Apple MacBook Pro Review (pics, specs)

by crazyguy Reads (396,555)
  • Pros

    • Very well built
    • Great overall performance
    • Smaller dimensions and weighs less than other laptops in its class (1lb less than the Acer 8204 for example)
    • Can run Windows XP or OS X (and potentially Linux)
    • Very quiet
    • Amazingly bright non-glare type screen
    • High quality web cam
    • Decent battery life
    • Plays WoW like a champ
    • Comes with a remote for media and powerpoint

  • Cons

    • Somewhat hot when plugged in
    • Boot Camp not quite ready for the masses
    • Underclocked GPU


by Tom Jackman

The MacBook Pro is Apple’s latest notebook and their first with Intel’s new attempt at notebook dominance, the Core Duo.  It represents the near peak of current notebook technology in terms of power, making only a few compromises for the sake of a slim profile and a better battery life.  I am a college student who has been lusting over notebooks for the past two years, but with so many choices and every promising notebook seemingly always lacking in an essential area I was paralyzed by indecision (and a lack of funds).  I will be attending Law School next fall and the time has finally come when owning a notebook is no longer an option. Luckily, notebook technology is better than ever, and I finally had some notebooks to choose from that represent nearly everything I have wanted since I first got the idea in my head that I needed one. I have simple needs: gaming capable graphics card, near desktop power, low weight, bright screen, decent battery life, and sweet looks (you know, the basics).

Once I saw the Core Duo I knew the day had arrived and that any laptop I bought was going to have it.  I have to have a laptop before August so that took out waiting for the 64bit Core Duo sequel that is coming out sometime later this year or early next year (Merom).

The notebooks I considered getting were the W3J, the Acer 8204, and the new MacBook Pro from Apple, all top of the line machines which had the Radeon X1600 and the new Core Duo.  The Apple wasn’t really an option because the Law School I am attending requires a Windows machine.  The Acer just had too many complaints of a poor screen and other problems, although I know people who are enjoying the machine just fine.  I actually ordered the W3J last week but was dismayed to discover that my preorder wasn’t made quite soon enough and I was going to have to wait even longer if I wanted that option.  My preorder was cancelled about 4 days after the announcement of Boot Camp, which was not just a hack, but the promise of an (in the future) officially supported dual boot program.  I’m no fool, and I wasn’t going to spit the notebook gods in the face.  I had been given a sign, and 24 hours later I picked up my (educationally discounted at $2,299) brand new MacBook Pro.  This is my first Apple ever, but with the safety net of Boot Camp, I figured the time to dive in was now.


Apple – even our Cases are cooler than yours (view large image)

  
Specifications of the MacBook Pro reviewed

  • 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo
  • 667MHz frontside bus and main memory
  • PCI Express architecture
  • 100GB 5400 Serial ATA hard drive
  • ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 with 256MB memory on 16-lane PCI Express
  • ExpressCard/34 slot
  • Dual-link DVI, VGA adapter included
  • One FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports
  • Optical digital and analogue audio I/O, built-in microphone and stereo speakers
  • Slot-loading SuperDrive
  • Illuminated keyboard, scrolling TrackPad
  • Built-in AirPort Extreme (802.11g), Bluetooth 2.0+EDR, and Gigabit Ethernet
  • Mac OS X Tiger with iLife ’06, featuring iWeb

Design and Build

The design and build of the MacBook Pro is top notch.  For someone who has used and handled (although admittedly never owned) several Dells, HPs, and Compaqs (dang their University contracts) the step up in quality was very much appreciated.


Apple design — clean and classy (view large image)


Bigger power supply for more power (view large image)

Several compromises were made to slim the MacBook Pro into a 1″ package.  The first was to ditch the dual layer 8x dvd burner in favor of a (3mm slimmer) 4x single layer burner.  A bummer, but I do must of my burning on my PC, and I haven’t burned a DL disc in my life.

The thin but strong aluminum chassis inspires confidence and there are extra features for the paranoid like the motion sensor, which is used to lock up the hard drive in the event of any sudden movement detected.  Someone even made a program called iAlert, which you can use to protect your computer from theft.  When alarmed (with the included remote used for Front Row), the laptop will start screeching and flash the screen if someone were to pick it up.  It is quite funny and yet, amazingly useful for someone like me who might be tempted to leave my notebook at a table in the school library to take a quick leak.  As for the screen, it has very minimal flex when torque is applied to it.  Overall, you get the feeling that this laptop is the refinement of previous versions in many ways (much like the current iPod compared to the then amazing 1st Gen iPod). 

Benchmarks (All run in Windows XP using Boot Camp Beta with default drivers provided by Apple)

The effort put in by the MacBook Pro shows that that it is not as fast as one might expect from a 2.0GHz Core Duo, but it is amazing that you can even run it under Windows without a hiccup.  Given that the CPU is identical to the one found in the Dell Inspiron, which posts a score 8 seconds lower, it is clear that Apple has some room to optimize.  The score obviously smokes the Pentium M.

Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits:


Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 24s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 1m 29s
Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 16s
HP dv8000z (1.8 GHz Turion-64 ML-32)  2m 12s
Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 52s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 1m 57s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  2m 10s
Sony VAIO S380 (1.83 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 42s

I ran both ’05 and ’06 versions of 3DMark. Below are the results I got and how they compare to other notebookst:

3DMark05 Results:

Notebook  3DMark 05 Results
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB  2866 3D Marks
 Lenovo ThinkPad Z60m (2.0GHz Pentium M, ATI X600 128MB)  1659 3DMarks
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)  727 3DMarks
 Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)  2530 3D Marks
 Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)  2,273 3DMarks
 HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)  2536 3D Marks
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4157 3DMarks

3DMark06 Results:

Notebook  3DMark 06 Results
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB  1,528 3D Marks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)  794 3DMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX)  4,085 3DMarks
 Asus A6J (1.83GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)  1,819 3D Marks

Sadly, I found out about the underclocked X1600 after I bought the MacBook.  A similarly specced Acer 8204 gets about 3,900 (of course people can coax even more out of them) in 3DMark05.  The MacBook’s X1600 is clocked at 310/300 core/memory, which is about 30% less than the 425/425 that other X1600s are set at.  I had no problems upping the core past 400, but anything over 315 on the memory caused an instant lockup of windows.  I know others have had better luck with upping memory, but the core is more important in this situation anyway.  With 400/310 I got a score of 3313 in 3DMark05.  The laptop seemed stable at this setting.  I didn’t bother trying to go any higher than this.

Screen Capture from HD Tune:


(view large image)

Some Thoughts About Performance

My main reason for gaming on a laptop was a little piece of crack I like to call World of Warcraft.  I was a little saddened by the reduced clock of the X1600, but this baby plays WoW like a fiddle.  With plenty of system and video memory, even torturous Ironforge (or Orgrimmar) visits are doable with everything turned up to maximum.  Gameplay is about the same as the X800 PRO on my desktop and so it wasn’t hard to make the switch. I haven’t yet purchased Oblivion, so I can’t tell you how that runs, but Half-Life 2 plays smoothly.

Having never been an Apple user, I can’t tell you if it is that much faster than a PowerPC Apple. From what I can tell, everything seems lightening fast.  I was a little worried when it took ten seconds to launch Firefox for the first time, but the very next day they released a patch that sped that up to about two seconds.  Navigating the web on a fast connection is quick and snappy.  I’m writing this review on the 30 day Microsoft Word:Mac trial that comes preinstalled and so far things are smooth with that as well.  Extracting a 700MB divx file seemed quicker than on my AMD 3000XP+ desktop.  All in all I am pleased with the performance of the MacBook and I feel like it is plenty adequate for my power hungry needs.

Keyboard and Touchpad


Keyboard view (view large image)

The keyboard is very nice with great travel for the keys and very useful function keys along the top for changing the volume and brightness.  It also includes keys for Apple’s famous backlit keyboard, which is set by default to use the ambient light sensor to come on when it gets dark.  The trackpad is enormous and nice, although as a windows user I lament the loss of a right click (ctrl-click is slowly becoming habit).  One cool feature is the two-finger scroll.  As soon as you put too fingers on the trackpad any movement you do will scroll up and down or side to side.  It is actually very natural and way better than using that little strip on the side of your trackpad like other laptops have.  I also miss dedicated home and end keys, which are integrated into the four-way directional keys in the lower right.  Considering that smaller notebooks have managed that (like the W3J), I’m a little disappointed. I’ll get used to it I imagine. 

Ports

I don’t know why S-Video had to go, but Apple is more than willing to sell you a DVI to S-Video cable if you want one.


Left side view of ports: Power cable, USB, Audio in, and Audio Out (both optical), and a ExpressCard Slot (view large image)


Right side: DVI, Ethernet, 400 FireWire, and USB (view large image)


Back view: One massive vent runs along the back (view large image)


Front view: The power button and the 4X DVD-R slot load adorn the front (view large image)


Top view (view large image)


Bottom view (view large image)


The battery has a cool feature that lets you check your battery life without turning the MacBook on (view large image)

Screen

 

The Apple engineers made a tough choice to shave 60 precious vertical pixels off an already widescreen aspect in order to integrate the high quality iSight cam.  It still isn’t as wide as the 16:9 movies I like to watch so it doesn’t bother me at all that this was done.  I’m one of those crazies who actually uses the web cam so I consider it a fair trade.  The resolution is way better than the one found on the W3J, which was one of the things that bummed me about that notebook (1440×900 vs 1280×768)


Nice and bright…is that windows? (view large image)

The horizontal viewing angle on this thing is insane.  It’s practically 180 degrees, although it is kind of hard to see anything on the screen at that point.  The vertical angle is not quite as good.  It has about a 15 degree sweet spot with the picture losing brightness and inverting white and black too far beyond that.

