Review: Apple's 15-in. MacBook Pro delivers on speed, battery life

The move to faster PCIe flash storage offers a noticeable boost in performance

The 15-in. MacBook Pro has been my go-to machine since before it was called the MacBook Pro and was known as the Powerbook; I've depended on it for everything from writing reviews like this one to cutting complex video projects. Although I've consistently given high marks to the 13-in. MacBook Pro and the latest MacBook Air, I always circle back to the 15-in. MacBook Pro.

MacBook Pro 15
For 2013, all of the changes to the MacBook Pro are under the hood. (Image: Apple)

With the introduction this fall of the updated MacBook Pro -- the news was overshadowed by the arrival of the iPad Air -- Apple's best laptop has gotten even better. That's something to keep in mind if you're in a holiday gift-giving mood or looking to upgrade after the new year.

The new models offer Intel's quad-core i7 Haswell architecture, which was designed specifically to prolong battery life without sacrificing performance. Starting at $1999, the 15-in. MacBook Pro also features PCIe-based flash storage for much faster disk read/write speeds and updated graphics (though you have to spend more now to get a discrete graphics card). While the entry-level model is $200 cheaper than its predecessors, the version with discrete graphics starts at $2,599. (This is the model I used for this review.)

In terms of looks, nothing's changed from last year. The 15-in. MacBook Pro measures 9.73 in. x 14.13 in., just .71 of an inch thick when closed and weighs 4.46 pounds. The MacBook Pro line is still crafted from aluminum, with the load-bearing frame cut from a single block. The result is a study in solid construction and clean design with a case that doesn't flex or creak under its own weight.

Also unchanged is the 15.4-in. (diagonal) LED-backlit IPS Retina display featuring pixels so densely packed that individual pixels can't be discerned at normal viewing distances. For those who stare at their laptop screen all day, take note: the LED backlighting provides even brightness across the entire display, while the IPS technology allows for viewing at different angles without any annoying colors shifts. The 2880x1800-pixel resolution means that there are more than five million pixels -- about three million more than you get on a 1080p HDTV. Text and high-resolution graphics are stunning, especially now that most third-party developers have updated their apps to take advantage of the Retina display.

For 2013, all of the big changes are inside.

The current line-up

There are two 15-in. models to choose from, both of which you can customize to a certain extent. For $1999, you get a 2.0GHz quad-core i7 (which can push to 3.2GHz when needed with Intel's Turbo Boost technology), 8GB of 1600MHz memory, 256GB of flash storage and Intel's integrated Iris Graphics. You can bump the processor to 2.3GHz (which can hit 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost) for an additional $100, or to 2.6GHz (which can reach 3.8GHz with Turbo Boost) for $300 more.

Storage on the entry-level MacBook Pro can also be upgraded to 512GB for $300 extra and to a whopping 1TB for $800. Here's where the move to PCIe flash that began with the MacBook Air reveals itself. When I reviewed the MacBook Air last summer, I found impressive performance; the benchmarked speed was nearly double that of last year's MacBook Pro.

Blackmagic Disk Speed Test
The Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app shows how fast the MacBook Pro's flash storage is for reads and writes.

I'm happy to say that the move to PCIe-based flash delivers a discernible performance jump. Benchmarks using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app show that this machine consistently hits read/write speeds of over 700 MBps. That's a big improvement over last year's average read/write speeds, which were 457MBps and 414.5MBps, respectively. The difference is noticeable even for common tasks like launching apps.

As for the built-in RAM, 8GB is fine for now, but 16GB will be better down the road. It's important to remember when you purchase a MacBook Pro that memory is fixed. What you buy is what will be in the machine for its life span. As a result, I advise getting the most memory you can afford. The $200 you'll spend for 16GB of RAM is worth it.

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