Hands on: The new Macbook Pro 17 'a hunk of dual-core goodness'

This could very well be my favorite Apple laptop ever

It can rightfully be said that I am an Apple laptop fan. Going back to the late 1990s, I've had a plethora of PowerBooks, including a G3-based Wallstreet, several TiBooks -- so named for their Titanium exteriors -- and almost every iteration of the aluminum-clad PowerBook line. Since I like 'em big, at one time or another I've had all but one of the 17-in. PowerBook G4s.

The missing model? That would be the last 17-in. PowerBook G4 released in October. By then, I figured I'd wait for something with an Intel chip -- even if it meant waiting a year.

My, how time flies. It's been only about seven months, and already the best laptop Apple Computer Inc. has ever churned out is sitting right here in front of me. The newest MacBook Pro models, unveiled late last month, are now arriving in owners' hands. This one came courtesy of Apple, ostensibly for review purposes but obviously designed to tempt anyone who uses it into plunking down a credit card -- no doubt, the one with the rounded edges -- and heading home with a hunk of dual-core goodness.

"That's the smallest 17-in. laptop I've ever seen," said online editorial director Scot Finnie when he spied the new MacBook Pro sitting on my desk. (No sooner had I taken a break than Finnie had taken the MacBook to his own office for a quick once-over. Yes, he's a Windows guy, but he hears the same siren song I do and will be putting this MacBook Pro through his own round of tests later this month.) But for now, it's mine.

Let's see: Stellar design? Check.

Speedy Intel Core Duo processor? Double check.

Bright, sharp screen? Oh yes.

Mac OS X? Of course.

Windows XP? As a matter of fact, yes -- thanks to a virtualization program called Parallels and my own copy of Windows.

(Editor's update: Apple's own Boot Camp software works, too, but the Mac drivers used for XP on these machines need to be updated to take advantage of the native screen resolution. While XP works fine, the resolution is stretched. XP works fine using Parallels.)

Built-in iSight webcam? Dual-layer 8x SuperDrive? New TrackPad function? Yes, yes and yes. Throw in an extra gig of RAM for 2GB total, a 7,200-rpm 100GB hard drive, standard 802.11g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and you've got about as portable a desktop as can be found these days. And it's the most stylish, bar none.

Price of admission? $2,799, although it'll cost you more if you add to the MacBook Pro's standard 1GB of RAM. (You should do that -- but save some money and buy your memory somewhere other than at Apple.)

"It's a great system," Todd Benjamin, director of marketing for portables at Apple, said in an interview today. "The 17-in. MacBook Pro was heavily anticipated by our user base. The week of our introduction, it was a big hit, not just for video but for photography and audio as well. We wanted to give our professional user base everything they want and more."

In other words, this Mac is designed for users who rely on programs like Aperture, Logic Pro or Motion and who want a fast machine with a high-resolution screen and the video RAM firepower they need. Or for people like me.

The 17-in. model weighs in at 6.8 lb., is 1-in. thick and comes with the Intel Core Duo 2.16-GHz processor -- the same chip available as an option on the 15.4-in. MacBook Pro. It also comes with the same 256MB of video RAM, courtesy of the stock ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 video card, driving a 1,680-by-1,050-pixel screen.

According to Benjamin, the screen matches the brightness of the super-sharp 15.4-in. model -- meaning it's the brightest screen yet in an Apple 17-in. laptop. "The brightness has been increased over the previous [17-in. PowerBook]," he said. "You're going to notice the change."

He's right. The 17-in. model, like the 15.4-in. MacBook Pro I picked up last month, is so bright that in any but the brightest environments you'll likely want to turn down the screen at least a couple of notches.

Buyer's alert: With the introduction of this MacBook Pro, Apple has done something unusual with pricing. As noted earlier, the 17-in. model goes for $2,799. The 15.4-in. version is available as a build-to-order model with the same specs for $100 more. Is Apple trying to secretly steer users to its biggest model by making it cheaper?

No, said Benjamin.

"All I can say is that sometimes those models do cross over a bit [in terms of price]," he said. "If someone sees the 17-in. model and likes it, or prefers the 15-in., just buy the one you like."

The new model runs a unique version of Mac OS X 10.4.6 (Build No. 8I2032) that offers a first-of-its-kind feature on Apple laptops: The ability to tap the TrackPad and call up the Windows equivalent of a right-click. The software takes advantage of Apple's two-finger scrolling technology. Want a right-click? Use two fingers to tap the TrackPad and a contextual menu -- or a right-click function -- pops up.

Apple added the feature based on user interest that followed last year's introduction of the dual-button Mighty Mouse. "People have been asking for additional input capabilities," Benjamin said. "So some of that is trickling into other models."

Does that mean the two-finger tap function will eventually migrate to other Apple laptops? Benjamin, following Apple's custom, said he couldn't comment on future plans. But he acknowledged that, logically, it wouldn't make sense to restrict a useful software feature to just one model.

So how does the 17-in. MacBook Pro work? Let's put it this way: If you like the old PowerBook G4, you'll love this one. It's faster, a tenth of a pound a lighter, just as slim, and comes with more features. Build quality is outstanding, and unlike some of the first 15-in. MacBook Pros to hit the street, there are no untoward whines, squeals or moos. (Yes, some people said their 15-in. MacBook Pro seemed to make a quiet mooing sound.)

With my history regarding 17-in. models, it's a given I want one of my own. In fact, even before the review model arrived from Apple, I'd already ordered my own. Ironically, it shipped early and arrived today. As far as I can tell, both models are flawless -- as speedy as my "old" MacBook Pro and not quite as warm when running. (No doubt having extra space for the hardware in the larger chassis helps dissipate heat.)

The forecast this weekend calls for rain here. Looks like I'm going to have to spend the weekend indoors with my new MacBook Pro.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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