MacBook Pro Review (late-'08)



15" MacBook Pro (Late 2008) & 17" MacBook Pro (Jan 2009)
by Charles W. Moore

15" MacBook Pro:

There was such a head of anticipation built up over the new Apple consumer and professional notebooks, that it was going to be very difficult for the reality to live up to expectations, and the sober fact is that it fell somewhat short - to use a seasonably topical analogy - a solid triple, but no home run.

That said, no one turns their nose up at triple base hits, and the new MacBook and MacBook Pro are a strong enough showing to be a game-winner for Apple and also to shake up the dynamic of choice among the various models offered, at least they have for me.

I have been holding off making a decision about what my next Apple laptop system will be until I saw what Apple brought forth, and yesterday’s announcements have given me a lot to chew over, since there is still no slam-dunk obvious choice to fill my particular mixture of needs and tastes.

I guess my biggest letdown, especially after all the speculation about an $800 or $900 entry-level, was that Apple hung tough with price points, with the top of the MacBook line now actually $100 more expensive than its outgoing predecessor. Apple has dropped below the $1,000 threshold, by a margin of one whole dollar, but that only returns them to a price point occupied before by the 12” dual-USB iBook, and filled it by recycling and mildly upgrading the previous price-leader 2.1 GHz MacBook with a 120 GB 5400 RPM hard drive and a slot-load 8X SuperDrive in place of the erstwhile combo drive, while knocking 100 bucks off its price. No disrespect to the 2.1 GHz MacBook, which is a very good notebook and a more than decent value at $999, especially with the specification enhancements, but it’s just not very exciting.

As for the new 13” MacBook and 15” MacBook Pro, they do happily have an excitement factor in play, but it’s not in the price department, with the 15” Pro model at exactly the same price levels as the previous models.

The most dramatic change is with the MacBook, which now shares the all-metal enclosure motif with the MacBook Pro, and to some degree is arguably the replacement for the much-loved 12” PowerBook that the MacBook Air wasn’t. While the MacBook’s footprint is still larger than the baby PowerBook’s was, but otherwise it compares very favorably, actually weighing in at a tenth of a pound lighter, measuring nearly a quarter inch thinner, albeit slightly deeper and substantially wider. It’s certainly small, light, and trim enough to stop my griping about no 12” PowerBook successor.

Here are the respective spec. numbers:

13” MacBook Size And Weight
• Height: 0.95 inch (2.41 cm)
• Width: 12.78 inches (32.5 cm)
• Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)
• Weight: 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg)1

12” Aluminum PowerBook Size And Weight
• Height:1.18 inches (3.0 cm)
• Width:10.9 inches (27.7 cm)
• Depth:8.6 inches (21.9 cm)
• Weight:4.6 pounds (2.1 kg) with battery and optical drive installed

Speaking of optical drives, the new MacBook and MacBook Pro still have internal slot-loading ones, belying some speculation that they would go with an external optical drive a la the MacBook Air. I’m happy that didn’t happen. I’m also happy that Apple in general resisted going too extreme (viz. the MacBook Air ) with the razor-thin bit. I think the new ‘Books are quite handsome without compromising functionality too drastically.

What has gone missing from both models is the FireWire 400 port, although the MacBook Pro still has a FireWire 800 port that can support FireWire 400 via an adapter.

Gone from the MacBook Pro is a full size DVI video port, which has been displaced by a Mini DisplayPort which requires optional adapter dongles.

All the new models get a 1,066 MHz front-side bus, and all come standard with 2GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM that is expandable to 4GB. Big news for the MacBook is that while it still has integrated graphics support, but it’s the brand new NVIDIA GeForce 9400M chipset rather than the pedestrian Intel GMA X3100 chipset used in the previous MacBooks. NVIDIA’s 9400M is an 3D integrated graphics processor featuring 16 parallel processing cores and delivering up to five times the 3D graphics performance as the GMA chipsets used previous MacBook and MacBook Air models. The new MacBook family will be the first notebook to use NVIDIA’s 9400M graphics processor, which is expected to have sufficient power to run many 3D games that don’t support older integrated graphics technologies. In addition to the 9400M integrated graphics, the MacBook Pro models also get a NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics card with either 256MB or 512 MB GDDR3 video memory.

