Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro (mid 2009) User Review

by Budding Reads (112,344)
  • Pros

    • Excellent rigid seamless aluminium chassis
    • Light and easy to carry for a laptop of its size
    • Automatically adjusting backlight illuminated keyboard
    • Gorgeous LED-backlit display with 60% greater colour gamut

  • Cons

    • Only two USB ports
    • No ExpressCard slot
    • Requires adaptors in order to connect to external displays
    • SD Card slot only supports full size SD cards


by Buddy Sun

Apple updated its line of Macbooks and Macbook Pros on the 8th of June 2009 with faster processors, SD card slots, increased battery life, and improved displays. This review looks at the standard top end 15-inch Macbook Pro purchased in the United Kingdom (model number MB986B/A), how it performs compared to other computers and Macbooks, and the advantages and disadvantages of these new changes.

The standard top end Macbook Pro has the following hardware specifications:

  • CPU: Intel T9600 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo (6MB cache, 1066MHz FSB)
  • Memory: 4GB (2x2GB) PC3-8500 DDR3 SDRAM (1066MHz)
  • GPU: nVidia Geforce 9600M GT with 512MB GDDR3 SDRAM (dedicated) AND nVidia Geforce 9400M with 256MB DDR3 SDRAM (shared)
  • Display: 15.4” glossy LED-backlit TFT active-matrix (1440×900)
  • HDD: Hitachi 500GB 5400rpm SATA II
  • Battery: Integrated 73 W/Hr Lithium Polymer battery (up to 7 hours)
  • Optical Drive: 8x DL slot-loading “SuperDrive” (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
  • Keyboard: Full size backlit keyboard (UK)
  • Mouse: Multi-touch trackpad
  • Case: Aluminium unibody case with catch-less magnetic latch
  • Ports: Gigabit Ethernet port; FireWire 800 port (up to 800 Mbps); Mini DisplayPort (up to 2560×1600); 2xUSB 2.0 ports (up to 480 Mbps); SD card slot; Audio line in; Audio line out (Intel HD Audio); Kensington lock slot
  • Wi-Fi: AirPort Extreme (IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • Webcam: built-in iSight webcam
  • Dimensions: 0.95in x 14.35in x 9.82in (2.41cm x 36.4cm x 24.9cm)
  • Weight: 5.5lbs (2.49kg)
  • OS: Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard)
  • Warranty: 1-year worldwide AppleCare
  • Price as configured: £1,699/$2,299

Build and Design
Since their introduction in October 2008, the unibody Macbook Pros have been manufactured from one single sheet of aluminium. Apple has improved on this design with the latest Macbook Pros, by removing the battery panel from the underside of the laptop. This results in a perfectly smooth finish on the bottom of the Macbook, but at the same time removes the ability for the user to remove the battery.


The seamless smooth underside of the Macbook Pro

Manufacturing the entire laptop from one single sheet of aluminium results in a rigid chassis void of joins. This means that there is less chance of fractures or breaks developing on the case. Also, given the properties of aluminium, the laptop is very unlikely to crack or break. However, aluminium is a relatively soft metal, so it might deform should heavy pressures be applied to it, such as physically sitting on the laptop. Aluminium is also a conductive material, so the heat is spread through the entire computer, providing more effective cooling, but also making the entire computer mildly warm to the touch after long periods of intensive processing. This is especially noticeable when running Windows.


Macbook Pro running Microsoft Windows Vista

In the hand, the Macbook Pro feels portable and comfortable. This is mainly because of the texture of aluminium, and the fact that the laptop is less than 1-inch thick. But weighting in at just under 2.5kg, the 15” Macbook Pro is light for a 15.4” laptop.

Aside from the glass bezel around and covering the glossy display of the Macbook Pro, the laptop is not highly vulnerable to fingerprints and smudges. However, the hinge connecting the monitor to the base of the laptop is occasionally not sufficiently rigid to hold the screen in place when the laptop is carried around with the screen open. Therefore, it is recommended not to carry the laptop around in this fashion.

