Finally, after a series of delays we've managed to get our hands on Apple's 17-inch MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro is Apple's professional laptop line, and the 17-inch MacBook Pro features a huge screen, Core 2 Duo processor and more than proves its mettle. Here's our experience with the Apple 17-inch MacBook Pro.
It has been said that buyers should generally avoid the first year of a new model car, Version 1.0 of just about any application and most Rev. A computers -- especially Rev. A computers. Well, if you held off buying the first Intel-based versions of Apple Computer Inc.'s MacBook Pro laptops, you can safely venture forth to the nearest computer store and take one home. I base that on my hands-on experience with Apple's latest updated consumer MacBook lineup, the recently revamped 15-inch MacBook Pro and -- now, finally -- the 17-inch variation of Apple's professional laptop line.
To paraphrase Victor Kiam, the late Gillette CEO, I liked the latest 17--nch MacBook Pro so much that I bought my own. And I'd like to note that it is the first time I've bought an Apple laptop that I didn't have to immediately upgrade with more RAM, a faster hard drive or some other extra. Out of the box, the 17-inch model comes completely stocked. About the only thing you can add is extra RAM (for 3GB max) or a different hard drive.
OK, you also get to decide whether you want a matte or glossy screen and on that decision, I am neutral. Until now, I've always had the matte screen, in part because Apple didn't even offer screen sheen until earlier this year. Unlike the Core Duo 17-inch model that I bought in May - which some lucky family member will inherit in time for the holidays - this time, I went shiny. I may never go back. Colours seem richer, and screen images look more film-like. Reflections are minor and don't bother me at all. Which screen is "best" is a matter of taste, like choosing Coke or Pepsi.
But that's just me.
The latest crop of 17-inch MacBook Pros is only now trickling into owners' hands. Announced last month, the first batch was due to ship to buyers in the first week of November. They were delayed, meaning most owners haven't had these laptops for more than a week or so. Yes, I played the "check order status" game on Apple's Web site just like everyone else, repeatedly looking to see when my laptop would ship, then tracking it as it crossed the Pacific from China to the US in a relatively speedy 36 hours. My Computerworld (Digit's sister magazine) colleague Scot Finnie ordered exactly the same model, a day after I did, didn't pay for two-day shipping and got his the same day as me. Go figure.
In case you've missed the latest specs on these portable workstations, the MacBook Pro -- both 15-inch and 17-inch models -- sport Core 2 Duo processors from Intel Corp. that are marginally faster in terms of clock speed but noticeably faster in real-world use. One factor behind that speed increase is the 4MB of dynamically allocated Level 2 cache RAM used by the new chip -- twice what the Core Duo offered. It's not a huge jump in processing power, nor would you expect it to be when moving from Rev. A to Rev. B hardware. But it's more of an increase than Apple used to provide back in the not-so-halcyon PowerPC days.
"With the Core 2 duo, obviously it has a faster clock speed and it has double the L2 cache over the previous generation Core Duo," said Gail Nishimura, senior product manager at Apple. "The L2 cache is right there on the chip, so what's great about that is it can be dynamic allocated between the two (processor) cores. It's larger.... That's a really big difference."
Let's give this laptop an acronym right now: MacBook Pro=MBP; Core 2 Duo=C2D. That makes my MBP a C2D, and I couldn't be happier. The clock speed on my MBP is 2.33GHz, up from the 2.16GHz Core Duo processor in the first version. Minor upgrade in speed, major changes under the hood for the processor. Although clock speed is up 167MHz, or eight per cent, the real-world speed boost is noticeable in daily use.
Xbench is one of the most commonly used benchmarking tools for Macintosh fans, measuring CPU, graphics, hard drive and RAM to offer a performance score for Apple computers. I focus less on the absolute number and more on the difference between machines or revisions. Back in May, my first-generation MBP turned in a respectable Xbench score of 90. My new machine blew past that to 112, slightly faster even than the 15-inch MBP C2D I tested a few weeks back that had essentially the same hardware.
That's about 24 per cent faster for a stylish, well-designed laptop that costs the same -- $2,799 -- has twice the amount of RAM and a larger hard drive.
Tech specs and configurations
The 17-inch MBP C2D comes with a stock 160GB hard drive that uses perpendicular recording technology, spins at 5,400 rpm and seems to offer a little speed boost of its own. (My first MBP has the optional 7,200-rpm 100GB drive.) Don't care as much about speed as storage? Apple now offers an optional 200GB hard drive that spins at 4,200 rpm. For 40GB more storage, you pay $100. Or you can lose some disk space, snag the 7,200GB hard drive and save $100. The 160GB drive seems to hit the sweet spot, offering a good amount of storage with relatively little speed penalty.
The other main option is additional RAM. Although the MBP has two RAM slots that will take 2GB chips, only 3GB of that RAM can be used by the laptop because of the way the Intel architecture works. "We don't know of any Core 2 Duo computer that can address the (full) 4GB (of RAM)," Nishimura said. "The limitation is due to the Intel chipset. We feel like it's less confusing to customers" to advertise the 3GB RAM maximum.
