Way back in the hazy salad days of 2001, Apple worked up a bold revamp of its flagship laptop line, the Powerbook. The company, in the pursuit of stronger, lighter, more attractive materials, moved from the black plastic casings it had used for its G3 computers to a sleek titanium shell. It was the onset of a new era in Macs. The basic look was clean and simple: squared edges, a roomy and functional layout, a matching pair of stereo speakers to either side of the keyboard, a consistent silver coloring throughout. In 2003, the company refined this design, replacing the titanium with lighter-weight aluminum and heralding in one of the most recognizable and persistent pieces of industrial design in the computer industry. The MacBook Pro (as it became known) has remained largely unchanged in the five years of its existence -- in fact, the look and feel of the laptop has become such a staple of the Apple lineup that it's almost as representative of the company as the Apple logo itself. But five years (or seven in the long view) is an awful long time to see one design, and the user outcry for significant updates has been nearly constant.

Those cries were answered last Tuesday, when the company announced the long-rumored (and badly leaked) refreshes for both the MacBook Pro and MacBook lines. As with most of the modern designs emanating from Cupertino, these are evolutionary -- not revolutionary -- steps, but they're drastic in comparison to the stale, familiar versions of our not-so-distant past. Beyond the spit and polish of the Air- and iMac-inspired casings, the company has re-upped the internals as well; new graphics chips, a completely new motherboard design, and some slashing and burning of familiar ports are part of the new packages. So did Apple deliver the goods on what is arguably the most anticipated laptop release in recent memory, or has it failed to meet the absurdly high expectations placed upon it... and is that even possible? Read on to find out.



Hardware

First and foremost, Apple's event was about design. Not just about the changes made cosmetically to these laptops, but the way in which the laptops are actually produced. It seems that with the introduction of the MacBook Air, there came a refinement (and improvement) in the way in which Apple manufactured its laptops. Instead of using complex, multi-part casings that require far more components, Jony Ive and company have streamlined the structure into a few simple pieces ballasted mainly by a single, machined slab of aluminum which encompasses the entire top and side layers of the laptop. The process has allowed them to produce stronger, more solid laptops with any number of improvements in efficiency of manufacturing, style, and strength.

The new MacBooks / Pros come off as the perfect storm of recent iMacs and the MacBook Air. The edges of the laptops are rounded, smooth metal, and the plastic joining pieces which once held the case together have been jettisoned for the nearly-seamless new design. The bodies of the laptops are laid out in essentially the same manner as older MacBook Pros, though the keyboard has been updated to the MacBook / Air "chicklet" style (resting in a slight depression), the trackpad is now missing its one button (more on that in a little bit), the speaker grilles (on the Pro) are a much finer and more evenly perforated pattern, and there are stylish nips and tucks pretty much everywhere else. Of course, the biggest and most noticeable change is in the displays; gone are the silver-lined LCDs of yesteryear -- they've been replaced with a high-gloss, black-matted glass screen bordered by a thin line of metal that's an open nod to the iPhone. We're going to discuss the displays in-depth, but it can't be overstated how incredibly polished and stunning these look at first glance -- they definitely kick that human instinct of attraction to shiny objects into overdrive.




Along the left side of the MacBook Pro you'll find a MagSafe connection, Ethernet, a Firewire 800 port (yes, 400 is gone), two USB ports, Apple's new Mini Display Port jack, audio in / out (multi-purpose analog and optical), an ExpressCard slot, and a small button and line of LEDs -- the now conveniently placed battery level indicator. The MacBook features all the same ports save for one: Firewire 800. Apple has decided to completely omit its own standard from this model, and the outcry from users has assuredly been heard at 1 Infinite Loop by now. We're not exactly surprised to see a move like this -- Apple has a history of abandoning technology when it sees fit -- though we definitely sympathize with with people who will likely have an entire drawer full of devices rendered useless if they spring for one of these new models. Along those same lines, the company is forcing users into a Mini Display Port jack, an all-but unheard of connector which will require that you spend at least another $30 on an adapter if you hope to use your existing monitor. Apple used to include a VGA-to-DVI adapter with older models, and it feels like a bit of a slight asking buyers to make an additional purchase here. In fact, we hoped to test the laptops out on with a second display, but Apple didn't get us our adapter in time.

