Review: Apple's 15-in. MacBook Pro delivers on speed, battery life

The move to faster PCIe flash storage offers a noticeable boost in performance

The 15-in. MacBook Pro has been my go-to machine since before it was called the MacBook Pro and was known as the Powerbook; I've depended on it for everything from writing reviews like this one to cutting complex video projects. Although I've consistently given high marks to the 13-in. MacBook Pro and the latest MacBook Air, I always circle back to the 15-in. MacBook Pro.

For 2013, all of the changes to the MacBook Pro are under the hood. (Image: Apple)

With the introduction this fall of the updated MacBook Pro -- the news was overshadowed by the arrival of the iPad Air -- Apple's best laptop has gotten even better. That's something to keep in mind if you're in a holiday gift-giving mood or looking to upgrade after the new year.

The new models offer Intel's quad-core i7 Haswell architecture, which was designed specifically to prolong battery life without sacrificing performance. Starting at $1999, the 15-in. MacBook Pro also features PCIe-based flash storage for much faster disk read/write speeds and updated graphics (though you have to spend more now to get a discrete graphics card). While the entry-level model is $200 cheaper than its predecessors, the version with discrete graphics starts at $2,599. (This is the model supplied by Apple for this review.)

In terms of looks, nothing's changed from last year. The 15-in. MacBook Pro measures 9.73 in. x 14.13 in., just .71 of an inch thick when closed and weighs 4.46 pounds. The MacBook Pro line is still crafted from aluminum, with the load-bearing frame cut from a single block. The result is a study in solid construction and clean design with a case that doesn't flex or creak under its own weight.

Also unchanged is the 15.4-in. (diagonal) LED-backlit IPS Retina display featuring pixels so densely packed that individual pixels can't be discerned at normal viewing distances. For those who stare at their laptop screen all day, take note: the LED backlighting provides even brightness across the entire display, while the IPS technology allows for viewing at different angles without any annoying colors shifts. The 2880x1800-pixel resolution means that there are more than five million pixels -- about three million more than you get on a 1080p HDTV. Text and high-resolution graphics are stunning, especially now that most third-party developers have updated their apps to take advantage of the Retina display.

For 2013, all of the big changes are inside.

The current line-up

There are two 15-in. models to choose from, both of which you can customize to a certain extent. For $1999, you get a 2.0GHz quad-core i7 (which can push to 3.2GHz when needed with Intel's Turbo Boost technology), 8GB of 1600MHz memory, 256GB of flash storage and Intel's integrated Iris Graphics. You can bump the processor to 2.3GHz (which can hit 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost) for an additional $100, or to 2.6GHz (which can reach 3.8GHz with Turbo Boost) for $300 more.

Storage on the entry-level MacBook Pro can also be upgraded to 512GB for $300 extra and to a whopping 1TB for $800. Here's where the move to PCIe flash that began with the MacBook Air reveals itself. When I reviewed the MacBook Air last summer, I found impressive performance; the benchmarked speed was nearly double that of last year's MacBook Pro.

The Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app shows how fast the MacBook Pro's flash storage is for reads and writes.

I'm happy to say that the move to PCIe-based flash delivers a discernible performance jump. Benchmarks using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app show that this machine consistently hits read/write speeds of over 700 Mbps. That's a big improvement over last year's average read/write speeds, which were 457Mbps and 414.5Mbps, respectively. The difference is noticeable even for common tasks like launching apps.

As for the built-in RAM, 8GB is fine for now, but 16GB will be better down the road. It's important to remember when you purchase a MacBook Pro that memory is fixed. What you buy is what will be in the machine for its life span. As a result, I advise getting the most memory you can afford. The $200 you'll spend for 16GB of RAM is worth it.

The high-end MacBook Pro comes with a pretty significant leap in price: $2599. In this configuration, you get a 2.3GHz quad-core i7 with Turbo Boost speeds of 3.5GHz; 16GB of 1600MHz memory; 512GB of storage; the integrated Intel Iris Pro Graphics and a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M with 2GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. (You can also upgrade to faster processors and more storage if you need extra horsepower.)

As before, OS X decides which graphics card to use on the fly based on performance needs, but you can choose to always use the more powerful NVIDIA chipset by going to Apple Menu> System Preferences> Energy Saver and making sure Automatic graphics selection is unchecked. Depending on how you use the laptop, this may affect battery life. More about this in a bit.

Both MacBook Pro models support dual external displays with a resolution up to 2560x1600 pixels for extending your desktop and for video mirroring.

Peripheral connections

When it comes to peripherals, the MacBook Pro offers a variety of connectivity options. On the left side of the laptop, next to the MagSafe 2 power connection, are two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a USB 3.0 port and a headphone jack. (The headphone jack is compatible with the Apple headsets that ship with the iPhone, and supports digital and analog audio out.) Thunderbolt 2 offers the latest generation of wide-bandwidth I/O technology, supporting everything from external drives to displays on a dual-channel 20Gbps bus.

On the right side of the laptop is another USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port (perfect for connecting to an HDTV), and an SDXC card reader.

The MacBook Pro also has two microphones, which help cancel out background noise during dictation and video conferencing, and a 720p camera, which is hidden within the black border at the top of the Retina display. (A green indicator light shines next to the camera when it's turned on.)

Low power Bluetooth 4 and all of the usual 802.11 wireless standards are supported, including a/b/g/n, and -- new to this model -- 802.11ac. That latter should improve Wi-Fi speeds if your router also offers 802.11ac.

