general operation the MacBook Pro is fairly quiet. However, several users of the first batch of MacBook Pro models have reported a quiet hum emitted by the computer under certain circumstances. We did notice this on a few of the MacBook Pro models we looked at, and while we didn't find it particularly distracting, it's worth noting in case you're someone who is particularly sensitive to noise and works in a quiet environment.
Optical Drive While the MacBook Pro massively improves most of the PowerBook G4's specs there's one area with a serious backslide: the optical drive. Because the MacBook Pro is thinner than the PowerBook, Apple had to use a new optical drive that's approximately three millimeters thinner. So rather than the optical drive in the previous-model PowerBook, which featured an 8x SuperDrive with dual-layer DVD burning support, the MacBook only contains a 4x SuperDrive model that can't burn dual-layer discs – hard-core disc burners be warned. MW
Sitting in the Front Row
I used one of those adaptors to attach my MacBook Pro to my TV set, and after a few false starts it worked well. While the laptop was open, I attached the adaptor. The computer immediately went into mirroring mode, so I could see the same information on the laptop’s screen and on my TV screen. I adjusted the resolution to a widescreen ratio (I have a widescreen TV), turned off the MacBook Pro’s screen backlight, and sat down on my sofa to play music and videos via Front Row. It worked pretty well, although my home speaker system picked up some processor noise from the MacBook Pro – not a problem when things were playing, but annoying when everything was silent.
My next attempt was to connect the MacBook Pro to my TV set with the lid closed. So I closed the lid, putting the computer
to sleep. No problem – I pressed the centre button on the Apple remote, which woke up the computer... for about 10 seconds, before it went right back to sleep. This is consistent with the behaviour I’ve seen on PowerBooks, but it’s a little frustrating. It should be easy to run the MacBook Pro in lid-closed mode via the remote control. Instead, in order to wake the MacBook Pro up, and keep it awake, I had to attach a USB mouse. Pretty silly on a system with a built-in remote control.
That said, the picture quality on my TV set was fine. I watched a little bit of a TV show and it was watchable, but I definitely noticed the reduced picture quality.
Unfortunately, Front Row’s still got all the same annoying limitations as it did when it was first released. Time for a Front Row 2.0, guys.