Review: 2009 Apple MacBook Pros


June 2009 MacBook Pros
by Charles W. Moore

I didn’t think they would, but they did. Apple of course couldn’t have helped hearing the crescendo of dismay over their decision to not include a FireWire port in the 13 inch aluminum MacBook released last October, but I was highly skeptical that they would take positive remedial action.

However, they just did, as part of one of the most substantial value-added Apple laptop product revisions I can recall, the closest analog perhaps being the “PDQ” makeover of the then just four-month-old WallStreet G3 Series PowerBook line in September, 1998.

I’m referring of course to the MacBook Pro family revisions announced in the Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on Monday, in which the erstwhile 13 inch aluminum MacBook was transformed into the 13 inch MacBook Pro, gaining some processor speed, a FireWire port, a SD Card slot, and on the base model an illuminated keyboard in the process. Oh yes; they also get a new, non–swappable battery that Apple claims can produce provide up to seven hours runtime between charges — all at a price $100 cheaper for the base model than with the previous generation.

Pretty solid across the board, although I remain skeptical about the whole concept of non–removable (in normal use) batteries, preferring to be able to carry a spare or two even if I’m getting shorter runtimes on a charge. Having just purchased a 2.0 GHz unibody MacBook back in February, that point helps mitigate the sting of having my pride and joy of just four months’ standing rendered obsolete, I suppose much as folks who bought the first G3 Series “MainStreet” PowerBooks back in ‘98 felt when the 233 MHz “PDQ” arrived with the 512k of Level 2 cache that had been missing on the MainStreet.

Not that I’m experiencing a severe case of buyer’s remorse. I’ve been extremely pleased with the little MacBook, which is a feast for the eyes, a sensual pleasure to handle, and has been completely reliable and trouble-free so far. Still, I’m second- guessing myself a bit over whether had I known that FireWire would be restored in June, I would have soldiered along with my old G4 PowerBook for another four months. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

There’s also the cachet of the MacBook Pro name, which makes logical sense, and would have had it been applied to the original 13 inch aluminum unibody machine from the get-go, but better late than never. The 13 inch MacBook Pro is now officially the successor to the late, lamented, 12 inch G4 PowerBook, although not everyone agrees.

There is a precedent for Apple adding an I/O connectivity feature that should have been included from the start. In July, 1999, the original clamshell iBook was announced, equipped with just a single, lonely USB 1.1 port and no FireWire — one of Apple’s too-frequent exercises in port-stinginess that was immediately panned by critics and continued to draw fire. It wasn’t as radical an omission at the time as leaving FireWire off the aluminum MacBook was, since it would be another seven months before even Apple’s professional-grade PowerBooks got FireWire support (although pre-FW PowerBooks had SCSI ports), but it meant that the iBook had no high-speed or even medium-speed data transfer interface other than 10/100 Ethernet.

Anyway, 14 months later the third (and last) revision of the clamshell iBook finally did get a FireWire port, making it the most desirable of the series by a considerable margin.

It’s been a while since Apple did a major note notebook announcement at The Worldwide Developers Conference — the last ones being, if memory serves, the WallStreet and Lombard G3 Series PowerBook releases at WWDC 1998 and 99 respectively, and while the 13 inch MacBook Pro got the lion’s share of attention this time, the rest of the line wasn’t forgotten.

Also altering the landscape and value equation is a hefty $300 price cut for the entry-level 15 inch MacBook Pro, although the specification in that case has been downgraded rather than upgraded in contrast to the low -end 13-incher’s price cut. You can now get a 15 inch MacBook Pro for $1699, but it loses the previous entry-level 15-incher’s GeForce 9600 discrete graphics processing unit with dedicated video RAM, and its express card slot, making it essentially a clone of the $1499, 2.53 GHz high-end 13 inch MacBook Pro specification-wise, along with the larger display — more or less filling a the slot in the Mac notebook family vacated by the 14 inch iBook three years ago.