The lighted chiclet-key keyboard is unchanged, as is the now-standard glass trackpad, which allows you to use multitouch gestures much as you would on an iPad. Regarding gestures, Apple engineers have brought some consistency between product lines, making it easier than ever to switch from an iPad to the MacBook Pro and vice versa. OS X supports a variety of gestures, though oddly, not all of them are enabled by default. A quick visit to Apple Menu> System Preferences> Trackpad allows you to select the ones you want to use.

Another carryover from the previous MacBook Pro is the magnetic latch. When you close the lid, the magnets catch with a satisfying snap and put the machine to sleep. The magnets are hidden in the aluminum frame, so there are no latches to wear out. The lid opens easily and OS X is usually up and running from sleep before you're finished positioning the screen.

Finally on the feature list, it's important to note something that's not here: Apple laptops don't have built-in Ethernet or an optical drive. If Wi-Fi isn't available and you need a physical Ethernet connection, Apple offers a Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adapter for $29. If you're still using optical media like DVDs and CDs, you can get an external drive from Apple for $79.

Getting up to speed is easy

These days, getting a new Mac up and running is a cinch. First, there's the option to use Migration Assistant to move data from your old computer (or a Time Machine backup) to the new one. But if you decide to start with a fresh install, Apple's iCloud services make the move easy. During the initial setup, there is an option to log into iCloud. By the time you're logged in on the laptop, your iCloud information is already being synced. My email, AIM, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn and Vimeo accounts were all added automatically, as were my contacts, calendar entries, reminders, notes, Safari bookmarks and documents. Within minutes, I was receiving Calendar notifications for upcoming birthdays, too.

If you've bought apps from the App Store, restoring your purchases to the new computer is simple. Launch the App Store (under the system-wide Apple menu in the menubar), go to Purchases Tab, log into iCloud (you may have to answer some security questions),and then click Install on the apps you want installed.

Essentially, if you're already in the Apple ecosystem, moving from one machine to another is remarkably painless.

In everyday use, this MacBook Pro generally runs quiet and is cool to the touch. Unless you're powering through something that's taxing the CPU, like rendering video, you're not likely to hear any noise coming from the fans. (When this laptop is going full blast, you'll hear a sound more like the soft hissing of static than the typical whine of a fan.)

Performance and battery tests

To test performance, I have a specific iMovie project I like to render. The iMovie '11 file is always exported using Apple's "Large" settings, resulting in an h.264 m4v file with a 960-by-540-pixel resolution. The 2.8GHz quad-core i5 iMac from 2010 rendered the movie project in 68 minutes; the latest iMac renders it in 47 minutes and 55 seconds. Last year's 2.6GHz Retina MacBook Pro did it in 65 minutes and 27 seconds; this model shaves off another three minutes.

Interestingly, the recently-released 64-bit iMovie '13 renders my project much faster than the older iMovie '11, but I can't confidently report those numbers because iMovie '13 never completes the rendering; the program coughs up a -50 error code about two-thirds of the way through. That's really too bad; iMovie '13 takes advantage of the 64-bit processing power built into Macs that iMovie '11 did not, and if rendering was consistent for the rest of the file, I could extrapolate that the project would finish around the 20-minute mark. That's about a third-the time needed before!

To really stress the battery, I ran this MacBook Pro through the same test I used on the 2013 MacBook Air. The battery was at 100% charge with screen brightness set to 80%, and the laptop set to sleep after 10 minutes of inactivity. Display dimming and Power Nap were turned off in the Energy Saver system preference. The Internet connection was routed through a corporate Wi-Fi network -- complete with AD-authentication -- and the laptop was connected to an external 22-in. Dell display set in portrait mode.

I opened up Mail, which checked for new email once a minute; Safari, which had multiple open tabs (though Flash was not installed); iCal; Terminal; Notes; Pages; Messages and Tweebot. I also had a virtual copy of Windows XP in Parallels 8 running BeyondCompare, Lync and Office (mostly Excel).

For the first test, a USB hard drive was plugged in for 45 minutes. The battery lasted 4 hours and 40 minutes. At no point did the computer sleep, and it always maintained a persistent wireless connection. Once I plugged it back in, the battery recharged to 100% in just over two hours.

I tested the MacBook Pro again, with everything the same except I did not have the external drive plugged in at all. The battery lasted 5 hours and 29 minutes. Finally, I ran the test with the external monitor unplugged, running the same apps. This time, the battery lasted six hours and 20 minutes.

The MacBook Pro offers nearly a workday's worth of battery life, even when performing a variety of simultaneous processor-intensive tasks (like running two operating systems and accompanying apps at the same time). Clearly, with careful power management (like dimming the display and disabling Bluetooth) and shorter bursts of processor-intensive tasks, you should be able to squeeze more time out of this laptop, making Apple's eight-hour battery life boast a reasonable expectation.

Final thoughts

Is the MacBook Pro worth the price? The short answer is yes. Though it's not cheap, what you get is the latest technology in a well-built machine that should last for several years. It does everything you'd expect from a computer in its class, delivering great performance, a gorgeous high-density screen, Apple's consistently great design, excellent battery life and extensive software support.

If you bought a MacBook Pro last year, there's probably no need to upgrade unless you're compelled to always have the latest and greatest -- a habit that can become rather costly over time. But if you're using an older MacBook Pro, or looking to make the jump from Windows, you won't find a laptop better than the 15-in. MacBook Pro.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

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This story, "Review: Apple's 15-in. MacBook Pro delivers on speed, battery life" was originally published by Computerworld.

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