Review: MacBook Pro (15-inch, late 2008)

Still a great portable from Apple in spite of some quirks. (October 26th, 2008)

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: $1,999 (2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 250GB drive)

The Good

  • Sturdier, cooler, thinner aluminum chassis.
  • Still the performance champion; option for power-saving graphics a boon.
  • Trackpad a more effective use of space.
  • Colors 'pop' on the display.
  • Good notebook-class speakers.

The Bad

  • No FireWire 400.
  • Glossy screen a potential distraction with no matte option.
  • Can't use both GPUs at once like that coming for Windows notebooks.
  • Expansion, screen still used to push users to a system they may otherwise not need.

The MacBook Pro has always been the bigger, faster, more advanced (and more expensive) version of the MacBook. While most people will likely find the $1,299 MacBook suitable for everyday work, some people might need or prefer the pricier MacBook Pro. While there has often been a persuasive case to use either, the switch to aluminum casing and an entirely new mobile graphics platform may leave you wondering which one you should choose.

Physically, the MacBook Pro is heftier than the MacBook. While the height remains the same (0.95 inches), the MacBook Pro is wider (14.35 inches vs. 12.78 inches), longer (9.82 inches vs. 8.94 inches), and heavier (5.5 pounds vs. 4.5 pounds). Despite these minor differences in size, the MacBook Pro adopts Apple's reduced packaging that crams the computer in a box that contains two plastic, recyclable trays. The first tray holds the computer while the second tray holds just a power adapter and installation DVDs -- the bare minimum needed to run the system.



The MacBook Pro and power adapter are tightly packed in a tiny box.



If you frequently carry a laptop, you'll notice the larger size and heavier weight right away. Despite sharing a similar aluminum case, the MacBook Pro definitely feels bulkier. Still, the MacBook's size and weight puts it in the lighter end of most competing laptops. While you might not think twice about taking a MacBook everywhere you go, you might hesitate to bring your MacBook Pro as often.

physical features

To save space, the MacBook sacrifices a FireWire port. Fortunately, the MacBook Pro retains a FireWire 800 port, which can be particularly useful for connecting video camcorders, external hard disks, or another Mac through Target Disk Mode; however, this is one step down from the addition of a FireWire 400 port on the older model. Mitigating this is the inclusion of an ExpressCard/34 slot that isn't present on the regular MacBook. This slot provides expandability so you can plug in a TV tuner, flash memory drive, a memory card reader, or an extender for more FireWire ports. As more third-parties release additional accessories, you'll have a certain level of future-proofing that guards against the system being out of step with new features.



The ports, including a FireWire 800 port, all appear on the left side.



The MacBook Pro shares the other features of the MacBook including two USB 2.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort, audio line in/out ports, and the battery indicator button and lights. While the Kensington lock slot appears on the left side of the MacBook, it appears on the right side of the MacBook Pro, right next to the slot loading CD/DVD drive.

Beyond the addition of the FireWire 800 port and the ExpressCard/34 slot, the MacBook Pro distinguishes itself from the MacBook through its much larger 15.4-inch screen. The smaller 13.3-inch MacBook screen is acceptable, but the larger MacBook Pro's screen simply provides more screen space and makes using the computer far easier to use. You may not necessarily need this extra screen space, but you'll feel less constrained than with the smaller MacBook screen. It's also more color-accurate and arguably worth the effort for professional visual editors; the glossy screen is unfortunate but can actually be a benefit to some users compared to the slightly washed out hues of a matte screen, even if the option of the glare-free matte would be appreciated.

Under the hood, the MacBook Pro offers faster processors. The fastest MacBook matches the processing power of the slowest MacBook Pro with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Due processor, a 3MB on-chip cache, and 2GB of RAM. Higher-end MacBook Pros offer 2.53GHz or 2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors with a 6MB cache and 4GB RAM. The MacBook offers a standard 160GB hard drive while the MacBook Pro offers a standard 250GB hard drive. While the MacBook blows past the previous generation in raw processing power and can arguably come much closer to high-level performance than it has in the past, the MacBook Pro still makes the MacBook look like it's a generation behind.

the keyboard, speakers and trackpad

The two biggest visual differences between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro are the keyboard and the speakers, though this isn't as conspicuous as it used to be. The high-end MacBook now shares the same illuminated keyboard as all MacBook Pro models, but the larger systems continue to come with the feature standard. This illuminated keyboard lets you use your computer in dimly lit conditions, but you also have the option of turning it off completely or having your Mac turn it off after a fixed interval of inactivity.



You can customize the illuminated keyboard.



Beyond building in the lighting feature, the MacBook Pro keyboard is physically identical to the MacBook keyboard as well as that of the MacBook Air. Like before, you'll find a pair of speakers on each side of the MacBook Pro keyboard.



The speakers appear on the side of the keyboard.



The MacBook Pro speakers provide crisp, clear audio whether you're watching a DVD or playing music from iTunes, even if space still dictates certain limits. In comparison, the MacBook's speakers are buried in the lid hinge area, which provide adequate, but slightly muffled sound. With its speakers embedded next to the keyboard, the MacBook Pro's speakers offer a high quality audio experience that rivals some dedicated desktop computer speakers. With the MacBook Pro, you'll never need to drag an extra pair of portable speakers along to play audio at a decent level.