In greater technical detail, The aluminum unibody MacBook Pro line now includes 13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch models, all featuring Apple’s built-in battery that was introduced with the first revision 17” MacBook Pro in March, claimed to provide up to 40 percent longer battery life. Personally, that’s the one new specification unveiled yesterday that I’m not enthusiastic about, and its having a swappable battery helps mitigate any dissatisfaction I’ll have with my unibody MacBook.

All MacBook Pro models come with LED-backlit displays, Apple’s glass Multi-Touch trackpad, illuminated keyboards (the base 2.0 unibody MacBook didn’t have that), either an SD Card or on the 17” model an ExpressCard slot, a FireWire 800 port and NVIDIA graphics. Some fans are not enchanted with the substitution of the SD Card slot for the ExpressCard 34 slot in the first-generation unibody and all previous 15” MacBooks, but according to Apple’s Phil Schiller at WWDC, only 10 percent of MacBook Pro owners actually used the ExperessCard slot, and if one is required it’s still available on the 17” model. I expect more users will find the SD Card slots useful. If you're a digital audio fan, note that on the 13" model Apple made room for the SD card slot and FireWire 800 port partly by dispensing with the 13" MacBook's a digital audio input port, and the new 13" MacBook Pro now uses the same integrated mic and headphone port as the iPhone.

The 15” MacBook Pros come in 2.53, 2.66, and 2.8 GHz clock speed configurations and Mac laptops finally break the 3 GHz threshold with an optional 3.06 GHz CPU available for $300 extra on the 15” and 17” models — the fasted Mac notebooks ever. All MacBook Pros can support up to 8GB of RAM, and hard drives of up to 500 GB or solid state drives of up to a 256GB available.

The price of the base 13” machine has been dropped to $1,199, which should make it an almost irresistible bargain, and far and away the most Mac for the money Apple has ever offered in a laptop. The price of the low-end 15” MacBook Pro has been cut a whopping $300, as has the 17” model’s price, although the percentage is greater with the 15” unit and every MacBook Pro achieves EPEAT Gold status and meets Energy Star 5.0 requirements.

The built-in battery of the new 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro models are claimed to have enough capacity to use up to seven hours between recharges without adding thickness, weight or cost. Using the Adaptive Charging and advanced chemistry first introduced with the 17-inch MacBook Pro earlier this year, the built-in battery delivers up to 1,000 recharges before it diminishes to 80 percent of its original capacity - nearly three times the lifespan of conventional batteries according to Apple.

The biggest changes are to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which retains the form factor of the original aluminum MacBook it replaces (and it’s a honey), but adds the built-in battery, SD card slot, a FireWire 800 port, an illuminated keyboard and the improved LED-backlit display with 60 percent greater color gamut (this latter has reportedly been quietly shipping in unibody MacBooks since about April). Graphics support is the fast NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor unit, and two models of the 13-inch MacBook Pro are available: one with a 2.26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive priced at $1,199, and another with a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive priced at $1,499. As I noted, I’m not sure I see $400 bucks worth of extra value in a quarter-gig more clock speed, 2 GB of RAM, and 90 MB of HD capacity, especially now that the base model gets the backlit keyboard and all the other cool goodies.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro also gives you the seven hour built-in battery, an SD card slot, the improved LED-backlit display with 60 percent greater color gamut and 4GB of RAM across the line starting at $1,699, for the base unit of three models: a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 250GB hard drive and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics for a new entry price of $1,699; a 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 320GB hard drive, and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and 9600M GT graphics for $1,999; and a 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 500GB hard drive, and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and 9600M GT graphics for $2,299. The $1,699 15-inch price leader has basically the same spec as the $1,499 13” model, only with a bigger screen for your extra $200, although I imagine many folks will consider that a decent value and I predict the $1,699 MacBook Pro will be a hot-seller.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro, with just three months having elapsed since it was unveiled, gets the most modest refresh, with the eight hour built-in battery, an ExpressCard slot, LED-backlit display, 4GB of RAM and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and 9600M GT graphics carried over, and the only spec. changes being a speed bump to a standard 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a larger capacity 500GB hard drive, and a $300 price cut to $2,499.

