The biggest of the Apple laptops has always been seen as a desktop replacement, does this latest revision stand up to the challenge?
Price: Base model (as tested) £1,949
Learn more: www.apple/com/macbookpro
Available from: www.solutions-inc.co.uk
The MacBook Pro 17-inch has the toughest job in the Mac lineup. Unlike the Mac Pro that can abandon small size for mass upgradeability, the MacBook Pro has to remain portable at all costs. Unlike the Mac mini, which can abandon specifications in the name of value for money, the MacBook Pro needs to have the specs of a desktop computer and the value associated with a portable machine. Unlike the iMac, the MacBook Pro cannot rely on sheer good looks, though it has to look as good as the rest of the laptop lineup. With all this in mind it’s no wonder Apple was late to market with its flagship laptop.
Like all new Apple laptops, or notebooks as it likes to call them, the MacBook Pro is fashioned from a single piece of aluminium. It does, however, have one pretty big design change that sets it apart from the rest of the lineup. Instead of having a removable battery and a cavity for it cut into the unibody enclosure, the MacBook Pro 17-inch has a built-in, non-removable battery. But much more on this later.
The aluminium crafting means that the MacBook Pro 17-inch is the thinnest of its kind, measuring in at just under an inch at its fattest point (0.98 inches/2.5cm). While this is an easy statistic to imagine, it’s not until you have the machine in your hands that you really grasp what an achievement of engineering this is by Apple. In the hands the laptop is incredibly sturdy and amazingly light for its size (it weighs in at just 6.6 pounds/2.99 kilos, though the weight does vary depending on the MacBook’s specs). The aluminium crafting is also breathtaking as you open the laptop up. On the Apple website it explains how engineers made hundreds of variants of the thumbscoop, where you lift the lid of the laptop. They wanted to be sure that the depth and design were correct so that each time you lift the lid there isn’t too much pressure on the screen, the motion is smooth and the whole thing is easy on your fingers. Apparently they even examined it under an electron microscope to get it right. As you examine the machine you will see that the same care has been taken over every single aspect, from the way the ports are cut into the metal to the way the speaker grill holes have been laser-etched into the surface. We’ve not seen another laptop come even close to this kind of workmanship.
Despite the fact that Apple has worked considerable magic in order to make the MacBook Pro 17-inch as thin and as light as it is, it’s still a big laptop. So, when considering it as a possible purchasing option, you need to be clear in your mind as to what you want. This computer is not one for lugging here, there and everywhere, for brief spells of web browsing in coffee shops and while on the move. It is, however, a workhorse fit for design, music creation, video editing and more. It will bring the office home with you when you need it to and it will cope with pretty much everything you throw at it.
Moving onto the insides, the MacBook Pro has a few different options to entice potential buyers; one of the most significant is the matte screen option. It’s been a long-requested feature and isn’t available on the 15-inch version. This has sparked much debate and has invariably driven those people who would prefer a matte screen towards buying the 17-inch or even looking elsewhere. We tested the regular glossy screen, and while we’ve always been fans of the way it accentuates the richness of blacks and adds a bit of sparkle to lighter colours in opposition to dark, we can see how some people need the honesty of a matte screen. If you do opt for the anti-glare option it will cost you an additional £34.99 when you configure your purchase. Inside the MacBook Pro there are some very impressive specs. You can choose from two processor values, 2.66GHz or 2.99GHz, with the latter costing you an extra £210. The standard RAM value is 4GB, but it’s possible to upgrade this to a maximum of 8GB. You can do this as part of the configuration process, but we think it’s daylight robbery to pay £800 for an extra 4GB of RAM when you can go to a company like Crucial and pick up the same for half the price. In terms of hard drives there are now four options available: 320GB Serial ATA Drive at 5,400 rpm, 320GB Serial ATA Drive at 7,200 rpm (+ £34.99), 128GB Solid State Drive (+ £240) or a 256GB Solid State Drive (+ £600). The option we tested was the standard lower-end MacBook Pro with 2.66GHz processor, 320GB drive and 4GB RAM. The price for this unit is £1,949, which is by no means cheap. However, it stood up to everything we threw at it and it handled a bit like a desktop computer. And when it’s on a desk or in a stand you can easily forget that it is a portable. Check out our benchmarks box above for more on performance.
The graphics option and the battery in the MacBook Pro 17-inch are closely linked. As with the 15-inch model, there are two graphics processors: a Nvidia GeForce 9,400M and a GeForce 9,600 GT. It’s possible to switch between them in the Energy Saver section of System Preferences, and they then have knock-on effects with the battery. In terms of frame rate, as you would expect, you get much better performance from the bigger card. Playing Call Of Duty 4, we saw an increase from an average in the mid-thirties with the lesser card, up to the mid-fifties with the bigger card. We also noticed a significant difference when editing movies. Using raw footage from an HD camcorder we saw that the lesser card jumped continuously, where as the larger card was far smoother. It can be a little annoying having to swap between cards (which involves logging out and then back in again), but it’s ultimately worth it when you consider the way it impacts battery life. The battery on the MacBook Pro 17-inch is non-removable, and the logic behind the change is that all the extra space that is usually used to allow for removal mechanism can be packed out with more battery. The result is that the battery is 40 per cent bigger than the previous version and Apple claims to have made it the longest lasting ever in terms of charge and recharge cycles. The engineers who made the battery have added a chip that enables adaptive charging so the battery always charges in the most efficient way.
The results are pretty impressive as this battery can recharge a staggering 1,000 times before beginning to degrade. Using the lesser graphics card uses less battery, and the ability to switch between them means that when you are doing less graphically intensive computing you can conserve battery power. Apple claims that you can get eight hours or basic web searching from the lesser card and we have to say that we’re inclined to agree. We didn’t do exactly the same test as we were keen to try a few new things, so we used the MacBook sporadically during the day, installing programs, doing web searches, playing a game and importing files and photos. Basically the same things that every Mac user would do during a day. And while we weren’t constantly on the machine, it never slept for more than 20 minutes and no more than four times. And, we got a pretty clean eight hours from it. It’s very impressive. Testing the use of the more powerful graphics card was a matter of making sure that it was actually being used. No Mac user will switch cards unless they need to fully utilise the power it contains, so we watched a movie, played a game and then did some video editing, trying at all times to make the most of the graphics card. We also had the screen at full brightness. We managed to drag just over five hours out of the battery during this test, which we also thought was fairly impressive. The thing to remember about the MacBook Pro 17-inch is that, despite the poorer result for battery life using the higher-powered card, this is a desktop replacement you’re unlikely to spend that much time with on your lap without the option of power – especially when trying to edit video. So, for casual use the battery is great and for labour-intensive work you’re most likely to be at a desk with power.