The MacBook Pro has been around for a while now and although the basic design has remained the same for the past few years Apple routinely upgrades the hardware every year to whatever is latest that Intel has to offer. This year it was the Sandy Bridge series of processors, along with a switch from NVIDIA discrete graphics to AMD. Then there was the addition of Thunderbolt, another Intel tech, previously known as Light Peak. Finally, you have the new FaceTime HD camera and that completes the list of changes in the latest generation MacBook Pros. But those are just words. How does it perform in the real world? We got the top of the line 17-inch model to find out.
The MacBook Pro is an amazing looking machine with fantastic attention to detail, such as the hidden indicator light on the front, the ventilation slots near the display hinge, the battery indicator on the side and the magnetic latch for the display that can be opened with one finger without lifting the base up with the lid. It’s also wonderfully built and, despite the bulky size, is not too heavy, all thanks to the aluminum used in the design.
However, the design is far from perfect. The USB ports on the side are placed too close to each other, which means if you stick a USB flash drive in one port the one next to it becomes unusable. And I’m talking regular USB drives here and not some fancy ones with bloated shapes. Thankfully the 17-inch model comes with three ports, so you can at least use two at any given time.
The MacBook Pro still suffers from heating issues, where the bottom surface can get unbearably hot when doing hardware intensive tasks. This is more noticeable if you live in a warm country such as India, where the temperatures can get really high. Unless you are in an air conditioned room (with the temperature set really low), you’ll need a desk to keep the machine on every time you decide to play a Flash video or a game.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro still comes with a 1280 x 800 resolution display. The 15-inch model offers a 1440 x 900 resolution display. However, the 17-inch model that we tested gets a superb 1920 x 1200 resolution display. At that size, the high resolution makes everything look really sharp and clear. Having said that, things can also occasionally look a bit tiny compared to the lower resolution models.
The quality of display itself is excellent, with gorgeous colors and high contrast, which makes everything pop. The display can also get incredibly bright, which should come in handy if you’re using it outdoors during the day. In that case, however, you will be distracted by the glossy display, which can catch all the stray reflections behind you.
Thankfully, Apple offers the option of configuring the machine with an antiglare display at the time of purchase, although it is a paid extra.
Keyboard, trackpad and speakers
The keyboard on the MacBook Pro 17 is identical to the one used on all the other MacBooks (other than the MacBook Air 11-inch). On the huge 17-inch machine it looks a bit small but, in reality, it is perfectly fine. In fact, it is very comfortable to type on with perfect spacing between the keys and good feedback. The keys are backlit but the backlight is unusually uneven, with certain keys being far too bright and others being dim. A quick Google search revealed that this is a common problem with the 17-inch model. It’s not a big deal, but it can be annoying to some. I personally learned to ignore it after a few days.
The trackpad is the same excellent multitouch glass trackpad that is used on all MacBooks. It is undoubtedly the best trackpad that you can find on any laptop in the market. The touch response is fantastic and the multi-touch gestures are unrivalled.
The speakers deserve a special mention. Laptop speakers are usually anaemic and are barely loud enough to be heard clearly. The ones on the MBP 17 are astonishingly powerful. I’ve never heard speakers this loud on any laptop before. Not only are they incredibly loud but they also sound great, even at maximum volume with little to no distortion. The sound quality is on par with what you would get with basic desktop stereo speakers.
Hardware and Software
Unlike the other MacBooks, the 17-inch model comes in only one version. It has a 2.2GHz (3.0GHz using Turbo Boost) quad-core Intel Core i7 2670QM processor, 4GB DDR3 RAM, 750GB 5400rpm hard drive, on-board Intel HD Graphics 3000, discrete AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1GB memory, built-in SuperDrive, One Thunderbolt port, three USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, one Gigabit Ethernet jack, ExpressCard slot, FaceTime HD camera, built-in microphone, stereo speakers, audio in/out jacks, Wi-Fi 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR.
You have a few configuration options. You can boost the processor to 2.3GHz (3.1GHz using Turbo Boost) quad-core Core i7 2820QM, 500GB, 7200rpm hard drive, 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD, up to 8GB of RAM and an antiglare display.
The MacBook Pro comes with Mac OS X Lion pre-installed. Along with all the default applications, you also get the iLife ‘11 suite, which includes iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand. The new Mac App Store is a nice addition and makes finding and downloading apps on to the Mac extremely easy but it has this annoying habit of repeatedly asking you for the password to your account before you can download anything. There should have been a way to disable this.
New additions such as Mission Control and Launchpad are useful too, particularly the latter which I found myself using a lot more than I expected to. Auto save, Versions and Resume are also good to have although currently not a lot of third-party apps support them. AirDrop will be convenient if you have another Mac in the house running Lion and Full-Screen Apps is something that should have been there from Day 1.
With such a capable hardware under the hood, the 17-inch MacBook Pro did not disappoint. The user experience was consistently smooth and fluid and the machine would make light work of hardware intensive tasks, such as image editing, video encoding/editing, high definition video playback, etc. Gaming was also not an issue. I tried Portal 2 and even at native resolution (1920 x 1200) and with every setting set to its highest value the game was still smooth and playable. As mentioned before though, such activities usually end up making the machine unbearably hot. This is one laptop that begs to be used with a laptop cooler.
I noticed the quality of the new FaceTime HD camera is much better than before. Even in low-light conditions there is not a lot of noise and images and videos come out well. The new Photo Booth application in Lion comes with the nice effects that track your head with amazing accuracy even in low light.
Apple claims the battery life figure can go up to 7 hours of wireless web browsing. In my usage, the 17-inch MacBook Pro lasted just a bit over six hours, which is still quite impressive, considering I streamed quite a lot of videos. These were HTML5 videos, of course and with Flash installed the battery life figure is bound to go down further. In my opinion though, it is best not to install Flash on a Mac. Instead, one should install Google Chrome, which has a Flash plugin built-in. If one comes across a site that mandates the use of Flash, one can open the site in Chrome and close it when done. This way you can maximize your battery life and prevent the machine from heating up.
I also ran a movie test, where I played a 720p movie in a loop to see long the battery lasts. It lasted for around 5 hours, which should be enough to watch two movies back to back. I had set the brightness fairly high (around 80%) so you could get more by setting it a bit low. Wi-Fi was switched off during the video playback test.
The 17-inch MacBook Pro is priced at Rs. 1,42,900. True, that’s quite steep. The best part about this particular model is that it feels as fast as a iMac but at the same time remains thin and light enough to be carried around in your bag. If that’s something you want and if money is not a concern then the 17-inch MacBook Pro comes highly recommended.