If you think the latest changes to Apple’s MacBook line aren’t exciting, you’re not paying close enough attention. The 13-inch model is now part of the MacBook Pro line, and, like its larger-screened siblings (like the 15-inch model), now has a more colorful display, and—at long last—an SD Card slot. Moreover, this 13-inch stunner lasts more than 6 hours on a charge. The price for the entry-level Mac is now just $1,199, a $100 price drop from the 13-inch unibody MacBook. We wish Apple included more hard drive space for the money (160GB is netbook territory) but overall our Editors’ Choice–winning thin-and-light just got sweeter.
At first glance, the 13-inch MacBook Pro looks identical to last season’s revamped MacBook line. And that’s mostly true: the aluminum chassis, black island keyboard, large multitouch trackpad, and thin, rounded lid will all look familiar. Even its weight (4.4 pounds) and dimensions (12.8 x 8.9 x 1.0 inches) remain the same, making this notebook easy to carry.
Like its predecessor, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is made from a single, seamless piece of aluminum, which means it’s more durable than most other notebooks in this price range. The only difference is that the battery is now non-removable (more on that later).
Keyboard and Touchpad
As always, the island keyboard has a soft finish, and makes little sound when you type. While the keyboard on, say, the 17-inch MacBook Pro might be too large (and too recessed) for some hands, the 13-inch’s keyboard is comfortably placed. It’s also backlit with an ambient light sensor, which comes in handy for low-light environments.
The touchpad remains one giant button that doubles as the touchpad and the touch button. It’s not the smoothest we’ve ever tested, but the friction is still slight enough that it shouldn’t be a problem. In the past, we’ve found the button to be a bit stiff, with a slight learning curve to match. By now, Apple’s gotten the design right: we were able to effortlessly press down on the button without thinking about the fact that there’s no dedicated touch button (nevermind two).
The multitouch gestures work smoothly. By pushing four fingers toward the top of the touchpad, we were able to fling windows up toward the top of the screen, exposing a clean desktop. When we used two fingers to zoom in and out of pages in Safari 4 (fresh out of beta, and a new, Cover Flow-tastic addition to the Leopard OS), the onscreen response was very quick, and only slightly jerky.
Display and Sound
The 13.3-inch (1280 x 800) LED-backlit display is plenty bright, and boasts a 60-percent richer color gamut than its predecessor. Indeed, colors looked vibrant, and blacks appeared as rich shadows. Although we praised the last-generation MacBook for its rich, bright display, a side-by-side comparison (in which we watched the same Hulu of the Stanley Cup finals at full screen), showed that the new MacBook Pro’s display is brighter, with more saturated colors and enhanced shadow detail (e.g., the creases on hockey players’ jerseys). Unfortunately, when we watched Mad Men at full screen through iTunes, the glossy finish limited our viewing angles from the sides, as well as from the front with the lid dipped forward.
The speakers left us craving more in the volume department; even when we cranked the volume up on both the system and in Slacker, there still wasn’t enough sound to fill a quiet room with two people. As for sound quality, when we listened to tracks by Ashford & Simpson, Dr. John, Ella Fitzgerald, and Barry White, the songs sounded slightly tinny, but still richer than what we’ve heard from other 13-inch notebooks.
Although this 13-inch MacBook Pro’s port selection remains modest, it includes two welcome improvements. One is a FireWire 800 port, which enables you to back up to an external drive at blazing speeds (using Time Machine); the other is an SD Card slot, a long overdue feature for those who want to transfer photos cable-free from a digital camera.
You also get two USB 2.0 ports (we’d like to see three), a Mini DisplayPort for connecting a larger monitor, a slot-loading DVD burner, an Ethernet jack, and headphone and mic ports. Only the 17-inch Pro has an ExpressCard/34 slot, but many tiny USB mobile broadband modems can be plugged into this notebook.
The Pro, and every other mobile Mac that Apple has made in recent years, has an iSight webcam. Our photos weren’t the most detailed we’ve seen (the shine in our hair and the fuzz on our sweater both came out blurry), but they were at least well-lit with good colors. Likewise, our VGA video showed some pixelation, but was smooth and bright with relatively strong sound.
As always, what’s best about Apple’s iSight camera isn’t the image quality, but the accompanying Photo Booth software, which is built into the Leopard OS. In addition to snapping photos and recording video captures, it can take four shots in a row, similar to a real photo booth. Not to mention, the program also has tons of fun filters, and integrates well with Apple’s e-mail client, as well as iLife, Leopard’s built-in multimedia suite.
The 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7550 CPU and 2GB of RAM delivered better-than-average performance. The machine booted to OS X in a speedy 37 seconds (even its 57-second startup time in Bootcamp slightly outpaced the average Vista machine). Moreover, its PCMark Vantage score of 3,207 is about 350 points above the category average. To put this score in context, the $1,354 Dell Studio XPS 13 scored 2,672 with integrated graphics enabled, but an impressive 3,961 with discrete graphics turned on.
