Beauty, brains and brawn – the “unibody” MacBook Pro has them all

The 15-inch MacBook Pro sitting in front of me is largely devoid of the seams common to earlier aluminum MacBook Pros.

In fact, the main chassis around which this newest of Apple’s laptops is built is carved out of a solid block of aluminum using a new process that, according to Apple officials, creates lighter, stronger, more environmentally friendly machines.

(Apple also revamped its consumer-oriented MacBook line, offering two new models that use the same aluminum-carving process and offer some features that were heretofore only available on the Pro models. We’ll have a formal review of the top-of-the-line MacBook soon.)

Who cares whether your laptop is built using some fancy new process? You should. Laptops are meant to be carted around, tossed into briefcases, picked up, put down, thrown in the back seat, used on the couch. The advantages for mobile computing inherent in this new “unibody” process show in the new MacBook Pro.

Actually, it is felt more than seen.

Typing on the keyboard has the feel of pressing down on keys that have been mounted on a square of solid metal. This is true even with the switch to the “chiclet” keys that until now have shown up only on the MacBook and MacBook Air.

And I’ve never used a more solid-feeling laptop – or keyboard – in all my years of using Macs. Apple calls it “pure typing bliss.” That’s not just market-speak. It’s true.

What’s new

The keyboard isn’t the only change. There’s a new, glass-coated trackpad (slick!) that’s 39 per cent larger than the old one and does away with the clicker button completely. The stunningly bright 15.4-inch LED screen (sharp!) sports a shiny, piano-black bezel. A new magnetic latch has replaced the annoying release button.

The peripheral ports have been relocated so that they all run along the left side of the MacBook Pro, with the optical drive now located to the right. There’s also a different video out port — the new industry-standard Mini DisplayPort. All of the ports are more deeply inset than before.

There is also a notable update of the hardware under the hood. The MacBook Pro has a new Intel Core 2 Duo processor (you get either a 2.4-GHz or 2.53-GHz chip, depending on which MacBook Pro you buy), two new Nvidia graphics processors, a faster 1,066-MHz front-side bus and multiple hard drive options, including a 128GB solid-state drive. And for those who like to track Mac OS X build versions, this one’s running 10.5.5 build 9F2114.

The slightly faster 2.53-GHz model also doubles the standard amount of RAM to 4GB and offers more storage space. Both weigh about the same as the previous model – 5.5 lbs. – but they’re slimmer, checking in at 0.95 in. thick with the lid closed.

Not all is perfect in Mac-land. If you’re a fan of FireWire 400, you’ll be annoyed to learn that Apple has dropped that connector port, leaving behind a single FireWire 800 port and two USB 2.0 ports. FireWire 400 has been largely supplanted in the marketplace by USB 2.0, but it still has lots of fans – not surprising, given that Apple was an early backer and countless video cameras, hard drives and other peripherals have used it for years.

All of the MacBook Pro’s ports are on the left side now. Note: There’s no FireWire 400 port now.

The loss of FireWire 400 means that users who like to rely on the FireWire-only Target Disk Mode to move files between two connected Macs will need to change their habits — or at the very least get a new cable. Longtime Mac users aren’t happy about the lost port. Apple officials note that you can buy a cable with a FireWire 800 connector at one end and a FireWire 400 connector at the other and continue using using Target Disk Mode as before. Or you can transfer files over an Ethernet connection or a wireless network.

If you’re doing as you should and regularly backing up your hard drive’s contents with Apple’s Time Machine backup app, you can use that to copy files, too. Using the Migration Assistant, located in the Utilities folder, I was able to move 70GB of files and data to the review system from my own Time Machine backup drive in about two hours.

What’s not new

While the 15-in. models get the new unibody look and feel, those of us who’ve come to love the 17-in. version will have to wait. The larger model soldiers on in the same old aluminum style Apple has used for years.

A week ago, it was the epitome of style, and — as Apple officials are quick to note — it’s still the slimmest of the big-screen laptops. But compared to the new models, it now looks somehow… tired. At least Apple made the high-resolution screen standard — it’s a stunning screen — and it’s now LED-backlit.

I’m hoping the 17-in. model will get the same unibody treatment; maybe we’ll see one at Apple’s next MacWorld Expo in January, but Apple officials were mum on that prospect when asked. Ditto when I asked about the super-svelte MacBook Air, which received minor tweaks to boost its graphics hardware and hard drives but remains largely unchanged from its predecessor.

As for the Air, the solid-state hard drive size has been doubled to 128GB, and it now uses the same shared Nvidia graphics processor that powers the new MacBook line. It also gains the faster 1,066-MHz front-side bus, meaning users should see modest speed increases from the first-generation model. Prices for the two Airs remain unchanged at $1,799 (for the 1.6-GHz version) and $2,499 (for the 1.86-GHz version).

Unibody goodness

The fact that the new unibody MacBook Pro models are already available in Apple stores — you could buy one the day after Jobs announced them — is a welcome change from past practice. All too often, Apple announces new hardware and would-be buyers have to wait weeks to get their hands on it. Not so this time.

Late last week I got my hands on the top-end 15-in. MacBook Pro, with a 2.53-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive spinning at 5,400 rpm and two Nvidia graphics chips: an integrated chip that is also used in the new MacBook and MacBook Air, and an Nvidia 9600M GT with 512MB of discrete video RAM.

