The new MacBook Pro models Apple released last week might be classified as speed bumps, implying that the pro laptops' new enhancements constitute a minor, albeit noteworthy update.

However, these new MacBook Pros, a pair of 15-inch models and a 17-inch model, represent a fairly significant upgrade -- both in terms of technology and performance -- over their predecessors, which were released eight months ago. Debuting Intel's 45-nanometre Penryn processor (a new generation of speedier chips that top the 65-nanometre Merom chips powering the earlier models), the new 2.5GHz MacBook Pros achieved the best scores of any laptop in our Speedmark 5 benchmark tests.

Despite that accomplishment, some might be disappointed that there was no redesign of the case, and that Apple has made its Front Row remote control, formerly free, a £15/US$20 option. The trackpad, which is the same size as in previous models, has been updated to accommodate the multi-touch hand gestures it introduced in the iPhone and featured on the MacBook Air. For example, pinching an image will reduce its size, while swiping will advance you to the next image.

MacBook Pros were designed with the multimedia artist in mind, which means it's the laptop of choice for people who work with audio, video, or large images as well as high-end applications. The new MacBook Pro, as usual, comes in three configurations: a 15-inch 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo model; a 15-inch 2.5GHz model; and a 17-inch 2.5GHz system. And they're the same price -- £1,105 plus VAT/$1,999, £1,361/$2,499, and £1,531/$2,799 respectively -- as the previous models. You can also purchase a 2.6GHz Core 2 Duo chip as a build-to-order option for the 2.5GHz 15-inch or 17-inch model for an extra £136/$250.

Inside and out

From the outside, the new 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros are identical to their predecessors. All are one inch thick. All come in the same 14.1-inch and 15.4-inch light gray aluminum cases. The 15-inch MacBook Pro weighs 2.45kg/5.4 pounds; the 17-inch model weighs 3.08kg/6.8 pounds.

Both 15-inch models come with LED backlit anti-glare screens with resolutions of 1,440-x-900 pixels. These wide screens immediately illuminate to full brightness and are mercury-free. Glossy displays are available as an option for all models. The 17-inch MacBook Pro, which ships with standard LCD backlighting technology, has a resolution of 1,680-by-1,050 pixels. Apple offers high-resolution LED backlit screens as an option for the 17-inch model. These larger LED backlit displays, which are 1,920-by-1,200 pixels, are mercury-free, arsenic-free, and cost £60/$100 extra. We didn't test the 17-inch LED model for this first-look.

The new MacBook Pros all ship with 2GB of installed RAM (upgradeable to 4GB) and an 8x SuperDrive. All models come with an Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics processor; though the entry-level 2.4GHz model features 256MB of video memory, while the other two configurations offer 512MB. Each model has twice the video RAM as its predecessor. The entry-level model has two USB 2.0 ports while the other models have three.

The 2.4GHz system comes with a 200GB hard drive, up from 120GB in the previous analogous model. The two 2.5GHz MacBook Pros offer 250GB of storage, with a slower 300GB hard drive available as a £50/$75 build-to-order option for the 17-inch laptop. That compares with the 160GB hard drive in the older 15-inch high-end and 17-inch models.

While I'm excited that the MacBook Pro's new trackpad now supports multi-touch hand gestures, I found that because the trackpad is the same size as the previous models, the button often got in the way. That said, the button did not affect the performance of the gestures, which work with the following applications in addition to the Finder: iCal, Safari, Preview, QuickTime Player, DVD Player, iPhoto, Mail, Address Book, and Aperture 2.0.

One thing that has changed from the previous MacBook Pro is the row of function keys at the top of the keyboard. The location of the media, volume, and keyboard illumination keys has been changed, there are new keys to control Expose and Dashboard, and the NumLock key (as well as the rest of the numeric keypad) is now gone. However, the keyboard is nice and springy and has a comfortable, non-spongy feel.

Speed boost

With the new Penryn chips comes a boost to the MacBook Pro's shared L2 cache capacity to 6MB. The two 2.5GHz MacBook Pro models carry 6MB of L2 cache, up from 4MB in the previous models. Interestingly, the 15-inch 2.4GHz MacBook Pro has 3MB of L2 cache, a drop-off from its predecessor. Despite that, the low-end MacBook Pro often performed better than its older siblings in Macworld's battery of benchmark tests. And, while its Speedmark score registered 10 per cent faster than last year's low-end model, other comparisons were more dramatic: The new 2.4GHz model was 23 per cent faster than that older 2.2GHz system in our Photoshop test suite.

Even with less L2 cache, the new entry-level MacBook Pro finished just one point under last Fall's build-to-order MacBook Pro, which featured a 2.6GHz Core 2 Duo chip. The new machine was about 8 per cent faster in Speedmark and 23 per cent faster in the Photoshop suite. Packed with double the video memory, the new 2.5GHz MacBook Pro topped the older build-to-order machine in our Unreal Tournament test by some 21 per cent.

If you were among the first to buy Apple's Intel pro laptop a couple of years back, it's interesting to note that the new 15-inch, 2.5GHz MacBook Pro scores reflect roughly a 50-per cent boost in both Speedmark 5 tests and our Compressor tests. We also found the new model to be 36 per cent faster than the older 2GHz MacBook Pro in our Photoshop suite and 31 percent faster in our Cinema 4D test.

And the low-end 2.4GHz MacBook Pro had a Speedmark score more than twice as fast as the PowerBook G4.

Insofar as non-scientific hands-on experience goes, these new MacBook Pros felt energetic: while startup time was about 25 seconds, launching Photoshop CS3 took about 8 seconds. Some of Apple's built-in apps, like Safari and iCal took a split second to launch.

Battery life

The 15-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro's battery life improved significantly, about 21 percent over the previous model, lasting 2 hours and 55 minutes, compared with 2 hours and 25 minutes for the 2.2GHz model. The battery boost for the new 17-inch model is a less-impressive 5 per cent: 2 hours and 53 minutes for the 2.5GHz model as opposed to 2 hours and 45 minutes for the previous 2.4GHz model.

If you've been waiting to buy a new Apple laptop, or you've been hesitating about upgrading from your G4 PowerBook, wait no longer. The new MacBook Pros are Apple's speediest laptops ever. The higher-end models are loaded with both system and video RAM and better L2 cache capacities, which directly affect performance. It's disappointing to see that the Apple remote, needed to operate Front Row, now costs extra, but on balance, £15/$20 is not a high price to pay for something that many people never use. While the 2.4GHz model is a fine value for the money, the higher-end 15-inch and 17-inch models are outstanding top-of-the-line models for any professional, artistic, scientific, or scholastic application.