The Santa Rosa MacBook Pro, named for the Intel Core 2 Duo chip set used in the notebook, became available in June, but I wasn’t prepared to issue a final judgment until now.

I got stung by my last MacBook Pro review, which went to press before the unit started showing problems with build quality and durability.

After six months of intensive, daily use of the machine, I can state now that today’s MacBook Pro stands head and shoulders above Apple’s prior flagship Intel notebooks, and sets a standard for performance, features, durability, eco-responsibility, and quality that any PC vendor will find difficult to approach for a similar price.

The Santa Rosa MacBook Pro has earned its stripes. If this notebook had a frequent flier account of its own, it would have racked up enough travel miles in my carry-on bag to qualify for Gold status.

I figure that this is a fitting milestone for writing this review, because by this point, most notebooks, including some from Apple, would be showing their age. This machine looks, feels, and runs like it did when it came out of the box. Considering how sweet it was when new, that’s saying something.

High points

Apple has transcended PC notebooks. The Santa Rosa MacBook Pro doesn’t look or feel like any notebook you’ve ever driven, even if your present notebook is a Mac.

With its thick aluminum armor and unusually sturdy construction, MacBook Pro begs to be used in demanding conditions, like on a film set, in a photo studio, in a radiologist’s lab, in an elite developer’s lap, or in the field for on-site news edits and Webcasts. Considering all of this, the seat-back tray and the carry on bag pose little challenge.

The Magsafe power cable connector is no mere gimmick. It replaces the friction-fit barrel connector standard in other notebooks with a rectangular magnetic latch. You can’t plug the Magsafe connector upside down, and you can unplug it in the most irresponsible of ways: by pulling on the cord.

With any notebook built to please professionals of all breeds, the display, keyboard and pointing device can outstrip many other criteria. Apple has always managed the trick of making the ultra-thin lid rigid; MacBook Pro’s LCD panel doesn’t show rainbows when you press on it from the front or the back, and this model flexes less than preceding Mac notebooks models have. The 15.4-inch, 1440-by-900 widescreen LCD panel (a 17-inch model is available) is bright and has high contrast. It’s easy on your eyes for long periods of continuous work. The display is perfectly matched with OS X’s font smoothing and switchable color profiles.

MacBook Pro’s LED display, seen first in this Santa Rosa model, is remarkable in a number of ways.

Unlike standard notebook displays’ fluorescent backlighting, MacBook Pro’s LED backlight is white; this notebook’s display is capable of paper white. When you choose the glossy display, black shows not even the slightest hint of gray. The LED backlight consumes less power at lower brightness, which lends to MacBook Pro’s battery life edge over PC models.

Last but by no means least, the LED backlight cuts way back on the level of hazardous materials used in manufacturing. Lead is already out, and Apple’s got mercury on the run.

The keyboard is springy, and the keys are firmly fastened; there’s no hint of a clatter when you sweep your fingers across the keys. Apple successfully redesigned the trackpad to eliminate feedback from palms rested on either side. Past users of Mac widescreen notebooks have complained about the display hinge. Apple addressed that issue definitively. The display holds firm at any angle, even when you give your machine a good forward and back shake. I will note, however, that the display doesn’t tip back as far as previous Mac notebooks.

New and improved

I had bad luck with the build quality of two MacBook Pro models before this one, primarily related to the keyboard, the trackpad, and the battery.

The preceding MacBook Pro, Apple’s first Core 2 Duo model, was most un-Apple-like in its construction, arriving with problems and showing extraordinary signs of wear after no more hardship or usage than this MacBook Pro has endured.

Even the battery died an early death. I’m pleased to report that the MacBook Pro that Apple is selling now is built right, and Apple replaced users’ faulty batteries for free.

Apple doesn’t talk about the things it changes from model to model, but I’m an ergonomics wonk, and this keyboard is a massive improvement over the Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro that I evaluated prior to this.

The feather touch action is gone; Santa Rosa MacBook Pro’s keys need a good whack to make contact. Even after a few months, I occasionally skip characters for not hitting the key hard enough. But that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make in exchange for rattling keys that pop off.

The MacBook Pro’s keyboard backlighting is ideal, illuminating only the legends and not the rest of the key or the key bed. You realize the ergonomic necessity of a backlit keyboard once you have it (imagine your cell phone without it), and I’ve seen no other notebook or add-on keyboard that gets it right. The key legends won’t wear off with use because they’re not printed on the key. They go through the key.

Top speed

No one on the planet can feel a 200MHz difference in CPU clocked at over 2GHz, so I wasn’t floored by the goose from 2.2GHz to 2.4GHz when I upgraded to the Santa Rosa MacBook Pro. What I did feel, and quite dramatically, is a drop in performance for the loss of 1GB of RAM. I forget sometimes that the best way to speed up a machine is to add RAM, and the best way to slow it down is to take it away.

The standard 2GB is sufficient, and many Mac users are accustomed to running with a quarter of that. If you want more RAM, configure it into your purchase. Otherwise, you’ll end up throwing away one of the two standard 1GB SO-DIMMs to make room for a 2GB replacement.

What most people associate with computer performance is actually GUI performance, and that’s where Apple has always excelled. MacBook Pro has a desktop-grade GPU, an Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT with 256MB of dedicated VRAM (video RAM). It’s wickedly fast and unexpectedly power efficient.

You cannot get the MacBook Pro to drop a frame while playing HD video from disk. Final Cut Studio, which is extremely GPU-intensive, runs beautifully without pushing the CPU to its limits. Unique to OS X, as well as the applications written to use Apple’s Acceleration Framework, is the offloading of selected non-graphics-related math to the GPU. Nvidia is pursuing GPU as coprocessor technology on its own.

Power perks

Running time on battery is the last measure of notebook design excellence, and here, MacBook Pro turns in a top-tier performance compared to most PC notebooks. I judge the average running time, with a productivity workload and Wi-Fi turned off, to be right at four hours.

With some careful pruning of unnecessary background processes such that the CPU is effectively zero percent utilized between keystrokes, I can eke out five hours of typing and reading. Fortunately, with icons right on the menu bar, shutting down wireless to save power is easy. I would like more user control over device power profiles beyond manually enabling and disabling wireless.

The reach of AirPort Extreme, especially running in draft-n mode and paired with Apple’s current AirPort Extreme base station, is exceptional. A problem I had early on with nearby base stations dropping in and out of sight was fixed by an automatic software update.

One last testament to the Santa Rosa MacBook Pro’s excellence is that, short of tablet models, this MacBook Pro is the best Windows carry-on I’ve got. If Dell made this machine, the MacBook Pro would be that vendor’s flagship Vista notebook.

Power users who buy PC notebooks ought to look at the MacBook Pro even if they’re dead set against OS X because it runs Windows XP and Vista natively, with no compromises, and even with backlit keyboard, special hot keys, a frame-mounted Web cam, and gaming-grade GPU. I invite you to buy the Santa Rosa MacBook Pro (get the optional 3GB or 4GB of RAM), and get a copy of XP or Vista. Once you boot Windows the first time, your MacBook Pro can boot it by default. If you get into trouble, you can flip over to the OS X partition to diagnose it.

The MacBook Pro is competitively priced even when the additional cost of Windows is factored in. No matter what software you run on it, the MacBook Pro is a notebook that you’ll take with you everywhere.

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