Hands-on: The new multitouch MacBook Pro

If you like the iPhone's touch screen, you'll like this laptop's trackpad

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The same great design

Although I've been a fan of the 17-in. MacBook Pros -- and before them, the PowerBooks -- most Mac laptop users I know like the size and portability of the 15-in. models. If that's you, you'll be happy to know that the latest batch of MacBook Pros are largely unchanged.

I was afraid after reviewing the new MacBook Air that Apple would move its pro line to the black keyboard prominent in the Air. This design works, sort of, in the slim, trim Air, but it would cheapen the look of the MacBook Pro. Apple, thankfully, heard my silent plea and stayed with the same style as the previous models -- and as before, the keyboard is illuminated in dimly lit areas.

As always, even the base MacBook Pro comes full featured, offering two FireWire ports (one of them FireWire 800) and two USB 2.0 ports, a built-in iSight Webcam, a super-sharp LCD, 802.11n Wi-Fi access, Bluetooth for easy pairing with wireless accessories and phones, and a DVI port for connecting to external monitors. Unlike the MacBook Air, the 15-in. model also offers an ExpressCard/34 slot. There's probably a kitchen sink inside, too.

Multitouch makes the difference

What sets the new MacBook Pros apart from their predecessors is the trackpad. Apple is understandably proud of this new feature, which mimics the finger gestures used to navigate around its popular iPhone. It was introduced with the MacBook Air, but it's not included in the new MacBook models also unveiled last month. I expect this feature to work its way down the food chain, so look for it in the next generation of MacBooks.

Multitouch allows you do a variety of things, depending on which app you're working with. In fact, Apple has included an interactive system preference pane to show you exactly which motion performs what task. If you're not used to pinching, twirling and swiping, you should definitely check it out first. Under System Preferences, go to Keyboard & Mouse and click on the tab that says Trackpad.

If you're surfing the Web with Safari, you can swipe back and forth between pages using three fingers. No more scrolling around to the back and forward buttons in the Safari toolbar, no more need for the Command-Arrow key combo. You can use the pinch motion to decrease the font size of Web pages, or a reverse pinch to make text size larger. It's elegant in its simplicity and implementation, and it quickly becomes second nature with regular use -- so much so that I keep trying to swipe between pages on my older 17-in. MacBook Pro. No dice.

Multitouch is even more useful in programs like Apple's iPhoto app. Here you can scroll around photos when you're editing or viewing them and rotate them using two fingers. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you're comfortable rotating, swiping and pinching, you won't want to go back to clicking and mousing to accomplish the same tasks. The same gestures are available in the latest version of Apple's Aperture 2 app, and my guess is we'll see them show up in more programs in the months ahead.

Already developers are coming up with ways to extend multitouch features. One of these you might consider trying is called MultiClutch. This little app, still in beta, installs an input manager that basically translates keyboard commands into common multitouch gestures for different applications. It is a beta, but users haven't reported any major problems with it. So if you have one of the new MacBook Pros, or a MacBook Air, and you're looking to extend the multitouch gestures available, it's worth checking out.

Unlike the larger trackpad in the MacBook Air, the trackpads in the new MacBook Pros are unchanged in size. No doubt, Apple didn't want to revamp the case by adding a larger trackpad, but it makes sense to do so, given the new multitouch capabilities offered. A bigger trackpad offers more room to pinch, twirl and swipe.

A jump in performance

Multitouch aside, you're more likely to be considering one of these new notebooks if you're using one of the first-generation MacBook Pros, or an even older PowerBook. In that case, you're in for a serious speed boost. That's in large part because of Apple's 2006 shift from PowerPC processors to Intel chips -- the jump from PowerPC to Intel represented a much larger speed jump than the move from Core Duo to Core 2 Duo chips, though the improvement is still noticeable.

I don't have an older MacBook Pro or PowerBook to test this unit against, but the speed numbers put together by Apple should give you an idea of the difference. Using Photoshop CS3 to apply 45 common filters to a 120MB file, the new MacBook Pro is more than three times faster than the last generation PowerBook with a 1.67-GHz G4 chip; and it's 50% faster than performing the same task on a MacBook Pro with a 2.16-GHz Core Duo processor. As always, your mileage may vary.

As for the new Penryn processors in the new models, they're manufactured using the 45nm process, meaning they should run a little cooler than their predecessors and squeeze out a bit more battery life. They also offer differing levels of Level 2 cache memory, which can offer a small speed boost. The 2.4-GHz chip has 3MB of Level 2 cache; the faster chips have 6MB of Level 2 cache.

I noted little difference in the performance of the new models and my last-generation MacBook Pro. I also never once heard the fans come on during routine use or even when pushing the processor with some heavy Photoshop use. Battery life was on par with previous models.

With its latest revision to the MacBook Pro line, Apple has taken what was already a solid laptop and added a few new tricks that should keep buyers coming back for more. No one who's bought a MacBook Pro in the last year should feel any buyer's remorse; their laptops stack up fine against the new generation. But anyone with a MacBook Pro that dates back to 2006, or who's still clinging to a PowerBook, would do well to check out the latest Apple has to offer -- especially because the multitouch features could come in handy in a pinch.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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