Apple's new 17-in. MacBook Pro rocks

By Ken Mingis, Computerworld |  Hardware, Apple, Mac

It took Apple Inc. a while to finally get around to updating the 17-in. MacBook Pro, but the wait was more than worth it.

Apple started rolling out its carved-from-solid-aluminum laptops a year ago, with the incredibly thin MacBook Air. Then, in October, it revamped its MacBooks and the 15-in. MacBook Pro, moving them to the "unibody" manufacturing process (and moving the MacBooks decidedly upscale).

Now, finally, comes the Big Daddy of all Apple laptops, the top-of-the-line 17-incher that has been made truly drool-worthy for professionals who need every bit of computing power and speed while on the go. Of course, speed, size and innovation don't come cheap.

The already well-equipped base model (although I'm loath to call anything this gorgeous and well-built a "base model") starts with a 2.66-GHz Core 2 Duo processor from Intel, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, two Nvidia graphics processors and a simply stunning high-resolution, 1920-by-1200-pixel screen. Price: US$2,799.

As with the rest of Apple's laptops, the MacBook Pro 17's chassis is now carved out of a solid chunk of aluminum that eliminates any flex, does away with seams along the edges, and helps make this the lightest, thinnest 17-in. laptop now on the market. It's just 0.98 inches thick with the lid closed, and weighs in at a svelte 6.6 pounds -- 0.3 pounds less than its predecessor.

The glossy screen is surrounded by a piano-black bezel, an echo of the aluminum-and-black look that debuted in 2007 with the iPhone. The multitouch trackpad has a glass veneer and integrated clicker button. There's a lighted keyboard (the keys are now black), the usual retinue of ports -- including the recently introduced Mini DisplayPort for external monitors -- and a built-in iSight webcam. (Note: Video adapters are no longer included in the box, so if you plan to hook up a monitor, you'll have to buy the correct adapter separately.)

Oh, and there's the new built-in, nonreplaceable battery that Apple swears will last up to eight hours. Yes, eight hours. More about my own experiences with battery life in a bit.

If that's not enough for you, the 17-in. MacBook Pro can be optioned in ways that should please even the most demanding user.

You say a dual-core 2.66-GHz chip isn't enough? Fair enough. Hand over $300 and you can bump the processor to 2.93 GHz.

The 5,400-rpm hard drive is too slow? Give Apple another $750 for a 256GB solid-state disk drive (SSD).

You can't possibly live with only 4GB of RAM? Toss in another $1,200 to double the RAM to 8GB. (Those 4GB sticks don't come cheap.)

Price out the door for the ultimate MacBook Pro is a recession-denying $5,049, plus tax. At least the shipping is free.

The MacBook Pro's ports are all lined up on the left. The new addition here is the Mini DisplayPort, just to the right of the three USB ports

That's the configuration Apple sent over for review purposes, a configuration I affectionately dubbed the MacBook Pro "Pinnacle," because it's hard to imagine what more you could want in a laptop.

Apple officials say this configuration offers up "ultimate Mac performance." I can vouch for that. Short of something like DNA sequencing or editing hours of hi-def video in Final Cut Pro, I haven't yet found a way to tax this setup to the max. But I'm going to keep trying until Apple pries this thing out of my hands in a few weeks.

A screen that sizzles

For now, I'll focus on what's new (and really, really good) in this laptop. Four things stand out: the screen, the integrated battery, the 256GB SSD, and the screen. (OK, I'm counting the screen twice; it's beyond anything I've ever seen anywhere else except maybe an IMAX theater.)

I've long been a fan of screen real estate. The bigger the screen and the higher the resolution, the happier I am. After spending some time staring at this glossy display -- LED backlit, of course -- I couldn't be happier. It appears to be just as bright as my second-generation MacBook Air, meaning you can use it in bright sunlight and have no problem seeing what's on the screen. More important for users who plan on doing a lot of Photoshop or video work, the display offers a wider gamut of colors than before, according to Apple officials. That translates into even richer color saturation and deeper blacks.

