Updates to Apple's MacBook line of laptops generally fall into two categories: there are major evolutions, such as the switch to an aluminium unibody construction in 2008, and then there are minor spec upgrades, typically small bumps to processor speed and hard-drive size.
Surprisingly, the latest update to the MacBook Pro line falls outside of those two extremes. The iconic unibody aluminium construction remains, as does the large, glass multi-touch trackpad. In fact, from the outside, the new MacBook Pro looks identical to its predecessor. But the revamped internal components are much more than a simple spec upgrade.
The 15- and 17-inch Pro models have moved to Intel's newer line of Core i CPUs, from the older Core 2 Duo models (the 13-inch Pro, unfortunately, still uses a Core 2 Duo CPU). Both mainstream Core i5 and high-end Core i7 versions are available. This requires a new chipset architecture (courtesy of Intel) and a switch from the integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400M to Intel's built-in integrated graphics for the systems' default GPU.
Our review sample is the highest-end 15-inch base configuration, with a 2.66GHz Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT 330M discrete graphics. At £1,800, it's definitely expensive, as is the lowest-priced 15-inch model, which costs £1,500. Overall, however, this round of updates follows the usual trajectory: keeping the price reasonably steady but adding faster, more powerful components.
As with the previous Pro models, the unibody chassis is made from a solid block of aluminium that's been carved down, rather than a thin outer shell that has had support struts added to it. The result is a thin chassis that feels very solid and substantial.
We remain fond of the large trackpad that supports multi-touch gestures for much of its functionality. In fact, touch controls are almost as vital to the Pro as they are to the iPhone or iPad (plugging in a mouse is also an option, but you miss out on time-saving gesture controls that way).
Of the multi-touch gestures, our favourite is sweeping moves with four fingers -- left or right brings up the application switcher, and upwards hides all your active windows. Once you get used to these functions, going back to a standard touchpad is difficult. We've noted in the past year or so that many PC makers have added some form of multi-touch functionality to their touchpads, but we have yet to find any that work as well as Apple's.
This year's version also includes a small behavioural tweak, which Apple calls 'inertial scrolling'. As with the iPhone and iPad, when you flick two fingers up or down to scroll, it now feels like there's more mass behind the gesture, and the page will continue to move slightly after you've lifted up your fingers. The recent Magic Mouse peripheral from Apple includes a similar effect.
The 15.4-inch wide-screen display offers a 1,440x900-pixel native resolution, which is what we're used to from previous 15-inch Pro models. But, with the growth of online high-definition video, and ever-higher resolutions for cameras and camcorders, some users will want more pixels to play with. A 1,680x1,050-pixel display option is now available, which costs an extra £80 (or £120 for a version that also includes an anti-glare coating). Still, for a £1,800 laptop, the higher-resolution screen should be included by default.
Apple embraced the simple joys of the SD card slot in last year's Pro update, but, this time around, there are no comparable new features, although we're excited that the DisplayPort output now supports audio as well as video.