MacBook Pro (mid 2009) in-depth impressions

Let's be straight here: we're a little perplexed by the new MacBook Pro line. On one hand, Apple didn't really make enough changes to warrant a whole new review of the unibody lineup, and minor speed bumps aside, briefly using one of the new machines feels pretty much like using most any recent Mac: it's OS X on a really nice, albeit extremely glossy screen. On the other hand, after a week in the trenches, it's clear that all those seemingly minor changes will have a big impact down the line -- especially the move to sealed-in batteries across the board, which is a decision with decidedly mixed consequences. What's more, we think these changes impact the 13-inch and 15-inch models very differently -- the $1,199 13-inch configuration might have a shiny new Pro label on it, but even Apple admits that it's an entry-level consumer machine, and consumers and professionals don't have the same needs.

So while this isn't going to be a full-on review, we think just slightly more than just our usual bullet-pointed impressions are in order -- and we think it's important to actually break things down by model. How do Apple's latest laptops stack up? Read on for more.

13-inch MacBook Pro

We thought the unibody 13-inch MacBook was a fine machine when we first reviewed it back in October 2008, and the upgrades it's been given during its Pro makeover are entirely welcome and positive -- unlike the 15-inch model, things have mostly been added here instead of taken away. Let's run 'em down:

The screen's way nicer. Apple lists the specific improvement as a 60 percent higher color gamut, but unless you're getting in there with a colorimeter and a monocle what you'll really notice is that Apple's finally shipping a mainstream 13-inch laptop with a viewing angle wider than a pencil. Compared to the disappointing MacBook screens we've seen in the past, the 13-inch Pro display is quite impressive -- we'd say it's roughly equivalent to the panel in the 15, and slightly better than the panel in the first-gen MacBook Air we have on hand. Of course, you're still stuck with that mirror-like gloss finish, but at this size and price point you don't have a lot of matte options regardless of manufacturer.

The dedicated audio-in jack has been pushed aside in favor of an SD card slot and FireWire 800 (hallelujah!). In its stead remains a single multifunction 3.5-inch audio jack which can be used with the iPhone headset for voice calls and also be set as an standard input -- you won't be able to record and monitor at the same time without a USB audio interface, but we doubt most people will care.

Speaking of the SD card slot, well -- there's an SD card slot. Hard to imagine it's taken Apple this long to put one in a consumer machine, but we're happy to finally have it. SD cards just show up as standard USB mass storage, so you can use 'em any which way you want -- hell, you can even boot from one in a pinch.

Lastly, there's the newly sealed-in battery, which is where we think the distinction between consumers and professionals is drawn into sharpest relief: we're not personally thrilled about it, but on the whole we have no doubt it'll be a win for the average person who buys this machine. In our rough testing of general use (web browsing, image and document editing, media playback) we tended to get between four and five hours of action, which is more or less twice what we're used to getting out of our black plastic MacBook, and an hour or so more than the removable battery in the original unibody machines. Considering we've never met a single person who's purchased a spare MacBook battery, that doesn't seem like a terrible tradeoff. Apple says the battery is designed to last five years, longer than most people will keep the machine, but if you do need a new one for some reason, it'll cost the same $129 as the replaceable, including service and disposal. If you happen to find a cheaper replacement elsewhere, you can install it yourself without concern -- not only does it appear to be pretty easy, but Apple says replacing the battery on any of the MacBook Pros won't void the warranty unless you break something. Sure, it doesn't completely ease the sting, but unless there's a sizable contingent of battery-swapping consumers out there we don't know about, we're guessing most people will happily accept longer life off the plug.

All in all, it's a solid revision of an already-popular machine, and we're honestly left wondering why the $999 white plastic MacBook continues to exist -- for $200 more you get a dramatically better screen, a faster processor on a speedier bus, an SD card slot, longer battery life, and rock-solid unibody construction. In fact, Apple told us they consider the $1,199 13-inch MBP configuration an entry-level machine, which we think signals a change: "Pro" no longer means "professional," but rather "aluminum." It's a semantic difference, to be sure, but it's easy to see how it blurs the line between Apple's consumer and professional machines -- just take a look at the $1,699 15-inch MacBook Pro that lacks a discrete graphics chip. It's anarchy, we tell you. Anarchy!