All MacBook Pro systems feature Apple’s advanced and seductive aluminum unibody construction and all MacBook Pro systems include a next generation industry-standard Mini DisplayPort to connect with the 24-inch Apple LED Cinema Display.

The MacBook Air, which has been getting more than a little long-in-the-tooth with vary little change since its unveiling 18 months ago, got some attention yesterday too, with an entry-level price cut to $1,499 for the 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 120GB hard drive and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, and the 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system with a 128GB solid state drive and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics now goes out the door for the previous base price of $1,799.

All MacBook Pros ship with Apple’s iLife ‘09 software suite that includes iPhoto for managing photos, iMovie for making movies and GarageBand for creating and learning to play music. The first units will come with Mac OS X 10.5.7, and the next conundrum facing prospective purchasers would be whether to wait for the release of OS 10.6 Snow Leopard in September or make their move now, except that Apple has announced that any new Mac system purchased without Snow Leopard from Apple or an Apple Authorized Reseller between June 8, 2009 and the end of the program on December 26, 2009, will be eligible for the Mac OS X Snow Leopard Up-To-Date upgrade package free except for a shipping and handling fee of $9.95 (US). Users must request their Up-To-Date upgrade within 90 days of purchase or by December 26, 2009, or whichever comes first.

Availability of a 15 inch model at $1,699 would complicate for me the question of what to buy were I in the market right now. I’m partial to small computers, and I’ve always considered the 13 inch model to be the glamour-puss of the unibodies, but I’ve found that I also do miss the wide open spaces of the 17 inch display in my PowerBook G4 that was my workhorse for three years now that I’m using the MacBook with its 1,280x800 resolution display for production. The 15 inch MacBook Pro has the same 1440 X. 900 screen resolution as my old 1.33 GHz PowerBook did, and which I would find attractive.

On the other hand, I’ve never thought that the high-end 13 inch MacBooks — either the older black polycarbonate models or the unibodies, represented commensurate value-added for the amount they cost extra, so it’s a conundrum, and I would probably still opt for a 13-incher, but the base 2.26 GHz model, especially now that these new MacBook Pro 13 inch machines (and reportedly the last batches of the 13 inch MacBooks as well), have an upgraded display screen 60 percent greater color gamut.

You really can’t go very far wrong buying any of these new MacBook Pros, which represent the most value for the money Apple has ever packed into laptop computers ever.

Appendix - MacBook Pro and Air Mid-2009 Configurations

The 2.26 GHz, 13-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $1,199 (US), includes:
13.3-inch widescreen LED-backlit 1280 x 800 glossy display;
2.26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 3MB shared L2 cache;
1066 MHz front-side bus;
2GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, expandable to 8GB;
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
160GB serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor; a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive;
Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
built-in AirPort Extreme
802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
Gigabit Ethernet port;
built-in iSight video camera;
two USB 2.0 ports;
one FireWire 800 port (FireWire 400 compatible);
SD card slot;
one audio line in/out port, supporting both optical digital and analog;
glass Multi-Touch trackpad and illuminated keyboard; built-in,
58WHr lithium polymer battery;
60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.53 GHz, 13-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $1,499 (US), includes:
13.3-inch widescreen LED-backlit 1280 x 800 glossy display;
2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 3MB shared L2 cache;
1066 MHz front-side bus;
4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM,
expandable to 8GB;
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
250GB serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive;
Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
Gigabit Ethernet port;
built-in iSight video camera;
two USB 2.0 ports;
one FireWire 800 port (FireWire 400 compatible);
SD card slot;
one audio line in/out port, supporting both optical digital and analog;
glass Multi-Touch trackpad and illuminated keyboard;
built-in, 58WHr lithium polymer battery;
60 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

Build-to-order options for the MacBook Pro include the ability to upgrade to 8GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, a 250GB 5400 rpm, 320GB 5400 rpm or 500GB 5400 rpm hard drive, a 128GB or 256GB solid state drive, Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter, Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (for 30-inch DVI display), Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter, Apple Remote, Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter and the AppleCare Protection Plan.

