MacBook Pro A1286 (15.4-inch)

From the outside, the latest 15-inch MacBook Pro closely resembles its predecessor. It sports the same solid aluminum unibody enclosure with the indented thumb scoop for opening the lid, the same huge touchpad, and the same stiff button that makes tapping and swiping the touchpad with your fingers easier than depressing the button. The big glossy screen still has a resolution of 1440 by 900 pixels, and all ports--including the MagSafe power port, gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800, two USB ports, and separate audio-in and -out ports--are still grouped together on the left side of the case. The iSight camera is positioned in the same spot, as is the 8X SuperDrive. Nevertheless, Apple has introduced significant changes to the new model.

A new Secure Digital (SD) card slot lets you transfer files to your Mac and boot the laptop. Apple says that the MacBook Pro supports the following cards: SD (which holds 4MB to 4GB of data), SDHC (which holds 4GB to 32GB of data), microSD (with an adapter), and miniSD (with an adapter). It does not support SDXC, a new card specification that theoretically can support up to 2TB of storage; this card is not yet available on the open market, however. Users--especially photographers and videographers--who have invested in ExpressCard hardware will lament Apple's decision to eliminate the ExpressCard/34 slot. The latest 17-inch MacBook Pro retains its ExpressCard/34 slot.

For the 15-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has abandoned replaceable batteries in favor of the same battery technology that it introduced earlier this year for the 17-inch MacBook Pro--a larger, flatter, more compact, and longer-lasting lithium-polymer battery. The new battery contains a chip that monitors things like charge level and temperature, and communicates this information to the computer. According to Apple, the technology's ability to determine and maintain the optimal charging currentenables the new battery to survive 1000 charges, or approximately five years, before reaching 80 percent of original capacity; conventional rechargeables have a typical lifespan of 300 recharges. In the Macworld Lab's tests of battery life, the new battery held out for ran an average of 4 hours.

The new model's glossy screen is better than ever, offering 60 percent greater color gamut (the range of colors that a device can display) than earlier MacBook Pros. The display uses LED (light-emitting diode) backlight technology for better on-screen color accuracy, too. On the other hand, Apple still doesn't offer a matte screen option. In a side-by-side comparison using new and previous-generation MacBook Pro laptops, we observed fairly significant differences in the rendering a color photo test image--in particular, heightened intensity in the red and green spectra. Similarly, Apple's Color Sync utility detected an expanded range of visible color in the red and green areas. The blues stayed about the same.

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is available in three processor speeds: 2.53GHz, 2.66GHz, and 2.83GHz. Each comes configured with DDR3 SDRAM (as compared with the MacBook's DDR2 memory), and 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM, upgradable to 8GB. The specs of the least-powerful (2.53GHz) version closely resemble those of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro and of the white 2.13GHz MacBook; in particular it carries a single nVidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chip, whereas the 2.66GHz and 2.83GHz versions combine the 9400M chip and a discrete nVidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip.

Overall, the three versions of the 15-inch MacBook Pro produced fairly similar overall performance, as the 2.83GHz unit outpaced the 2.53GHz unit by just 9.7 percent. In Macworld's Quake 4 test, however, the high-end version's frame rate was more than twice that of the low-end version, and more than 10 percent better than the midlevel 2.66GHz version's. Similarly in Macworld's Call of Duty 4 test, the high-end unit more than doubled the low-end unit's frame rate, but this time matched the midlevel unit's frame rate--even though the high-end 15-incher has twice as much video RAM as the the midlevel version. Because we haven't yet run any of the three new 15-inch MacBook Pro units through the PC World Test Center's WorldBench 6 benchmark suite, we can't deliver a final verdict on performance.

Prices for the new 15-inch MacBook Pro have dropped substantially. At $1699, the latest 2.53GHz version is $800 cheaper than the older 2.53GHz model released in October 2008, though the newer version lacks the its predecessor's 9600M GT graphics chip. And at $1999, the newer 2.66GHz MacBook Pro (with dual graphics setup) costs $500 less than the older 2.66GHz MacBook Pro released in March 2009; however, the newer version has half the amount of video memory that the older version had. The new top-of-the-line 2.8GHz unit with a 500GB hard drive goes for $2299, as opposed to the previous high-end model with a 2.66GHz CPU and a 320GB hard drive, which sold for $2499.

The new 2.53GHz and 2.66GHz versions come with 3MB of shared L2 cache, while the 2.8GHz model ships with 6MB of shared L2 cache. All models retain the 1066MHz frontside bus and built-in AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi with 3-mbps Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. The standard Serial ATA 5400-rpm hard drives for the 2.53GHz, 2.66GHz, and 2.83GHz versions offer 250GB, 320GB, and 500GB of storage space, respectively. The 2.66GHz MacBook Pro has 256MB of video RAM for its nVidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip, while the 2.8GHz version has 512MB for the same chip.

All of the new 15-inchers have more expansion room than their predecessors did, plus such new build-to-order options as a 3.06GHz processor; a maximum of 8GB of RAM; a 500GB 7200-rpm hard drive; and a 256GB solid-state drive.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro sports a faster processor in its high-end version, higher RAM capacity, a larger solid-state drive option, a longer-life battery, an improved display, and an SD memory-card slot--all at a lower price.

This story, "MacBook Pro A1286 (15.4-inch)" was originally published by PCWorld.

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