The entry-level $1,199 13-inch MacBook Pro that we reviewed was built around a Second-Generation 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor (also known as Sandy Bridge), a 320GB hard drive, and a 13.3-inch screen. This is the base model of the group. For $300 more, you can bump up your processor to a 2.7GHz Core i7 and your hard drive to 500GB. The 15-inch models start at $1,799, and the 17-inchers at $2,499. The 15-inch and 17-inch models now come standard with Core i7 processors and advanced switchable graphics technology. The 13-inch offers only integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 in both its models. All of the new MacBook Pros use Second-Generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors.
When closed, the MacBook Pro is just less than an inch thick.
On the outside, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is almost exactly the same as the previous version. Design-wise, we think Apple was smart to approach the new line with the attitude that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. The previous line of MacBook Pros was as stunning as it was stark, and the new line carries that torch onward. The silver case, dominated by an aluminum shell with just one seam around the underside, feels plenty solid. Nothing much mars the design of the MacBook’s body: On the top of the lid is a simple white Apple logo that lights up when the laptop is in use. And, well, that’s about it. The case snaps shut with a magnetic latch, making opening the lid easy without compromising the durability of the body.
As with the previous version, all the ports are located on the left side of the chassis and include an Ethernet jack, a FireWire 800 port (backward-compatible with FireWire 400, 200, and 100), the new Thunderbolt connector (more on that in a moment), two USB 2.0 ports, an SDXC-card slot, and a headphone jack. Toward the front left of the chassis are indicator lights that allow for a quick look at remaining battery power. On the right side of the body are a security-lock slot and the opening for the slot-loading optical drive, which is a dual-layer DVD burner. As with previous MacBook lines, it doesn’t support Blu-ray discs, a feature we keep hoping will come with every new iteration of MacBook Pros.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro's ports are located on the left side of the body and include an Ethernet jack, a FireWire 800 port, the new Thunderbolt connector, two USB 2.0 ports, an SDXC-card slot, and a headphone jack.
These MacBook Pros are the first laptops to feature the Thunderbolt port (which replaces the mini-DisplayPort connector from previous MacBook Pros), based on Intel's Light Peak technology, which supports both high-performance peripherals and high-resolution displays. Apple claims the technology can provide data transfer at 20 times the speed of a USB 2.0 port. And, from what we saw during our demonstration, we believe it. (We'd test it ourselves, but no cable is currently available.) It's compatible with USB 2.0 and 3.0, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel, VGA, DVI, and HDMI. It also allows you to daisy-chain up to six devices. Apple does not include a Thunderbolt cord in the box, though. Then again, there aren't many peripherals for it just yet, either.
Once you open the lid, you’ll notice that little has changed in the design of the keyboard and touch pad (which Apple terms its "Trackpad"). The full-size keyboard comes with backlit keys, and it remains perfectly spaced and nicely responsive to the touch. An ambient-light sensor adjusts the key backlighting according to the brightness of the area where you’re working. The speaker is above the keyboard, and although it's adequate for personal use while using the MacBook Pro, you won't want to try and fill a room with it.
The latest MacBook Pro features the same full-size keyboard as its predecessors.
On the keyboard deck is the generously sized, buttonless multi-touch Trackpad, which has a glass surface. Instead of the two-button pad you’ll find on most other laptops, the entire pad on the MacBook Pro acts as a button, allowing you to press anywhere to enact a function; you use two fingers to right-click. The Trackpad features inertia-based scrolling, meaning that if you swipe up or down on the pad with two fingers, you’ll continue to scroll through the page until it reaches the top or bottom, just as an iPad or iPhone works. This is the same as the previous versions. As always, we found the Trackpad very easy to use, especially since it functions much like the touch screen on an iPad or iPhone.
As with previous MacBook Pros, the pad also allows you to use a four-finger swipe to show your desktop, view all open windows, or change programs. Of course, the now-requisite multi-touch functionality is built in here as well. (This is the same as the touch features on an Apple iPhone or iPad, allowing you to zoom, rotate, and slide images around with two fingers.)
The multi-touch trackpad will be easy to get used to if you own an iPhone or iPad, as it functions much the same.
The 13.3-inch glossy screen on the model we tested has a native resolution of 1,280x800 and is not upgradable. Graphic designers who require a higher-resolution screen might want to look at upgrading to the 17-inch model, which comes standard with a resolution of 1,920x1,200. We found the 13.3-inch screen displays movies and photos with vivid, accurate colors. Artists also take note: Although the option of an antiglare screen is available in the 15- and 17-inch models, it's not offered for the 13-inch screen. We did notice a heavy amount of glare when using the MacBook Pro in a brightly lit room.