Display and Sound
Apple has claimed that the displays on the new 15” Macbook Pros have “60% greater colour gamut” than the previous generation, which means that the new Macbook Pro displays can display a significantly wider range of colours. The new 15” Macbook Pros now rival the excellent monitors found on the 17” Macbook Pros, with darker blacks to brighter whites. Viewing angles, especially horizontal ones, are also very impressive on the 15” Macbook Pro, as can been seen on the following photos:


Viewing angles of the Macbook Pro screen. Horizontal viewing angles are very impressive, while vertical angles are as expected from a notebook screen. Note that the brightness is not turned to max – max brightness was a bit too much for my eyes

Of course, the Macbook Pro display still falls short when compared to a stand-alone MVA, PVA, or IPS display. But for a laptop, it is definitely one of the best in the market to date. One particularly nifty feature of the Macbook Pro is how it adjusts the brightness of the display depending on the brightness of the environment. This feature has been available in Macbooks since Apple released the unibody models, and can be turned off in the System Preferences.

The speakers in the Macbook Pros, like speakers in most notebook models, haven’t improved much over the years. They are louder than their 13” counterparts, but a pair of decent stereo headphones or dedicated speakers will sound much better.

Keyboard and Touchpad
The 15” Macbook Pro has a full size backlit Chiclet keyboard. I personally greatly enjoy the Chiclet design, and find it very easy and quiet to type on.


Macbook Pro keyboard and mouse.

Having been a user of Apple keyboards for several years, I have overcome all the initial difficulties I had when I first switched. But, some users might need to get used to the narrower “Return” or “Enter” key, as well as the lack of a dedicated forwards delete key. However, once new users realise that the Command key should be pressed with the thumb instead of their little finger, they should have no difficulties in adjusting to the Macbook Pro’s keyboard.

The backlighting on the keyboard is activated automatically in low light conditions, illuminating the entire keyboard. Just like the automatic adjusting of the display’s backlight, the automatic illuminating of the keyboard can be disabled in System Preferences, and the brightness of the illumination can be adjusted with the keyboard on the fly.


Macbook Pro’s illuminated keyboard

The multi touch trackpad on the 15” Macbook Pro has no physical buttons. This is because the bottom part of the trackpad can be pushed down, acting like a physical button. This design, which was introduced with the unibody Macbooks, has received mixed feelings from users, some praising it while others find it impossible to use. I personally find it not too different from the conventional trackpad with physical buttons, and think it is a very good way of achieving the aesthetically pleasing design without compromising on functionality.

In terms of performance, the trackpad works flawlessly in Mac OS X. There is also an array of options for performing a right click, from tapping the trackpad with two fingers, to physically pressing down on different areas of the trackpad.
In Microsoft Windows however, it is a totally different story. The default Boot Camp drivers offer very limited configurations and customisations for the trackpad, and the sensitivity of the trackpad is slightly oversensitive, making it flimsy to operate. This issue might be fixed with the release of Snow Leopard and new Boot Camp drivers, but in the meantime, I can only recommend users to get an external two-button mouse for use in Windows.

Heat and Noise
The Macbook Pro has excellent temperature management in OS X. It will remain silent almost all the time, and will cool down rapidly once idling. It is a very different story in Windows however, where the laptop runs noticeably warmer even when idling, and it takes longer to cool down. Still, the two fans in the Macbook Pro are very quiet, as is the default 500GB Hitachi hard drive.


Macbook Pro temperatures under light load

When under intensive load for long periods of time, the underside of the Macbook Pro does become rather uncomfortably warm for use on the lap. The top of the laptop also becomes mildly warm in that situation, due to the conductive properties of aluminium.

Obtaining an accurate reading of the temperature with the laptop under stress was rather challenging because of the highly efficient cooling system. The following screenshot was obtained following an immediate restart after running several benchmark tests under Windows.


Macbook Pro temperatures following benchmark tests in Windows

Ports and Expansion


Ports on the left side of the Macbook Pro.


Right side of the Macbook Pro, showing the Kensington lock port and the slot loading Superdrive


Front of the Macbook Pro, showing the Infra Red sensor and the power indicator


Back side of the Macbook Pro, with the display hinge and no ports

For a 15” laptop, the Macbook Pro features surprisingly few ports, and the few ports it does have received very strong and mixed views from users.

