By Harry McCracken | Thursday, October 16, 2008 at 12:33 am
Finally! Writing about Apple rumors can be fun, but reviewing Apple computers is far more rewarding. I’ve spent the evening with Apple’s all-new 15-inch MacBook Pro, the new flagship of its portable line. (I used the $1999 model with a 2.4-GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and 256MB of RAM for its Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor; the $2499 version has a faster Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, twice the RAM and graphics RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. Other configurations are available, including one with a solid-state drive.)
For no particular reason other than that it’s fun to write and easy to read, I’m structuring this review as a Q&A. But first, an executive summary: This is one of the polished Macs ever made, and therefore one of the most polished PC evers, period. It’s not cheap–folks who buy computers by finding the most features at the lowest price may find it shockingly pricey, actually. And it’s possible to nitpick a few aspects of the design (before this review is over, I will). But I’m sitting here with both the old MacBook Pro and this one at the moment, and the new one is simply a much nicer computer at the same price.
On to questions and answers:
Q. The old MacBook Pro’s industrial design was basically five years old, since it was practically the same as a late-model PowerBook G4. The new model sure looks different, but is it better?
Aesthetics are aesthetics, but I’d say it’s beyond debate that the new Pro is a significantly more highly-evolved piece of design. The old Pro may have had an aluminum case, but it used plastic trim to piece everything together; the new Pro’s unibody aluminum case is as close to seamless as that of any laptop I’ve ever seen. (Even the display is seamless, since it’s flush with the black border that surrounds it.)
The unibody case is carved out of a solid block of aluminum and feels like it: It’s noticably more solid-feeling than the old-style MacBook Pro–not to mention plastic-cased laptops–and doesn’t seem to flex in the least. (My oldstyle Pro, on the other hand, squeaks a bit when I rest my palm on the wrist-rest area, like a creaky car.)
The new keyboard is the same design as that of the old-style MacBook and the MacBook Air, with keys that come up through individual holes in the case. They’re at least as comfy to type on as the old Pro’s more traditional keyboard, and I’ve found this design to be more reliable. (The keys are less prone to breaking off, and its harder for crumbs or bits of dust to get trapped beneath them.) The new Pro has also stolen the MacBook’s latchless hinge–a small refinement, but one you benefit from every time you open the laptop up.
I hate car metaphors in computer reviews, but I can’t help myself: The old MacBook Pro was a solidly-built Toyota, and the new one is a Lexus.
Q. Apple loves to shave bulk and weight off products when it does updates. Is this a thinner and/or lighter MacBook Pro?
It’s slightly thinner–it’s .95″ thick, which is .05″ thinner than the old Pro. But it’s also slightly heavier: 5.5 lbs., versus 5.4 lbs. for the old model.That’s despite the fact that Apple is touting the light weight of its new unibody case design–any weight that Apple saved was eaten up by other components. (The second Nvidia graphics processor, maybe?)
The new Pro has swoopier curves which have a pleasing placebo effect: It feels sleeker than the old Pro. Both new and old Pros compare well with other 15.4″ notebooks with built-in optical drives, such as Dell’s XPS M1530 and Lenovo’s ThinkPad W.
Q. Is the screen any good?
Yes indeed. As far as I can tell, it’s the same 1440-by-900 LED-backlit one as in the previous Pro, but it’s a beauty: really vivid when you crank up the brightness to its maximum setting, and still usable if you rachet it down to conserve battery life. The black border around the display gives the Pro a familial relation to the aluminum iMac, and helps to focus your attention on what’s onscreen–it makes the display look a little like a tiny movie screen in a darkened theater.
Previous MacBook Pros had old-style matte screens as standard and offered a glossy display as an option. With this generation of Pro, the glossy screen is the only option. I’ve encountered folks who don’t like ’em–at certain angles, you can see your own reflection–but I find them good for applications of all sort and far better than matte screens for movie watching.
Q. This new MacBook Pro has two graphics processors, right?
Yes–Nvidia’s new GeForce 9400M, which provide integrated graphics which Apple says are up to five times faster than the Intel integrated graphics used in systems like last-generation MacBooks, plus Nvidia’s GeForce 9600M GT, a discrete graphics adapter with 256MB or 512MB of RAM. You can choose to use the integrated graphics and get better battery life (Apple says five hours–I haven’t tested this, but have historically gotten less life out of a charge than Apple estimates) or the more powerful discrete graphics (Apple says you’ll get four hours of battery life).
By contrast, the old MacBook Pro had just one graphics processor, Nvidia’s GeForce 8600M GT–more powerful than the 9400M, but less so than the 9600M GT–and Apple quoted a battery life of up to five hours.
Switching between the two graphics options isn’t exactly seamless: You do it in the Energy Saver settings in System Preferences, and must log out and back in to make the change. And you can’t choose to automatically use the integrated graphics when running off battery power and the discrete ones when plugged in–the change must be made manually.
The new Non-Pro MacBooks replace pokey Intel graphics with the GeForce 9400M, which sounds like it’s unquestionably a major advance, but I want to use the Pro more with heavy-duty applications such as 3D games before I come to any definitive conclusions about the dual-graphics approach.
Q. How about that touchpad?
It’s one of the most strikingly different thing about the new design: The touchpad is now significantly taller and wider–39 percent bigger overall–and made out of glass, serves as its own button (you can press it down to click), and supports additional gestures to perform tasks with a quick sweep of multiple fingers.
The idea of a glass touchpad sounds odder than the reality: It’s the same aluminumy color as the rest of the Pro, and feels slicker. At the press event introducing the new Apple portables, Steve Jobs described it as “silky smooth.” That’s accurate, but–so far at least–I’ve found it to be about equally pleasing as the more textured feel of the old touchpad.
I fumbled at first as I tried to deal with the lack of a separate button. I’m used to zipping my fingertips around the touchpad while keeping my thumb poised above the button; with the new touchpad, I tried pressing down with my fingers to click. Not too easy. Then I realized that I didn’t have to relearn a thing–I could continue to use my thumb exactly as before. (If I’d been using the computer blindfolded, I’d never know the button wasn’t there.)
With the old MacBook Pro touchpad, right-clicking required holding down the <Ctrl> key and stretching your fingers over to the touchpad, but the new model works well as a two-button mouse even though it has no buttons at all. Turn an option on in System Preferences–I’m not sure why it isn’t on by default–and pressing the lower right-hand corner of the touchpad simulates the right-click you’d get with the button that a Windows notebook would placee in that spot.
The new touchpad lets you brush four fingers up and down to trigger OS X’s Leopard and whisk all your application windows on or off the screen, a much faster way to use Expose than keystroke combinations. You can also brush fingers to the left or right to bring up the application switcher. Maybe I have fat fingers, but I had a little trouble getting them all on the touchpad at once. With practice, I’m sure it will get easier.