With the Earth having completed yet another celestial orbit, Apple has once again given its MacBook Pro line of laptops a refresh. This time the overhaul is largely internal, with Intel's Sandy Bridge processors the star of the show. There's also a new 'Thunderbolt' port drilled into the side of the aluminium chassis. The 13-inch model will set you back anywhere between about £1,000 and £2,400, depending on the configuration you opt for.
The basic configurations for the 13-inch machine are as follows. For £1,000 you can nab yourself a model with a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 2.3GHz, a 320GB 5,400rpm hard drive, Intel HD graphics and 4GB of RAM.
Splash out £1,300 on a slightly higher-end model and you'll get a dual-core Core i7 processor clocked at 2.7GHz, a 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive, Intel HD graphics and the same 4GB of RAM. The extra cash, then, buys you a more powerful processor, and an extra 180GB of storage space.
Our review model is the more expensive version. We'll be assessing whether this upgrade is worthwhile, or whether you'd be better off with the cheaper, £1,000 model.
Apple knows where its strength lies -- exquisite design. Time and time again we've been impressed by the style and build quality offered by MacBooks, and this latest version is no different. That's because it really is no different. Apple's made very few external changes to the previous Pro.
The solid 'unibody' aluminium chassis doesn't have any unsightly seams around the edges, and looks just as classy as ever. The Pro is probably the most reassuringly solid and well-constructed laptop on the market, and its minimalist, chic design hasn't gone out of fashion.
The downside of the robust aluminium shell is that the Pro is fairly heavy, weighing in at 2kg. It won't buckle your spine if you throw it in your satchel, but we've seen many lighter laptops. Its dimensions are a fairly elegant 325 by 24 by 227mm.
The Pro is still a great-looking machine, but we were hoping for a few design changes. There's nothing wrong with the existing models, but we like to see something new, if only to indicate that we're still travelling the merry road of progress.
The 13.3-inch display has a resolution of 1,280x800 pixels, and looks as sharp and bright as ever. The viewing angle is reasonably impressive too. The webcam above the display has been pumped up to a 720p resolution, so you can make high-definition FaceTime calls, and see every hideous feature of your best buddy's mangled mush.
The trackpad is large, supremely responsive and extremely comfortable. It supports intuitive multi-touch gestures that'll soon have you sliding your way around OS X like a slippery otter in a butter factory.
Thunderbolt is a new input/output port developed by Intel (under the code name 'Light Peak') and used by Apple. It's basically a PCI Express port and a DisplayPort in one, which makes it useful for really high-speed data transfer, and for exporting your MacBook Pro's video to an external monitor, for instance. You can link up to six Thunderbolt devices together.
Thunderbolt offers data-transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps, which is very fast indeed. We've seen Thunderbolt strutting its stuff in data-transfer demonstrations, and it really does make chucking data around at very high speeds entirely possible.
So what's Thunderbolt good for? Well, if you're a professional video editor who stores and transfers plenty of large video files, it could make a huge difference to your workflow. But, outside of professional applications, we can't really see too many benefits. Don't expect Thunderbolt-compatible products to appear until the summer either -- the technology is still in its early stages at the moment. Thunderbolt cabling will also probably be rather expensive.
Unless you want a MacBook Pro for professional data-chucking purposes, we'd hazard a guess that you won't find much use for Thunderbolt in the short term. That's fine, but there's one glaring omission in this refresh -- USB 3.0 connectivity.
USB 3.0 doesn't offer transfer speeds as fast as those of Thunderbolt, but it's a significant step-up from USB 2.0, and we're seeing USB 3.0 ports appear as standard on loads of new laptops of all prices. If you're a general laptop user who wants fast data-transfer capability, USB 3.0 is your best bet.
Alas, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has only two USB 2.0 ports. If you're moving HD video around via USB devices -- for example, shifting files from a camcorder -- transfer could prove annoyingly sluggish. Thunderbolt has potential in the long term, but we wish there were a USB 3.0 port on offer in the meantime.
As mentioned above, you can pay an extra £300 to equip your MacBook Pro with a more powerful Core i7 CPU. Is the extra processing performance worth the additional cash, though? We suspect not.
Here's why. The Core i7 processor really packs a punch, and we found general performance to be very slick, with no hang-ups or sluggishness, and few delays while cruising around the operating system or firing up new programs. Our 1080p test video played very smoothly and, after a couple of days' use, this laptop clocked up a start-up time of around 30 seconds, from hitting the power switch to arriving at the desktop.
The trouble is that, with ordinary usage, like sending emails, browsing the Web, watching videos and so on, you'll probably get equally snappy performance from the Core i5 chip. Nor are we convinced that the Core i7 version will make that much of a difference when you're undertaking more intensive tasks, like playing high-end games or editing videos, because the 13-inch Pro doesn't have a dedicated graphics card.
The 15- and 17-inch Pros come with AMD Radeon HD graphics cards, which will give them the polygon-chucking ability to handle serious gaming. The 13-inch model, however, comes only with Intel HD Graphics 3000, an integrated graphics chip that's less powerful.
We used Cinebench's OpenGL test, which evaluates a computer's graphical prowess, and our 13-inch Pro ran at a rather paltry 11.48 frames per second. That confirmed our suspicions -- the 13-inch Pro won't be a great gaming machine.
Overall, then, we'd say the following. If you're into gaming or other graphically intensive activities, opt for either a 15- or 17-inch Pro. If you're not regularly performing such demanding tasks, we'd recommend you save yourself a few hundred quid and go for the basic £1,000 13-inch model.
Assault on battery
Apple reckons you'll get 7 hours of battery life from the Pro, based on its own tests that set the Pro surfing the Web. We ran our own test, running HD video on a loop and timing how long it look to deplete a fully charged battery. It took about 3.5 hours before the battery kicked the bucket, which we think is rather impressive. We believe Apple's claim of 7 hours of Web browsing isn't too far off the mark.
As with previous models, there are a few things about the new 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro that irk us slightly -- the high price tag and lack of a USB 3.0 port being the most obvious. But, as in the past, we can't deny that it's still probably the best laptop on the market. It's fast, elegantly designed and a pleasure to use. If you can afford it, we can't imagine you'll be disappointed.
If you're looking for something more portable, check out the MacBook Air. And, as we mentioned earlier, if you enjoy gaming or other graphically intensive tasks, try the 15-inch MacBook Pro before you lay down your cash.
Edited by Charles Kloet