Not surprisingly, you do get some reflection from the glossy finish, and if you think that's going to be a problem -- or if you simply prefer Apple's matte-finish screen -- you can get the antiglare screen for $50 -- but only on the 17-in. model. All other Apple laptops are now glossy-only.

In addition to the 250-nit brightness and truly deep color saturation, the high pixel count delivers razor-sharp text and true high-definition capabilities for anyone working with -- and needing to preview -- hi-def video. For those keeping track, the pixels-per-inch count is 133; that's high, and might make some on-screen elements such as menus or text look a little small. To my 47-year-old eyes, everything looked fine.

Pushing those pixels are two Nvidia graphics processors. This is the same setup that debuted in October with the 15-in. MacBook Pro. The Nvidia 9400M is an integrated chip that uses up to 256MB of video RAM; this is the option to choose to save juice when on battery life. It's the same chip that powers the 13.3-in. screens in the MacBook Air and both MacBook models. The fact that it's powering more pixels on a larger screen doesn't seem to make any difference in this case. I detected no problems viewing videos, for instance.

This MacBook Pro also has a discrete Nvidia 9600M GT chip that offers a luscious 512MB of video RAM. I'm not a gamer, but if I were, this would make me a happy camper. If you're into games, or find yourself doing things like 3D modeling, character animation or anything that's going to tax the video subsystem, this is a welcome inclusion. (I expect to have a brief follow-up report later this month that focuses on gaming.)

The 9600M GT does use more power, so battery life will be reduced by about an hour, according to Apple. (You toggle between the two graphics chips using the Energy Saver system preference: Better Battery Life uses the integrated processor; Better Performance uses the 9600M GT. You have to log out and log back in when making the change.)

Given all this video firepower, it's unfortunate that the optical drive doesn't play Blu-ray DVDs -- nor is there an option to add a Blu-ray drive, even if you wanted one. I have to assume that Apple wants you to get your hi-def movies and TV shows through its own AppleTV or through iTunes. But I can say that 30 Rock in hi-def -- I bought the current season through iTunes -- looks phenomenal in full-screen mode. It's very film-like, with rich colors and no digital artifacts. In fact, it looks as good as hi-def video does on my 46-in. Sony Bravia LCD TV.

A built-in battery that really lasts

Perhaps the most controversial change to the 17-in. MacBook Pro is the new built-in battery. That's right: You won't be swapping batteries anymore if you're working on lengthy cross-country flights. Of course, if Apple's estimates are correct, you won't have to. That's because the 95-watt/hour lithium-ion polymer battery lasts up to eight hours -- seven, if you're using the more powerful Nvidia 9600M GT graphics chip.

Apple arrives at its estimates by turning the screen brightness down to half and leaving Wi-Fi on. With those parameters in place, I managed just under 6.5 hours on battery while surfing, doing text editing, playing iTunes at times and transferring a few files -- the longest I've ever gotten from one charge.

Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, depending on how you're using the laptop -- especially if you're hitting the processor hard. DVD playback at full brightness and in full-screen mode takes a toll, too. Apple says to expect about four hours and 15 minutes when watching movies. That's about twice what earlier models got.

Apple custom-designed the battery and used as much room in the expansive 17-in. chassis as possible. In fact, it even eliminated the battery-removal mechanism used in earlier models -- just to make a little more space for the new battery. (Since there's no latch on the bottom of the laptop, accessing the RAM and hard drive now requires the removal of 10 very small screws.)

And it has introduced new adaptive-charging technology specific to this model that meters out battery charging depending on what you're doing at the time. The goal was to extend the life of the battery so that you won't have to replace it anytime soon.

Apple estimates the battery should be good for 1,000 charge cycles -- more than three times the number for a typical laptop battery -- or about five years. That's assuming four full charges a week, at eight hours a charge. Naturally, your battery life will vary.