The 2.53 GHz, 15-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $1,699 (US), includes:
15.4-inch widescreen LED-backlit 1440 x 900 glossy display;
2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 3MB shared L2 cache;
1066 MHz front-side bus;
4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, expandable to 8GB;
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
250GB serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive;
Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
Gigabit Ethernet port;
built-in iSight video camera;
two USB 2.0 ports;
one FireWire 800 port;
SD card slot;
one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
glass Multi-Touch trackpad and illuminated keyboard;
built-in, 73WHr lithium polymer battery;
Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.66 GHz, 15-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $1,999 (US), includes:
15.4-inch widescreen LED-backlit 1440 x 900 glossy display;
2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 3MB shared L2 cache;
1066 MHz front-side bus;
4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, expandable to 8GB;
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics with 256MB GDDR3 video memory;
320GB serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive; Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
Gigabit Ethernet port;
built-in iSight video camera;
two USB 2.0 ports;
one FireWire 800 port;
SD card slot;
one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
glass Multi-Touch trackpad and illuminated keyboard; built-in,
73WHr lithium polymer battery;
85 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

The 2.8 GHz, 15-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $2,299 (US), includes:
15.4-inch widescreen LED-backlit 1440 x 900 glossy display;
2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 6MB shared L2 cache;
1066 MHz front-side bus;
4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, expandable to 8GB;
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics with 512MB GDDR3 video memory;
500GB serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive; Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR; Gigabit Ethernet port;
built-in iSight video camera;
two USB 2.0 ports;
one FireWire 800 port;
SD card slot;
one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog; glass Multi-Touch trackpad and illuminated keyboard; built-in, 73WHr lithium polymer battery;
85 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

Build-to-order options for the 15-inch MacBook Pro include a 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, the ability to upgrade to 8GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, a 320GB 5400 rpm, 320GB 7200 rpm, 500GB 5400 rpm, or 500GB 7200 rpm hard drive, a 128GB or 256GB solid state drive, Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter, Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (for 30-inch DVI display), Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter, Apple Remote, Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter and the AppleCare Protection Plan.

The 2.8 GHz, 17-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $2,499 (US), includes:
17-inch widescreen LED-backlit 1920 x 1200, glossy display;
2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 6MB shared L2 cache;
1066 MHz front-side bus;
4GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, expandable to 8GB;
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics;
NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics with 512MB GDDR3 video memory;
500GB serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) optical drive; Mini DisplayPort for video output (adapters sold separately);
built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR;
Gigabit Ethernet port;
built-in iSight video camera;
three USB 2.0 ports;
one FireWire 800 port (FireWire 400 compatible);
ExpressCard/34 expansion card slot;
one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog; glass Multi-Touch trackpad and illuminated keyboard; built-in,
95WHr lithium polymer battery;
85 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter.

Build-to-order options for the 17-inch MacBook Pro include a 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 8GB 1066 MHz DDR 3 memory, 500GB 7200 rpm hard drive, a 128GB or 256GB solid state drive, anti-glare display for $50 (US), Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter, Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (for 30-inch DVI display), Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter, Apple Remote, Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter and the AppleCare Protection Plan.

*EPEAT is an independent organization that helps customers compare the environmental performance of notebooks and desktops. Products meeting all of the 23 required criteria and at least 75 percent of the optional criteria are recognized as EPEAT Gold products. The EPEAT program was conceived by the US EPA and is based on IEEE 1680 standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products. For more information visit:
http://www.epeat.net

**A properly maintained MacBook Pro battery is designed to retain 80 percent or more of its original capacity during a lifespan of up to 1,000 recharge cycles. Battery life and charge cycles vary by use and settings.