In a few words: a high-end laptop with an excellent design and monitor.
Purchase options: Macmall, Clubmac, Apple Store, Best Buy
Until now I have published reviews of only two laptops, the Dell Studio 1537 that I purchased for my personal use and the HP HDX16 purchased by our forum mate Ogait. Thanks to the kindness of Apple Spain now I have the opportunity of reviewing one of their lastest laptops: the 15-inch Macbook Pro from the June 2009 refresh; thanks a lot to Paco Lara from Apple and to Guillem Alsina from Imatica for making it happen. The Apple Macbook Pro is a high-end laptop aimed to demanding users, with a very distinctive design and Mac OS X instead of Windows Vista. The laptop I got was the basic 15-inch Macbook Pro, that has the following specifications:
- Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 (2.53 GHz)
- Memory: 4 GB DDR3 1066 MHz
- Graphics card: Nvidia GeForce 9400M
- Hard disk drive: 250 GB a 5400 rpm
- Monitor: 15.4” at 1440×900, glossy, LED backlighting
- Optical drive: slot-loading DVD burner
- Wireless technologies: 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
- Operating system: Mac OS X 10.5.7
- Other features: SD card reader, webcam with built-in mic, backlit keyboard
- Price: 1699 USD
In addition to the laptop itself, the box contains the power adapter, the system disk, a software disk, a manual (“everything about Mac”, useful if you are not a regular user of Apple computers) and two stickers with the Apple logo.
Design and build: design: excellent, build: very good, finish: excellent.
When unboxing the laptop the first impression is very good: the Macbook Pro is thin but very solid. According to the specifications, it weighs 2.5 kg, that is between 200 and 500 g less than most 15″ laptops (I can confirm that it is roughly 250 g less than my Dell Studio 1537). Clearly the construction in a single piece of aluminium (Unibody) gives very good results. If we take the laptop and apply pressure or torsion at several spots we can see than it only bends or creacks minimally, giving a very solid impression. The lid shows some flex, but the picture is only distorted when high pressure is applied. The finish is nice and not glossy, so it is not a fingerprint magnet as most consumer laptops.
Screen: quality: excellent, viewing angles: very good, outdoor use: passable
The screen is glossy edge-to-edge and has a resolution of 1440×900 pixels. This screen resolution is a good compromise to offer a bit more workspace than the usual 1280×800 or 1366×768 without making fonts too small.
It is quite difficult to take good pictures of monitors, even more with a cheap camera such as mine, but please observe that contrast is much better than in my Studio 1537 (1280×800 WLED) and that colors are more saturated. In fact image quality is very similar to the one of my desktop monitor (HP L2245w, matte surface), and contrast is excellent, with blacks almost as deep as in my HP monitor. With the screen in black and the room in darkness it is evident that the backlighting is very even (in fact, light bleed from the bottom of the screen is lower than in the HP). Viewing angles are much wider than in my Studio 15, and colors only show inversion when observing the screen from below (you can see the viewing angles in the video at the end of the review). In the system preferences you can select several color profiles: LCD color (the default one), Adobe RGB, generic RGB and sRGB IEC611966-2.1, and there is also a calibration wizard, but I lack the expertise needed to assess if color reproduction is good enough for a professional use. Outdoors the very glossy surface is a problem, because you can see clearly the reflex of yourself and, if the content being displayed is dark, visibility is very limited. Working on a light background (text, most web pages) and while you are not in a very bright place, reflexes are still visible, but you can work without much problems thanks to the good brightness and contrast of the screen. The screen has automatic brightness control, so it is attenuated in low light conditions (the ambient light seems to be measured via the webcam). I have found some negative comments about similar systems in other laptops, but I have not experienced any problem with the Macbook Pro. Update: a matte (non-glossy) screen is now available when configuring a Macbook Pro at Macmall, Apple Store and similar sites.
Keyboard: feedback: very good, layout: good, flex: very good.
First of all I would like to remind you that keyboard layout in Mac computers is different than in PCs so, if you are new to Macs, it is possible that you miss some keys (Del, Home, End…); in some cases you can achieve the same result with a combination of keys. Looking beyond the layout, keys have a very soft feedback and a short travel, resulting in a fast and confortable typing. We can observe minimal flex when exerting high pressure on the keys, but the keyboard is as solid as the rest of the laptop. Instead of dedicated touch-sensitive multimedia controls, the Macbooc Pro uses the functions keys (F1-F12 plus an Eject key) that are less cool but much safer. The keyboard is backlit, a feature very useful to type in darkness, and the intensity of the lightning can be regulated or turned off.
