From the aluminium chassis to the LED-backlit display, Apple’s MacBook Pro laptop has been precision engineered down to the smallest detail. From the moment you open the beautifully packaged box to the short time the machine takes to boot, using this portable computer is guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most ardent Windows users.
I’ve been using Windows-based machines (desktops and laptops) for as long as I can remember, but it’s only recently that I’ve take a serious look at the Mac platform as a genuine alternative. Sure the range and diversity of applications for Mac OS X is still poor (don’t even mention gaming), but software published by Apple is top quality and at least with Boot Camp you can dual-boot a Mac system to run Windows if there are some applications you can’t live without. If you want to compute in style and with minimum fuss, there’s nothing like a MacBook Pro.
Positioned at the high-end of the MacBook family (there’s a cheaper, less impressive MacBook), the MacBook Pro is aimed at the professional and power user market and is available in a choice of two 16:10 aspect ratio screen sizes: 15.4in. (1440×900) and 17in. (1920×1200). Externally the two machines are identical, except the 17in. model has some larger keys, uses a non-removable lithium polymer battery, and has an anti-glare screen option.
The construction of the MacBook Pro 15.4in. (364×249×241mm, 2.49kg) largely follows the styling of the latest iMac and the MacBook Air, and is slightly thinner than its predecessor – albeit wider and deeper. The high-gloss screen is covered by a reflective glass finish, while an anti-glare matte option is available in the 17in. model in which the glass panel is removed. The trackpad has also been enlarged and has a neat trick up its sleeve – the entire pad doubles as a mouse button, allowing for more room for scrolling and multi-touch gestures.
That means there’s more room to track, more room to click – left, right, centre and everywhere in between – and one less part. Swiping four fingers horizontally, for instance, is the OS X equivalent of and swiping four fingers up glides all open applications to the edges of the screen to reveal the desktop. There are swipe, pinch and rotate gestures too, and you can also designate one corner of the trackpad as a ‘right-click’ zone. Most useful perhaps is sweeping four fingers left or right, which brings up the application switcher. The trackpad takes a while to get used to, especially for Windows users used to at least two mouse buttons, but it works well and is a really neat usability innovation by Apple engineers.
The first thing you notice about the MacBook Pro is how incredibly cold the machine is. Now that might sound like a weird thing to say, but because the enclosure is crafted from a single block of aluminium with no rubber of plastic parts (except for the keyboard), the machine is as cold as ice – at least until it runs for a while. The design looks amazing and is unlike any other laptop on the market, but the downside is that you’ll want to think twice about putting it on your lap when you’re wearing shorts. In addition, you’ll have to take extra care not to scratch the case. Annoyingly, Apple doesn’t provide a protective slip case to help keep the machine in tip-top condition when storing it around your home. On the plus side, aluminium makes the MacBook Pro more durable than ever.
Apple hasn’t just focussed on design. The internal architecture of the MacBook Pro has been reengineered from the silicon up. There’s a new logic board, a new chipset, faster front-side bus (up from 800MHz to 1066MHz), DDR3 instead of DDR2 memory, and new graphics architecture. The machine is available in two dual-core models: the 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (£1369) with a 250GB 5400rpm hard drive and 2GB DDR3 memory, and the 2.66GHz (£1712) with a 320GB 5400rpm hard drive, 4GB DDR3 memory and a backlit keyboard (useful in dimly-lit conditions). You can, of course, upgrade either models to a top-of-the-line 2.93GHz processor (£206) and ultra-quiet/fast 256GB Solid State Drive (£600).
Apple machines always have and probably always will lag behind Windows-based computers in the graphics department, but it’s great to see Apple bringing something new to the MacBook Pro market. Many laptop computers sacrifice graphics performance in order to save battery life. The new MacBook Pro offers the best of both worlds thanks to not one, but two separate graphics processors. The nVidia GeForce 9600M GT processor is the discrete graphics powerhouse for more advanced graphics work and gaming, while the nVidia GeForce 9400M processor is the integrated power saver. And depending on how much performance or battery life you need, you can switch between them easily. Running off the integrated graphics processor alone will give you around 4.5 hours of battery life, whereas maximum performance using the GeForce 9600M GT will give you around 3.5 hours. This is average for a 15in. laptop, although I’m used to seeing closer to 5 hours from most Apple products.
But because Apple designs both the hardware and the software for the MacBook Pro, it’s easier to improve things like energy efficiency. Software tells the hard drive to spin down when it’s not in use, it tells the display and battery indicator lights to dim in low-light conditions, and it helps decide whether the CPU or the graphics processor would be best suited to the task at hand. That’s the kind of smart, integrated design that sets MacBook Pro apart from other laptops. Let’s not get carried away though, the GeForce 9600M GT still isn’t all that, and you’ll have to turn down detail settings if you plan on running current first-person shooters such as Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 at decent frame rates.
Connectivity isn’t the MacBook Pro’s strong point. There are just two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire 800 port, the latter of which can be particularly useful for connecting video camcorders, external hard disks, or another Mac through Target Disk Mode. There is also Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, along with a half-size ExpressCard/34 slot. Sadly, there is no eSATA port for hooking up an external storage devices or even a memory card reader for viewing photos and videos captured on a digital camera or camcorder. Finally, there is a Mini-DisplayPort, audio line in/out ports, omnidirectional microphone, and a funky battery indicator button and lights. While the Kensington lock slot appears on the left side of the MacBook, it appears on the right side of the MacBook Pro, right next to the slot loading CD/DVD drive. Optional extras you might also want to consider are a Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter (£68), Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter (£20), and a Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter (£20) – especially if you want to connect the machine up to your current display.
But perhaps the biggest selling point of the MacBook Pro is the quality of the LED-backlit display. Whereas conventional CCFL displays use mercury to create a backlight and arsenic to prevent irregularities in the glass, the LED-backlit display on the new MacBook Pro is both mercury- and arsenic-free. LED backlight technology also conserves energy: this display requires up to 30% less power than a CCFL display. More importantly, image quality, accuracy and clarity are the best I’ve ever seen on a laptop. The ultra-thin display provides crisp images and vivid colours which are perfect for viewing photos and movies, and the edge-to-edge cover glass creates a smooth, seamless surface. The glossy screen is unfortunate, but can actually be a benefit to some users compared to the slightly washed out hues of a matte screen, even if the option of the glare-free matte would be appreciated.
The MacBook Pro is unquestionably the most attractive laptop on the planet. It’s also one of the easiest to use. With the inclusion of a FireWire 800 port, fast processor, and discrete graphics processor, it is especially suited for anyone who needs to do video editing on location. For everyone else, there are still plenty of features to entice you, such as the gorgeous LED-backlit display, superior built-in speakers, built-in Web camera, and comfortable keyboard. I just wish there were more connectivity options and at the very least an SD/MMC slot. Furthermore, the all-clicking touchpad is a bit awkward (at least initially) and the extra-glossy screen won’t appeal to everyone. Better specified and supported Windows-based machines can be had for less financial outlay, but none match the overall finesse of the MacBook Pro.