I took a look at this screen in my school’s computer store before I bought this notebook and it is definitely one of the things I really liked about this laptop.  With claims of being 67% brighter than the already bright PowerBook it replaces, this screen is a testament that you don’t have to go and fight glossy to get colors that sing and contrast that pops.  As far as I am concerned this is the best notebook screen I have ever seen.  There is absolutely no ghosting in any game I have tried and HD encoded trailers from Apple’s own website look amazing.  Solid colors on the screen do have a kind of textured look that some people have commented on, but I actually kind of like it.  It is not very noticeable and it kind of gives everything an “organic” look.  Try before you buy, but I give it a 9.5 out of 10 (gotta leave room for improvement).

It’s pencil art me! (Taken with one of iSight’s art effects) (view larger image)

Battery Life

Battery life is good but not great.  I get about 3 hours and 15 min with half brightness (more than adequate) when I am using my laptop to type stuff up and browse the web.  I haven’t tried to play WoW on the battery, but I never plan to so I am pretty pleased with it.  It is pretty good juice for such a slim notebook.

Wireless

Wireless works great and has decent range as far as I know.  My apartment is pretty small so the “Airport Extreme” has no problems dropping out of strong signal strength.  It does seem to have better pickup than my wife’s IBM T40.  I do appreciate that in OS X it automatically connects to the strongest available wireless network.

Sound

The speakers dominate the left and right side of the keyboard.  Bass is obviously not great, but it is pretty decent sound for a laptop if you ask me.  The placement of the speakers helps to project the audio so you don’t have to worry about your belly blocking the sound (like front mounted speakers found on the HP line). Volume is fine for the movies (divx) I’ve seen and the audio output with headphones is great.

Heat and Noise

The notebook is surprisingly cool when it runs off the battery. Everything throttles down to extend battery life and things are only slightly warm.  When the notebook is plugged in and everything throttles up this sucker gets very hot.  The aluminum chassis acts like a big heatsink soaking up the heat and radiating it out. The strip along the back on the bottom gets especially hot.  On top, the back of the left speaker grill gets very hot as well, which is understandable as this is right where the X1600 sits.  It is no wonder they clocked the graphics back.  Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to get any hotter when I have an intense gaming session going.  I’m not sure if that is because it is not throttling back at all when no gaming is going on or what, but I am going to investigate this some more.  This is the price you have to pay for putting top of the line components inside a 5.5 pound, 1″ thick case.  In any case (haha), I wouldn’t put the MacBook on your laptop when it is plugged in unless you are wearing jeans, or are not planning on having any children in the future.

Noise is another story altogether.  Perhaps related to the heat issue, this thing is completely silent.  In a totally silent room, with my ear hovering above the keyboard, I can hear the faint sound of what I assume is the X1600 fan going.  Any more sound in the room, like my own breathing, and I cannot hear anything.  The DVD drive likes to makes some noise, especially when you install something, but it is not too bad.

Boot Camp


Boot Camp — what will it be, OS X or Windows? (view large image)

We’ve already seen what this puppy can do with some Windows based gaming and benchmarks, but I feel I should tell you some other stuff about it as well.  A smooth dual boot experience is an absolute must for me, as I have to have a Windows machine for Law School.  I am pleased to report that for all intents and purposes, it works great.  There are some niggles in Windows XP that I’m sure will be worked out with subsequent releases.  These include:

  • No function keys…the “F” keys work the way they do in windows which means they don’t change the volume, the screen brightness, etc…
  • The audio isn’t muted when you plug the headphones in…
  • The iSight camera does not work

As you can see, these are hardware related and will just require some better drivers from Apple to fix.  The “Windows” key is mapped to the “Apple” key and the eject button on the laptop still works.

Other than these little things, I had absolutely no problems running any Windows software that I tried.  Things will only get smoother from here. 

Random Thoughts and Conclusion

This laptop is extremely cool.  For someone like me that means warm fuzzies and no buyers remorse.  It is kind of crazy that last week I was a lifelong user and builder of PC computers and now I own my first notebook and also my first Mac.  So far, I have no regrets.  I will always own a PC, but OS X has impressed me a lot.  My first pang of “uh oh” hit when I ran 3DMark05, but I still feel like the computer has enough juice to play games for the next couple of years.  More importantly, it’s smaller and quieter than the other options I looked at which I feel more than makes up for it.  Perhaps this notebook is more expensive than other options out there, but none of them are quite this small, quite this cool, and still pack quite this much punch.  In my opinion, the Acer 8204 is the only thing that comes close (right now anyway) and it is priced very similarly.  Considering how much the first Apple Titanium’s cost, this thing is practically a basement bargain.  I’m always sad to see money go, but in this case, I wouldn’t ask for it back.  In the end, isn’t that all that matters?

Pros:

  • Very well built
  • Great overall performance
  • Smaller dimensions and weighs less than other laptops in its class (1lb less than the Acer 8204 for example)
  • Can run Windows XP or OS X (and potentially Linux)
  • Very quiet
  • Amazingly bright non-glare type screen
  • High quality web cam
  • Decent battery life
  • Plays WoW like a champ
  • Comes with a remote for media and powerpoint

Cons:

  • Somewhat hot when plugged in
  • Boot Camp not quite ready for the masses
  • Underclocked GPU

Pricing and Availability: 

MSRP $2,499 — Education Price $2,299 — Amazon Price $2,350 (after 150 MIR)




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