As had been widely rumored over the past month or so, the new notebooks’ enclosures are made using a revolutionary new manufacturing process in which they are milled from a solid block of extruded aluminum using CNC or “computer numerical control” machines pioneered by the aerospace industry. All material left over from the milling is recycled. Appleinsider has a detailed description of the process with photos here. http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/10/14/apple_details_new_macbook_manufacturing_process.html

“Traditionally notebooks are made from multiple parts. With the new MacBook, we’ve replaced all of those parts with just one part - the unibody,” says Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of Industrial Design. “The MacBook’s unibody enclosure is made from a single block of aluminum, making the new MacBook fundamentally thinner, stronger and more robust with a fit and finish that we’ve never even dreamed of before.”

This results in a very strong and rigid monocoque or as Mr. Ive said “unibody” enclosure which should prove admirably rugged and have a very substantial “feel” as well despite being thinner and lighter than the machines these new ones are replacing.

Engineering-wise, the other revolutionary advance with these new machines is their new large glass Multi-Touch trackpads that offer almost 40 percent more tracking area and support more Multi-Touch gestures. The entire trackpad surface is also a button, allowing users to both track and click virtually anywhere on the trackpad, and also Apple says easily enable multiple virtual buttons in software, such as right-clicking.

The new ‘Books get mercury-free LED display backlights that use up to 30 percent less energy than the Cold Cathode Fluorescent tube backlights used in the previous model MacBooks (the 15” MacBook Pro has had LED backlighting since June, 2006), and the displays are made with arsenic-free glass. The displays themselves are the same size and resolution as their outgoing antecedents - 13’3” and 1280 x 800 for the MacBook, and 15.4-inch 1440 x 900 for the MacBook Pro. Both sizes of displays have a glossy finish, behind glass no less.

Apple is also touting the new MacBooks as the most environmentally friendly notebooks ever - all models rating EPEAT Gold status. Products meeting all of 23 required criteria and at least 75 percent of 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. Each MacBook unibody enclosure is made of highly recyclable aluminum and comes standard with energy efficient LED-backlit displays that are mercury-free and made with arsenic-free glass. The new MacBook family meets stringent Energy Star 4.0 requirements, contains no brominated flame retardants and uses internal cables and components that are PVC-free.

As I noted above, the new 13” MacBook is now a legitimate successor to the erstwhile 12” PowerBook, and essentially the new compact MacBook Pro in everything but name. There are still a few important distinctions - notably the unavailability of the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics accelerator with dedicated VRAM on the smaller unit, and the lack of an ExpressCard 34 slot and the FireWire port. But then, the 12” PowerBook had no PS CardBus slot and had lower powered graphics than the larger aluminum PowerBooks did.

In terms of processor clock speeds, no big whoop there. The base MacBook actually drops 100 MHz from the previous entry-level model, and the high-end model stays at 2.4 GHz as does the lower-priced MacBook Pro. The high-end 15” MacBook Pro gets a 2.53 GHz processor - all presumably the latest Intel Penryn family Core 2 Duo chips. However, all but the 2.53 GHz unit get 3 MB of shared L2 cache and the latter gets 6MB of shared L2 cache.

Standard hard drive capacities range from 160 GB and 5400 RPM for the $1299 MacBook to 320GB (also 5400 RPM) for the 2.53 GHz MacBook Pro. All the new models (as well as the mildly updated 17” MacBook Pro) are also available with an optional 128 GB solid state drive.

As for the other Apple notebook models, aside from the aforementioned price-leader old school MacBook holdover, the MacBook Air has received an expected, and some would contend overdue, refreshment - updated Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs with 6MB shared L2 cache, a 1066 MHz front-side bus, the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics; the hard drive model is bumped from a marginally-adequate 80 GB to 120 GB and the solid state drive model’s capacity is doubled from 64 GB to 128 GB. Prices remain the same.

For me, I now have some serious thinking to do. The $1,299 MacBook is looking like the sweet spot for value if one can live with a 13’3” display, but it’s early days yet.

