June 14, 2009, 8:06 PM — I had been looking forward to this past week for months. I imagined immersing myself in session after session at Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference, getting an under-the-hood look at where the Mac platform is headed. Alas, just a few minutes into the WWDC keynote address, the reality became clear that I would instead spend a week in the Macworld Lab testing new Macs. Why? Because early in the WWDC keynote, Apple executive Phil Schiller announced the company's new laptops. After a mad scramble, we got our hands on the six new MacBook Pros and ran them through our benchmark tests. (In this article, I'll look mostly at speed. Full reviews with mouse ratings that also consider the laptops' design and features are in the works.)
13-inch MacBooks go Pro
In case you forgot about the MacBook Pro announcement as soon as the iPhone 3G S was unveiled, the biggest change to the MacBook Pro line was the addition of two 13-inch models. Essentially, Apple took the unibody MacBook and added a FireWire 800 port to the laptop and the word "Pro" to the name. The new 13-inch models feature a 2.26GHz or 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo Intel processor, a boost over the 2GHz and 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processors found in the unibody MacBooks. The white plastic 2.13GHz MacBook ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) is currently the only laptop in the MacBook line.
The $1,199 13-inch 2.26GHz MacBook Pro ships with 2GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 RAM and a 160GB hard drive. The $1,499 13-inch 2.53GHz MacBook Pro ships with 4GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 RAM and a 250GB hard drive. Both models ship with the Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics subsystem.
We tested the two new 13-inch MacBook Pros using Macworld's overall system performance test tool, Speedmark 5. The new 13-inch 2.53GHz MacBook Pro was a little more than 12 percent faster overall than the new 13-inch 2.26GHz MacBook Pro. The 2.53GHz laptop was about 21 percent faster at Photoshop and Cinema 4D.
Of course, some of this performance difference is due to the 2.53GHz system's additional RAM, so we also tested the 2.26GHz model with 4GB of RAM. Most of our tests (which are run one at a time) don't benefit much from additional RAM, and the two-point improvement in the Speedmark score bears that out. The biggest performance difference with the additional RAM was in our Photoshop suite times, which improved the new 2.26GHz MacBook Pro's score by about 10 percent.
Comparing the new 13-inch MacBook Pros to the last unibody 13-inch MacBook, we see that the new 2.26GHz MacBook Pro is about 12 percent faster overall than the 2GHz unibody MacBook.
Looking at the performance differences between the new 2.26GHz MacBook Pro and the lowest priced Mac laptop, the new 2.13GHz white MacBook, we find about a 7.5 percent improvement in Speedmark scores with the 2.26GHz MacBook Pro. Highlights include somewhat faster frame rates in 3-D games, thanks to the faster 1,066MHz DDR3 RAM that the MacBook Pro uses (the white MacBook uses 800MHz DDR2 memory).
Maybe the most interesting comparison is between the 13-inch 2.53GHz MacBook Pro and the new 15-inch 2.53GHz MacBook Pro. There is less than a one percent difference in the Speedmark scores for these two, and their specifications are nearly identical. The $200 price difference essentially buys you two more inches of diagonal screen real estate.
15-inch MacBook Pros
Apple previously offered two 15-inch models; this time, Apple added a third standard configuration 15-inch MacBook Pro that achieves a lower price point by providing only the GeForce 9400M graphics processor; it doesn't have the higher-power Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics found in the rest of the 15-inch MacBook Pro configurations. The low-end 15-inch MacBook Pro costs $1,699 and comes with a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 memory, and a 250GB hard drive.
Then there's the $1,999 15-inch 2.66GHz MacBook Pro, which comes with 4GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive. The high end of the 15-inch MacBook Pro line features a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive for $2,299. Both of these 15-inch models have the dual graphics setup with the GeForce 9400M and GeForce 9600M GT, but the amount of video RAM for the 9600M GT differs--the 2.66GHz MacBook has 256MB, while the 2.8GHz has 512MB.
When it comes to the benchmarks, there are subtle differences between the 15-inch 2.53GHz and 2.66GHz models in our Speedmark scores, but there are dramatic differences in 3-D games scores, with the higher-powered graphics found in the 2.66GHz model helping that system to nearly double the amount of frames displayed in our Quake 4 timedemo tests. (More games scores will be included in our full review of these new MacBook Pros).
A bigger performance difference is seen when comparing the new 15-inch 2.66GHz MacBook Pro to the 15-inch 2.8GHz MacBook Pro, with the 2.8GHz model's Speedmark score coming in nearly 7.5 percent higher than that 2.66GHz model.
To check the progress these systems have made, we compared their performance to the systems they replace. The 2.53GHz model is arguably in a new class, but even so, it compares favorably to the previous low-end MacBook Pro, a 15-inch model with a 2.4GHz processor. The new 2.53GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro had a Speedmark score nearly 6 percent higher than the 2.4GHz model. The 2.53GHz model was about 7 percent faster in our Photoshop and Cinema 4D tests. The one test that the older 2.4GHz model outperformed the newcomer was in 3-D game frame rate tests--the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro has the faster GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor.
Comparing the new 15-inch 2.66GHz MacBook Pro to the older 2.4GHz system we see an 8 percent higher Speedmark 5 score, as well as faster 3-D game performance-the new system couples the same faster graphics processor with a faster Core 2 Duo processors. The new 2.66GHz MacBook Pro performed nearly identically to the previous top of the line MacBook Pro, also a 2.66GHz model that cost $500 more.
The 15-inch 2.8GHz MacBook Pro is nearly 8 percent faster than the 2.66GHz model it replaces at the top of the 15-inch MacBook Pro line, with Photoshop scores that were more than 9 percent faster.
17-inch MacBook Pro
The 17-inch MacBook Pro has a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive for $2,499. It also has the dual graphics set, using the GeForce 9400M and the GeForce 9600M GT with 512MB of video RAM.
The new 17-inch 2.8GHz MacBook Pro was about 3 percent faster in our Speedmark tests than the 2.66GHz 17-inch model it replaces.
When compared to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with the same 2.8GHz processor as the 17-inch MacBook Pro, we see that the 15-inch model with the same processor was faster in our Speedmark scores, but not by much. Both systems posted identical Photoshop and Cinema 4D test times, with the 17-inch being a little slower in our Compressor test as well as a bit slower to start up.
Since the 17-inch MacBook Pro can be considered a desktop replacement, we retested a 2.66GHz, 24-inch iMac to see how its performance stands up. In overall performance, the iMac, with a Speedmark score of 280, was a little more than 9 percent faster than the new 17-inch 2.8GHz MacBook Pro. In processor-intensive tests like Cinema 4D, the new 17-inch MacBook Pro prevailed. But in hard drive-based tests, like unzipping a 2GB file archive, the portables with their 5,400-RPM notebook hard drives were no match for the iMac and its full-sized 7,200-RPM drive. Of course, it's very difficult to fit a 24-inch iMac into a backpack.
Overall, the new 13-, 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros offer a very good speed boost over the respective models they replace--a boost that has more added value when you consider that the new laptops are priced lower than the older models they replace.
Check back soon for full reviews of these new systems, including battery life tests and more game scores. Also coming soon will be our review of the new MacBook Air models.
[James Galbraith is Macworld's lab director.]