Trackpad: sensitivity: very good, buttons: good, configuration: very good.
The touchpad (or trackpad, as it is called in Mac computers) is one of the most characteristic features of this laptop: it is huge and without visible buttons. Most of the surface of the trackpad (excepting the top margin) can be used as a button and you can define the bottom left or right zones for secondary click. It also responds nicely to tapping and is enabled for multitouch gestures. It is highly configurable and the settings screen teaches you how to use the multitouch gestures. I only missed the ability to define different tap zones as in some Synaptics touchpads, but your finger slides easily over its surface and it is more comfortable than most touchpads I have used. In fact, if you practice a bit you are not going to miss an external mouse (except for playing games). Occasionally when using the secondary click (right bottom in my case) the cursor jumps to that place, but it is a minor annoyance.
Audio: volume: good, quality: good, bass: acceptable, configuration: acceptable.
The speakers are placed one at each side of the keyboard and have enough quality and loudness to enjoy listening to music while working, to play games or to watch movies, but sometimes you would like them to be louder. Sound is rich and clean, but as usual with laptop speakers, basses are quite anemic (but not as bad as in my Dell Studio 1537 and other cheap laptops). Sound configuration in the system preferences is very basic and many properties, such as equalization, are controlled in the individual applications (i.e. iTunes). As in most laptops, if you want a deep and powerful sound you will need a good external speaker set or headphones.
The Macbool Pro has all the ports concentrated at the left side (an there is still room available for more), so you can guess there are not a lot of them. Here you have:
Left side, left to right: MagSafe power plug, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, Mini DisplayPort, USB 2.0 (x2), SD card reader, audio input (analog/digital), audio output (analog/digital). At the far right you can see a button that shows the battery status. Observe that I have placed my Studio 1537 over the Macbook Pro, so you can see the difference in thickness.
Front: at right you can see the infrared port and, almost invisible in the picture, the standby LED.
Right side: security slot, slot-loading optical drive. It does not take small discs, while my Studio 1537 does it without any problem.
Comfort: temperature: good, noise: excellent
The laptop is very quiet, and most of the time you cannot hear any fan. While performing light tasks the laptop stays completely cool (and I was testing it in July, room temperature was arround 27º C) and it warms a bit when watching a DVD, but it is not annoying. It gets noticeably warmer when performing demading tasks (such as running gaming benchmarks under Windows), with fans working audibly but not loudly. The highest temperatures I could measure under Windows were 82º C for the CPU and 77º C for the GPU after an hour or so running the Devil May Cry 4 benchmark, and the bottom of the laptop can get uncomfortably hot. It gets quite hot when the battery is charging, too, but not so much.
The Macbook Pro reviewed here has the most basic configuration available but, with an Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 at 2.53 GHz and 4 GB of DDR3 memory the computer is fast enough to work with ease. Mac OS X seems to be snappier than Windows Vista, but this is hard to measure objectively. Running comparable benchmarks is difficult because most benchmarking programs are available for Windows only. To be able to compare the performance of the Macbook Pro running Mac OS X to computers running Windows, I have performed a few real-life tests with applications that have both Windows and Mac versions, and downloadable for free, so anybody could repeat them. Even this way, it is hard to tell if the results are 100% comparable, because the implementation can be different for each operating system, but I think it is good enough. The tests performed were as follows:
- ZIP compression: compressing the Devil May Cry 4 benchmark folder (402 MB) in ZIP format using the program 7-zip.
- Folder copy: creating a copy of the Devil May Cry 4 benchmark folder (402 MB).
- Video conversion: converting the The Bourne Ultimatum trailer (H264 at 1920×816) to Xvid at 320×240 using Any Video Converter.
- Multitasking: the same video conversion while the ZIP compression is being performed and GIMP 2 has 14 pictures of 5 Mpx open.
The chart compares the times needed to perform each task with my Dell Studio 15 (Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 at 2.0 GHz, 3 GB DDR2, 250 GB 5400 rpm, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3540 256 MB DDR2) and my desktop computer (Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 at 3.0 GHz, 4 GB DDR2, 750 GB 7200 rpm, ATI Radeon HD 4670 512 MB GDDR3). As you can see the performance sits between a basic laptop and an average desktop computer. The fast folder copy is noteworthy, but it is likely due to the properties of the Mac OS X filesystem (HFS+) more than to the speed of the hard disk drive.
