Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro Review

by Jerry Jackson Reads (767,670)
  • Pros

    • Excellent battery life
    • Great build quality
    • SD-card slot!
  • Cons

    • This notebook gets hot!
    • Good looks, poor ergonomics
    • Slow hard drive

by Kevin O’Brien

The new 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro brings a lot of new features to the table from the previous generation. Users now get a large battery that gives pretty amazing life, a better display, faster processor, FireWire, SD-card slot, and best of all a lower starting price. Getting more for less seems to be the trend during this slow economy, so is there any reason not to buy the new 13″ MacBook Pro? Read our full review to find out.

13-inch Apple MacBook Pro Specifications:

  • Mac OS X v10.5.7 (9J3032)
  • Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.26GHz (3MB L2 cache, 1066MHz frontside bus)
  • 2GB 1067MHz DDR3 SDRAM
  • 160GB 5400rpm SATA hard disk drive
  • 13.3″ glossy widescreen TFT LED backlit display (1280 x 800)
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics (256MB of DDR3 shared memory)
  • 8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • iSight webcam
  • AirPort Extreme WiFi (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)
  • Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports (480Mbps), FireWire 800, Audio out and microphone in, SD-Card reader
  • Dimensions : 0.95″ x 12.78″ x 8.94″ (H x W x D)
  • Weight: 4.51 pounds
  • Integrated 58-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
  • 60W MagSafe power adapter with cable management system
  • MSRP: $1,199

Build and Design
The 13.3″ MacBook Pro is very sleek and classy, which is what we have come to expect from Apple. The design is sharp with the unibody chassis showing no panel lines or breaks except on the bottom for the huge panel that covers the internals. Apple gives us a very simple interface with little clutter (and ports) turning what is usually a mindless appliance into a work of art. To further simplify the design they switched to an internal battery for this model, instead of having a cover and release bar like in the previous revision.

apple macbook pro 13

 

Build quality is excellent thanks to the very strong and rigid unibody chassis that is machined out a solid block of aluminum. Unless you were going to clamp the MacBook Pro in a vise and try to bend it, you can’t really find any flex anywhere on the main half of the notebook. The screen cover does flex slightly under strong pressure, but with something that thin it was expected. Without any plastic panels, except at the screen hinge, there are no parts to squeak or creak under normal use. Outside of a few rugged models I can’t think of a single notebook that has a stronger chassis than the unibody MacBooks.

Normally simple upgrades such as swapping in a faster hard drive or upgrading the system memory (or changing the battery) take a few additional steps on the new 13.3″ Macbook Pro. To access user-serviceable components you must buy a precision Phillips head screwdriver, and remove 10 screws around the perimeter of the notebook. With the cover off you get access to the battery, hard drive, optical drive, and tightly stacked system memory. Once you overcome the fear of ripping off the bottom of your new shiny MacBook Pro, upgrading the components isn’t that bad. The only problem that might come up is going against the recommended advice from Apple to not disconnect the main battery when swapping out components. Usually you want to unplug AC and the battery from notebooks before you change the RAM or hard drive to prevent damage.


apple macbook pro 13

Screen and Speakers
The screen on the MacBook Pro is average compared to other glossy panels, and has the downside of having the highly reflective glass layer over the LCD. This increases the amount of reflection from other objects, including you sitting right in front of the notebook. While you do adjust to it after a while, it can still be annoying. Pictures and movies look great thanks to the glossy surface and a healthy 60% bump in color gamut over the previous generation MacBook, which gives vibrant colors and deep blacks. Overall brightness is excellent for viewing in brightly lit rooms like in an office building or lecture hall. If you were able to find a spot of shade you could also use it outdoors as long as you find a strategic position away from any glare. Viewing angles are average for a TN-panel LCD, with colors starting to show signs of inversion when titled 20-25 degrees forward or back. Horizontal viewing angles are much better, with colors staying accurate at steep angles, right up until the point where reflections overpower screen.

apple macbook pro 13 apple macbook pro 13
apple macbook pro 13 apple macbook pro 13

The speakers sound weak compared to other notebooks, with little bass or midrange sound. The enclosed position of the speakers doesn’t help with stereo separation, so it ends up sounding like one mono speaker. For enjoying some iTunes music or watching a movie headphones are the best option. The MacBook Pro also supports digital audio out through the headphone jack, so hooking it up to a stereo for surround sound is another option you could go with.