In other words, you can put 4GB in, but you're only going to effectively get 3GB, so why spend money you don't have to? And to get that 3GB, you will spend money. Apple charges $575 for a 2GB stick of RAM -- surprisingly beating the third-party RAM supplier I usually buy from by $30. So if you're working with large files, use Photoshop Final Cut Pro or just want bragging rights, go ahead and buy the RAM from Apple.
Having said that, 2GB is plenty for now, and if six or 12 months down the road you want to boost the RAM, prices will almost certainly be better.
Expectant buyers have wondered on various discussion boards and forums whether the Rev. B MBP C2D exhibits any of the teething pains of the first generation -- excessive heat, high-pitched squeals and "mooing" hard drives. I never had any of those problems, but enough people complained about them online to make some buyers nervous. Again, no one has had these Rev. B laptops in their hands or on their laps for very long. But I haven't seen any issues. My particular MBP is dead quiet, cooler than the first version and doesn't moo, bark, whine or squeal. Startup times from Mac chime to desktop is longer than the earlier models -- 53 seconds versus 35 seconds or so -- and my left shift key seems to stick once in a while. But other than that, so far, so good.
I have, however, seen some online discussion about wireless networking issues. Some owners of the new C2D models -- many more of them 15-in. models, which have been out longer -- have complained of lost wireless connections. Either they can't connect to their usual wireless routers, or the connection comes and goes or drops altogether. I did notice that I was getting one less bar of signal strength when I first got my MBP and found my connection would drop and strengthen randomly. Finally, two days before Thanksgiving, I couldn't connect at all. Then again, neither could my parter using his Sony Vaio. Nor could I connect using my own Vaio. As it turned out, my 2-year-old Airport Extreme base station had died.
Wireless and 02.11n?
This time, rather than replace it with a new one, I bought a wireless router from Linksys. I have nothing against Airport Extreme base stations, but something about the Linksys router caught my eye: compliance with the 802.11n wireless networking draft standard. Others more expert in wireless networking than I had found -- by using Windows Vista in Boot Camp and rooting around looking for drivers -- that the wireless card used in the C2D iMac and the C2D laptops is supposed to be 802.11n-compliant. In other words, when this faster wireless standard is ratified, these machines may already be equipped to take advantage of it after a firmware or software update. (Apple did something along these lines a few years back when 802.11g was emerging as the successor to 802.11b wireless networking. I'm hopeful.)
I asked Apple officials about this 802.11n capability. As always, they politely declined to discuss what might be coming down the pike. But given the possibility that the wireless card in my MBP C2D might indeed be ready for 802.11n networking, why not get a router that is also theoretically ready for the same thing? The Linksys WRT-300N is a little more complicated to set up than Apple's wireless routers, but it took only a few minutes to do so. Once the Linksys router was up and running, my MBP connected, and I've had nary a wireless problem since. My signal is at full strength, the connection hasn't dropped once, and I can sit back and see what happens with 802.11n.
I noted earlier that the new C2D models run cooler than their predecessors. Using the little app CoreDuo Temp, I have found that my MBP chugs along at about 108 degrees Fahrenheit when doing some word processing, light surfing and playing streaming radio with iTunes in the background. Crank up the iTunes visualizer, launch Windows using Parallels virtualization software, and I can send that temperature to 165 degrees. That's still cooler than my first MBP, and while the top of the aluminum case gets slightly warmer, I've yet to hear the fans kick in loudly enough to notice. No doubt the revamped air intake in the rear of the MBP beneath the LCD screen helps. When it comes to heat, Rev. B wins over Rev. A.
Said Nishimura: "With the Core 2 Duo (models), we have made incremental improvements to the fan speeds and venting scheme so we do offer a cooler experience for customers."
Battery life is about the same as before. With the screen brightness turned up all the way, energy savings set to "performance" and the hard drive set to not spin down, I got just under three hours of computing time before running out of juice. That's with moderate use: word processing, Web surfing, listening to iTunes -- with Visualizer going for part of the time -- and running Windows via Parallels. Oh, and Bluetooth was on, and wireless networking was in use. Crank down the screen brightness -- easy to do even in a sunlit room -- set the energy saver preferences to normal or for better energy savings and the 68-watt battery will last even longer.
I asked Finnie, the online editorial director at Computerworld, what he thought of his own new MBP. He noted a "squeaky" space bar on the keyboard, said he wants a slightly stiffer LCD screen hinge and was critical of the MagSafe magnetic power connector. ("The darn thing falls off all the time.") He also praised the 17-inch glossy screen as "perfection," said the C2D processor offers unexpected bursts of speed and reported no heat issues.
When buying technology, it's always best to try to future-proof yourself as much as possible. Apple's 17-inch MBP is about as future-proof as they come. It offers 64-bit hardware and maybe even, eventually, 802.11n wireless networking capabilities (though 802.11g is just fine for now). Of course, faster, newer, sleeker laptops from Apple will appear. But not until next year.
In the meantime, Apple is due to release its next operating system, Leopard, before spring. Once that 64-bit operating system is out, the MacBook Pro will really shine. And it's pretty darn bright already.