Of course, the MacBook Pro's speakers are only useful if you can regularly listen to your favorite songs without wearing headphones (such as out in a park). If you can freely blast your tunes out in the open, then the MacBook Pro gives you a portable stereo in your lap. If you're always forced to wear headphones to hear your music (such as in a library), the extraordinary MacBook Pro speakers will simply go to waste.

Naturally the MacBook Pro adopts the same multi-touch trackpad asf the MacBook, allowing one, two, three, and four-finger gestures. Although there's a small learning curve to using the trackpad, most people should become proficient within minutes. The trackpad's surface provides just enough friction to allow your finger to smoothly maneuver the mouse pointer, and the trackpad's surface provides the physical mouse button itself. After using this trackpad, you'll likely find other laptop trackpads clumsy, tedious, and awkward; why confine clicks or scrolling to a particular section of the pad?

graphics and performance

While the MacBook and MacBook Pro share identical multi-touch trackpads, the greatest difference between the two is undoubtedly the graphics hardware. The MacBook's NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor (with 256MB of shared main memory) provides enough graphic processing muscle to accomplish most graphics intensive tasks, including playing video games to displaying three-dimension computer-aided designs; the MacBook Pro, however, boosts it to another level with a second, discrete graphics processor.



The MacBook Pro contains two graphics processors.



Twin graphics processors gives you the choice between choosing battery life vs. graphics processing power. For ordinary use such as word processing or surfing the Internet, the integrated graphics processor will do a more than adequate job. Running off the integrated graphics processor alone will give you an estimated 5 hours of battery life.



You can switch graphics processor by choosing between battery life or performance.



If you need high-powered graphics processing power for video editing or intensive photo editing in Photoshop, there's no question: switch to the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT processor. However, this lowers your battery life to approximately 4 hours. In addition, changing graphics processors requires that you log out and then log back in again. The differences in speed between graphics processors will obviously vary depending on your applications, but many video games feel at least slightly more responsive.

More objective, abstracted tests bear this out. Using the free Xbench (www.xbench.com) benchmark program, we pitted the MacBook Pro with a 2.4GHz processor and 2GB RAM against a previous generation MacBook with a 2.0GHz processor and 1GB RAM as well as a Mac mini with a 1.83GHz processor and 2GB of RAM, Xbench predictably found that the MacBook Pro bested the performance of the other Macs, but in some cases not by much. Not surprisingly, the MacBook Pro scored higher running off its discrete graphics processor in visually intensive tests such as the user interface (UI) rather than its integrated chipset.









In some of these tests, the older generation MacBook clearly lagged behind while the much slower Mac mini thrust right past it, indicating that the amount of RAM available significantly boosts overall performance. All the same, certain tests also show that owners of previous MacBooks and even MacBook Pros, some just a year old, will clearly benefit; the thread tests alone show that the new systems can clearly handle multiple simultaneous tasks much more effectively. The large jump in this CPU-bound test for discrete graphics is likely due to the dedicated video memory, which prevents both graphics and general tasks from competing for valuable memory bandwidth.

With dual graphics processors, one would hope Apple would team the two chips together to provide even more graphics horsepower, but unfortunately that isn't the case (yet). NVIDIA has already planned out such a feature, known as GeForce Boost, but so far is only immediately set to bring it to Windows. As such, your graphics choices are limited to using either one, but not both at the same time. Still, the MacBook Pro is undoubtedly Apple's most powerful and flexible portable.

heat levels and the wrap-up

One little-discussed side effect of the newer aluminum frame is the decrease in temperature of the MacBook Pro: it tends to feel cooler even after long periods of use. While the earlier Pro model and even the plastic cases of the older MacBooks ran warm over time, the new shell remains noticeably cooler over that same period. The MacBook Pro may get uncomfortable on your lap for prolonged periods of time, but at least the discomfort will stem more from its weight and bulk rather than its heat burning through the legs of your pants.

The MacBook Pro may be gorgeous and powerful, but ultimately its biggest competitor is still the less expensive MacBook. For road warriors who value light weight and small size over raw power, the MacBook is still the better option and has only gotten more viable with its switch to aluminum. But if the added cost and extra bulk of the MacBook Pro don't bother you, and you need superior graphics processing and audio capability, then the MacBook Pro is again your only choice.

With its inclusion of a FireWire 800 port, faster processor, and discrete graphics processor, the MacBook Pro is especially suited for anyone who needs to do video editing on location. For everyone else, there are still plenty of features to entice you, such as the larger viewing screen, superior built-in speakers, and ExpressCard/34 slot, though it's unfortunate that Apple continues to use these rather than pure performance as upsell points.

In a side-by-side comparison, the MacBook Pro thus remains the type of laptop that everyone would like to have. It's the dream where the MacBook is more likely to be the system that most people will actually need. With a $700 price difference between the MacBook ($1,299) and the MacBook Pro ($1,999), you can't go wrong with the MacBook, but at its current price the MacBook Pro still holds clear advantages that make it worth the spending for professionals or otherwise more serious users.

by Wallace Wang


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