This past fall, when the 15-inch Macbook underwent its stunning unibody redesign that added an edge-to-edge LED-backlit display, a multitouch-enabled touchpad, and dual graphics cards, we heaped plenty of praise upon it; but lamented its lack of a memory card reader, and its hefty price tag. Apple has seemingly taken our gripes to heart, and has re-introduced the 15-inch MacBook (and upgraded the 13-inch MacBook to Pro status) with a number of noteworthy changes, including a lower starting price ($1,699 vs. $1,999), an SD Card reader, and a long-lasting lithium-polymer battery that delivers more than 8 hours on a charge. We wish there were more USB ports on board, but you won’t find a more powerful 15-inch notebook that’s this easy to carry.
Measuring 14.4 x 9.8 x 1.0 inches and weighing 5.4 pounds, the revamped 15-inch MacBook Pro is spacious enough for long, comfortable computing sessions, yet won’t weigh you down when it’s time to go mobile. It sports the same carved-from-a-single-chunk-of-metal unibody design as its MacBook Pro brethren, retaining the sturdy aluminum chassis and rounded edges. The overall look is classy and modern.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Similar to other MacBook Pros, this unit features a shallow keyboard with black, isolated keys that provide adequate feedback when quickly typing URLs and crafting e-mails. It also has an ambient light sensor that backlights the keys when typing in low-light situations (such as a darkened plane cabin). While typing in a dark room, the soft glow enabled us to see the keys clearly.
A very large touchpad made navigating the desktop a snap, and its built-in multitouch functionality will have iPhone and iPod touch users feeling right at home as they swipe through photos and pinch and zoom Web pages. Falling in step with other MacBook Pro models, the 15-inch lacks dedicated mouse buttons; the entire pad doubles as one.
Display and Audio
Once again, Apple wows with a gorgeous edge-to-edge, glass 15.4-inch LED display (with a 1440 x 900-pixel resolution). The panel offers a 60 percent greater color gamut than its predecessor, and it really brought out skin tones and made other details pop while watching episodes of 30 Rock on Hulu or when we popped a DVD of There Will be Blood into the optical drive. Our only gripe with the display is that it kicks back too much reflection, especially when viewing content that has a dark background, or if you’re anywhere but directly in front of it. Its attractive black bezel border easily picks up fingerprints and smudges, but that’s nothing a cloth can’t remedy.
Flanking the keyboard are a pair of speakers that deliver solid (if unspectacular) sound. When we streamed Lyn Collins’ “Think” from Slacker, we enjoyed loud and clear audio, although funk classic lacked a robust bottom end.
Ports and Webcam
On the right side of the system, you’ll find the 8X SuperDrive and Kensington lock slot. Built into the left side are two closely placed USB 2.0 ports, Mini DisplayPort, a FireWire 800 port, the MagSafe power port, and headphone and mic jacks. Conspicuous in its absence: an ExpressCard slot, found on the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro, but replaced by an SD Card slot that accepts all manner of SD Cards, from mini to SDHC (with the correct adapter).
Above the display, a VGA iSight webcam is embedded in the bezel. It captured a good amount of detail and delivered near-lifelike colors, but friends reported some motion blur when we engaged in Meebo video chats. Photo Booth, Mac OS X’ fun webcam program, allowed us to record video clips of ourselves, snap photos using a variety of filters (such as Sepia, Thermal Camera, and X-Ray), and even fire off four quick photos in succession like a traditional photo booth.
Our configuration included a 2.66-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a robust 4GB of DDR3 RAM (expandable to 8GB for $1,000 extra), which enabled the MacBook Pro to achieve a score of 3,525 on our PCMark Vantage benchmark (while running Windows Vista Home Premium in Boot Camp). That score was nearly 300 points higher than your typical mainstream notebook, and on a par with the $1,487 Sager NP8662’s 3,646 score. This translated into to a pleasurable computing experience, where windows and programs opened quickly without the spinning pinwheel (which indicates that applications are loading slowly) rearing its ugly head.
Hard Drive Performance
The 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive helped boot Mac OS X Leopard in a relatively speedy 40 seconds. When we conducted the LAPTOP Transfer Test (in which we copied a 4.97GB folder of mixed media) under Mac OS X, the 15-inch MacBook Pro finished the task in 2 minutes and 35 seconds, which is 32.8 MBps. That’s a whopping 14 MBps faster than the average Vista notebook.
