Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro an “impressive machine”, says former skeptic

There’s something I have to say at the outset of this review: From the time Apple Inc. announced the first 17-in. PowerBook G4 models five years ago, I’ve always been a little prejudiced against them.

I’d never have tried to talk someone out of buying one, but I always shared my opinion that a laptop with a 17-in. display barely qualifies as a laptop at all. It seemed to me that the 17-in. PowerBook and its successor, the Intel-based MacBook Pro, was simply too big, too bulky and too heavy — though I confess I’d never carried one around.

With that out of the way, let me say this: I have spent a week getting to know Apple’s newest 17-in. MacBook Pro — the 2.6-GHz model with LED backlighting, to be specific — and I’m still not sure it’s the perfect machine for me. Much like the ultraslim MacBook Air isn’t for everyone, neither is the biggest of the MacBook Pros . But it is one incredibly impressive laptop, and it doesn’t seem as bulky as I’d always thought.

First, let me detail what this particular model will set you back, should you decide to buy it. The 17-in. model starts at $2,799 and comes with a 2.5-GHz processor and 2GB of RAM. Opting for the marginally faster 2.6-GHz processor adds $250 to the bottom line. Want 4GB of RAM instead of 2GB?

Tack on another $200 if you buy your memory from Apple. And if you’re going for broke, you might get the high-resolution screen for another $100. That brings the price to $3,349 for a fully tricked-out MacBook Pro. Of course, you’re also getting the most powerful laptop Apple has ever made.

It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from the MacBook Air, which sacrifices performance, storage space, RAM expansion and a full set of peripheral ports to deliver an amazingly small and light footprint. By contrast, the 17-in. MacBook Pro delivers all of the processing power, RAM options and storage capacity of an iMac — along with approximately the same screen real estate. That makes the big MacBook Pro a desktop replacement in virtually every sense of the word, even if it gives up some of the ultraportability that the MacBook Air offers in spades.

Though it is approximately twice the weight of the MacBook Air, I can’t really say that the 17-in. MacBook Pro is overly heavy. Despite my assumptions about its bulk, at 6.6 lb., it is actually lighter than I expected. That makes it just over a pound heavier than the 15-in. MacBook Pro and about a pound and a half heavier than the 13-in. MacBook.

Even though it isn’t overly heavy for its size, there is definitely a size issue (for better or worse, depending on your perspective) to this computer. Sitting next to a MacBook, it looks huge. The MacBook Pro even seemed big when it was being taken out of the box. I had to laugh at the idea of putting it into the backpack-style case that has served me for both a MacBook and one of the very first 15-in. MacBook Pros.

The best notebook screen in the world

The LED screen is new to the 17-in. line with this model. I’d seen this technology on the MacBook Air and thought it was impressive then in terms of screen brightness, but on the MacBook Pro, it is simply stunning. Even during the operating system’s start-up sequence, when there’s nothing but a gray screen with a darker gray Apple logo on screen, I found myself staring at it. By the time I’d finished walking through the Setup Assistant, I was as as much in love with this display as I was with my first HDTV.

The 17-in. high-resolution model offers a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, the same as the 24-in. iMac and the 23-in. Apple Cinema HD Display. (It costs $100 more than the standard fluorescent backlit model, which offers a more modest 1,680-by-1,050-pixel native resolution.) The LED backlighting is the one you want: It’s bright, crisp and at full power immediately. With the glossy screen — an option for MacBook Pro displays — the brightness and color brilliance is out of this world. It has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

At resolutions high enough to view 1080p digital video content without scaling, it’s no surprise that Apple had digital video in mind when it designed this laptop. Loaded with Final Cut Pro (or Final Cut Express if you’re more hobbyist than professional videographer) and coupled with an HD video camera, this machine is a dream for portable video production, be it for a school project or the nightly news. The stock Nvidia G3Force 8600M GT video card with 512MB of GDDR3 SDRAM video RAM will be welcome in this niche as well.

Of course, the advantages of this display and the video hardware paired with it aren’t just for people who spend hours a day working with media applications such as Apple’s Pro apps or the Adobe CS3 suite — all users will appreciate the screen real estate and the video quality.

When watching movies, the high resolution, bright screen and impossibly rich colors can’t help but conjure up thoughts of a portable, high-end LCD television. Having this machine on hand to watch movies might even make flight delays enjoyable — or at least a lot more tolerable. One disappointment, given that the display can display HD content natively, is that HD movies from the iTunes Store are still only available via the Apple TV.

The screen and, perhaps more importantly, the Nvidia G3Force 8600M GT card also make this a great gaming machine. Yes, I know that hard-core gamers will call gaming on a Mac an oxymoron, but this machine delivers a great experience: 3-D rendering is better than on most recent Macs — except, obviously, for the Mac Pro models — and the result is on par with what you’d expect from this level of hardware.
A huge improvement in processing power

Apple describes the current MacBook Pro as being anywhere from 50% to 74% faster than the original MacBook Pros released two years ago, depending on the tasks being measured. Since I have one of those original MacBook Pro models, I decided to see just how accurate those results are.

My experience, both in terms of specific performance testing and the overall feel of the two laptops, more or less confirms Apple’s claims. Although I don’t have access to the exact suite of applications that Apple used in its test results, my evaluation indicates serious performance improvements, even though the clock speed of the processors has not changed dramatically.

Much of this performance boost is the result of the differences in architecture between the original Core Duo processor and the current Core 2 Duo chip. The changes that result in such dramatic performance boosts include an expanded Level 2 cache and a much faster 800-HMz bus design. Some performance improvements can also be attributed to the expanded video memory and updated graphics card.

