2011 MacBook Pro Review: Introduction

The new Apple MacBook Pro lineup is here! Here's why I bought one!

Yesterday, Apple refreshed the entire MacBook Pro line. Although the new machines look identical to the old ones, massive changes were made below surface. I have been waiting to upgrade my now three-year-old Santa Rosa-based MacBook Pro, and seize the opportunity yesterday to pick up a brand-new 13 inch model. What made me pull the trigger? Read on!

New Guts, Old Glory

There were many rumors ahead of yesterday’s launch regarding a new case design for the MacBook Pros.  Many suggested that Apple would introduce an all-new wedge-shaped case reminiscent of the recently launched MacBook Air, or even a thinner and lighter shell using the ”liquid metal”  technology they recently acquired. Instead, the new MacBook Pro line looks exactly like the previous one, complete with a machined aluminum unibody enclosure.

Underneath that skin, however, just about everything has changed. Where the “Arrandale” Core i5 and i7 CPUs used in the previous 15 inch and 17 inch MacBook Pros diverged from the “Penryn” Core 2 Duo used in their 13 inch brother,  the new MacBook is all “Sandy Bridge” inside. These second-generation Core i5 and i7 CPUs include many performance improvements, as we will discuss in a moment.

Another major area of improvement, and one which I have been waiting for for quite a while, is the addition of Intel’s Thunderbolt high-speed I/O port. Apple’s refusal to adopt USB 3, and their substitution of an SD card reader for the ExpressCard slot  found on the 15 inch model, left these supposedly high-end computers with pathetic I/O capabilities. I simply would not buy a new computer with a measly two USB and one FireWire port!

Stepping up to Sandy Bridge

Intel’s tick-tock strategy of new product introductions has served the company well for a decade. Each year, the company moves to a new smaller silicon process technology, increasing transistor density, performance, and energy efficiency in what is known as a “tick”. Then, in the “tock” phase, Intel moves to a new processor microarchitecture, complete with new instructions and features.

In this tick-tock strategy, Sandy Bridge is a “tock”, with new features that deliver performance gains beyond obvious clock speeds. Sandy Bridge features architectural improvements for performance, faster integrated graphics, and new instructions that will likely be used by Mac OS X in the future.

The company also made improvements to the underlying architecture, allowing faster performance than previous generation at the same clock speed. Independent tests have shown that Sandy Bridge processors perform 15 to 20% better than the previous generation at the same clock speed. Additionally, Sandy Bridge CPUs are capable of overclocking higher than previous generations when only one core is in use.

In practice, Sandy Bridge powered computers like the new MacBook Pro should be noticeably quicker than those using first-generation Core i5 and i7 processors, and should leave the old Core i3 and Core 2 Duo machines in the dust.

Graphical Changes

One of the most important advancements and Sandy Bridge after is the integration of Intel’s HD graphics processing engine with the CPU itself. These graphics processors run at full CPU speed, and can even be overclocked when the CPU cores are idle. Lower-end desktop processors in the Sandy Bridge line make do with just six graphics processing engines, but all mobile Sandy Bridge processors include a full 12. This means that every mobile device using Intel’s built-in graphics processing will perform well.

In tests performed by AnandTech, the Intel HD 3000 graphics included in the mobile Sandy Bridge processors perform competitively with low-end discrete graphics solutions. Although Apple continues to use a powerful discrete graphics engine in the larger MacBook Pros, the 13 inch model, it’s basic integrated graphics, should still perform well enough for office productivity and light gaming tasks.

The full-size MacBook Pro includes a discrete graphics card in addition to the Intel HD 3000 GPU. This time around, Apple has switched from Nvidia to AMD as a graphics card supplier, and the new Radeon HD 6490M and high-end 6750M should perform well indeed.

The 13 inch MacBook Pro retains the same 1280 x 800 screen resolution, a disappointment compared to the 1440 x 900 screen found on the 13 inch MacBook Air.  Although the 15 inch model starts at the same 1440 x 900 resolution as my old MacBook Pro, a 1680 x 1050 screen is available as a build-to-order option.  The 17 inch MacBook Pro uses a glorious 1920 x 1200 display.

Introducing Thunderbolt

For me, the most important change in the new MacBook Pro line, is the introduction of Intel’s Thunderbolt high-speed I/O interconnect. The familiar Mini DisplayPort connector found on the side of these machines functions normally, allowing an external monitor (or iMac) to be connected. And that’s about all that will be connected for the time being.

But, like a super hero, this new enhanced “Thunderbolt” port has a secret identity: Attach a special Thunderbolt-compatible device, like LaCie’s forthcoming Little Big Disk, and it transforms into an amazing high-speed I/O bus. As I discussed in detail yesterday, Thunderbolt opens a whole new world of possibilities for buyers of the new MacBook Pro.

Indeed, Thunderbolt is the one piece of technology I had been waiting for before upgrading from my old MacBook Pro to a new model. I have high hopes for this technology, and expect that we will see a number of compelling peripherals appear in the coming months.

Stephen’s Stance

The new MacBook Pro lineup from Apple is something of a paradox:  Ordinary buyers may not see a compelling reason to upgrade, since most of the changes are under the skin and too technical for them to grasp. Indeed, while shopping at the Apple Store yesterday, I observed another buyer examining the previous generation 13 inch MacBook Pro still on display. When the Apple Store associate told him about the new model that had just come out, his words were disheartening: ”It’s pretty much exactly like this one, just a little bit faster.”

Truth be told, the new MacBook Pro line from Apple is different and better from those that went before in many important ways. The performance of the Sandy Bridge CPU and graphics chips used is noticeably better, and the new Thunderbolt port is important bridge to the future. As this technology spreads throughout the Apple line, buyers will be glad that they waited until now to purchase a MacBook Pro.

In the next post in this series, I will discuss my own decision point explaining why I selected a base model 13 inch MacBook Pro instead of the larger and more powerful 15 inch model I had previously used. I will also benchmark and discuss the performance and capabilities of this new machine.

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