While you can have a Macbook Pro with a dedicated graphics card (Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT) and a faster processor for 300 USD more, the reviewed laptop comes with the integrated card Nvidia GeForce 9400M. At the moment this is the most powerful integrated graphics card for laptops, and of course it plays 1080p HD video without any problem. As for gaming performance, this kind of cards lets you play demanding games such as Crysis at low resolution and settings, and games not so resource-intensive at medium resolution or settings (many older games can be run at high resolution and settings). Here you have a few benchmarks: you have the results at High settings and the games Devil May Cry 4 and X3: Terran Conflict in the laptop benchmark table.
In most benchmarks the Macbook Pro scores 20-45% higher than the Dell Studio with the 3450, but in the Resident Evil 5 benchmark it more than doubles it, so it is possible than in some games you can get a higher performance than expected. The graphics driver version used in the Macbook Pro is 185.75 included in the drivers disk, because I did not succeed when trying to update them.
In any laptop battery life depends heavily on the tasks being performed, the brightness of the screen and, in this particular case, the intensity of the keyboard backlighting. In my testing I kept the screen brightness 1 level below the maximum (that’s quite comfortable in a well-lit room) and the keyboard backlighting at the brightest setting (that is the default one). Here you have the results:
- Internet, working with text, while listening to music: 5 h 3 min until the “low battery” warning (3%), with 3 periods in standby mode; during the longest resting period (1 h 25 min) the battery level dropped a 2%.
- Playing games (Devil May Cry 4 benchmark with loop On, under Windows Vista): 2 h 22 min.
- DVD watching (anecdotal use): after watching a movie for 1 h 58 min, battery level was 60%.
Keep in mind that both screen and keyboard brightness were set almost to the maximum, so it would be probably quite easy to get 6 hours of battery life or maybe even more lowering the screen brightness and turning the keyboard backlighting off (the advertised battery life is 7 h, I think it’s possible under the right conditions). Current Macbook Pros have internal, non user-replaceable batteries, but it is a new kind of battery that can last a lot more charge/discharge cycles before losing capacity, so it has been estimated that most users would never need to replace the battery before replacing the laptop.
The new Apple Macbook Pro is without any doubt an excellent laptop, it is thin and solidly built and with a pleasant and modern design. The screen is much better than that of most laptops and, if you don’t need a high 3D performance, it is fast enough for most tasks. In addition, a battery life of over 5 hours, while far from the 10+ mark achieved by some netbooks and business laptops, is much longer than the typical 2-3 hours offered by most consumer laptops. Is it an expensive laptop? Not really: it is expensive compared to most consumer laptops, but not compared to other high-end laptops with similar configurations (Dell Latitude E6500, HP Elitebook 8530p, Lenovo Thinkpad T500…).
If you are a Windows user, it is possible that you feel a bit lost with a Mac in the beginning: the keyboard layout and some basic things (installation of software, the taskbar/dock…) are different and, if you have not switched to Windows Vista because “it’s different from XP”, you probably do not want to try new things, but Mac OS X is very intuitive, snappy and stylish. The most important thing you have to consider before considering switching to Mac OS are applications: if your applications or equivalent ones are avaliable in Mac OS X and you can assume the cost (if any), I think you are going to be happy with the change. For gaming, while the catalog of games for Mac is not small and contains great games such as Call of Duty 4 and World of Warcraft, it is possible that you have to rely on Windows. If this is the case, installing Windows on a Mac is easy thanks to Boot Camp, and even installing Windows XP SP2 is a breeze (in fact it is funny that it is much easier than in most laptops with Windows Vista). In my (very limited) testing, Windows Vista works 99%: I have encountered minor problems, such as a low sensitivity of the trackpad (seems unresponsive to tapping) and visual artifacts in some demos (Crysis on High, X3: Terran Conflict on Medium, Street Fighter 4 when using Low detail background) that are probably solved in the fully patched games. Power usage has been reported in other sites as being poorer than under Mac OS, with higher temperatures and shorter battery life under Windows, but I could not test that.
- Thinner and lighter than most 15-inch laptops, but very solid
- Non-glossy finish is not a fingerpring magnets
- Excellent screen, with good contrast and viewing angles
- Long battery life
- Runs very cool and silent under light use (Intrenet, text)
- Screen is very glossy, not well suited for use outdoors
- Only 2 USB ports and no eSATA
- Optical drive does not take small disks
- Battery is non user-replaceable
- Can become hot when playing on charging the battery
To finish the review I have recorded a short video (without sound, to use it in the 3 versions of Towards the optimal laptop and Youtube visitors) showing the laptop, Mac OS X startup, a comparison of viewing angles with the Dell Studio 1537 and the monitor HP L2245w, rebooting to Windows Vista and Resident Evil 5 benchmark and, finally, the backlit keyboard.
A few purchase options