Product review MacBook Pro

What a difference 540,000 pixels make.

I’m talking in this case about the latest MacBook Pro to grace my desk, the top-of-the-line 17-in. model with a glossy 1,920-by-1,200-pixel high-resolution screen tricked out with a 7,200-rpm 160GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM added post-purchase. Oh, and it uses Intel’s new 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo with a “Santa Rosa” chip set for a bit more zip and even slightly longer battery life.

But it’s the screen that’s the most appealing feature. This is without a doubt the best-looking LCD screen Apple has produced in what also happens to be the fastest laptop from the company yet.

In a word: suh-weet.

Of course, it should be, given the price: The basic 17-in. MacBook Pro (MBP from here on in) starts at US$2,799. The hi-rez display adds another US$100, and the optional 7,200-rpm Seagate Momentus hard drive tacks on US$150 more. The result is a seriously sick machine. That’s sick as in wicked good. Cost out the door? US$3,049, before taxes and shipping — and worth every penny.

For the record, I hadn’t planned on buying a new MBP this year — the last-generation 2.33-GHz model I got in November was doing just fine — until I saw that Apple had added the hi-rez screen option when it introduced the latest iteration on June 5. I’ve vowed ever since I bought a Sony Vaio with the same resolution screen almost two years ago that if Apple ever released such a laptop, I’d get one forthwith. So I found a buyer for my “old” MBP and promptly ordered the new one from Apple on the same day it were announced. Six days later, it was here. I’ve been using it ever since, with nary an issue.

Oh, and did I mention that screen? You know the difference between regular TV and high-def TV? That’s what it feels like using this model. Not that the standard screen offered by Apple is a slouch; 1,680-by-1,050 pixels is plenty fine for most users. But for those of us who always want faster, bigger, more, Apple has created what I’d call the MBP Ultimate.

There’s been a lot of chatter in various online forums from would-be buyers about whether the hi-rez screen makes text too small to see. The higher the resolution, the more desktop space you have, and the smaller the menus and text get. Indeed, the menus are slightly smaller, and I did bump the default text size in Safari up a couple of points. (I recommend Optima, 16 point, by the way.) But the added pixels also make this the sharpest screen I’ve used, and that includes the Vaio.

My colleague, Scot Finnie, had doubts about the resolution and was concerned that the smaller menus and text would make it difficult for him to use one of the hi-rez models. So he borrowed the one I have now, tried it out for about 10 minutes and promptly announced that he wanted one. He, too, was blown away by the screen and wondered whether Apple was doing something different with pixel dithering to keep everything so sharp.

A few days after what is now Rev. C of the Intel-based MBPs Apple first rolled out early in 2006, I spoke with Apple’s Todd Benjamin, director of portables product marketing, about the new hardware. He notes that the higher resolution offers 30 percent more desktop space in the same trim form factor as its predecessor. As for pixel density, this one checks in at 133 pixels per inch, notably higher than the screens used in the standard 17-incher. Those run around 110 pixels per inch.

“Why would someone want high resolution versus standard resolution?” Benjamin said. “There’s a number of specific reasons here. With image editors, photography people — they have been looking for higher-resolution screens for a long time. It’s also great for video. It will allow you to look at 1080p video in its native resolution. And in terms of the 3-D space, there are many scientists using higher-resolutions things for a long time. We really did this with a nod to people who are looking for high-resolution, high-quality content.”

Given the 16-by-10 aspect ratio of MBPs, and the fact that high resolution is generally considered to be 16-by-9, this isn’t exactly a high-definition screen. Technically. But grab one of the streaming 1080p movie trailers from Apple’s Web site, and you’ll be astonished at the rich colors and sharp video. Still not convinced? Take Benjamin’s advice: “We recommend you go in and look at them in the store and compare them side by side.”

While offering no specifics, he notes that the new screens are doing well: “There’s been a lot of interest in these. They have been very popular.”

That was obvious from Week 1, when buyers jumped online to order their own MBPs and found that getting the higher-resolution screen bumped the delivery time from one to three days to as long as six weeks. Let’s just say they were not amused. As it turned out, that estimated delay wasn’t real. Mine shipped on time (three days after I ordered it), and the current wait time is just two to four days.

Much has been made of the fact that the 15-in. MBPs — there are two models, one with a 2.2-GHz processor and one with the 2.4-GHz version — now feature LED backlit screens, which are better for the environment and extend battery life. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of those, but owners have raved about them online. While the 17-in. model has the same backlighting as before, it seems it’s only a matter of time before Apple moves it to LED as well. “We’re going to transition our entire line when it’s economically and technically feasible,” Benjamin said.

With the LED screen, users get an estimated extra half hour of battery life, according to Benjamin — 60 minutes if you change your settings to be more energy efficient. That’s on the 15-in. models; on this 17-in. version, I found battery life extended by about 20 minutes when running the MBP at full processor speed and full brightness. That’s while surfing wirelessly, text editing and listening to iTunes. And temperatures seem to be about the same as with the last generation. Using the app Core Duo Temp, I found that my MBP chugs along at about 122 degrees Fahrenheit, though I was able to tax the Core 2 Duo and raise it to about 165.