Exactly how well does the latest MacBook Pro compare to its predecessor in real-world conditions? For starters, the boot time from pressing the power button to a fully loaded Finder and Desktop is noticeably, if not dramatically, faster.

The 2008 model started up in 39 seconds, 15.8 seconds faster than the 2006 model. In day-to-day use, the changes are less obvious when launching applications and working with files and folders, with the new model being about one or two seconds faster for most operations.

One dramatic difference is the performance of PowerPC-based applications that run using Rosetta emulation. Although most Intel -based Mac users are now working with Intel-native or Universal Binary applications that can run on either processor, I decided to try out Office 2004 on both machines to get an idea of the difference when using Rosetta. Office 2004 is the last Power PC-only version of the popular Microsoft suite of apps.

Launching and opening a 2.1MB document took 22 seconds on the older MacBook Pro and just 12.5 seconds on the new one. The performance of older Office applications was also noticeably faster on the new machine.

Not surprisingly, the performance and launch times of Universal and Intel-native applications, including Apple’s own iWork suite, was about the same when working predominantly with text and limited graphics. When dealing with graphics or multimedia in iWork and iLife, there were more noticeable improvements; the newer MacBook Pro seemed much snappier.

Adobe Creative Suite 3 applications launched in roughly the same amount of time on both machines. But using them was faster on the newer model. The exact increases depended on the types of tasks. Some, such as adjusting an image’s color mode, were only minutely faster on the newer MacBook Pro. Others, including most renderings and filter options, were significantly faster.

Again, the exact gains varied, but when using some 3-D and processor-intensive filters in Photoshop, the new hardware was up to twice as fast as the older MacBook Pro. That’s even better than Apple’s overall test of 45 filters implied.

The Xbench benchmarking tool also revealed a surprising degree of difference between the two machines. Overall CPU tests with Xbench indicated that the newest model offers twice the performance of the first-generation MacBook Pro. The 2008 model had a score of 175.17; the 2006 model, a score of 73.76. Memory performance was also up significantly, no doubt due to the faster bus: The new laptop got a score of 193.67; the old one, 111.88. Likewise, graphics tests revealed significantly better scores for both Quartz 2-D imaging and OpenGL 3-D imaging. Although benchmarking tools don’t always translate directly to real-world observable results, there were significant gains between the models and it shows in regular use.

When it comes to speed, the overall takeaway is this: If you regularly work with professional-level graphics and video applications, you will notice increased performance that is not immediately obvious when comparing just processor clock speeds.

If you’ve held off considering a new MacBook Pro because there aren’t obvious differences between the systems, it may be worth taking one of the newer models for a spin and reconsidering. For more general use such as Web surfing, doing e-mail or online chats, you’ll see an improvement, but it may not be as big.
Faster hardware isn’t the only change in the new 17-in. model. The MacBook Pro line now supports all of the same multitouch trackpad gestures that were introduced in the MacBook Air. These include the ability to swipe through items (photos in iPhoto/Aperture, Web pages in Safari or songs in iTunes, for instance) with a three-finger gesture on the trackpad, as well as the ability to zoom the contents of an image or the text of a Web page by pinching, much like on the iPhone or iPod Touch. In image-related applications, it also allows you to rotate images using two fingers.

The trackpad that comes with the MacBook Pro isn’t as large as MacBook Air’s, however. While it is still certainly functional and cool — not to mention a feature that is very easy to get used to if you work with it frequently — it does work better with the MacBook Air’s larger trackpad.

Battery life

The whole point of a laptop is to get work done on the road — and you can’t do that without decent battery performance. So how does Apple balance that power and that brilliant screen with battery life? Surprisingly well. While Apple’s assessment that this laptop should manage more than four hours for light Web use and word processing seems a bit optimistic, I have to say the MacBook Pro performed decently.

I spent a couple of days working completely on battery power while preparing for this review. While I did reduce the screen brightness and take advantage of some other Energy Saver features available in all Mac laptops (such as allowing the hard drive to spin down and the screen to dim when not in use), I didn’t go overboard. I kept the screen at about two-thirds of full brightness, for example.

When I stuck with word processing, Internet access and occasional tasks in Adobe CS3, battery life averaged between 2 hours 40 minutes and just over 3 hours. Using older PowerPC applications on occasion — those not compiled to run natively on Intel processors — seemed to cut down battery life by at least a few minutes. As you would expect, using disk- and media-intensive applications also pulled down overall battery life.

I wouldn’t call this MacBook Pro a power hog by any means. It is certainly on par or a little bit better than most laptops from Apple or other manufacturers. But I also wouldn’t venture on a cross-country flight without a power adapter. (Apple offers an adapter that can be used on airplanes for $49 to ensure access to any in-flight power outlets available.)

Likewise, I’m not sure I’d rely solely on battery power for a full afternoon of video or audio editing, intense gaming or doing anything beyond some basic word processing with the screen brightness turned way down.

Final thoughts

Without a doubt, the 17-in. MacBook Pro is an impressive machine, both in terms of performance and the new LED screen. It has certainly changed my perception of Apple’s largest laptop. Like the MacBook Air at the opposite end of the spectrum, it shows that Apple understands there isn’t a one-size fits-all machine for Mac users on the go.

If you are someone who works with video, graphics or music for a living and you need a portable workspace, then you have to check out this laptop. Even if media work is something you only do as a hobby or if you’re just eyeing a portable with an amazing display for movies or games, this machine is well worth a look. You may decide that it’s still bigger than you need.

Or you may find, as I did, that your assumptions about size and weight pale in comparison to the solid design, stunning screen and ample processing power available on Apple’s biggest laptop.

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