Why offer two graphics processors? According to Apple, the laptop defaults to the integrated chip for longer battery power, but it can be switched to the more powerful 9600M GT if you need more graphics horsepower.

The nice thing is that if users want to use the 9600M GT all the time — maybe you’re a big-time gamer or are using an app that could take advantage of the extra video juice — you just set that preference in the Energy Saver control panel. (Incidentally, Apple has changed the icon used for the Energy Saver system preference — the old incandescent light bulb has been replaced by a florescent bulb icon.)

This is a new option for Mac laptop users, and it’s pretty straightforward: Just select either “better battery life” or “better performance” where it says graphics.

When you make the switch, Mac OS X will log you out to implement the changes, and then you’re good to go. According to Apple, the Nvidia 9600M GT offers up to 2.3 times the performance of the integrated 9400M. I’m not a gamer, but in regular use over the last few days — surfing the Web, watching videos, editing text documents and using Photoshop Elements — I detected no difference in video performance between the integrated and discrete graphics chip.

New glass trackpad

A new trackpad system preference lets users customize how the trackpad works.

Also new to this revision is the buttonless glass trackpad. Yes, glass — the trackpad is covered by a thin layer of glass (which isn’t immediately obvious just by looking at the computer). The glass layer offers almost no resistance to multitouch finger motions, which can be used to manipulate images and windows and navigate through Web browser pages.

The clicker button is now built into the trackpad itself. To click as you normally would, just press down the trackpad near the front of the computer. The trackpad actually depresses as if it were a button and you can hear a definitive click; melding the trackpad and button accentuates the clean lines of the MacBook Pro.

Apple notes that the multitouch technology was pioneered on the iPhone, and it has introduced even more finger gestures to show off the trackpad. A four-finger swipe, for instance, can be used to move application windows on and off the screen a la Exposé.

So how does the new trackpad work? Generally, just fine. Since I have tendency to click with my thumb, I often hold it above the trackpad button. Doing so with this trackpad can be problematic if your thumb hits the trackpad while you’re using your index finger.

I found myself occasionally moving windows on-screen that I hadn’t planned on moving, or selecting items by accident. More than once, I accidentally changed the font size in my browser. And a colleague who tried out the machine expressed frustration that the trackpad operated differently than others had in the past.

This isn’t to say that the trackpad is a bad thing — it just means you may need to retrain your clicker thumb. As an acknowledgment of the trackpad’s growing importance, Apple has given the device its own system preference (until now, it was grouped in with the preferences for the keyboard and mouse).

The one-piece, glass-covered trackpad now also acts as the clicker button.

To help new users understand how the trackpad works, Apple has included videos in the system preference pane to demonstrate what each finger swipe can do. It’s definitely worth reviewing if you find odd things happening while using the trackpad.

Other changes

The unibody laptop chassis, graphics cards and trackpad aren’t the only new features. As noted earlier, the keyboard now uses chiclet keys, and they’re black, not aluminum-colored. Personally, I liked the uniform look of having the keys and the computer the same color — but others may like the two-tone look. And the new keyboard does at least match the shiny black border that surrounds the LED screen.

Speaking of that screen, it’s the same 1440- by 900-pixel resolution as before. And it’s extremely bright. Anyone who uses a MacBook Pro outdoors in full sun shouldn’t have any problem seeing the screen.

The hard drive (left) and battery (right) are easily accessible.

With this model, Apple also made it fairly easy to access some of the internal hardware, which should please IT shops that may be eyeing the MacBook Pro. Flip a latch to take off part of the back cover, and the hard drive is staring you in the face. To the right of it is the easily-removable battery.

And after removing eight screws that hold the other part of the bottom case in place, you have access to the RAM.

Performance

With a faster front-side bus, better graphics, 6MB of shared Level 2 cache, an updated Core 2 Duo processor and other under-the-hood tweaks, Apple’s new MacBook Pro should readily handle almost any task thrown at it. A quick benchmark test using Xbench 1.3 returned an overall score of 123.

By way of comparison, last year’s top-end 17-in. MacBook Pro with a 2.4-GHz processor scored 118 on the same test, and a 2006 model with a 2.33-GHz Core 2 Duo checked in at 108. In other words, the speed gains are there, but they’re not so dramatic that you’re likely to see much difference if you’re upgrading from a relatively recent MacBook Pro.

Of course, if speed is important to you, you’ll want to upgrade the hard drive to one that spins at 7,200 rpm and move to the optional 2.8-GHz processor.

Incidentally, if, for some reason, you want to go with the solid-state drive option, you lose a lot of storage space — the only SSD available holds 128GB of data – and it’ll add $500 to the system cost. Though solid-state drives have come a long way in the last year or so, you’d be spending more money for less space. That’s not a good return on investment.

Battery life is good, although squeezing out the Apple-advertised five hours of use is easier said than done.

With the screen brightness turned all the way up, the graphics and energy-saver settings set to best performance, and Wi-Fi on, I managed three hours of use doing routine Web surfing and text editing. Turning down the brightness and tweaking the energy-saver settings will easily extend that time.

Conclusions

All in all, Apple’s new MacBook Pro represents a definitive leap in design, and a more modest advance in technology. The combination of the two, however, makes this a major update to what has become an increasingly important product for Apple’s bottom line.

More important, with almost everyone looking to stretch their dollars as far as possible, Apple’s new laptop lineup — including the new MacBook – should stand the test of time, offering good value for years to come.

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