The only glaring weakness was the size of the 160GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive: when we conducted the Laptop File Transfer Test (duplicating a 4.97GB folder of multimedia files) in Mac OS X Leopard, the notebook completed the task in 3 minutes 57 seconds, a rate of 21.5 MBps. While that’s almost 5 MBps faster than the thin-and-light category average, the $899 Acer Aspire 3810T(which has a 500GB hard drive) completed the same test at a rate of 24.8 MBps. But you only see this advantage in Apple’s OS: When we performed the same test in Vista using Boot Camp, the MacBook Pro’s transfer rate dropped precipitously to 13.7 MBps.
Anecdotally, the Pro performed slightly faster than average. For instance, it took 7 minutes and 1 second to transcode a 5:05 MP4 clip to AVI using Handbrake in Windows (the average thin-and-light takes 7:42). But the performance differences were really obvious once we started multitasking. When we repeated the transcoding test while zipping our 4.97GB mixed-media folder in the background, it took 10:45. The average thin-and-light’s completion time slows to 16:45 with this workload.
While the Pro’s scores were above average on the Windows side, they were simply blazing when we tried the same tests on the Mac side (using Handbrake and Apple’s own compression utility). Its scores of 2:03 and 2:48, respectively, were the lowest we’ve ever seen—and that was just on the entry level MacBook Pro.
Like its predecessor, the 13-inch Pro has Nvidia’s integrated GeForce 9400M graphics card. Even when running in Boot Camp mode, it smokes other thin-and-lights, particularly those running on Intel or even ATI integrated graphics; its 3DMark06 score of 2,174 is more than 700 points above average.
Although this type of score will contribute to zippy everyday computing (including photo editing and some light gaming), it’s still not enough to plow through heavy-duty games. When we played Far Cry 2, we got a decent frame rate of 25 frames per second with the resolution set to 1024 x 768, and just 8 fps at 1280 x 800 (the category average is 23 fps for the former, and 12 fps at the notebook’s maximum resolution).
Meanwhile, there are other 13-inch notebooks with greater gaming potential. Dell’s XPS 13, armed with switchable Nvidia graphics, delivered 3DMark06 scores of 2,168 and 3,530 with integrated and discrete graphics, respectively. Its highest Far Cry 2 frame rate was 26 fps, however, which is line with the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a nonremovable lithium polymer—as opposed to lithium ion—battery. Apple says it lasts 1,000 charges (about five years, the company says). Moreover, it lasts a long time on a charge. This notebook shined in the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing over Wi-Fi), delivering a runtime of 6 hours and 13 minutes in Mac OS X, and 4 hours and 50 minutes in Boot Camp. That mark far exceeds the category average (4:08), but still falls short of the less expensive $899 Aspire Timeline 3810T (8:05). Then again, the Timeline isn’t nearly as powerful.
It’s important to note that replacing the battery costs $129, and requires you to either take the notebook to the Genius Bar at your local Apple store, or mail it in for replacement. While Apple insists the battery lasts approximately five years (longer than you’re likely to even own it), this potential inconvenience might be a turnoff for some buyers.
Despite its metal encasing, which has hindered the Wi-Fi performance of the MacBook Air, the 13-inch Pro’s 802.11n radio delivered strong throughput: 22.9 Mbps and 16.9 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively (the category average is 18.9 Mbps and 15.4 Mbps). It also has Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.
Software and Warranty
Although Apple unveiled its new Snow Leopard OS on the same day it announced the revamped MacBook Pro family, it will not ship on notebooks until September (at that time, it will cost $29 for existing Leopard users to upgrade). So, for now, you’ll get Apple’s Leopard OS, which we’ve always praised for its robust multimedia suite, iLife '09, and such amenities as Time Machine, its automatic backup software.
Apple’s standard warranty remains: one-year parts-and-labor and 90 days of toll-free, 24/7 phone support (Apple consistently aces our annual tech support showdown). The Apple Care Protection Plan, which includes three years each of parts-and-labor coverage and phone support, costs $249).
In addition to our $1,199 configuration, there’s a $1,499 configuration that has a 2.53-GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive. Whichever you buy, you’ll have the opportunity to configure it online. If you buy the $1,199 version, upgrading to 4GB or 8GB of RAM costs $100 and $1,100, respectively. Because of its seamless build, however, these aren’t changes you can make yourself. Also, you can opt for a hard drive as large as 500GB ($200), or a 128GB ($400) or 256GB ($850) solid state drive.
Unlike its 17-inch sibling, the 13-inch MacBook Pro does not sweep its weight class in every category. There are cheaper notebooks with weaker performance and much longer battery life, for instance, as well as similarly priced systems with slightly better graphics punch but shorter battery life. Nevertheless, the $1,199 MacBook Pro offers the best combination of performance, endurance, and smart software.