After slipping the usual January refresh, we wondered when Apple's new MacBooks would be upon us. Finally the refresh has come about, with Core i5 and i7 gracing the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros, while the 13-inch Pro stays with Core 2 Duo.
This is the new wave
The new MacBook is an effort of refinement rather than that of an overhaul, with new features turning up both on the exterior and the interior.
First up is the new MagSafe adapter, which now takes a right angle to sit flush with the side of the MacBook, allowing much greater flexibility when you're moving around and lowering the likeliness of getting tangled in cords.
Then there's inertial scrolling, a nice little addition to the touch pad. When the user flicks two fingers down to scroll, if the fingers leave the touch pad the page continues to scroll for a little after, similar to how the iPhone functions. You can still precisely scroll if you want, but this requires you to either keep your fingers on the pad, or to set the touch pad options to "Without momentum" under "System Preferences". Apple still has the best touch pad on the market, from its large size to its multi-touch capability, and it's only gotten better with this feature.
In response to criticism of its glossy screens, Apple has also offered matte upgrades on both its 15- and 17-inch models, but there's a catch: the upgrade also incorporates a higher resolution screen, bumping the default 1440x900 to 1680x1050. We're always fans of higher resolution screens, and just getting one of these will set you back AU$140. But for those who just want matte, they'll also have to wear the cost of the high resolution screen, adding AU$210 to their order cost.
Other options include 8GB RAM (up from the standard 4GB for AU$560), and if you start from the base model a flotilla of hard drive updates, with 500GB (AU$140), 500GB 7200rpm (AU$210), 128GB SSD (AU$420), 256GB SSD (AU$1060) and a 512GB SSD (AU$1960). While the SSD costs aren't too far from market price, you'd be better off adding after-market drives for the mechanicals.
Then we come to the usual bag of hurt known as AppleCare. Apple's standard warranty offers only one year (with phone service limited to 90 days), and to expand this to three years will cost you a whopping AU$579. We'd always recommend taking AppleCare on-board, but just remember that it makes the MacBook's final price that bit more expensive.
It's what's on the inside that counts
Internally, a few things have changed as well; our 15-inch review sample was running a Core i7 clocked at 2.66GHz, and a GeForce GT 330M. Gone is the integrated Nvidia graphics, as Nvidia simply didn't have a licence to pair its chipset with Intel's Core i processors. In its place is a switching solution similar to Nvidia's Optimus technology — when using apps that don't require 3D acceleration, the MacBook Pro uses its integrated Intel HD graphics, saving on battery. When 3D acceleration is required, the GT 330M seamlessly kicks in to give the extra power.
It's an excellent idea in theory, but the execution isn't perfect, with a few sites reporting that the MacBook sometimes turns on the GT 330M when it shouldn't, and sometimes doesn't manage to turn it off after an application that was using it has been closed. This is no doubt a tricky equation to get perfect, especially with things muddying the water like the web — for the most part web browsing won't need the GPU, but what happens when you come across an embedded H.264 clip that could benefit from hardware acceleration?
Incidentally, the answer is nothing; the MacBook continues to use the Intel card. You can force the discrete graphics on through the "Energy Saver" options under "System Preferences" to address this, but you can't do it the other way around — if you'd prefer to use the Intel card and the MacBook has decided the Nvidia one is a better option, you're boned. Thankfully, an independent developer has come to the rescue with gfxCardStatus, a program that lets you see exactly what GPU is being used and allows you to switch it at any time.
Finally, the MacBook Pro has gained the ability to send audio over its Mini-DisplayPort, a boon for those using third-party Mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapters, although it remains to be seen if such adapters need to be updated first. Apple, for what it's worth, still refuses to embrace HDMI officially on anything but the Apple TV.
Playing the same old tune
The MacBook 15-inch is otherwise identical, but this is not a bad thing. From the unibody aluminium shell to the great speakers, to the built in webcam, gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, two USB ports, SD card reader, headphone and microphone jacks and DVD+-RW drive, if you've seen last year's revision, you know what this one is all about.
The little touches are still there too, like being able to see the battery charge without opening the MacBook, the backlit keyboard and the soft whump of the lid closing are still there, and while using the MacBook you feel like you're using quality; this is an exceptionally well built machine. It's likely not worth the upgrade if you own the previous generation MacBook Pro (unless you're absolutely hankering for Core i7 power), but if you're considering buying a Mac, this is a good time to do so.
With a new processor and graphics card, the interest was always going to be on how the new MacBook performed. Installing Windows 7 64-bit, 3DMark06 captured a decent score of 6752, meaning the new MacBook should be able to handle for relatively new games, freaks like Arma II aside. The PCMark05 score of 7630 establishes it as an excellent work machine too.
Turning off all power-saving features, setting screen brightness and volume to maximum, we played back an XviD file in OS X to see how long the battery would last. Using gfxCardStatus to force which GPU was used, under Intel HD graphics it lasted four hours, 22 minutes and 55 seconds, while under the Nvidia GT330 it came in at three hours, 47 minutes and 20 seconds.
While the battery switching mechanism still needs refining, the MacBook Pro is still the excellent machine it always was, now with more power and a few more features to boot. Highly recommended.