17" MacBook Pro:

It wasn't a very long-lived rumor, but it proved an accurate one, perhaps given the timing better characterized as a leak. When the story broke on just after New Years about a possible 17” unibody MacBook to be introduced in the Macworld keynote, I thought that sounded plausible. A 17” version of the unibody was a given in the not-too distant future, but I was more skeptical about reports that it would have a non-removable (at least without tools and some disassembly) battery after all the stick Apple has taken over the fixed battery in the MacBook Air.

However, the 17" unibody was indeed announced by Phil Schiller pinch-hitting for the ailing Steve Jobs at what will be Apple’s last keynote appearance at the show, and indeed it does have a fixed battery, albeit a Lithium Polymer one with a claimed eight-hour runtime between charges, and durability for approximately 1000 charge-discharge cycles - compared with about compared with only 200 to 300 charge cycles for typical notebook conventional Lithium Ion laptop battery packs.

I’m personally still not a fan of non-removable batteries, which go against the grain of my “everything should be as modular and easily disassembled as possible” philosophy, but the longer charge life and extended service cycle life, if Apple’s claims prove to be real-world accurate, go a considerable way toward mitigating what I still consider a design shortcoming.

More on the battery in a bit, but first a look at some of the new king-of-the-hill MAcBook Pro’s features and specifications, most of which are a clone of the 15” unibody MacBook Pro spec. there is the oversized glass Multi-Touch trackpad, the tandem NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics processor for better battery life and NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT discrete graphics processor for higher performance, a slot-load 8X SuperDrive with double-layer support , and a 320GB 5400 rpm hard drive standard with a 320GB 7200 rpm hard drive and 128GB and 256GB solid state drives as options, plus an 85 watt power adapter with MagSafe connectors, and the same black chiclet 78-key keyboard.

In terms of expansion and I/O connectivity, it’s pretty similar to the 15-incher as well, with an ExpressCard/34 expansion card slot, Gigabit Ethernet port, one FireWire 800 port (FireWire 400 compatible with an optional adapter), built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, a Mini DisplayPort for video out (adapters sold separately) instead of the erstwhile DVI, analog audio in and out ports and a built-in iSight camera.

There are, however, some differences too, such as three rather then two USB ports, 4GB of standard RAM upgradable ti a maximum of 8 GB (twice the spec. of the 15” MacBook Pro), 2.66 GHz and 2.93 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 45nm technology Penryn processors running on a 1066 MHz front-side bus as opposed to the 2.4 and 2.53 GHz Penryns available in the 15 inch machine, and a glossy 1920 x 1200 resolution (a razor-sharp133 pixels per inch) display with 78 percent more pixels than the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s 1440 x 900 screen, and a 700:1 contrast ratio that makes whites brighter and blacks blacker, supporting both dual display and video mirroring modes. Apple says the sealed glass display enclosure makes the display assembly stronger and more durable. 60 percent greater color gamut that delivers desktop-quality color in a notebook (but still only 18-bit color, rather than full 24-bit color), plus in acknowledgment (sort of) of the howls of dismay that went up from many Mac laptop fans about the matte finish display being dropped from the 15” MacBook Pro, which there is no true matte screen option for the 17” unibody machine, but you can order an anti-glare coating for a $50 premium, which is not quite the same thing.

Returning to the new MacBook Pro 17” battery, Apple isn’t spilling much detail about the technology being employed to provide the longer life other than that as fore-noted they are lithium polymer cells rather than lithium ion. The stated rationale for going with cells fixed inside the laptop’s enclosure rather than in a slide-out, swappable module. As Apple’s literature explains, in order to make its lithium-polymer battery capacity even greater, their engineers looked for extra space within the enclosure and found it in the removable battery module itself which requires infrastructure that takes up space. — bulky plastic housings and mechanisms for a separate battery compartment, such as latches and/or a door, all of which take up space that could be used for greater battery capacity. Consequently, on way to provide longer runtime capacity is to embed the battery cells internally in the notebook enclosure, and use lithium ion batteries that can be made with ultrathin, squared-off form factors, all of which Apple says created enough additional space for a battery with 40 percent greater capacity.