If you do need the battery replaced, you'll have to get Apple or an Apple authorized service center to do it for you. The cost is $179, and Apple says the job can be done in a day.

But wait -- there's more

As noted earlier, there are several ways to trick out the MacBook Pro. In addition to opting for the faster processor and doubling the RAM -- 4GB should be fine for most users, by the way, so you can save $1,200 right there -- you can also choose a solid-state disk drive.

I've been a big fan of SSDs ever since I got one in my second-generation MacBook Air last fall. They're fast, use less energy, run dead silent and, since there are no moving platters, are less susceptible to damage should you jolt the laptop suddenly or drop it. They're also expensive, and you actually get less storage space than with a traditional hard drive for the same money.

The 17-in. MacBook Pro comes standard with a 320GB hard drive spinning at 5,400 rpm. If you opt for the 128GB SSD, you'll pay $300 extra. And the 256GB SSD -- the largest one yet offered by Apple -- costs $750 more than the base configuration. That makes the gigabyte-per-dollar equation dicey at best, at least for now. But what an SSD lacks in price, it makes up in speed.

Boot-up time, for instance, is just 25 seconds from start-up chime to desktop -- the same as on my MacBook Air, which has the 128GB SSD. (That's about half the time needed to start up my old 2007 MacBook Pro.) Applications launch in a fraction of the time it normally takes, and Mac OS X always feels snappy. The speed boost shows up in benchmarking tests, too.

I usually run Xbench when I get a new laptop. It's not an infallible test tool, but it does give you an overall idea of how any particular model compares to Apple laptops present and past. Xbench taxes the drive, RAM and graphics processor to determine an overall score.

The score for this particular MacBook Pro topped out at 189. Fast. Very fast. (By way of comparison, my Air returned an Xbench score of 141. That 2007 MacBook Pro with a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor -- the top-of-the-line model two years ago -- got a score of 118.)

It's always difficult to compare different tasks on different computers, but I wanted to see how the top-end MacBook Pro compares to the top-of-the-line MacBook Air. So I opened iMovie, selected a minute-long digital video clip and exported it as a 960-by-540-pixel movie. Doing that on the MacBook Pro took two minutes and seven seconds, with the processor cores at about 75% to 80% utilization. On the Air, which has a 1.86-GHz chip, the video export took almost exactly twice as long: four minutes and 16 seconds.

The same differential shows up when launching apps. Firing up Photoshop Elements 6 on the MacBook Pro took just under 4 seconds; on the Air, no slouch in the app-launching department because of its SSD, it took 8 seconds. And in earlier testing, launching the same software on the 2007 MacBook Pro took 16 seconds.

Saving a few seconds here and there may not sound like much, but if you use your computer to do a variety of tasks and can save a few seconds with each task, those seconds and minutes add up over time. And time really is money.

Final thoughts

An Apple official described the company's goal in creating the latest MacBook Pro as follows: "It's designed for performance users... [who] crave high-performance technologies." By that benchmark, the MacBook Pro clearly hits the target. There's not much more you could ask for -- especially with the build-to-order options -- so the question becomes: Would you be happy with less?

Apple's lineup runs the gamut from trendy, hip portable for road warriors (the MacBook Air), to mainstream laptops for the masses (the MacBooks), to upscale for professionals (the MacBook Pros). Assuming you want or need the biggest screen available, the question then centers around storage and processor.

For most would-be owners, even the stock configuration will exceed their needs by orders of magnitude. Apple's newest laptop should handle anything thrown at it. If you've managed to avoid the belt-tightening that comes with a recession -- in other words, you've got the money and need to shave a few seconds off routine tasks -- go with the SSD, order the faster processor and double the RAM (though you can get the same amount of RAM for about $750 from third-party resellers).

Your wallet will be noticeably lighter, but at least for the near term, you'll have one of the fastest, best-built, most-eye-pleasing laptops on the planet. And there's value in that, too.

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