On the right side is a standard SuperDrive (DVD±R DL / DVD±RW / CD-RW), nothing too exciting or wild like a "bag of hurt" Blu-ray drive. We would have liked to at least been given that option on the optical drive, but it's clear Apple doesn't have tons of confidence in the platform. Along the front we're seeing a merciful end to that annoying latch -- the laptops now open and close with ease by magnetically locking the base and screen together. It's a minor touch, but a welcome one nonetheless.




On the bottom of the machines there's now a wide, thin metal battery cover that comes up with a quick flip of a release latch (very much like desktop Macs). This gives you easy access to both the battery and hard drive -- a change that will come in handy only about once in the lifetime of a laptop (or less, we hope) -- though it's nice to see Apple's thinking about it. The RAM, however, is a little tougher to get to now; you'll have to remove the whole bottom panel. Still, nothing here is out of reach, and that's a good thing.



Weight wise, the 4.5lb MacBook loses half a pound over the previous generation, but the Pro clocks in just a tiny bit heavier compared with the last model (5.4lbs versus 5.5lbs for the new one). Still, the ingenious and magical designers at Apple have managed to squeeze it all into tighter packages, with the MacBook shrinking down to 0.95-inches from an earlier 1.08-inch frame, and the Pro at 0.95-inches (practically unnoticeable over the earlier 0.96-inch thickness). For those of you squeezing your Pro into a tight bag, you should know that the new version is slightly wider, so you may find things a little snugger than they used to be.

In your lap or on a desk the new laptops feel incredibly sturdy. Where the previous models had a kind of creaky, plasticky feel in parts, these are just like solid slabs. The new treatment on the aluminum is slightly cooler and more textured than older MacBook Pros, and in the right light you can actually see where the metal was cut away, giving them an industrial, sophisticated look. From a design standpoint alone, the MacBook and MacBook Pro definitely raise the bar in the industry -- but we wouldn't expect anything less from Apple.

Glass and aluminum MacBook

See all photos

19 Photos


Glass and aluminum MacBook Pro

See all photos

18 Photos


Displays

Both the MacBook and MacBook Pro sport that glass display we mentioned. We'll discuss each separately, as there seem to be noticeable differences between the two.

First, the Pro. The LED-backlit display is nothing short of stunning here; the blacks are black, the whites are extremely -- some might say excessively -- white, though the color temperature of the display seems to be warmer and more natural than previous iterations. The viewing angle is improved over earlier models as well, and the display actually tilts back and forward at a greater pitch, allowing you to find the right position without too much strain. Side by side with the previous generation, there's no comparison. The screen is classic, gorgeous Apple... save for one big problem. The company is only offering these laptops with the high-gloss displays, and they are outrageously, ridiculously reflective. Using the laptop in a brightly lit room is actually rather annoying; the reflections are so intense that they can sometimes obscure on-screen activity. If you're in a scenario where you don't have total control over lighting, this could potentially be a nightmare. In daytime use we found the reflection terrifically distracting, though at night (or in dark rooms) the results were extraordinarily good. The results were a bit Jekyll and Hyde. Apple insists that consumers overwhelmingly love this option, and we don't doubt that it's impressive in a showroom or controlled environment, but we take serious issue with the lack of a non-gloss option, and found it intrusive enough to consider it nearly a deal-breaker.


Original MacBook Pro on the left and new version on the right in the same, brightly lit room.

Let's just be clear here -- the screen quality is excellent. It's hampered only by the glass covering.

Now, the MacBooks are a slightly different story. At the outset, things seem to be the same. Same good, same bad -- but this display is different. We can't put our finger on it, but the panel just seems, for lack of a better word... crappier. The viewing angle is reduced considerably; looking even a little bit off to the side or up above can cause a nasty amount of polarization. The brightness levels also don't seem to be what they are on the Pro. Don't get us wrong, compared with the last generation MacBooks, these are stunning -- but compared to the Pros, they're just not as impressive. Again, the reflectivity is an issue here, though coupled with the diminished viewing angle and slightly dimmer backlighting, it left us wanting.


MacBook Pro, new MacBook Pro, MacBook, new MacBook, MacBook Air.


MacBook vs. MacBook (older, newer).