Apple employs two graphics cards on the 15-inch MacBook Pro: Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M and GeForce 9600M GT (with 256MB of memory). Users can jump between the two by clicking the battery icon and selecting either “Better Battery Life” or “Higher Performance,” which automatically signs you out and back in with the other GPU. Using the lower-end GeForce 9400M chip, we were able to zoom onto our midtown Manhattan location quickly and smoothly using Google Earth, and stream HD content from Hulu with only the occasional hiccup.
The 9600M GT GPU (running within Vista) aced our 3DMark06 benchmark with a 5,921 score, which is nearly double the mainstream notebook average of 3,075. It performed smoothly when we fired up Far Cry 2,: In auto-detect mode (1024 x 768-pixel resolution, DirectX 9) the 15-inch MacBook Pro maintained a steady 59 frames per second, which was nearly double the 33 fps category average; with the settings maxed out (1440 x 900-pixel resolution, DirectX 10 enabled), the frame rate dropped to just 15 fps. Clearly, the MacBook Pro is more than capable of handling games with this configuration, although not the most demanding titles at its highest resolutions.
Still, we quickly transcoded a 5-minute-and-5-second MP4 file to AVI using Handbrake in just 6 minutes less than Vista—1:08 faster than the mainstream notebook average. The computing power truly sparkled when we transcoded the clip again while compressing a 4.97GB folder of mixed media in the background using jZip; the task took 8:36, far less time than the 14:03 average. And the MacBook Pro notched these scores while in Vista, which only allowed us to run the test with the 9600M GT GPU.
Performing the same transcoding tests within OS X (using Handbrake and Apple’s own compression utility) netted radically improved results. When using integrated graphics (the Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU), we saw times of 1:45, and 2:46, respectively; the discrete Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT transcoded the file in 1:44, and then 2:20. Although the GPUs performed very similarly when compressing the file by itself, the 9600M GT’s extra muscle kicked in with simultaneous intensive activity, proving it to be a valuable multitasking tool.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
Apple has redesigned the 15-inch MacBook Pro to include a lithium-polymer battery, which is touted to achieve 7 hours of battery life. We’re happy to report that on our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the notebook lasted an excellent 8:06 on a charge, which is more than double the mainstream notebook average of 3:13 (we’ll update this review to include discrete graphics endurance scores). When running our LAPTOP Battery Test in Vista using Boot Camp, however, the MacBook Pro saw only 4:11 of endurance.
Apple says that its adaptive charging technology, which alters the voltage going into the battery depending on the current-charge level, will enable the battery to last for approximately 1,000 charges (the typical notebook lasts for close to 300) and give the battery a five-year life span. Unfortunately, the battery is non user-replaceable, so you would have to return the notebook to Apple’s Genius Bar or an Apple-approved repair location (and shell out $129 for a replacement) if a problem occurs.
We surfed the Web at a decent clip, courtesy of the 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, which pushed data along at 23.8 Mbps at 15 feet from our access point, and 16.2 Mbps at 50 feet (within Vista). The former is nearly 5 Mbps faster than the category average, whereas the latter is slightly higher than the typical mainstream machine.
As with every Mac, Apple includes the intuitive OS X Leopard operating system, the Safari web browser, the forget-it-and-go Time Machine automatic backup solution, and the fun iLife ’09 entertainment and multimedia suite. With Apple’s 64-bit Mac OS X Snow Leopard (which will enable multicore processing and allow up to 16TB of RAM) scheduled for release in September, current Mac users will be happy to know that they’ll be able to upgrade to the more robust operating system for an incredibly wallet-friendly $29. The MacBook Pro’s one-year-parts-and-labor warranty still includes just 90 days of toll-free, 24/7 phone support. Upgrading to the three-year Apple Protection Plan costs $349.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro comes into two other configurations with slight differences: A $1,699 model (2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 250GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive, Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics), and a $2,299 model (2.8-GHz Intel Core 2 duo processor; 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive; and switchable Nvidia GeForce 9400M/9600M GT graphics). All models include 4GB of memory, and you can upgrade to 8GB for a whopping $1,000. You can also configure the notebook with several other hard drive options, including a 500GB, 5,400 rpm ($100), a 320GB, 7,200 rpm ($50), a 500GB, 7,200 rpm ($150); or a 128GB SSD ($300), and a 256GB SSD ($750).
Check out Apple's performance in our Tech Support Showdown to see how the manufacturer's support stacks up against the competition.
Priced at $1,999, the 15-inch MacBook Pro offers plenty of processing power and graphics muscle, as well as lengthy battery life, which makes it an outstanding system for heavy-duty content creation in the office or on the go. In future, we’d like the ability to switch between graphics modes without logging out, as well as an integrated mobile broadband option, but this machine gives power users everything they need, designed in a package you’ll want to show off.