Apple’s new MacBook Pro: a display of brilliance?

Xavier Verhoeven
30 April, 2010
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There are two types of people who may be interested in the new MacBook Pros: those who currently have a unibody MacBook Pro, but want the fastest, newest and best notebook Apple has to offer, and those who don’t have a unibody MBP, but are looking to upgrade. (I fall into the latter category, currently rocking a 2GHz Core Duo model from early ’06.)

The first camp will be interested primarily in two things from the new models – specifications and benchmarks – they want the evidence behind Apple’s claim that these are the “fastest, most powerful MacBook Pro[s] ever”. Indeed, the June and July issues of Australian Macworld will focus on these details.

For those like me, however, the aesthetics and useability aspects of the MBPs will be equally important. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on Apple’s newest notebooks:

Simply stunning: The 1920×1200 display on my 17in Core i7 2.66GHz test unit (the absolute top of the range built-to-order for $3,189) is just incredible. It’s unmatched for pixel density (132 per inch) among its Apple brethren, both desktop and portable, resulting in the crispest display I’ve ever used.

Thankfully for those who appreciate the extra resolution that results from higher pixel density, Apple is also offering an upgrade for their 15in models from 1440×900 to 1680×1050 (which almost matches its bigger brother, at 128PPI).

The LED-backlighting means that it’s beautiful and bright too, and instantly on.

One thing to note for anyone planning a purchase: Apple offers an ‘Antiglare’ display option (for an extra $70) on the 17in and high resolution 15in models, that could be convenient for anyone who uses their laptop in direct sunlight or bright rooms.

But you’ll have trouble finding an image of the option among Apple’s official snaps. You see, the antiglare option does away with the sleek glass panel and black edging around the screen, opting instead for an aluminium insert more akin to the ageing MacBook Air’s frame. And it’s just not as pretty.

Precision perfect: When Apple talks about its ‘precision unibody’, it really means it. These machines snap together perfectly when shut (with a very satisfying ‘click’), and have an all-round finish that is just amazing to see. The edges are almost sharp enough to cut yourself on. The backlit keyboard is great to type on in all lighting conditions, and the accuracy of the unibody case means there is very little give when typing.

The expanse of aluminium surrounding the keyboard on the 17in model does beg one question: why didn’t Apple add a numeric keypad? It’s a must-have for some business users, and there would be plenty of room here with some re-jigging of the speakers.

If you haven’t used the glass multi-touch trackpad before, it can take some getting used to. The whole surface is clickable, doing away with the need for another button. The surface doesn’t really feel like glass, and is the perfect smoothness for scrolling without being slippery. I still prefer attaching a Magic Mouse, but compared to trackpads on earlier models, these are great – especially when you figure out all the control gestures that are possible. And while I’m on the topic of the trackpad, the new versions of the Pros now include intertial scrolling (which iPhone users will be familiar with) so depending on the speed and strength of your ‘flicking’ through a document, the scroll action will continue along with that momentum.

Breakthrough battery? One of the biggest selling points of the new MacBook Pros is their increased battery life. The 13in Core 2 Duo models now boast up to 10 hours of use, while the 15in and 17in models claim ‘up to 8-9 hours’. Given that the iPad consistently delivers near (and in some cases above) its advertised 10 hours, I had high hopes for the MBPs.

The first test I gave my unit was to leave it playing music in iTunes, with the visualiser on, until it went dead. With the screen two levels below maximum, volume set to four, a few other programs open but idle, and Wi-Fi connected. With both the screen and hard-drive set to stay on, I left it alone.

It died after three hours and 28 minutes. That’s far short of even eight hours. To be fair, I’ve gotten longer out of it without the music and visualiser going (and the latter might have meant the dedicated graphics card was in use, which would drain the battery quicker). But even just typing and checking emails with Wi-Fi on, it doesn’t seem to get near the eight-hour mark. So you’ll still need room in your bag for a power cable.

Portable powerhouses: I’m no speed freak. I like my computers quick, but beyond word processing, web browsing, watching movies, and some simple photo-editing, I just don’t have much need for a computer that’s faster than a speeding bullet. So for the money, the i7 isn’t for me. In fact, a Core 2 Duo would probably do the job just fine, but the high-res screen on the 15in is definitely something to consider. And at only half a kilo heavier than the 13in, it’s still pretty portable.

But if you’re after the best of the best, the i7 in combination with NVIDIA’s discrete graphics cards is certainly the way to go. Just beware that the power has to come from somewhere, so you’ll struggle to get the advertised eight hours out of it, and at the same time, the 17in screen makes the highest-end model substantially less portable.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. Unless you really need the expansive screen of the 17in model, you’re probably better off opting for the 13in or 15in (depending on your power needs). While the 17in is a beauty, it’s a big machine to lug around. All models offer enough functionality to warrant purchasing them over the plastic MacBook, and the aluminium finish is really worth the extra alone. Check out the in-depth reviews in the magazine (June and July) if you’re wondering about the speed gains in upgrading from the previous unibody MBPs, but for anyone with an older MacBook or MacBook Pro, these really are beautiful machines (which became slightly more affordable with this update). If I hadn’t just maxed my credit card getting an iPad imported from the US, I’d be buying a 15in i5 with a high-res (but not antiglare) screen.

MacBook Pro 17in Core i7

Rating 4.5
RRP $3,189 (For the top of the range 17in model; 13in model starts at $1499)
Pros Beautiful display; precision aluminium body; fast; inertial scrolling
Cons 17in is very big for lugging around; battery life not quite as good as claimed

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