Don't get us wrong, all this line-blurring is great for consumers, who are now getting pro-grade features like that much-improved display at lower prices, but we don't think it works as well in reverse -- it feels a bit like Apple's forcing consumer-oriented design decisions on its professional customers.

15-inch MacBook Pro

We'll admit to being extremely wary whenever Apple makes changes to the 15-inch MacBook Pro. 15-inch MBPs running all manner of operating systems are pervasive in the Engadget ranks, and when we hit the road at events like CES and E3 we tend to standardize on them so we can do things like... share batteries. So it's fair to say we went into testing somewhat skeptical, and after a week with the midrange $1,999 configuration we're only slightly less ambivalent about Apple's latest revision of its most popular pro machine -- it's still solid, but we just don't think mobile professionals will be as pleased with Apple's design choices as the general consumer. It's an interesting dichotomy: the exact same changes that we view positively on the 13-inch MBP seem like negatives on the 15, because on the larger machine Apple's traded features instead of simply adding them. For example, instead of just adding an SD reader, Apple's replaced the ExpressCard slot -- they told us research indicated only a small percentage of MBP owners ever used it, and those that did generally inserted an SD card reader. But where that sort of statistics-driven design decision makes sense on a consumer machine, it only serves to alienate the small number of mobile users who depend on ExpressCards to actually get work done -- yes, it's a tiny minority, but as of now your only option if you need a new Mac laptop with ExpressCard is the 17-inch MBP, which is larger and heavier than the 15 and starts at $2,499. We'll be fine switching to USB 3G sticks from our ExpressCard modems, but we just can't argue in favor of convenience over flexibility with this one -- we've heard from a lot of A/V pros who are steaming mad.

Similarly, while the sealed-in battery seems like a net win for outlet-surfing consumers buying the 13-inch machine, on the 15 it troubles us greatly, especially since we only managed to eke out four hours while we were writing this review with some light browsing here and there for research. That's only slightly more than half of what Apple claims under the same conditions, and while it's certainly good, it's not so much better than the outgoing MBP that the tradeoff seems worth it -- and keep in mind, once you drain this thing in the field, you'll need to spend around two hours tied to a wall to get fully charged up instead of just swapping a battery and taking off. Yes, we know an external battery pack like the 32-hour Sanho HyperMac is a viable solution to this problem, but we just don't see why we're being forced into accepting an hour or so of additional usage at the expense of flexibility -- did Apple get tired of selling us spare batteries?

Still, these are pretty minor changes in the grand scheme of things, and we don't think they'll deter most people from what remains an otherwise excellent machine -- we'd be willing to bet the SD reader gets used far more often than vast majority ever even pondered their ExpressCard slot, and that extra hour of battery life will likely leave quite a few pleased as punch. We're just not convinced Apple had to subtract in order to add.


Here's our main takeaway from the new MacBook Pro line: Apple's made some very strong decisions about what most customers care about and followed up with equally strong design decisions across the board. Most people use SD cameras, so there's an SD slot. Most people never use audio-in and headphones at the same time, so there's just one jack on the 13. Most people never think about replacing their laptop batteries but wish they'd last longer, so a bigger cell is now sealed in. ExpressCard, who cares. It's a simple and appealing logic, and it's a great strategy in the consumer market, but we don't think it holds up as well for professionals, who require much more flexibility from their machines. Of course, you could argue that Apple's always catered to 95 percent of its users at the expense of 5, but we think that tendency has been expressed to an extreme here, and we'd like to see the pendulum swing back a bit the next time these are revved -- some matte display options would be a nice start.

That said, it's not like you have any other choices if you want a Mac laptop, and we very much doubt you'll be unhappy with any of the new MacBook Pros unless you're one of the few people dependent on ExpressCard accessories or you have a clinical aversion to external battery packs. They remain attractive, well-constructed, and high-performing, and hey -- FireWire's back.