Keyboard and Touchpad
The 13″ MacBook Pro offers a full-size Chiclet-style keyboard that is fully backlit for typing where overhead light might not be the best. While Sony originally created this style of keyboard, I think Apple really perfected it and made the better version. The keyboard is comfortable to type on and easy to transition to if you are used to typing on a standard notebook keyboard with tighter key spacing. Individual key action is smooth with less than average pressure required to activate each key. Key noise is low, with a smooth almost-muted click when pressed. If you enjoy stealth typing, look no further. The backlight is nice even when your room isn’t completely dark. If you are not used to an Apple keyboard, it makes it easier to spot keys since everything is lit up. The backlight is also fully adjustable, to be brighter when the room is brighter, and dimmer when you don’t need the keys blindingly-bright in a pitch black room.

apple macbook pro 13

One trade-off to the shape of the unibody MacBook Pro is the sharp edges around the perimeter. The palmrest on most notebooks have a slightly rounded or sloped edge for the front of the palmrest, whereas the MacBook Pro is a perfectly flat surface with a sharp edge. If you normally hang your wrists off the edge like I do, one thing you notice over time is the edge digging into your wrist. If you have small hands this might not be a big deal, but for someone like me it gets painful quick. This is just another example of form having a higher priority than function.

apple macbook pro 13

The touchpad is a large multi-touch surface with no separate touchpad buttons. The clicking action is through a clicker button under the touchpad, which allows the entire surface to “click”. If you are used to other touchpads, it takes a while to get used clicking the surface itself, instead of a button below it. In OS X the touchpad sensitivity is excellent, offering no lag on the default sensitivity settings. Contrast this with Windows, where the driver support doesn’t give you the same fluid experience. Movement is choppy and over-sensitive, where the cursor will sometimes release an object mid-drag or take many tries to double click. Another problem we ran into is the touchpad sometimes detected a slight increase in fingertip pressure as a double click, opening applications when moving over a list in the start menu. None of these problems happened within OS X.

Ports and Features
The new 13″ MacBook Pro offers two USB ports, one mini-DisplayPort, LAN, and the return of FireWire 800. While eSATA is generally the best when it comes to fast external storage, more Mac-targeted storage devices offer FireWire from the long standing Apple support of the standard. The Macbook Pro also offers a headphone jack and a new SD-card slot, bringing it to the same level that most PC’s have been at for a number of years.
The most notable feature on the MacBook Pro is a handy battery gauge mounted on the side of the notebook. Pressing the button lights up a number of eight LED’s showing the current charge level of the battery. This is a handy feature if you are thinking about grabbing the computer before you head out the door without an AC adapter … just in case the battery is actually dead.

apple macbook pro 13
apple macbook pro 13 apple macbook pro 13
apple macbook pro 13

Performance
System performance is excellent, even with the NVIDIA 9400M integrated graphics. While most Intel integrated graphics options have greatly reduced performance compared to dedicated options, NVIDIA has broken that trend with the 9400M. With an average 3DMark06 score of more than 2,100 3DMarks, it is comparable to low-end dedicated options and can handle previous generation games with some tweaking of the resolution and detail settings. In our test of the game Portal, the 13″ MacBook Pro delivered 38-42 frames per second (FPS) at 1280×800 resolution on high settings looking through a single portal. Looking through no portals the framerate would be as high as 55FPS, and if you were looking through two it would drop down to about 22-23FPS.

apple macbook pro

Outside of gaming performance the system handled 720P and 1080P HD movie decoding with ease, perfect for a home theatre hub with a mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapter. While we didn’t see any significant slowdowns related to the 5400rpm hard drive in our review model, upgrading to a 7200rpm drive would decrease boot and application load times. Battery impact should be minimal, but you will probably see a drop of 15-30 minutes. One interesting hard drive related quirk we noticed with the new MacBook Pro was the drive was working on SATA-150 mode only. Some of our forum members are experiencing this problem as well, which you start to see after you upgrade to a fast SSD that is capable of pushing more than 150MB/s. It is too early to say if this is a hardware or software bug, but we are leaning towards a software problem.

XBench 1.3 summary results:

Model Overall Score
MacBook Pro 13 (2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 135.52
MacBook 2008 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 126.23
MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 106.05
MacBook (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 95.89
MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo) 50.76
PowerBook G3 Pismo (500MHz G3) 18.47

 

wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
HP Pavilion dv4t (Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.8GHz)
26.972 seconds
Dell Studio XPS 13 (Core 2 Duo P8600 @ 2.4GHz) 31.951 seconds
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (Core 2 Duo P8400 @ 2.26GHz) 34.209 seconds
Toshiba Satellite U405 (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.1GHz) 37.500 seconds
HP Pavilion dv3510nr (Core 2 Duo P7350 @ 2.0GHz)
38.656 seconds
Dell Inspiron 13 (Pentium Dual Core T2390 @ 1.86GHz) 44.664 seconds

 

PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Notebook PCMark05 Score
HP Pavilion dv4t (2.8GHz Intel T9600, Nvidia 9200M GS 256MB) 5,463 PCMarks
Dell Studio XPS 13 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9500M GE 256MB) 5,450 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv3510nr (2.0GHz Intel P7350, Nvidia 9300M GS 512MB) 4,920 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 (1.6GHz Intel SU9400, Intel 4500MHD) 4,457 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite U405 (2.1GHz Intel T8100, Intel X3100) 4,145 PCMarks
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, Nvidia 9400M) 4,136 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 13 (1.86GHz Intel T2390, Intel X3100) 3,727 PCMarks

 

3DMark06 graphics comparison against notebooks @ 1280 x 800 resolution (higher scores mean better performance):

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Dell Studio XPS 13 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9500M GE 256MB, Hybrid SLI) 3,542 3DMarks
Apple MacBook Pro 13 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, Nvidia 9400M) 2,139 3DMarks
Dell Studio XPS 13 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9500M GE 256MB, Integrated) 2,090 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv3510nr (2.0GHz Intel P7350, Nvidia 9300M GS 512MB) 1,865 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 (1.6GHz Intel SU9400, Intel 4500MHD) 712 3DMarks
Toshiba Satellite U405 (2.1GHz Intel T8100, Intel X3100) 539 3DMarks
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 502 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 13 (1.86GHz Intel T2390, Intel X3100) 470 3DMarks

 

HDTune for the built-in hard drive:
apple macbook pro

Heat and Noise
Heat output is always a touchy subject when it comes to the newer aluminum-body Apple notebooks. When under stress the entire system acts as one huge heatsink, making it very unfriendly for your lap in those conditions. Under normal daily activity the MacBook Pro stays relatively cool, shedding heat into the air quite well, keeping the body cool to the touch. Fan noise under these conditions is non-existent. One situation that warmed up the notebook considerably was installing Windows Vista through BootCamp. The back section of the notebook, bottom, and keyboard had recorded temperatures as high as 115F. Unlike warm plastic, the aluminum body was quick to transmit this excess heat to your hands or legs making things quite unpleasant. Thankfully it was only during the installation that we saw temperatures get that high, but if you were gaming for a few hours or encoding lots of video you might experience the same thing. Below are two temperature readings taken from the 13″ MacBook Pro during our tests. One shows how hot it can get while running Portal for 20 minutes, and the other shows what it is like under normal non-stressful conditions.


External temperatures after light use

External temperatures after light use

External temperatures after heavy use

External temperatures after heavy use

Battery
Battery life was excellent … even when running Windows Vista where MacBooks tend to have less-than-impressive battery life. The 58Wh battery is similar in capacity to most 6-cell batteries, but the times we saw were in line with notebooks having larger 9-cell extended batteries. In OS X with the backlight set to about 70%, wireless active, and the hard drive set to never turn off we found the 13″ MacBook Pro to last 7 hours and 59 minutes. With the same testing conditions in Bootcamp, the MacBook Pro stayed on for 5 hours and 1 minute, still respectable for a 13″ notebook, but far from optimal. Apple driver support inside Windows leaves much to be desired–making the notebook consume far more power than it should. It appeared the lower power states of the processor were disabled, keeping system power consumption between 12-13 watts for the length of the test. Another problem that kept recurring is the keyboard backlight wouldn’t stay off. Under OS X you can completely turn off the backlight, but in Windows it is forced into automatic mode. You can’t adjust the brightness of the keyboard until the computer detects less-than-optimal lighting conditions, then when you do it completely forgets the setting minutes later when another shadow is cast over the keyboard. Bottom line is if you want longer battery life for the MacBook Pro, keep using OS X unless Apple corrects this problem with an update.

Conclusion
The new 13-inch MacBook Pro has many strengths that make it a good notebook you should consider buying. It gets excellent battery life while running OS X, it can game on integrated graphics, its screen looks excellent, and it has fantastic build quality. With that said its all-aluminum design causes heat to be quickly transmitting into your skin acting as a huge heatsink, driver support inside Windows isn’t the best, and the sharp edges of the palmrest can be painful to lean your wrists across. For its intended market most people won’t care about the Window’s driver problems and the substantial increase in battery life from the previous model is worth the internal battery. Overall if you can get past some of its design quirks it is a great notebook with a feature set that is hard to beat.

Pros:

  • Excellent battery life
  • Screen has excellent color and contrast
  • Great build quality
  • SD-card slot!

Cons:

  • When the system is running hot you can really feel it
  • Good looks put in front of ergonomics
  • Poor Windows driver support
  • Hard drive is limited to SATA-150 speeds



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