Review: The 15-in. MacBook Pro soars to new heights

Apple has made a really good laptop even better

When I reviewed Apple's prior "unibody" 15-inch MacBook Pro, I gave it high marks. For the money, there is no better-built notebook. With its rigid one-piece machined aluminum frame, glossy LED-backlit display, flat backlit keyboard, huge multitouch trackpad, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and 8X slot-loading, dual-layer DVD burner, the unibody MacBook Pro defined the state of the art in design, construction, and manufacturing.

Now Apple is building on that peerless platform with higher performance, an upgraded display, longer battery life, and a lower price.

The latest 15-in. MacBook Pro, introduced in June, costs less than the model that preceded it, and yet it puts competing commercial high-end notebooks back at the starting line. The new machine's specifications are more 64-bit-friendly in anticipation of the Snow Leopard OS, due in September, and they reflect updated offerings from Apple's component suppliers. Core 2 Duo CPU speed now tops out at 3.06GHz. Using 4GB DIMMs, the new MacBook Pro accommodates 8GB of RAM. Recent introductions of larger and faster notebook hard drives are reflected in configure-to-order options for the 15-in. model, including 7,200-rpm drives that close the notebook/desktop performance gap.

[ Mac OS X Snow Leopard is due in September. Find out what businesses can expect from Apple's new OS. ]

As you read, keep in mind that the machine I'm describing doesn't fit in the mainstream 15-inch PC notebook class, a strictly two-year service group typified by painted-on key legends, breakable tray-loading DVD drives, and slow integrated graphics. The MacBook Pro is a five-year machine, by design and by track record. If you choose to replace a 15-inch MacBook Pro in two years, you'll be able to sell it for most of what you paid for it.

A true hybrid

Much of what's new about the 15-in. MacBook Pro is inherited from Apple's supply chain, but Apple also made a few carefully targeted changes to MacBook Pro's core design. The nonremovable rechargeable battery, an idea hatched with iPod, has found its way to Apple's commercial mainstay. Apple claims that by making the battery a non-user-serviceable component, it was able to use battery technology that lasts for up to five years, a thousand charge cycles, before losing significant capacity. This claim will take five years to prove, but it is conceivable, with deep knowledge of battery characteristics burned into the notebook's intelligent charge management circuitry.

Apple claims extended battery running time, too, of up to seven hours per charge with Wi-Fi operational. As a frequent flier and worker away from my desk, this was music to my ears -- but could seven hours truly be possible on an Intel desktop replacement-grade notebook? After the MacBook Pro's first full charge, the battery gauge estimated more than 10 hours of runtime. You can't blame an untrained gauge for showing some gung-ho optimism.

A few weeks and several charge cycles later, the gauge has leveled out to a little more than seven hours per charge running a mixed productivity/Web workload, with Wi-Fi enabled. I've been able to extend that by nearly an hour with a combination of settings and habits that include a shorter disk spin-down delay and moving documents I'm currently editing to SD Card flash memory.

The move to a sealed battery -- the replacement of which requires a visit to the Apple Store -- is bound to make some unhappy, but it lowers manufacturing costs, and no competitor has been able to make hay against iPhone on the battery issue alone. The pop-open battery door was a liability on the unibody 15-inch MacBook Pro. With long running time and the (optional) ability to plug in to a cigarette lighter or plane seat power outlet, there's no reason to argue for carrying a spare battery. Besides, Apple didn't glue the MacBook Pro's case shut. If you have any business inside it, then you already have the tools.

Test Center Scorecard

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch)

Configuration (25%): 9

Usability (25%): 9

Battery Life (15%): 10

Build Quality (15%): 10

Performance (10%): 9

Value (10%): 9

Overall Score: 9.3 (excellent)

Quick, cool, and roomy

The MacBook Pro is a machine with desktop specs. The 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 1,066MHz DDR3 memory, and dual Nvidia GPUs inevitably contribute heat to the design. A plastic PC notebook with similar power would need a noisy fan just to survive. I don't have a PC notebook in this class that I can bear to share a room with, much less have in my lap. The MacBook Pro runs cool and silent the majority of the time by using its aluminum frame as a heat sink and by carefully managing power.

If you push the machine with a desktop workload by running the likes of a 3-D game, an HD video transcode, or a multithreaded compile or benchmark, it will get too hot for your unprotected lap. The problem is compounded if you're charging the battery while making high demands on the hardware. However, in everyday interactive work, the newest, fastest 15-inch MacBook Pro is also the coolest (in temperature) and quietest notebook I've used.

Bigger notebook hard drives make room for more creative configurations. In my case, I decided to divide up the new machine's 500GB disk before migrating so that I can multiboot into Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, the upcoming Snow Leopard, or Windows 7. Disk Utility in the latest release of Leopard is able to alter the internal drive's partition table nondestructively, while the boot volume is mounted. For the most part, there is no need to boot from the install DVD or use special tools to divide up your drive.

[ Are sealed-in laptop batteries a good idea? See InfoWorld's report. ]

For add-on storage and peripherals, the 15-in. MacBook Pro has two USB 2.0 ports and one 800Mbps FireWire port. Mac OS X automatically mounts any Mac HFS+, FAT, and NTFS file systems that it finds on newly attached storage devices.

New to this model is a slot for one full-sized SD or SDHC flash memory card, replacing the ExpressCard slot in preceding MacBook Pros. Those who still need ExpressCard will find it in the 17-in. MacBook Pro. SD Card for ExpressCard is a worthwhile trade, although I'd have gone for a bit more spacing between ports as well. You still can't plug two average USB devices in side by side.