Benjamin also noted that the LED screen comes on at full brightness, unlike the 17-in. displays, which can take up to 15 minutes to “warm up.” (You could have fooled me. The 17-in. model is plenty bright.) But other than the different screens and resolutions — the 15-in. remains at 1440-by-900 pixels — the underlying hardware among the latest models is generally the same.

The base 15-in. with the 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo starts at US$1,999; its slightly faster sibling goes for US$500 more. For that amount, you get the 2.4-GHz processor, a 160GB hard drive instead of 120GB, and twice the video RAM — 256MB vs. 128MB. There are also a variety of build-to-order options, including an upgrade to a 200GB hard drive that’s slower, or the 160GB, 7,200-rpm like I have. If you want eke out every bit of speed, you’ll want that Seagate Momentus drive, but if you’re buying the 15-in. model, you’re going to have to wait. Checking off that option box adds four to six weeks to your delivery time.

If you can wait — and I’m not one to set a good example — it’s worth it. The faster drive, coupled with the faster processor, an 800-MHz front-side bus, 4MB of Level 2 cache and the new Nvidia GT 8600 video card offers a series of incremental speed bumps that overall add up. For example, the first MBP with a 2.16-GHz Core Duo processor (and 7,200-rpm hard drive) coughed up an Xbench score of 90. The next-generation model, with the 2.33-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a slightly slower 5,400-rpm drive, checked in at 108. This one, with the faster 65nm 2.4-GHz processor, the Santa Rosa chip set with its faster front-side bus, and the faster drive, clocked in at 118. It won’t blow you away if you have last fall’s model. But that score is 31 percent faster than my first-generation MBP.

Apple, in fact, compares its latest laptops with the first generation, given the modest speed they offer the first Core 2 Duo models. According to Benjamin, Logic Pro 7, Apple’s music-creation app, is 55 percent faster; Final Cut Pro is 52 percent faster; Photoshop CS3, the universal binary version that runs natively on Intel Macs, is 39 percent faster; and Aperture is 28 percent faster.

“In the new MacBook Pro, these professional apps have taken a nice speed increase,” he said. “These [laptops] are great for running all of our processor-based media applications.”

Gamers should see notable speed increases, too, thanks to the Nvidia graphics processor, Benjamin said. “This is [Nvidia’s] latest architecture. They just announced this in May. It really is the latest thing. Not only is it optimized for notebooks, it offers 128-bit rendering. It really is the latest and greatest. It’s perfect for gamers, as you’d expect, and for people working on animation and 3-D [projects].”

I’m not a gamer, but according to Benjamin, Quake 4 is 57 percent faster and Doom 3 is 50 percent faster than on the first Core Duo laptops.

For RAM, the new MBPs all come with 2GB of 667-MHz DDR2 RAM. Unlike earlier models, you can also swap in 2GB memory chips for 4GB total. (Earlier models could only access 3GB, even if you had 4GB installed, a limitation of the chip set.)

A word to the wise: You can have Apple install 4GB of RAM, saving you the trouble of doing so yourself and having to sell off the two 1GB chips that come already installed. But you’ll pay a lot for that option: US$750. If you don’t mind swapping in your own RAM — something that takes five minutes as long as you have the right miniature Philips-head screwdriver — you’ll save a bundle buying RAM somewhere else. I installed 4GB myself at a cost of US$220.

As before, the new MBPs come with Apple’s MagSafe power connector and feature 802.11n networking. It’s still a draft standard, but works just fine. There’s dual-link DVI out for external monitors, including Apple’s behemoth 30-in. LCD display, the backlit keyboard, and an ExpressCard/34 slot. In fact, the new MBP looks just like the last model — except for that hi-rez screen. The only difference in software is the version of OS X being used. Earlier models run Build 8P2137; the new one runs 8Q1058 — tweaked, no doubt, to run smoothly on the new chips.

“What we do here is endeavour to include the latest technology,” Benjamin said. “In terms of processor, memory, architecture, graphics — it’s everything you need for professional and high-end consumer use.”

Indeed. Usually when reviewing a product, I come across a design flaw or issue that gives me pause. Not so this time, at least not yet. That doesn’t mean this MBP is perfect. Given the top-notch hi-rez screen, the ability to show off high-def video — at 1080p, no less — I find myself wanting more than the 8x SuperDrive that comes standard. I’d like to see a Blu-ray drive installed, so that I could play the Blu-ray DVDs I already have and really enjoy true high-definition video. (Yes, I popped a Blu-ray disc in to see what would happen. After a few seconds of spinning, the disc popped out. Bummer.)

It took Apple two years after I first started wishing for a high-resolution screen to deliver just what I wanted. I’m hoping it won’t be that long before Blu-ray makes an appearance. Until then, I’ll just have to make do with what, in my opinion, is the best laptop Apple has ever made.

Comment: [email protected]

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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