Editors' Note: Apple has announced a new 15-inch MacBook Pro with a Force Touch trackpad, faster SSD and longer rated battery life. We would recommend buying the latest version, or searching for the 2014 model at a discount.
Apple's superlight new 12-inch MacBook grabs all the headlines with its lone USB Type-C port, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro sports a new Force Touch trackpad. But the 15-inch MacBook Pro ($1,999 as tested) is a force to be reckoned with for those who demand a big and beautiful display along with gobs of power. While some may want to wait for Apple to update this system with a 5th Generation Core CPU, it smokes the best Windows machines on many benchmarks, making it a top-notch professional laptop.
If you've seen any MacBook Pros since Apple released the first Retina Display model three years ago -- and really, most MacBook Pros since 2008's introduction of the unibody design -- you know what this 15-inch notebook looks like. It features the same silvery-aluminum finish in the same slender body adorned by the same white Apple logo on its cover.
At 0.71 x 14.13 x 9.73 inches and 4.46 pounds, the latest 15-inch MacBook is the same size and weight as its immediate predecessor. Set it next to a smaller Mac like the late 2013 13-inch MacBook Pro I use as my primary laptop, and the 15-inch model looks like a giant, even though it's only a pound heavier.
A more apt comparison would be the Dell XPS 15, which, at 0.7 x 14.6 x 10 inches, has a slightly larger footprint than the 15-inch MacBook Pro and weighs just a little bit more, at 4.6 pounds.
The Retina Display remains the MacBook Pro's showstopper, providing sharp, bright images and clear, easy-to-read text. Even though I'm used to the look of a Retina Display on my 13-inch MacBook Pro, the 2,880 x 1,800 resolution on the 15-inch MacBook Pro still impresses. When I watched the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer side by side on the two MacBooks, the 15-inch model's display let me pick out details like puffs of sand and beads of sweat that didn't stand out as much on the 13-inch model's smaller screen.
The MacBook Pro's Retina Display also compares favorably to the quad-HD touch-screen display on the Dell XPS 15, even though the latter notebook sports a higher resolution, at 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. The displays on both laptops are equally bright, with the MacBook Pro tallying 317 nits to the XPS 15's showing of 320 nits.
The MacBook Pro can reproduce 90 percent of the sRGB spectrum, slightly ahead of the Dell's score of 88.3 percent. (Another 15-inch laptop, Acer's Aspire V15 Nitro, scored 97.8 percent on this test, though it recorded a brightness of only 212 nits.) But the MacBook Pro really shines in terms of color accuracy, with a near-perfect score of 1.4 compared to the XPS 15's showing of 7.2.
If you're used to the keyboards on Apple's portables -- at least the ones that predate the 12-inch MacBook -- you'll feel comfortable using the keyboard on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. I averaged 72 words per minute on the 10FastFingers typing test with the 15-inch MacBook Pro. This is a little off the 80 words per minute I can type on my 13-inch home machine, but I'd chalk up the difference to the MacBook's home-court advantage. The 15-inch MacBook Pro's keys feel responsive, though the wide bezel will take some getting used to if you're upgrading from a smaller laptop.
The trackpad on the 15-inch MacBook Pro remains unchanged; only the 13-inch models have adopted the Force Touch trackpad as of this writing. If you upgrade from an earlier Apple model, you might notice more features are enabled by default via OS X Yosemite. (The trackpad on the 15-inch MacBook Pro lets me highlight words and click on links with just a tap; that's a setting I have to enable if I want to use it on my older MacBook Pro running OS X Mavericks.) Nevertheless, you'll find the trackpad with its support for gestures and taps to be as responsive as ever.
The MacBook Pro features stereo speakers that produce clean, vibrant sound when you listen to music or watch videos. Watching the trailer for The Force Awakens, I could hear not only the whoosh of X-wing fighters and the distinctive hum of a lightsaber, but also the crackle of a fire.
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The speakers sound much improved over earlier MacBook versions. I listened to Radiohead's "Creep," first on my older 13-inch MacBook Pro and then on the 15-inch model. The larger MacBook has richer sound, with better bass and more-resonant vocals.
The MacBook features two USB 3.0 ports on either side of the machine. On the left side, you'll find a pair of Thunderbolt 2 ports and a headphone jack, while the right side of the laptop offers an HDMI port and an SDXC card slot.
That USB Type-C port that adorns the 12-inch MacBook and combines charging, connectivity and video output into one connection is missing here. But that's understandable, because we reviewed the mid-2014 model. We do expect this port to appear once Apple refreshes this system.
