MacBook Pro 15-inch Core i7 Review

Apr 16, 2010
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MacBook Pro 15-inch Core i7 Review

It's taken Apple nine long months to update their MacBook Pro range, and most people would agree that the Intel Core i5 and Core i7 refresh has arrived not a moment too soon. Intel's latest processors bring with them a new, intelligent graphics system and a slightly higher price of entry - $1,799 rather than $1,699 - along with the promise of greater battery life and better performance. Hyperbole or must-have? Check out the full SlashGear review to find out.

Outwardly, there's nothing to differentiate this mid-2010 MacBook Pro from the Core 2 Duo model it replaces. To be fair to Apple that's no great hardship; the MacBook Pro range remains one of the more striking designs on the market, even with its unibody structure a few years old now, and built quality remains high. As before, ports line the left-hand side of the notebook, and you still get an SD card slot, audio in/out, Mini DisplayPort, two closely situated USB 2.0, FireWire 800, gigabit Ethernet and a MagSafe power connector. On the right-hand side is the slot-loading DVD burner, and Apple still refuse to fit a Blu-ray drive.

One of the more tempting options on Apple's updated spec sheet is a higher resolution display for the 15-inch MacBook Pro; the standard model comes with a 1440 x 900 glossy panel, but for $100 more you can have a glossy 1680 x 1050 screen while $150 gets you the same resolution but an antiglare finish. Our review unit came with the standard screen, however, which is just as bright and color-rich as the LED-backlit panel on the last-gen model. Considering the price difference, if it were our money we'd opt for the extra pixels.

Apple's other change to this new batch of machines is inertial scrolling for the trackpad. As before it's a sizeable glass panel the entire surface of which "clicks" when tapped, and it recognizes up to four-finger gestures at a time. Borrowed from the iPhone and iPad, however, is inertial scrolling: you can flick with two fingers up or down to scroll, just as before, but now the webpage, list or document slows to a halt rather than stopping suddenly. It's an option, which can be toggled in the System Preferences, but it does make for more natural page navigation.

If the outer changes are minimal, on the inside things have become a whole lot more interesting. We've been longing for Intel's Core i7 chips to show up in the MacBook Pro range since before they were even officially announced, and Apple have gone a step further by pairing them with the latest NVIDIA graphics and intelligent switching technology. While the new 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros each kick off with Core i5 processors, our review unit has the 2.66GHz Core i7 with 4MB of shared L3 cache; 4GB of DDR3 is standard (8GB an option) as is a 320GB hard-drive (on the 15-inch; the 17-inch gets 500GB minimum), though our unit has a 500GB 5,400rpm drive.

Like previous MacBook Pro notebooks, there are dual graphics chips: an onboard Intel HD chipset for basic tasks and a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M with either 256MB or - as in the unit we have here - 512MB of GDDR3 memory. What's different this time around is how the two GPUs are handled. While the last-gen MacBook Pro required you log out and back in again to switch between integrated and discrete graphics, the new range can "intelligently" flip when it reckons you need the extra processing power. Although originally presumed to be using NVIDIA's Optimus technology - which keeps track of a list of GPU-intensive apps, and automatically turns on the discrete graphics when they are active - the software system responsible - Automatic Graphics Switching (AGS) - is actually of Apple's own design. Rather than judging need by virtue of a preset list, AGS tracks the graphics requirements of individual software by whether they call on graphics frameworks like OpenGL or Core Graphics, powering up the GeForce GT 330M when it believes it's necessary.

It certainly works, but while the switching is transparent we wish Apple's settings were slightly less so. There's no way to tell which GPU the MacBook Pro is using at any one time, and currently you're limited to turning the automatic system on or off. Choose "off" and Apple simply keeps the NVIDIA graphics active all the time, which will take its toll on your battery since, unlike Optimus, AGS treats the two GPUs as either/or rather than running them simultaneously. There's no way to solely rely on the Intel HD chipset, and this time around Apple aren't offering an entry-level model that only packs integrated graphics.

We loaded up Geekbench, a synthetic test of processor and memory performance, and the new MacBook Pro scored 6309 overall. In comparison, the previous-gen MacBook Pro - with a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo T9600 processor and 4GB of DDR3 memory - scored 4211. That's almost a 50-percent increase, and the day-to-day effect is a machine that experiences fewer slow-downs under load, that boots up apps quicker, and that can multitask more successfully. Processing a video in iMovie, for instance, still leaves enough grunt to continue working elsewhere without things grinding to a sluggish churn.

[sgbenchmark id=93 show=score]

For instance, we imported 300MB video files into iMovie and it took less than two minutes; meanwhile processing a 2 1/2 minute video at 960x resolution output was done in less than five minutes. It's worth remembering that this is a combination of the NVIDIA GPU and the Core i7 CPU's floating point performance; still, real-life processing is around 15- to 20-percent faster than on the previous generation machine.

While Apple didn't supply us with an SSD version of the new MacBook Pro, we tried slotting in a mid-range OCZ SSD to see if that would make a difference to the Geekbench results. In actual fact, it fell a little short, scoring 6214. Still, we'd suggest waiting until Apple's official SSD-equipped versions get benchmarked before making any decisions about whether to opt for the solid-state drive.

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Apple suggest that the sealed-in lithium-polymer battery inside the MacBook Pro is good for between 8 and 9 hours of runtime with the wireless switched on, and that AGS is primarily responsible for the increase over the last-gen model. They're ambitious numbers, and real-world performance is obviously very much dependent on whether what you're doing is causing the MacBook Pro to flip into NVIDIA graphics mode. Used for basic browsing, some music playback and editing text, we managed to squeeze just under seven hours of runtime from the notebook; as soon as we tried to do an arguably more real-world representative test, adding in some basic video editing, viewing a little SD and HD content and carrying out some Photoshop editing, however, that figure plummeted to around four hours. That's always going to be the flip side to a fast processor and capable discrete GPU, of course.

Back at the start we asked whether the new 15-inch MacBook Pro was more hyperbole than anything else. It's certainly still the case that you can't expect Core i7 performance without compromising on battery life: it's either top spec crunching or wire-free longevity, and unless battery technology makes a significant leap we can't see that changing any time soon. Still, use the new MacBook Pro in a more casual way and it's got the legs to comfortably coast past other 15-inch rivals, safe in the knowledge that - if needed, and if you're willing to take the battery hit - you can keep pace with desktop machines when it comes to multimedia editing and the like.

Apple certainly listened to complaints about their previous dual-GPU system and streamlined the switching process; now, ironically, we find ourselves asking for a nudge arguably in the other direction, with a more obvious indicator of when the NVIDIA graphics are active. That would certainly allow users to make a more educated choice between processing and runtimes. If you're coming to the MacBook Pro range fresh then we can't argue with the power on offer, though you'll pay a premium price for it: our Core i7 review unit is the most expensive preconfiguration, at $2,199. Existing owners considering an upgrade should think long and hard about whether they actually need the bump in crunching on offer, and we'll be interested to see how the lower price, Core i5 versions fare in benchmarking. It's a testament to how much the MacBook Pro line gets right that Apple need only make so few changes beyond refreshing CPU and GPU; they demand deep pockets, certainly, but you're getting an incredible solid, high-performing machine for your money.

Unboxing Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch Core i7 Unboxing

MacBook Pro 15-inch Core i7 Specification

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