Apple might say we're in the post-PC era, but hey -- turns out they still make Macs in Cupertino, and the new MacBook Pro is actually one of the more aggressive refreshes in the machine's history. Not only has it been less than a year since the last MacBook Pro spec bump, but our 15-inch review unit is actually the first Sandy Bridge system we've received from any manufacturer. And it's not just the CPU that's new: Apple's also launching the new Thunderbolt high-speed interconnect, and there's been a big switch to an AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU paired with Intel's integrated HD Graphics 3000, an arrangement that should offer both solid graphics performance and great battery life. That's a lot of new parts in a familiar case -- but do they add up to something more than just a speed bump? Read on for our full review!

MacBook Pro (early 2011) unboxing and hands-on

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MacBook Pro (early 2011)

Pros

  • Extremely fast
  • Excellent build quality
  • Seven-hour battery life

Cons

  • Expensive
  • SSD not standard
  • No Blu-ray drive
Summary

Look and feel

It's been nearly three years since the MacBook Pro last had a significant design change, so you'll need some eagle eyes to tell these new models apart from its predecessors. Seriously, Thunderbolt even uses the Mini DisplayPort connector, so the only distinguishing characteristics are the lightning-strike Thunderbolt icon on the port row and a subtle new texture to the aluminum lid. Oh, and the SD slot is now SDXC. Almost everything else is exactly the same: the still-best-in-class keyboard and glass multitouch trackpad, the standard glossy display, the ports, the sealed-in battery, you name it. That's both good and bad, of course: Apple's competitors have only recently gained any ground on the MacBook Pro's unibody build quality and stiffness, but would it really kill anyone to throw in a couple extra USB ports? And maybe space them out enough to allow for both a thumb drive or wireless card and another device without an extension cable? That would be cool. And while we're at it, we'd also love that optional higher-res 1680 x 1050 display to come standard -- in matte, if possible. We will not even begin to lament the lack of a Blu-ray option; down that road lies only the aching pain of desire forever unfulfilled. To sum this up: it looks and feels exactly like a MacBook Pro. It's still the industry standard in terms of design and quality, but after three years competitors like the HP Envy 14 have started knocking on the door, and we'd like to see the best get even better the next time around.

Performance, graphics, and battery life

No two ways about this: the new MacBook Pro is the fastest laptop we've ever tested, hands-down. We were sent the stock $2,199 15-inch MacBook Pro, and its 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7-2720QM, 4GB of RAM, and AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 RAM turned in numbers exceeding any Mac we've ever had in the labs. In fact, the raw CPU score is so high you'd have to step to a Mac Pro and Xeon processors to get anything faster, as far as we can tell. (That'll obviously change when Apple bumps the iMac line to Sandy Bridge.)

OS X Benchmarks Geekbench Xbench OpenGL Battery Life
MacBook Pro (early 2011) (2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M / Intel Graphics 3000) 9647 340.1 (Radeon) / 157.78 (Intel) 7:27
MacBook Pro (early 2010) (2.66GHz Core i7-620M, GeForce GT 330M) 5395 228.22 5:18
iMac (mid 2010) (3.06GHz Core i3-540, Radeon HD 4670) 5789 unavailable n/a
iMac (late 2009) (2.8GHz Core i7-860, Radeon HD 4850) 8312 191.08 n/a
MacBook Air (late 2010) (1.83GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 320M) 2717 117.38 ~7:30
Notes: battery life on all machines but the Air calculated using our standard video rundown test; Air was a usage test

Let's talk about those graphics scores for a moment. While the Radeon HD 6750M performed admirably when active, it also seemed to run a little hot -- yes, we got between 80 and 130fps running around in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 at native res, but the fan kicked in as soon as we launched the game, and it stayed on loudly the entire time, even as the case got noticeably warm around the hinge. It's obviously a capable GPU, but it's a good thing the system automatically switches to the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 when it's not needed -- there's a serious decrease in heat and power usage. Unfortunately, reduced heat and power usage comes at the expense of raw capability. Intel's integrated graphics have never been much to write home about, and while HD Graphics 3000 is an improvement, it's still pretty slow. Apple told us Intel integrated graphics performance should equal or exceed the previous Pro's integrated NVIDIA GeForce 320M, but we found it to be slightly slower at every turn, although not enough so to be dramatically noticeable. It's not a huge problem on the 15- and 17-inch Pros, since you can fall back on that Radeon, but we wouldn't try to do more than average HD media playback or casual gaming on the entirely-Intel 13-inch model. On a happier note, we set up Boot Camp and ran benchmarks in Windows 7 to provide some more context to our numbers, and the MacBook Pro crushed those tests as well -- the VAIO Z only got a better PCMarkVantage score because of its fast SSD, and the Envy 17 just barely pulled out better graphics performance. (You can configure the MBP with a 128GB SSD for $100 extra, which should probably be standard over the pokey 5,400RPM hard drive.) Playing a little Batman: Arkham Asylum while booted in Windows netted a smooth 60fps at native resolution while meandering about, with a dip to 55fps during fights.