MacBook and MacBook Pro comparison

See all photos

16 Photos


Trackpad

Apple has moved further towards that rumored Steve Jobs "no button" fetish with the new laptops. In addition to replacing the earlier trackpad material with a semi-shiny, smooth glass surface, the company has completely killed the button. The entire trackpad -- nearly entire, actually -- is now a button, which sounds unappealing at first, but comes off feeling remarkably like the previous generation's setup. We said that the whole thing was "nearly" a button, and that's accurate; as you move higher up on the pad, the resistance becomes greater. The design encourages you to keep your thumbs where you normally do, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.


The pad supports multitouch and boasts a number of multi-finger gestures, including some new four finger moves to switch applications and access Exposé. Additionally, corners of the pad can be assigned to act as a right-click, giving you some semblance of a second button. After a week of use, we found the trackpad to be largely comfortable, though at the end of the day we would have preferred a physical button (or two) to this solution. It may be elegant, but it's less functional or natural.


Audio

Sound quality and volume is greatly improved in both of these models. While the MacBook hides its speakers somewhere deep in the guts, the levels are more than adequate. On the Pro, it's practically booming, and the definition between frequency ranges seems noticeably improved. This wasn't a dire situation on the older versions, but other laptops might get green with envy when they hear the new sets.

Internals

The MacBooks and MacBook Pros have totally redesigned guts in addition to revamped shells. The highlight of those changes come in the form of the NVIDIA 9400M and 9600M GT graphics chips. In the Pro, both are featured and can be switched manually (the process requires logging out and back in, however). The MacBook sports just the 9400M with 256MB of RAM, though that chip still delivers substantial improvements over the previous offerings. Under the hood of the MacBooks, the CPUs are now available in 2GHz or 2.4GHz Core 2 Duos, while the Pros run from 2.4GHz up to 2.8GHz. Memory on both computers is now DDR3 and expandable to 4GB on all of the models. We tested with a 2.4GHz / 2GB MacBook, and the middle-child 2.53GHz, 4GB MacBook Pro (with 256MB / 512MB VRAM). During heavy use, both computers seemed to get far less hot and seemed to be working far less hard to push data. During video playback, scenarios that would have kicked our old MacBook Pro fans into high gear (like full screen HD) didn't make the MacBook or Pro flinch.


Interestingly, you don't see a huge boost in graphics performance in benchmarking between the 9400M and 9600M GT -- though there are clear improvements, noticeably in the Open GL numbers. When gaming, however, the jolt of speed is obvious.

Hard drives are bumped to a minimum of 250GB for each of those, though they can be expanded to 320GB, or you can opt for a 128GB SSD (of course, that'll run you an extra $500). The fact that Apple has made the hard drives so accessible here should prevent anyone with smarts and a little tech know-how from paying the Apple Tax on a drive upgrade. It's easier than it's ever been to swap in your own drive, and it certainly opens up options in both pricing and capacity -- a welcome relief.

Benchmarks (and exponentially expanding product names)

