MacBook Pro Review

For more than a year, Intel has been touting a new mobile platform, code-named Santa Rosa. Combining the latest Core 2 Duo processors with a package of new support chips, the platform was supposed to deliver the biggest advance in notebook computing in years.

Now Apple’s first Santa Rosa-based laptops – the new 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros – have arrived, yet the improvements turn out to be fairly modest. In fact, the most important refinements in the latest models come not from the new chip set, but from separate advances in graphics processing and the display.

Specifically, these MacBook Pros – one with a 15-inch display and 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, another 15-inch model with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, and a 17-inch model with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor – feature a brand-new NVIDIA graphics chip, the GeForce 8600M GT, in place of the aging ATI Mobility Radeon X1600. In the entry-level MacBook Pro, the chip comes with 128MB of graphics memory. The other two have 256MB.

The new chip is designed to improve performance with demanding programs, such as 3D games and HD video editors. Indeed, in frames-per-second tests with id Software’s Quake 4 and Doom 3 games, we found frame-rate improvements of 25 to 60 per cent, compared with that of the Radeon X1600 in the 17-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo CPU.

On the other hand, the new 15-inch machines lagged well behind the older models in the Lab’s standard Unreal Tournament testing. We suspect that the problems stem from software drivers and applications that are not yet tuned for the new chip.

The 15-inch MacBook Pros offer a notebook-first, too – they boast LED backlit screens, which are better for the environment and more consistently bright.

Because 17in screens with LED backlighting aren’t yet available, the flagship MacBook Pro still has CCFL backlighting. For an extra £60, however, buyers can now order the 17-inch model with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,200 pixels, instead of the standard 1,680 x 1,050 pixels. If you’re working with HD video, you’ll appreciate the higher resolution.

Other enhancements
As usual, new models bring faster processors, though in this case the differences are slight: the entry-level 15-inch model runs at 2.2GHz, compared with 2.16GHz in the previous generation; the other two models’ processors operate at 2.4GHz, up from 2.33GHz. All three models now have a frontside bus – the data channel connecting the CPU to the rest of the system – that operates at 800MHz, compared to 667MHz previously, but the machines can’t take full advantage of the extra speed because RAM manufacturers aren’t yet producing 800MHz memory.

More important is the extra memory capacity of the new machines. The MacBook Pro line now comes with 2GB of RAM, with the potential to upgrade to 4GB.

The 2.4GHz models in the lineup now have 160GB hard drives, up from 120GB in the previous generation, while the 2.2Ghz 15-inch model offers 120GB. In all three units, the SuperDrive is up from 6x to 8x. And all three models now come with 802.11n wireless networking enabled out of the box.

The Santa Rosa chip set, as well as the switch to LED backlighting in the 15-inch models, boosts the MacBook Pros’ battery life. In our testing, both the 15- and 17-inch models delivered an impressive three hours, approximately, of DVD playback. This represents a gain of 11 per cent for the 15-inch models and 14 per cent for the 17-inch model over the previous generations. Surprisingly, we didn’t do as well – about 2.5 hours – in our wireless productivity test (writing in Microsoft Word while listening to streaming audio and checking email via AirPort) on the 15-inch unit. Without the streaming audio, though, the batteries lasted just over three hours.

Otherwise, all three models have the same array of features as their Pro predecessors, including Gigabit Ethernet; Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate); FireWire 800 and 400 ports, and an ExpressCard/34 expansion slot. There’s still no eSATA, PCMCIA slots, or an internal modem option.

OUR VERDICT

If you have a recent MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo, there’s no compelling reason to trade up (unless you can’t live without the higher frame rates, the optional extra resolution, or a fourth GB of RAM). But if you’re still using a PowerBook or a Core Duo-based MacBook Pro, you’ll get a dramatic performance boost from the latest models. The 17-inch model obviously remains the choice for people who require maximum screen space, no matter its heavier weight, bigger size, and higher price.

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