The latest round of MacBook revisions are nowhere near as radical as the aluminium unibody construction rolled out in late 2008. Instead, the 13-inch MacBook has been promoted to the Pro family, while the 15-inch MacBook Pro has had a handful of minor component upgrades. More important than that, however, is a series of price cuts for all of the base model MacBook Pros, including the £1,700 version reviewed here.
Now that the 13- and 15-inch models have the same basic feature set, including Nvidia's excellent integrated GeForce 9400M GPU, a high-capacity (though non-removable) battery, an SD card slot, and a FireWire connection, the main points of differentiation are minor CPU speed boosts, a bigger screen, and the availability of a separate discrete GPU (the GeForce 9600M GT) that can be turned off to improve battery life. Our review unit has the 512MB version of the GPU, while the £1,500 model has a 256MB version.
The aluminium chassis is essentially identical to that of the last 15-inch Pro. The construction starts with a solid block of carved-down aluminium, rather than a thin outer shell that's had support struts added to it. The result is a thin and light chassis that feels solid and substantial. Except for the £750 white polycarbonate MacBook, Apple's entire laptop line now uses this type of body.
We're especially fond of the larger trackpad, which uses multitouch gestures similar to those found on the iPhone. It offers a much larger surface area than most laptop trackpads, thanks to the elimination of a separate mouse button. While the entire trackpad depresses like a button, simple tapping, as on a Windows laptop, will also work once you turn that option on in the settings menu. Of the multitouch gestures, most useful perhaps is sweeping four fingers: sweeping left or right brings up the application switcher, while sweeping upwards hides all your active windows. Once you get used to that, going back to a standard trackpad is difficult.
The 15.4-inch widescreen display offers a 1,440x900-pixel native resolution, which is standard for premium 15-inch screens (cheaper 15-inch models often have a 1,280x800-pixel resolution). All of the Pro screens are LED-backlit, allowing for thinner lids and providing some power-saving benefits. We like the look of the edge-to-edge glass over the screen, but it's also very reflective, and we wish Apple would offer a matte screen option on all of its systems, and not just the 17-inch Pro.
The biggest news is probably that Apple has at long last embraced the simple joys of the SD card slot. After claiming for years that photographers could just use an external USB adaptor to access their SD cards, the 13- and 15-inch Pros now include this very common component. It comes, however, at the cost of the ExpressCard slot, which is now found only on the 17-inch Pro. Most people used their ExpressCard slots, if at all, for card-reading adaptors or mobile-broadband antennas. While we use SD cards, even in our digital SLR camera, several pro photographers have reminded us that CompactFlash cards are their preferred format.
The 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU in our review unit is a bump up from the 2.53GHz version we saw in the last high-end 15-inch Pro (now the least expensive configuration has that 2.53GHz version). An extra £240 adds an optional 3.06GHz processor -- the fastest one you can get in an Apple laptop. While our Pro had a clear advantage over both the 13-inch Pro and previous 15- and 13-inch MacBooks, most users can feel comfortable using any of the current Intel processors that Apple offers for basic Web surfing, productivity and multimedia playback.
Besides the dedicated GeForce 9600M GT, the new Pro also includes the same integrated GeForce 9400M GPU found in the 13-inch MacBook. The settings menu has two power options: high performance or longer battery life. Choosing high performance turns the 9600M GT chip on, while choosing longer battery life turns it off, leaving you with just the integrated chip. The switch made virtually no difference in our standard benchmark tests, although those interested in high-end video and photo editing may see a more practical benefit.