MBP (2.5GHz Penryn) Air (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo) MBP (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo) MacBook (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MacBook (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9400M 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9600M GT
CPU 169.23 79.98 112.93 126.66 147.97 147.73
140.57
GCD Loop 15.33 Mops/s 9.67 Mops/s 13.17 Mops/s 13.43 Mops/s 14.79 Mops/s 14.43 Mops/s 12.89 Mops/s
Floating Point Basic 3.37 Gflop/s 2.03 Gflop/s 2.96 Gflop/s 2.95 Gflop/s 2.90 Gflop/s 2.95 Gflop/s 2.76 Gflop/s
vecLib FFT 3.93 Gflop/s 1.71 Gflop/s 2.98 Gflop/s 3.36 Gflop/s 3.22 Gflop/s 3.22 Gflop/s 3.21 Gflop/s
Floating Point Library 36.64 Mops/s 12.82 Mops/s 14.15 Mops/s 17.80 Mops/s 34.63 Mops/s 34.06 Mops/s 31.79 Mops/s
Thread Test 275.13 148.81 219.18 186.4 228.89 288.67 328.72
Computation 6.93 Mops/s 2.77 Mops/s 4.04 Mops/s 3.58 Mops/s 8.54 Mops/s 6.13 Mops/s 8.21 Mops/s
Lock Contention 9.90 Mlocks/s 7.04 Mlocks/s 10.47 Mlocks/s 8.48 Mlocks/s 6.76 Mlocks/s 11.87 Mlocks/s 11.89 Mlocks/s
MBP (2.5GHz Penryn) Air (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo) MBP (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, Tiger) MacBook (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MacBook (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9400M 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9600M GT
Memory Test 168.11 140.42 137.1 150.23 180.94 181.52 184.05
System 183.01 143.51 126.92 158.95 207.63 204.56 209.12
Allocate 922.99 Kalloc/s 718.86 Kalloc/s 401.22 Kalloc/s 856.78 Kalloc/s 910.38 Kalloc/s 993.12 Kalloc/s 992.49 Kalloc/s
Fill 7424.09 MB/se 5770.30 MB/s 6490.47 MB/s 6480.99 MB/s 8520.83 MB/s 8135.30 MB/s 8458.71 MB/s
Copy 3522.10 MB/s 2802.78 MB/s 2954.03 MB/s 2914.92 MB/s 4386.65 MB/s 4138.21 MB/s 4217.58 MB/s
Stream 155.45 137.46 149.05 142.41 160.33 163.15 164.35
Copy 3059.86 MB/s 2621.64 MB/s 2923.94 MB/s 2799.64 MB/s 3177.13 MB/s 3170.82 MB/s 3175.85 MB/s
Scale 3008.89 MB/s 2602.03 MB/s 2918.16 MB/s 2797.66 MB/s 3149.02 MB/s 3261.27 MB/s 3285.38 MB/s
Add 3525.00 MB/s 3230.58 MB/s 3359.19 MB/s 3196.17 MB/s 3588.52
MB/s
3652.38 MB/s 3720.07 MB/s
Triad 3523.21 MB/s 3199.37 MB/s 3368.41 MB/s 3211.97 MB/s 3594.99 MB/s 3665.55 MB/s 3675.92 MB/s
MBP (2.5GHz Penryn) Air (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo) MBP (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, Tiger) MacBook (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MacBook (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9400M 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9600M GT
Quartz Graphics Test 198.29 96.89 141.5 154.32 169.95 181.76 184.82
Line 12.43 Klines/s 6.94 Klines/s 9.23 Klines/s 9.69 Klines/s 10.71
Klines/s
11.68 Klines/s 11.84 Klines/s
Rectangle 70.01 Krects/s 32.23 Krects/s 51.59 Krects/s 51.66 Krects/s 60.89 Krects/s 63.91 Krects/s 65.22 Krects/s
Circle 15.29 Kcircles/s 7.22 Kcircles/s 13.30 Kcircles/s 11.54 Kcircles/s 13.40 Kcircles/s 14.17 Kcircles/s 14.34 Kcircles/s
Bezier 4.92 Kbeziers/s 2.49 Kbeziers/s 3.71 Kbeziers/s 3.79 Kbeziers/s 4.14 Kbeziers/s 4.31 Kbeziers/s 4.43 Kbeziers/s
Text 12.17 Kchars/s 5.53 Kchars/s 6.65 Kchars/s 10.39 Kchars/s 10.21 Kchars/s 11.29 Kchars/s 11.44 Kchars/s
OpenGL Graphics Test 165.99 17.26 129.88 23.36 145.67 174.24 169.39
Spinning Squares 210.57 frames/s 21.89 frames/s 164.76 frames/s 29.64 frames/s 184.79
frames/s
221.03 frames/s 214.88 frames/s
User Interface Test 326.63 105.81 303.98 244.28 272.06 296.46 302.37
Elements 1.50 Krefresh/s 485.60 refresh/s 1.40 Krefresh/s 1.12 Krefresh/s 1.25
Krefresh/s
1.36 Krefresh/s 1.39 Krefresh/s
MBP (2.5GHz Penryn) Air (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo) MBP (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, Tiger) MacBook (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MacBook (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo) 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9400M 2008 MBP (2.53GHz Core 2 Duo) 9600M GT
Disk Test 33.08 24.05 38.13 39.64 42.90 41.21 42.75
Sequential 60.60 42.21 59.81 66.07 75.33 73.73 79.31
Uncached Write 52.17 MB/s [4K blocks] 30.96 MB/s [4K blocks] 42.60 MB/s [4K blocks] 53.34 MB/s [4K blocks] 52.84 MB/s [4K blocks] 66.02 MB/s [4K blocks] 66.05 MB/s [4K blocks]
Uncached Write 47.88 MB/s [256K blocks] 31.19 MB/s [256K blocks] 39.19 MB/s [256K blocks] 47.63 MB/s [256K blocks] 48.54 MB/s [256K blocks] 45.33 MB/s [256K blocks] 58.39 MB/s [256K blocks]
Uncached Read 9.89 MB/s [4K blocks] 7.27 MB/s [4K blocks] 11.59 MB/s [4K blocks] 10.83 MB/s [4K blocks] 14.19 MB/s [4K blocks] 12.09 MB/s [4K blocks] 12.64 MB/s [4K blocks]
Uncached Read 39.17 MB/s [256K blocks] 30.42 MB/s [256K blocks] 39.37 MB/s [256K blocks] 49.62 MB/s [256K blocks] 54.67 MB/s [256K blocks] 60.83 MB/s [256K blocks] 60.59 MB/s [256K blocks]
Random 22.75 16.81 27.99 28.31 29.99 28.60 29.26
Uncached Write 0.81 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.57 MB/s [4K blocks] 1.08 MB/s [4K blocks] 1.03 MB/s [4K blocks] 1.09 MB/s [4K blocks] 1.04 MB/s [4K blocks] 1.07 MB/s [4K blocks]
Uncached Write 18.56 MB/s [256K blocks] 18.35 MB/s [256K blocks] 19.24 MB/s [256K blocks] 22.73 MB/s [256K blocks] 26.51 MB/s [256K blocks] 23.03 MB/s [256K blocks] 23.44 MB/s [256K blocks]
Uncached Read 0.41 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.35 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.41 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.48 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.46 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.47 MB/s [4K blocks] 0.46 MB/s [4K blocks]
Uncached Read 18.44 MB/s [256K blocks] 13.28 MB/s [256K blocks] 16.33 MB/s [256K blocks] 19.31 MB/s [256K blocks] 20.84 MB/s [256K blocks] 20.75 MB/s [256K blocks] 20.56 MB/s [256K blocks]
Battery life

