Early 2006 MacBook Pro Review


At Macworld Expo in January 2006, Steve Jobs raised the curtain on the new MacBook era, confounding rumoristas who had been confidently predicting that consumer level iBooks with single-core processors would appear first, and unveiling the new MacBook Pro with an Intel Core Duo Processor claimed to be up to four times faster than a PowerBook G4.

This sequence of introduction makes more sense to me. Why burn of the first wave of pent-up enthusiasm and demand for Intel based laptops on your low-priced, entry-level machine?

Instead, we get the new MacBook Pro as the first Mac laptop based on an Intel processor, featuring an aluminum enclosure not a whole lot different from the 15" PowerBook G4 form factor introduced in 2003, weighing a slightly lighter 5.6 pounds, with a slightly larger footprint of 14.1 x 9.6 inches (vs. 13.7 x 9.5 inches for the 15" PowerBook), and slightly thinner at 1.0" (down from 1.1").

I have to say that while I'm confident the MacBooks' performance will be all that we've hoped for, I am a bit underwhelmed by the appearance side of things. The middle-sized PowerBook is a great-looking computer, the most attractive and gainly of the three, but it's a 2 1/2 year old good-looking computer whose essential form-factor dates back to the original TiBook in 2001. I had been anticipating something fresh and innovative that would knock our socks off and make us salivate for more then the Intel performance turbo-boost, so it's a bit of a disappointment.

To be fair, I imagine Apple would rather have had time to design a new 'Book form-factor for the MacIntel intro, but with it coming a full half-year before originally projected, there was likely not nearly enough time to design something from a clean slate. The fact that they got them out this quickly is pretty amazing, and sticking with the old enclosure doubtless facilitated that.

Then there's the name change. I'm not over the moon about that either. MacBook is not a bad moniker, but I'm pretty attached to the old PowerBook name. I suspect that one reason for the change is to differentiate the new 'Books from the PowerPC era, but in fact the PowerBook name predates the Power PC chip. There were PowerBooks on the market for four years before the first Power PC model arrived. At the beginning, the name applied to a machine with an 8 MHz Motorola 68000 processor. It was just coincidence that both designations contain the word "power."

MacBook still retains a strong Macintosh identity, and happily it remains a 'Book, but Apple is giving up on one of the best-known and most respected brand names in the entire computer industry. Not only that, it's one of the best names on its own merit, synergizing the term notebook with computing power. To me, "PowerBook" connotes the top of the heap in portable computing; the most prestigious brand-name in the category. To change the name is a bit like rebranding Rolls-Royce or Cadillac. MacBook Mystique? Doesn't quite have the same mellifluous ring, but I suppose I'll get used to it.

Fortunately, when you peer beneath the MacBook Pro's familiar-looking aluminum skin, thinks get more exciting, but I'll dispense with a couple more gripes before we dive in. Some high-end users will be disgruntled to discover that the MacBook Pro has no FireWire 800 port (there is still a FW 400 port). Another nail in what appears to be FireWire's closing coffin? Based on the commentary about FireWire support erosion I'm hearing from Mac-user friends, Apple may want to rethink this strategy. On the topic of 'Book connectivity, the PC Card slot appears to be gone, while there is an ExpressCard slot, which supports both USB 2.0 and PCI Express interfaces. There are also two standard USB 2 480-Mbps ports.

And a BIG raspberry from me for the absence of a modem. Uh.... this is a PORTABLE computer, guys, and there are many, many places where Broadband hookups and WiFi hotspots are not available. Where I'm working right now for instance. Boo, hiss, on the modem exclusion. (Apple will gladly sell you one of their freestanding USB modems - something else to drag around, get lost, and use up a USB port).

The new professional 'Book, which will be available in February, features Apple's new patent-pending MagSafe magnetic power connector, which simply and harmlessly pulls away if someone trips over the cord. This is a welcome innovation. Several years back my son hooked his foot in the power cord of his then-new Lombard, launching it across the room. Fortunately, the PowerBook was undamaged, and went on to give a long service life, on its fourth owner when I lost track. However, the adapter cord socket was mangled. The new MacBook's MagSafe power connector makes charging the notebook's battery easier by magnetically coupling the power cord to the laptop. The MagSafe power connector safely disconnects from the notebook when there is strain on the power cord, helping to prevent the notebook from falling off its work surface when the power cord is inadvertently yanked.

According to Steve Jobs' Keynote spiel, the MacBook Pro delivers dual-processor desktop performance in a thin, sleek notebook. We've heard that before, since at least the PowerBook 500 Series rollout in 1994, but this time it has real substance. According to Mr. Jobs, "The new MacBook Pro, with its Intel Core Duo dual-core processor, delivers the performance of not just one, but two G5 processors in the world's most stunning one inch thin design."

With its Intel Core Duo processor which promises to deliver dual-core performance in a power-efficient design, MacBook Pro is claimed to be up to four times faster than the product it replaces, the PowerBook G4, running industry standard benchmarks."

Every new MacBook Pro will come with a built-in iSight video camera for video conferencing on-the-go using Apple's iChat AV, or recording a video Podcast or iMovie using iLife '06. MacBook Pro also includes Photo Booth, Apple's application that lets users take quick snapshots with the built-in iSight video camera, add visual effects and share their pictures with the touch of a button.

The new MacBook Pro is the first notebook to feature Apple's Front Row media experience and the Apple Remote, turning MacBook Pro into a portable theatre. Front Row gives users a way to enjoy their content wherever they go - including songs from their iTunes music library, photo slideshows from iPhoto, videos including TV shows, Podcasts, iMovies and DVDs, and popular movie trailers streamed from apple.com - all from up to 30 feet away. Apple's computer/TV/multimedia convergence progresses.

