Review: Apple's Thunderbolt MacBook Pro

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Review: Apple's Thunderbolt MacBook Pro

Only the 13-inch device looks to deliver genuine value-for-money.

Apple sprung a surprise when it launched its 2011 update to the MacBook Pro family. Sandy Bridge processors were the main update, but we began to hear whispers that Intel’s Light Peak technology might play a part.

Light Peak’s high-speed data transfers hadn’t previously been seen beyond Intel’s tech demonstrations, yet those rumours turned out to be true. Now officially renamed Intel Thunderbolt, it makes its debut in all three new MacBook Pros.

That’s a heady combination of technologies, and Apple has gone for the jugular with some hugely powerful processors. Even the 13-inch models have dual-core Core i5 or i7 CPUs, while it’s quad-core across the board from 15-inch upwards, with support from high-end AMD graphics chips.

There’s no external redesign: the silver aluminium bodies are still exquisite; the edge-to-edge glass screens are gorgeous; and the batteries remain captive, as ever.

The only significant change is the replacement of the mini-DisplayPort with a connector that appears identical, but for a little lightning-bolt symbol. Thunderbolt allows your existing DisplayPort monitors and adapters to continue to function through the port, yet also makes it ready for the next wave of superfast peripherals. It isn’t of much use right now, but this will change in the near future.

MacBook Pro 17-inch

With a huge screen and a quad-core 2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM processor, the largest MacBook Pro is ideal for high-end graphics work. It can play the latest 3D games, managing 52fps in Crysis at 1600 x 900 and Medium settings; when we upped that to the native 1920 x 1200, it still averaged a playable 35fps.

As well as all this power, it has one of the few laptop displays we’ve seen recently to stick with that traditional resolution over 1080p, and it positively beams with quality. Measuring our sample with a colorimeter, we found a huge maximum luminance of 342cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 760:1. As for colour accuracy, an average Delta E of 5.6 is good for a laptop.

You get a mere three USB 2 ports and one FireWire port, that DisplayPort-compatible Thunderbolt connector, along with Gigabit Ethernet, two 3.5mm jacks and, disappointingly, an ExpressCard/34 slot. Photographers may feel they’d get more use out of the SDXC slot present on the smaller models.

Possibly the most startling figure the MacBook Pro 17-inch produced, however, was its battery life. It may be sealed inside the chassis, but this can be forgiven when you consider that one of the fastest 17-inch laptops we’ve seen can survive for a minute shy of eight hours under light use in Mac OS X.

This is a huge figure, even though it falls considerably in Windows due to the Boot Camp drivers’ inability to switch to the integrated graphics.

Alas, despite all these strengths, the 17-inch model simply can’t justify its price. It’s a brilliant laptop that those with full wallets certainly won’t regret buying, but you can buy a Dell XPS 17 with the same processor and a slightly lesser all-round specification for a saving of $900. That’s one heck of a premium to pay for style and build quality.

MacBook Pro 15-inch

The 15-inch model we have on test is interesting, largely because it’s internally identical to its bigger brother. The same CPU and 4GB of RAM, albeit with a 1440 x 900 15.4in display, managed 53fps in Crysis at native resolution and Medium settings, and when we raised that to High settings, the score remained at a just-playable 29fps.

The differences come on the left flank: you get only two USB 2 ports to go with that Thunderbolt connector, and the ExpressCard slot has gone in favour of an SDXC slot for cards up to 64GB. As with all three models, you get the new 720p-capable FaceTime HD camera. The screen on our sample had a maximum measured brightness of 322cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 800:1. Its Delta E measurement of 5.3 shows colour accuracy is superb.

Battery life was almost identical to the 17-inch model, making the MacBook Pro 15-inch an extremely capable mid-range professional laptop.

Whether it’s worth $2499 comes down to your view of Apple. There are better-specified laptops out there for the money, but few that can match the MacBook Pro’s near-perfect build and design.

MacBook Pro 13in

Of the three sizes, there’s no doubt that it’s the 13-inch MacBook Pro that turns the most heads. An exquisite piece of engineering, its slim, sleek and portable chassis packs in plenty of power while also lasting an astonishing 10 hours and 12 minutes of browsing time in Mac OS X.

The 1280 x 800 resolution is a touch disappointing, but the display itself is simply glorious. With our colorimeter we measured a maximum brightness of 312cd/m2 and a contrast ratio of 650:1, with an average Delta E rating of only 3.6 – about as colour accurate as we’ve seen from any laptop display.

However, the 13-inch has clearly been the trickiest model for Apple to craft successfully. On both variants, the CPU temperature hovers at over 90 degrees Celsius when running intensive applications, and at one point during our benchmarks we measured the aluminium underside at a scorching 60 degrees Celsius.

There’s also a peculiar quirk on the Core i7 model that means Turbo Boost appears to be disabled when running Windows, presumably to avoid overheating.

With this in mind, we’d steer clear of the $1698 model – the $300 saving on the Core i5 version loses you only a bit of speed and 180GB of hard disk space, and we suspect that if you intend to run Windows on it you may even get more application speed from the Turbo-Boosted Core i5.

If you’re looking for a portable workstation, it isn’t the winner it could have been; we’d avoid running intensive apps with it on your lap, for example. Of the three sizes, however, it holds the widest appeal. There’s something about paying less than $2000 for such an impressive piece of hardware that makes it feel like the best value of all the new MacBook Pros.

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