We didn't put the laptops through a litany of hardcore battery benchmarks -- we'll leave that to the more minutiae-obsessed critics. Instead, we wanted to see what these performed like in real-world scenarios, say, a day editing Engadget, or scrambling some brains in a deathmatch. On the MacBook, we found we could get around 3 hours of solid use before we needed to plug in again. Those numbers were diminished when gaming or watching video, though the hit wasn't as bad as we thought it would be (then again, these are new batteries). The Pro fared similarly, though there's a palpable increase in drain when you're using the 9600M (did you expect other results?). As our good friend Ryan Block noted, the new batteries sport a 20 percent lower energy rating, (60Wh to 50Wh for the Pro, 55Wh to 45Wh for the MacBook), though there's speculation that the difference is made up by utilizing the integrated GPUs more effectively. Compared to previous models, these seem to get good -- if slightly diminished -- battery life out of the box. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and just like old versions, you'll see those numbers decrease over time.

Wrap up

Apple is offering the MacBooks starting at a base configuration for $1299, or $1599 for the 2.4GHz model with a larger drive. The MacBook Pros start at $1999 and move up from there -- fully kitted out you'll be pushing $3000 or more. These are in no way the cheapest laptops you could buy, but you get quite a lot for your money.

Ultimately, however, you have a call to make if you're due for a laptop purchase and you're looking at Macs. Apple has drawn lines in the sand with these models, and they're asking you to accept a couple of hard facts when you put down your credit card. Though the company has axed the familiar and oft-used Firewire 400 port and you're forced into buying an adapter if you want to use an old monitor (not a huge expense, but a minor annoyance), neither one of those is reason enough to hold off here. The problem lies with the choice (or lack of choice) on the glossy display. Some users will find the glass screens distracting -- we did -- and that's more than a minor niggle when you're talking about something you'll use for years that costs $2000. If you can tolerate (or prefer) those screens, and / or you're a user without a real attachment to older standards or peripherals, these are terrific choices -- not only from an industrial design standpoint, but in specs as well. They're smart, tough, handsome laptops that more than get the job done and look pretty stunning while doing it.

Now Apple, about a matte display option...
Apple

MacBook Pro (mid-2009)

Pros

  • Beautiful new hardware design
  • Speedy performance
  • Switchable graphics

Cons

  • Logout required to switch GPU
  • High-gloss display difficult to view at times
  • Expensive
Conclusion

Apple

MacBook (mid-2009)

Pros

  • Gorgeous unibody construction
  • Switchable graphics
  • Improved battery life

Cons

  • High gloss screen
  • Expensive for a small laptop
Conclusion

0 Comments