Apple's new 720p FaceTime HD camera lives in the middle of the top of the screen bezel, along with a camera-indicator light, which lights up to warn you when the camera is on. (That could save you from embarrassing moments when doing something you wouldn’t want to be seen doing on camera.) The FaceTime camera features three times the resolution of the iSight camera that came on previous MacBook Pros, and it shows. When we booted up our MacBook Pro, and were prompted to take a photo of ourselves to use as our icon, a process we've done many times before, we immediately noticed the difference in the camera quality (which was already very good). We noticed no lag, and it performed well even in our low-lighted office. You can make FaceTime calls to other Mac devices that have a camera and the FaceTime app installed. (You can download the app from the Mac App Store for 99 cents.)
Inside the latest MacBook Pros is where you'll find all the major new goodies, though. The CPU gets an excellent bump from a Core 2 Duo to a Second-Generation 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor. (For those of you who have been following Intel's problems with the supporting chipsets for some of its Sandy Bridge processors, worry not. Apple waited for the problem to be resolved before acquiring the chips.) Graphics, however, take a step down from an Nvidia GeForce 320M card to an Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset.
To put the CPU (and 4GB of DDR3 RAM) through its paces, we started with our Cinebench test, which stresses all the cores of a given processor to gauge raw CPU performance. Compared both with the previous MacBook Pro and the average for thin-and-light laptops, this 13-inch MacBook Pro far exceeded expectations, with a score of 8,707. That score is higher than every other thin-and-light notebook we have tested. (Although it's worth noting, none of those laptops used Intel's Sandy Bridge technology, so it's not a huge surprise to see these high numbers here, and in fact, we expect to see them on PCs in the near future.) The current average for the thin-and-light category is 5,942, and the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro managed a still-noteworthy score of 5,039. To compare, the $1,779 Lenovo ThinkPad T410s scored 7,340 on this same test. Other similar thin-and-lights didn't fare even that well, including the Samsung QX410 (6,737) and HP Envy 14 (6,862).
Next, we ran our standard iTunes test to further stress the CPU. (In this, we encode 11 standard audio tracks from MP3 to AAC format.) Once again, the 13-inch MacBook Pro blew every other thin-and-light out of the water with a score of 2 minutes and 38 seconds. This beat the thin-and-light category average of 4:07 and the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro by over a minute. The ThinkPad T410s almost matched the MacBook's score here, though, with a time of 2:43. The MacBook handily beat the QX410 and Envy 14 in this test.
Battery indicator lights on the side of the body show how much juice you have left.
The MacBook continued to trounce its competition in our battery life test. We ran our demanding DVD rundown test, where we loop a movie until the battery dies. The battery died after 7 hours and 28 minutes. This time beats the thin-and-light-category average by more than four hours, and no other similar notebook even comes close. Apple rates the battery life at 7 hours in its online-video-streaming rundown, so it's nice for once to see a battery last even longer than a maker touts.
Ultimately, the long battery life should reduce the necessary number of recharges, which is especially good since the battery is built into the system and not user-replaceable. When you need a new battery, you have to send the whole machine off to Apple and pay $179 for a replacement cell. (Another replacement option: For the same price, if you call ahead, you can bring your MacBook Pro to an Apple Store Genius Bar and have the battery swapped out while you wait.) This is something we've never liked, but at least the battery lasts a long time on a single charge, so you probably won't feel the need to carry a second one with you.
As we mentioned, Apple chose the Intel HD Graphics 3000 chipset for this model (the others offer switchable graphics with AMD's Radeon 6750 GPU). This graphics chipset is strong enough to handle casual video editing, which is becoming more mainstream, but it doesn’t cost as much as the dedicated, high-end graphics processors in the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros. Overall video-playback performance was solid. We watched a DVD copy of The Bourne Identity; the image was crisp and clear, with no motion blur, artifacts, or antialiasing. (We would have loved to have watched a Blu-ray disc, but alas, there's no support for that.) MOV video files that we shot on our inexpensive Canon point-and-shoot camera also played back without a hitch and looked better than we expected on the 13-inch LCD.
The MacBook Pro comes bundled with the Mac OS X Snow Leopard operating system (version 10.6), accompanied by the iLife ’11 software suite (comprising iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, and GarageBand applications). The MacBook Pro also comes with an industry-standard one-year limited warranty and 90 days of toll-free telephone support. An extended AppleCare warranty will cover your system for two more years; it costs $249 extra and was not factored into the cost of our test unit.
With its latest version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple leaves what was great about its line of laptops alone while making enough improvements to its core components to give it a dramatic performance boost. For the Mac-initiated who don’t demand a big screen, you simply can’t go wrong here. For those thinking about dipping their feet in the Mac waters, $1,199 will get you a powerful, sleekly designed machine at an affordable (for Apple) price. That’s not to say there isn’t some room for improvement here, but once again, Apple takes a notebook that we already loved and makes it even better.
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