To double projected service cycle durability, a new technology developed by Apple, called Adaptive Charging reduces wear and tear on the battery thanks to a “smart” built with a chip that “talks” to each of the battery cells to determine their precise condition. The chip than shares this information with the computer, which then uses an advanced algorithm to make constant small adjustments to optimize the charging current, varying it to suit the changing conditions inside the cells, and providing a projected five-year lifespan between replacements, which for most users would have to be done by a technician and Apple does not warrant the battery beyond the MacBook Pro’s standard one-year limited warranty.

Apple also points out that a longer-lasting battery is a more environmentally friendly battery, while conventional laptop batteries often last for only a year or two before needing replacement and being discarded or hopefully recycled. With its fixed battery’s projected five-year service life, the new 17-inch MacBook Pro will go through just one battery in the same time a typical notebook uses three, and Apple is also offering a battery take-back program in 95 percent of the countries where it does business.

The new 17” MacBook Pro is a smidge thinner and lighter, albeit with a slightly larger footprint than the model it replaces, with physical dimensions of 0.98” x 15.47” x 10.51” and weighing in at 6.6 lb. as opposed to 1.0” x 15.4” x 10.4” and 6.8 lb. for the older 17” machines.

The price point remains the same as the previous model with a base of $2,799, but if you want to run an external monitor you’ll have to pony up for a Mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter unless you buy one of Apple’s nice but pricey 24” Cinema Displays, a FireWire 400 adapter if you want that support, and another 20 bucks for an Apple remote, which used to be standard equipment.

The new 17” MacBook Pro isn’t perfect any more than its 15” and 13” MacBook siblings are, and some folks will be disappointed that there is no quad-core Intel Q9000 CPU option to go head-to-head with Acer’s new Aspire 8930G-7665 quad-core laptop and presumably soon others as well on the PC side. Perhaps in the future, and I’m not surprised that it wasn’t offered at this point. At least it has FireWire support (albeit with the adapter kludge for FireWire 400, which is of greatest practical interest to me), and the third USB port. The glossy display isn’t a deal-breaker for me. I would probably stick with matte given the choice, but could live happily with glossy and I wouldn’t bother with the anti-glare coating band-aid.

I’m not enchanted with the non-swappable battery, but the longer runtime and especially the longer service life would make it easier to hold my nose, even though my old Pismo PowerBooks can squeeze more than 10 hours out of two extended life batteries between charges.

Those several niggles notwithstanding, this is a really nice computer, I would love to have one to replace my old 17” G4 PowerBook, but alas it’s out of my price range, especially with this “uncertain” economy. However, if I had the ready cash I’d definitely choose this unibody model over the one it’s displacing, and that says something I think.




MacBook Pro Model Chart:

17" 2.66GHz

17-inch TFT Display
1920x1200 resolution
2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
4GB memory
320GB hard drive
8x DL SuperDrive
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M
NVIDIA 9600M GT
4GB RAM SDRAM
Backlit keyboard
Gigabit Ethernet
FireWire 800
Digital/analog audio
Mini Display Port
ExpressCard/34 slot
2.93GHz CPU option

$2799

15.4" 2.53GHz

15.4-inch TFT Display
1440x900 resolution
2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
4GB memory
320GB hard drive
8x DL SuperDrive
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M
NVIDIA 9600M GT
512MB SDRAM
Backlit keyboard
Gigabit Ethernet
FireWire 800/400
Digital/analog audio
Mini Display Port
ExpressCard/34 slot
2.8GHz CPU option

$2499

15.4" 2.4GHz

15.4-inch TFT Display
1440x900 resolution
2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
2GB memory
250GB hard drive
8x DL SuperDrive
NVIDIA GeForce 8600MGT
NVIDIA 9600M GT
256MB SDRAM
Backlit keyboard
Gigabit Ethernet
FireWire 800/400
Digital/analog audio
Mini Display Port
ExpressCard/34 slot

$1999



For more information, visit:
http://www.apple.com/macbookpro