By Cliff Joseph 31 Mar 2011
Apple has been selling record numbers of its Mac computers in recent months, and to capitalise on that success it recently overhauled its entire range of MacBook Pro laptops.
The MacBook Pro doesn't have the elegant slim-line design of the MacBook Air but, as the name implies, these models are aimed at professional users who require power and performance above all else.
Apple has therefore updated these latest models with more powerful processors and graphics, and introduced a brand new Intel I/O technology called Thunderbolt.
The new models look virtually identical to their predecessors, and there are no major changes to the existing 'unibody' aluminium chassis design. As before, the MacBook Pro is available in three different sizes, with 13in, 15in or 17in screens.
The entry-level 13in model that used to cost £1,020 with a 2.3GHz Core 2 Duo processor now gains a Core i5 processor running at the same speed and a minor price cut that brings it down to £999.
For another £300 you can bump the processor up to a Core i7 running at 2.7GHz, but we reckon the £999 model will hit the sweet spot for many existing MacBook owners who are thinking about upgrading.
There's a bit of a price jump when stepping up to the 15in models. The two earlier Core i5 models are now replaced with Core i7 processors, starting at £1,549 for a 2GHz model. However, we looked at the 2.2GHz model, which comes in at £1,849 with 4GB of 1,333MHz memory and a 750GB hard disk.
This model includes the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics plus a separate AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1GB of its own memory. That gives you the option of switching between the two graphics processors depending on whether you need greater battery life or greater performance.
Finally, there's the top-of-the-range 17in model, which was previously equipped with a 2.53GHz Core i5 processor, but which now steps up to the i7 running at 2.2GHz and goes up about £150 in the process.
Other features that are common across the range include Bluetooth and 802.11n wireless networking, Gigabit Ethernet, built-in stereo speakers and microphone, and digital audio input and output. Apple has also upgraded the built-in iSight webcam from VGA resolution to 1,280 x 720.
Expansion options include a single FireWire 800 port, along with a pair of USB 2.0 ports. Apple has completely turned its nose up at USB 3.0, and is now the first manufacturer to ship systems that use the new Thunderbolt I/O technology.
Thunderbolt was originally developed in Intel's labs using the codename Light Peak but, according to Intel's web site, the firm collaborated with Apple before bringing it to commercial release in the new MacBook Pro.
Apple claims that Thunderbolt provides data transfer speeds of up to 10Gbit/s, which makes it faster than USB 3.0, and much faster than either USB 2.0 or FireWire 800.
On the downside, there are as yet no available peripherals that can be plugged into the MacBook Pro's Thunderbolt ports, but Apple gave us an impressive demonstration of an upcoming hard disk from LaCie that was able to copy a 5GB file in about 20 seconds.
The interesting thing about Thunderbolt is that it's a 'dual-protocol' technology that supports existing PCI Express and DisplayPort devices. The single Thunderbolt port on the left-hand edge of the MacBook Pro looks similar to Apple's standard Mini DisplayPort connector, and can still be used to plug in one of Apple's own Cinema monitors. It can also connect to HDMI, DVI or even VGA displays using a suitable adaptor.
At the same time, the Thunderbolt interface can also be used to daisy-chain multiple devices. Third-party manufacturers should also be able to develop their own adaptors and hubs for existing FireWire and USB peripherals, allowing Thunderbolt to act as a universal high-speed I/O technology for virtually any kind of peripheral.
However, it will take a while for the new generation of Thunderbolt devices to appear, so right now we just have to judge the new MacBook Pro on the basis of its faster processor and graphics.
The 15in model that we tested certainly felt extremely fast and responsive, surprising me with the speed at which folders and applications launched out of the Mac's Dock.
We also used Apple's BootCamp tool to install Windows 7 and run the PC Mark Vantage benchmark software. Results here proved very impressive, with the 2.2GHz MacBook Pro's overall score of 7,392 almost matching the 7,882 score obtained from Apple's £2,000 Mac Pro workstation equipped with a 2.8GHz quad-core Xeon.
In fact, we suspect that the MacBook Pro might even have come out on top had its overall performance not been undermined by the use of an unimpressive 5,400rpm hard disk (although there is a built-to-order option that allows you to swap the standard 750GB drive for a 500GB model spinning at 7,200rpm for the same price).
However, the real surprise came from the MacBook Pro's battery life. Apple quotes around seven hours for general tasks such as web browsing and email, yet when it was left running some full-screen video, it lasted for a full eight and half hours before giving up the ghost. You should easily get a full day's work from it when you're on the road, or be able to keep yourself entertained on a long flight.
This is just as well, since the MacBook Pro has a sealed battery configuration, so you cannot carry a spare with you and swap over when the first one runs out of juice.
At £1,849, the price isn't exactly cheap, but it's quite competitive when compared to rivals such as Dell's Precision range, which is currently about £2,000 for a 15.6in model with 1.86GHz Core i7.
With that sort of performance and battery life, and the arrival of the next-generation Thunderbolt technology, the new MacBook Pro will certainly appeal to Apple's professional users.
It just leaves us wondering when the consumer-oriented white plastic MacBook is going to get an aluminium makeover for those of us on a tighter budget.
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