A 720p FaceTime HD Camera provides decent enough images for Skype chats, though nothing you'd care to frame. The camera picked out different shades and colors in my hair, but my skin looked fuzzy, especially around the edges.
A 2.2-GHz Intel Core i7 processor powers this generation of 15-inch MacBook Pros. Intel's Turbo Boost technology lets that Core i7 run faster by upping the clock speed -- up to 3.4GHz in the configuration I tested -- when you need some extra performance oomph. That helps to explain this MacBook Pro's stellar performance in many of our tests, especially when compared to other 15-inch notebooks.
The MacBook Pro scored 13,352 on Geekbench 3, a test that measures overall performance. Not only did that best the average notebook score of 9,308, but it also outpaced the scores of the Dell XPS 15 and its 2.3-GHz Intel Core i7-4712HQ processor (11,816) and the Acer V15 Nitro with its 2.5-GHz Intel Core i7-4710HQ processor (12,843).
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The MacBook Pro's use of PCIe-based flash storage really helped it dominate our hard-drive tests. The 256GB drive in my test MacBook Pro copied 5GB of multimedia files in 18 seconds, much faster than the XPS 15 and its 512GB SSD (33 seconds) and the V15 Nitro with its 256GB SSD and 1TB HDD combo (25 seconds). The MacBook Pro recorded a file-transfer rate of 282.7 MBps, doubling the average speed of 138.7 MBps while also besting the performance of the Dell (154.2 MBps) and Acer (203.6 MBps).
The MacBook Pro also outpaced its rivals in matching 20,000 names and addresses in Open Office 4. Apple's laptop completed the test in 3 minutes and 4 seconds, faster than both the Dell XPS 15 (4:09) and V15 Nitro (3:55), and around two minutes faster than the average notebook.
The 15-inch MacBook I tested uses integrated graphics in the form of Intel Iris Pro rather than a dedicated graphics card. (A more expensive configuration of the MacBook Pro features the same Nvidia GPU found in the Dell XPS 15.) The integrated graphics are perfectly acceptable for working with video and images, though the scores in our gaming tests won't exactly knock your socks off.
At its native 2,880 x 1,800 resolution, the Retina Display MacBook Pro recorded 25 frames per second on World of Warcraft, a lower score than that registered by the Dell XPS 15 (34 fps) and well behind the 51 fps that the V15 Nitro turned in. Ramping up the effects to the Ultra setting reduced the MacBook to 15 fps at its native resolution, about equal to the 15 fps turned in by the Dell. Acer's notebook, meanwhile, recorded 29 fps at that setting.
At one point, while I continuously streamed Arrested Development episodes on Hulu and played BioShock Infinite via Steam, the MacBook Pro started to heat up, especially on the bottom panel closest to the top of the keyboard. But while the machine got noticeably warm, it never became uncomfortably so.
During our more formal test (streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes), the bottom of the MacBook Pro reached only 88 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an acceptable amount of heat. By contrast, the underside of the Dell XPS 15 hit 114 degrees in our testing.
Plan on getting a full day's worth of work out of the built-in 63.5-watt-hour lithium polymer battery in the MacBook Pro. Subjected to our Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous Web surfing at 100 nits of screen brightness), the notebook ran for 8 hours and 29 minutes. That's three-and-a-half hours longer than the average battery life for notebooks (5:49). The MacBook Pro also bested the Dell XPS 15 (6:59) and trounced the Acer V15 (2:48).
Apple offers two versions of the 15-inch MacBook Pro -- one with a 2.2-GHz Core i7 processor and the other with a 2.5-GHz Core i7 CPU. The 2.2-GHz model costs $1,999 and features Intel Iris Pro Graphics, a 256GB flash drive and 16GB of RAM. The $2,499 2.5-GHz model also comes with 16GB of RAM, but doubles the storage to 512GB and uses an Nvidia GeForce GT 750M GPU for graphics.
If you're in the market for a laptop with a gorgeous display, the 15-inch MacBook Pro should be at the top of your list. Images look crisp and vivid, thanks to the Retina Display. And you don't sacrifice performance for beauty; the MacBook Pro more than measures up to -- and in many cases, exceeds -- the performance of comparable notebooks. We also appreciate the robust speakers and long battery life.
The only reason not to embrace this iteration of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is what's coming next from Apple. With the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro getting a refresh in March to include Intel's 5th Generation Core processor and a new Fore Touch trackpad, an update to the 15-inch model may come sooner rather than later. However, if you want a premium laptop for serious work that performs as well as it looks, while providing strong endurance -- and you want it right now -- the MacBook Pro won't disappoint.