The new MacBook Pro features what Apple says is a 67-percent brighter 15,4" display (up from 15.2" on the PowerBook), now as bright as Apple's Cinema Displays, and driven by an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 PCI Express graphics, with either 128MB or 256MB of dedicated GDDR3 graphics memory.

Processor-wise, the MacBooks come with 1.67 GHz and 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processors (the lower number being exactly the same as the ultimate G4 PowerPC 'Books - a prima facie example of how worse than useless clock speeds are for comparing performance across chip families) There is also a completely new, Intel-based system architecture for faster performance, including a 667 MHz front-side bus that is four times as fast as the PowerBook G4 and 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM memory expandable to 2GB that is twice as fast as the PowerBook G4. Also standard are familiar ex-PowerBook stuff like built-in Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) wireless connectivity, integrated AirPort Extreme 54 Mbps 802.11g WiFi wireless networking, Apple's scrolling TrackPad and Sudden Motion Sensor that protects the hard drive in case of a fall.

For a full list of specs., see the Appendix below.

Bundled software includes includes iLife '06, the latest iteration of Apple's suite of digital lifestyle applications with upgraded versions of iPhoto , iMovie HD, iDVD, GarageBand, as well as the new iWeb , an iLife application that makes it easy to create websites with photos, blogs and Podcasts and publish them on .Mac. All the iLife '06 applications are Universal Binary applications that run natively on Intel-based Macs. The MacBook Pro will come with Mac OS X version 10.4.4 "Tiger" including Safari, Mail, iCal , iChat AV, Front Row and Photo Booth, running natively on Apple's first Intel-based notebook. Mac OS X Tiger includes Apple's software translation technology called Rosetta that lets customers run most Mac OS X PowerPC applications seamlessly (but say goodbye to Classic Mode).

Another surprise is that notwithstanding prognostications that the Intel shift would facilitate substantial price cuts, the new MacBook Pro sells at the same price points as the 15" PowerBook and 17" PowerBook have recently - $1,999 for the base model and $2,499 for the high end unit. The Register's headline: "Intel Macs stay at non-Intel prices," kinda says it. However, this is a powerful (and relatively expensive) dual-core processor that Intel had available now, so Apple went with it.

Apple hadn't changed the prices for the G4 PowerBooks when I last looked, but I expect that if there are many G4s left i the channels, there should be some good deals forthcoming. So to speak. If Jobs' performance claims are accurate, the change is nothing short of revolutionary, I aside from the issue of backwards software compatibility, I can't imagine anyone wanting to put the plastic down for a new G4 PowerBook now. I expect used/refurb prices will be under substantial pressure as well.

So, do I want a MacBook? Well, I want an Intel 'Book, but I'm not sure that it will be one of these, I may wait to see what the predicted widescreen iBook is like.

I think the most appropriate analogy for these first MacBooks is the original PowerBook G3 "Kanga" that was hurried into production in the fall of 1997. It was a dead-ringer for the 603e based PowerBook 3400 (which remained in production, but offered a quantum improvement in performance (although probably not quite as dramatic as the G4 to Intel Core Duo advance). The Kanga only stayed in production for a short five months, and it wouldn't surprise me if the original MacBooks also have a fairly short production life. It's an interim machine for sure, but one with solid substance, and if you've been waiting impatiently for the paradigm-shift, it should sooth the pangs of desire handily.

Appendix

MacBook Pro Specifications

The 1.67 GHz, 15-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $1,999 (US), includes:
• 15.4-inch widescreen 1440 x 900 LCD display with 300 cd/m2 brightness;
• 1.67 GHz Intel Core Duo processor;
• 512MB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
• 80GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
• a slot-load SuperDrive (DVDRW/CD-RW) optical drive;
• PCI Express-based ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with 128MB GDDR3 memory;
• DVI-out port for external display (VGA-out adapter included, Composite/S-Video out adapter sold separately);
• built-in Dual Link support for driving Apple 30-inch Cinema HD Display;
• built-in iSight video camera;
• Gigabit Ethernet port;
• built-in AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
• ExpressCard/34 expansion card slot;
• two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
• one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
• scrolling TrackPad and illuminated keyboard;
• the infrared Apple Remote;
• 60 Watt hour lithium polymer battery; and
• 85W AC power adapter with MagSafe magnetic power connector.

The 1.83 GHz, 15-inch MacBook Pro, for a suggested retail price of $2,499 (US), includes:
• 15.4-inch widescreen 1440 x 900 LCD display with 300 cd/m2 brightness;
• 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo processor;
• 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, expandable to 2GB;
• 100GB Serial ATA hard drive running at 5400 rpm, with Sudden Motion Sensor;
• a slot-load SuperDrive (DVDRW/CD-RW) optical drive;
• PCI Express-based ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with 256MB GDDR3 memory;
• DVI-out port for external display (VGA-out adapter included, Composite/S-Video out adapter sold separately);
• built-in Dual Link support for driving Apple 30-inch Cinema HD Display;
• built-in iSight video camera;
• Gigabit Ethernet port;
• built-in Airport Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR;
• ExpressCard/34 expansion card slot;
• two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire 400 port;
• one audio line in and one audio line out port, each supporting both optical digital and analog;
• scrolling TrackPad and illuminated keyboard;
• the infrared Apple Remote;
• 60 Watt hour lithium polymer battery; and
• 85W AC power adapter with MagSafe magnetic power connector.

Additional build-to-order options for the 15-inch MacBook Pro include the ability to upgrade to 120GB (5400 rpm) or 100GB (7200 rpm) hard drive, up to 2GB DDR2 SDRAM, Apple USB Modem, and the AppleCare Protection Plan.

See http://www.apple.com/macbookpro for more information