Apple has included a SD card slot in their Macbook models. This is very welcoming for users who have been requesting the feature for many years, but the slot is not multi-purpose and only supports full size SD cards. On the 15” Macbook Pro models, Apple has removed the Expresscard slot. This has infuriated many users who rely on Expresscard devices for expansion.

The Firewire port on the Macbook models have also been changed from Firewire 400 to Firewire 800. The increase in speed is a welcome change, but the Firewire 800 port is not directly backwards compatible with Firewire 400 devices. An additional converter is required to connect Firewire 400 devices to a Firewire 800 port, and this has received strong criticism from many users.

The Mini DisplayPort port on the Macbook Pro supports external displays up to 2560×1600. This means that it is possible to connect the 30” Apple Cinema Display to the Macbook Pro and run it at full resolution. However, Mini DisplayPort is licensed by Apple, and therefore requires an additional adaptor to convert it to other more mainstream display connectors, such as VGA, DVI, and HDMI.

All Macbooks and Macbook Pros have slot loading optical drives, meaning that mini-discs cannot be used on the Macbooks as they will become stuck in the drive. The battery indicator at the side of the laptop is an entertaining feature, although its usefulness is rather limited.

Both USB ports on the 15” Macbook Pro are located on the left side of the laptop, which would significantly handicap users who require the port in a more convenient location on the laptop, such as right handed users of the Apple wired Mighty Mouse. The only area in terms of ports where the 15” Macbook Pro improves on the 13” Macbook Pro is the presence of separate Audio-In and Audio-Out ports.

At home, I personally have my Macbook connected to my gigabit Ethernet network, hooked up to a 24” monitor which has a built in USB hub, and wired up to a 2.1 sound system. In that respect, having all ports on one side is useful. However, those with slightly different requirements than mine might experience difficulties and limitations when expanding their Macbook Pro with peripherals.

Performance and Benchmarks
Below are a number of results from benchmark test run on the 2.8Ghz 15” Macbook Pro.

Xbench:
In OS X, the Xbench benchmark test was run multiple times with both the nVidia 9400M and the nVidia 9600M GT.

With the 9400M, results peaked at 151.41 points, and bottomed at 138.33. With the 9600M GT, results peaked at 151.77 points, and bottomed at 147.92. From the results, it is clear that the bottlenecking factor of the Macbook Pro is its 500GB Hard Drive. For the 9400M, there is a clear impact on system RAM as it is shared with the GPU.

Overall, the 2.8GHz 15” Macbook Pro shows an overall improvement of 4.34% over the previous top end (2.66GHz) 15” Macbook Pro (145.43), and an overall improvement of 7.53% over the next configuration (2.66GHz) 15” Macbook Pro (141.14).

An interesting anomaly shown by the Xbench results is in the graphics tests. The results between the 9400M and 9600M GT are surprisingly similar, possibly an indication that the graphical tests executed by Xbench fail to fully stress the nVidia GPUs in the Macbooks.


XBench 9400M benchmark results

XBench 9600M GT benchmark results

Further tests were carried out in Windows, to get a more accurate and comparable result for the performance of the Macbook Pro. The following tests were all carried out in Windows Vista SP1, with the nVidia mobility drivers 186.03 installed.

PCMark Vantage:
PCMark Vantage yielded a result of 4304 PCMarks. This is a significant 22% improvement from the 3,525 PCMarks scored by the next configuration (2.66GHz) 15” Macbook Pro , and an enormous 19% improvement from the 3606 PCMarks of the previous top end (2.66GHz) 15” Macbook Pro .

3DMark06:
The 2.8GHz 15” Macbook Pro scored a total of 5978 3DMarks. This is a slight 2.70% improvement from the previous top end (2.66GHz) 15” Macbook Pro3. This result is hardly surprising, as the GPU in both notebooks are identical. The reason for the slight improvement is due to the faster processor.

3DMark Vantage:
In 3DMark Vantage the Macbook Pro scored 2045 3DMarks, with a 1602 GPU score and a 12011 CPU score.

Resident Evil 5:
Running at 1280×800 resolution in DirectX 9.0c with Motion Blur enabled, no AA, and all other settings to High, the Macbook Pro managed an average of 27.8 fps on the Fixed Benchmark, and 26.7 fps on the Variable Benchmark.