Windows Benchmarks PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
MacBook Pro (early 2011) (2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M, under Windows 7) 8041 10,262
HP Envy 14 (Core i5-450M, Radeon HD 5650) 6038 1928 / 6899
Toshiba Portege R705 (Core i3-350M) 5024 1739 / 3686
Sony VAIO Z (Core i5-450M, NVIDIA 330M) 9949 6,193
HP Envy 17 (Core i7-740QM, Radeon HD 5850) 6153 10,787
Dell XPS 14 (Core i5-460M, NVIDIA 420M) 5796 1955 / 6827
Notes: For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with the discrete GPU off (if possible), the second with it on.

Needless to say, we had no problems getting through a workday on the new MBP -- we generally juggle Firefox, Chrome, email, a couple chat clients, and various image and video editing tasks on and off throughout a day, and things never felt sluggish or laggy at all. Used this way, we also managed to get around seven hours of battery life, which is pretty impressive -- we imagine things would have dipped had we fired up the Radeon more often, but in day-to-day usage the Intel graphics did just fine. And fair kudos to Apple: with the MacBook Air, the company switched to a new battery test that automates browsing popular sites over WiFi at standard brightness, which generates a more accurate number, but also means the new MBP actually is rated lower than the outgoing model using the same battery. That's a solidly consumer-friendly move, and one we definitely wish more PC manufacturers would make as well.

FaceTime HD

Apple's been chugging along with VGA webcams on their machines for so long we were actually shocked when we found out the new MacBook Pro has an upgraded 720p FaceTime HD camera in the lid. Image quality is obviously improved from the previous generation, and we noticed a slightly cooler cast. We'd love some fine-grained image controls at the system level for this camera -- even just white balance and exposure sliders would go a long, long way. Although FaceTime now supports HD calling, Photo Booth weirdly hasn't been updated and still takes VGA shots. Same with Skype, which only supports sending VGA video on OS X right now -- we'd imagine an HD-ready update is a much higher priority now, though.

Thunderbolt

There's just not much to say about Thunderbolt right now -- yes, the port is there, but there aren't any peripherals that use the new 10Gbps dual-channel interconnect just yet. LaCie's announced a dual-SSD Little Big Disk and Promise has announced a Pegasus RAID, but neither of those are shipping yet. Of course, Thunderbolt also carries Mini DisplayPort video, and we were able to drive an external 24-inch monitor without any issues, using an existing Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter. We'll note once again that this marks the first time we can remember Apple switching standards without switching connectors -- a watershed moment in the history of dongle purchasing. In any event, we're marking Thunderbolt as an incomplete right now -- until there are peripherals to support it, it might as well just be a Mini DisplayPort. That'll change soon, though, and we'll revisit the subject when that happens.

Wrap-up

Apple's forging headlong into its next era with the iPad and iPhone, and it almost seems like the company's forgotten about its Macs at times -- note that this MacBook Pro arrived in somewhat unheralded fashion just few days before the iPad 2. But the new Pro is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing: although it's perfectly disguised as the previous MacBook Pro, there's no mistaking its raw, visceral speed once you start using it. It's twice as fast as the outgoing model, 2.5 times as fast as the model before that, and almost five times faster than the 11.6-inch MacBook Air... all while getting the same seven-hour battery life in the real world. It's hard to say anything bad about that. Of course, there's no getting around the fact that the MacBook Pro is still incredibly expensive and omits what should be no-brainer features -- $2,199 for two USB ports and no Blu-ray drive? -- but those are tradeoffs and prices professional Mac users have long become used to, just like this particular MacBook Pro design itself. Something tells us the next revision of the MacBook Pro will offer a more radical external redesign to go along with Lion, but that's a long ways off -- until then, this MacBook Pro represents the best blend of power, portability, and battery life we've come across to date. We'll see how the PC world responds with its Sandy Bridge systems soon enough.

Joanna Stern contributed to this review.

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