Content from many digital cameras and camcorders can be accessed directly as local files without USB cables, adapters, or the need to put the device in a special PC connection mode. The cost of SD is falling as speed (expressed as "Class;" higher is better) rises. Even if you don't use the slot for multimedia, you'll find that SD is the perfect removable medium -- faster, more portable, and more reliable than optical. The point I made earlier about using SD to extend battery life bears emphasizing. In two scenarios, Office document manipulation and digital media viewing, moving files to SD let the 15-inch MacBook Pro's hard drive motor, a prime consumer of power, remain in a spun-down state much longer.

The trouble with Apple's SD slot is that some of the flash card sticks out of the notebook. You will forget the card is there, and it will catch on the lip of your bag. Even cheap cameras have sunken, spring-loaded (push to insert, push to pop out) SD card slots. Still, it is much more convenient than USB flash adapters, and Snow Leopard has a little secret that makes the SD slot even more useful.

High-fidelity everything

The MacBook Pro is a machine designed for the office and the seat-back tray, but this one model is also built for the laboratory, the recording studio, the movie set, the TV satellite truck, the helm, the OR, the theater, and other uncommon venues. Basing a volume system design on specialty requirements means that you'll see features in the MacBook Pro, like the optical digital audio I/O and 800Mbps FireWire, that are rare in other commercial notebooks and that may initially come across as overkill. However, you'll find that what seems not to matter at first becomes useful later on.

A simple conversion cable plugs the MacBook Pro's audio output directly to the Toslink input on a sound system for noise-free, multichannel digital audio playback. Unlike with other notebooks, the FireWire port drives such bus-powered peripherals as external storage devices, and the FireWire port allows the MacBook Pro itself to uniquely operate as an external hard drive. No platform is easier to deploy in large numbers than Mac clients.

Apple has stepped up audio and video. Just as the whole chassis is part of the 15-inch MacBook Pro's heat sink, I think that this new model makes use of the sealed chassis as a resonating chamber. The 15-inch MacBook Pro's sound is richer and truer to life than other notebooks. Better midrange response raises the clarity of spoken material like TV news and podcasts. Try playing some music in iTunes with the equalizer set to Bass Booster; you'll feel the beat under your palms. A plastic notebook couldn't go there with its many screws and loose seams, but the 15-inch MacBook Pro is tight as a drum.

Apple chose a new display for the 15-inch MacBook Pro. It's difficult to characterize display quality in other than subjective terms, but this time there is a genuine difference: The new display is "wide gamut," which refers to an ability to reproduce colors that don't fit in the industry-standard sRGB digitized color space. There are so many reasons to be grateful for Apple's choice. I'm able to read text clearly at minimum brightness, something the past few MacBook Pro models didn't permit, and lowering the backlight substantially lengthens battery runtime.

[ See how long your battery lasts with InfoWorld's battery life calculator. ]

Wide gamut raises the fidelity of the MacBook Pro's display. You'll see no difference when viewing content encoded for the Internet because colors outside the sRGB space (the standard default color space for the Internet) have already been stripped away to shrink files down to size, but RAW-format digital photographs, professionally scanned film and artwork, print proofs and high-quality (that is, HD) video retain more color information than the majority of computer displays can reproduce. With color-rich content and a wide-gamut display profile selected, the 15-in. MacBook Pro can show you details you've been missing. For creative professionals, this might mean freedom, at long last, from the meticulously tuned wide-gamut desktop monitor.

Color can have meaning as well, as in medical imagery, energy exploration, chemistry, and instrument panels. Expanding the range of reproducible colors means that 15-inch MacBook Pro can convey color-coded information with greater range and precision.

Built for what's next

The wide-gamut display is a fitting accessory for a machine that is due for a $30 turbocharge in September with the release of Snow Leopard. The 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M GPU in the 15-in. MacBook Pro would be a gamer gimmick on a PC notebook, but in a Mac, it's a compute co-processor. Snow Leopard will also herald the standardization of a full 64-bit client Unix platform, which speeds up everything. If you have legacy system-level code to run, you'll be able to select the 32-bit kernel at boot time without having to install a second copy of Mac OS X. Apple doesn't officially support Windows 7 on MacBook Pro, but it works for me, both in virtualization (Parallels Desktop, VMware Fusion, or Sun VirtualBox) and running natively in Boot Camp.

The 15-in. MacBook Pro is the best of the tier-one commercial notebooks, full stop. My two complaints -- that the SD card sticks out of its slot and the USB ports remain too close together -- are overshadowed by the new display, seven-hour battery, faster CPU, and the fact that there is an SD card slot. There are cheaper notebooks, but I'd challenge you to find one that's faster, quieter, and better built than MacBook Pro.

15-inch MacBook Pro

Pros: Fast and 64-bit ready: Core 2 Duo CPU up to 2.8GHz, up to 8GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 RAM. Wide-gamut, LED-backlit display expands color range for improved photo, video fidelity, and readability. Nonremovable battery rated for seven hours of running time (wireless browsing) and five years of useful life. Gaming-grade 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT discrete GPU switches with low-power chip set graphics without rebooting. Improved frequency response of on-board speakers. All advantages of prior unibody MacBook Pro carried forward.

Cons: SD card slot is friction fit and protrudes from chassis (not spring-loaded and sunken). USB sockets are too close together.

Cost: Starts at $1,699 with 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, 250GB 5,400rpm hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU with 256MB of graphics memory.

Platforms: Mac OS X 10.5.6 Leopard (included); dual-boot Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows7 with Boot Camp; other EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface)-compliant x86 operating systems depending on drivers.

Bottom Line: The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is faster, runs longer on a charge, doubles the memory capacity, and adds an SD card slot. It also has a gorgeous wide-gamut display and a lower price. In short, the quintessential commercial notebook is now even better.

Tom Yager writes InfoWorld's Mobile Edge blog.

This story, "Review: The 15-in. MacBook Pro soars to new heights" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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