In DirectX 10, under the same settings, the Macbook Pro also managed 27.8 fps on the Fixed Benchmark, and an interesting 27 fps on the Variable Benchmark.

Those numbers might sound a bit low, but the demo looked gorgeous on the Macbook screen and was comfortably playable. It’s just a shame the person playing during the demo was so unskilled.


Macbook Pro running the Resident Evil 5 benchmark in DirectX 10 mode

wPrime:
wPrime was ran a number of times to benchmark the performance of the CPU by calculating the square roots of 32 million numbers executed in four separate threads.

The results from wPrime were all extremely similar, with the fastest result at 28.222 seconds, and the slowest at 28.781 seconds. These results are average results for the T9600 CPU (fastest recorded on hwbot.org is 26.74 and slowest is 31.10).

HDTune:
HDTune was executed a number of times to obtain a fair comparison of the performance of the 500GB 5400rpm Hitachi HD.

The average transfer rate peaked at 63.3MB/s, and bottomed at 62.8MB/s. The lowest recorded transfer rate was 28.2MB/s, with the highest recorded at 83.6MB/s. These results are pretty much en par with other 500GB 5400rpm mobile hard drives.


HDTune hard drive benchmark results

Battery Life
Apple boasts that the 73W/hr battery in the Macbook Pro is capable of running the machine for up to 7 hours, and from what I’ve seen so far, this claim is surprisingly accurate. The battery of the Macbook Pro is by far the longest lasting battery I’ve ever seen in a notebook of this size. With the dedicated 9600M GT enabled, I personally get about 4 to 5 hours of light usage, with wifi and Bluetooth enabled, and without having to turn down the brightness of the display or having to disable the keyboard backlighting. With the 9400M, I get around 6 to 7 hours, which is very impressive. During moments of inactivity, the battery indicator on the Macbook Pro would display up to 9 hours of remaining life.

In Windows, battery life is reduced, but obtaining 3 to 4 hours of usage with the 9600M GT under light usage is still achievable.

Limited SATA?
When Apple initially released their Macbook refresh in June 2009, all models had their Hard Drive SATA II interface limited to 1.5Gbps (150MB/s), as opposed to the usual 3.0Gbps (300MB/s) throughput rate. Although this does not affect anyone using a mechanical hard drive (as can be seen from the HDTune benchmarks in the previous section – transfer rates peaked at 83.6MB/s), users of Solid State Drives saw the performance of their drives subsequently bottlenecked.

However, Apple released a software update which remedies this issue shortly afterwards, and the Hard Drive interface of Macbooks have now been restored to 3.0Gbps.


SATA information of the Macbook Pro with Apple’s Firmware 1.7 installed. The speed of the SATA interface is 3Gbps, as can be seen in the circle.

Conclusion
So, should you get a standard top end 2.8GHz 15” Macbook Pro? The short answer would be yes. However, at £1,699/$2,299, it is no doubt the least favourite when it comes to value for money in the entire Macbook range, disregarding the values from the PCMark Vantage benchmark results.

Most of its disadvantages are identical to the other models in the range, and arise from its limited selection of ports. Most of its advantages are also identical to the other models in the range, from the amazing battery life and the excellent aluminium chassis, to the wonderful display and silent cooling system. However, for those who absolutely require the 512MB graphics card or the faster 2.8GHz CPU, or for those who wouldn’t mind spending the extra amount, the top end 2.8GHz 15” Macbook Pro is definitely a wonderful laptop to own.

Pros:

  • Excellent rigid seamless aluminium chassis
  • Light and easy to carry for a laptop of its size
  • Automatically adjusting backlight illuminated keyboard
  • Gorgeous LED-backlit display with 60% greater colour gamut
  • Incredible battery life
  • 22% improved performance from the next model according to PCMark Vantage
  • Silent in Mac OS X

Cons:

  • Only two USB ports
  • No ExpressCard slot
  • Requires adaptors in order to connect to external displays
  • SD Card slot only supports full size SD cards
  • High price/performance ratio according to Xbench
  • Non-user-removable battery
  • Dodgy and limited trackpad drivers in Windows




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