As I discussed in my 2011 MacBook Pro introduction, all three models of Apple’s Pro lineup include key inside upgrades: Speedy “Sandy Bridge” CPUs and Intel’s new Thunderbolt port. Although the aluminum case is unchanged, it was these features I was waiting for. But which model to buy?
Once I decided to upgrade from my 3-year-old “Santa Rosa” MacBook Pro to one of these new models, I was left with a few key decisions:
- Which model – 13″, 15″, or 17″?
- Base model or up-rated?
I might have considered a built-to-order model with an SSD or upgraded display, but Apple’s upgrades are often over-priced. It’s usually better to upgrade RAM or swap in an SSD from aftermarket channels, especially since this does not void the Apple warranty!
Which Model? 13″, 15″, or 17″
I’ve been very happy with my existing 15″ MacBook Pro overall, but it does seem a little large sometimes. I travel but am too cheap for first class, and even though I spend a lot of time on United planes, I don’t always get upgraded. Sadly, the 15″ MacBook Pro is not entirely tray table-compatible. I often find it cradled in a V after the seat back in front of me has smashed rearward.
The 17″ model is right out for my needs. And although the top of the widescreen 15″ MacBook Pro is slightly lower than my old one, I wanted something smaller. I would never have bought the old 15″ MacBook Pro, with its outdated Core 2 Duo CPU, when the larger models had “Arrandale” Core i5 and i7 processors, but the new line changes everything.
|Model||13″ MacBook Pro
|15″ MacBook Pro
|17″ MacBook Pro
|CPU Speed||2.3 GHz||2.7 GHz||2.0 GHz||2.2 GHz|
|CPU L3 Cache||3 MB||4 MB||6 MB|
|Integrated GPU||12-EU Intel HD 3000|
|Discrete GPU||N/A||AMD Radeon HD 6490M
with 256 MB GDDR5
|AMD Radeon HD 6750M
with 1 GB GDDR5
|Hard Disk||320 GB||500 GB||750 GB|
The critical differences between 2011 MacBook Pro models
All three MacBook Pro models offer Intel’s latest Sandy Bridge CPUs, though only the 15″ and 17″ models get quad-core processors. Upgraded discrete graphics cards are also limited to the larger machines, but the integrated 12-“execution unit” HD 3000 graphics found across the board performs admirably (as we will see in the next article in this series). Since I’m mostly a writer these days, especially on the laptop, I didn’t really need an upgraded graphics card.
Although I will miss the expansion capabilities of the ExpressCard slot, Intel’s new Thunderbolt technology promises much more capability in the future. That little jack is capable of more than 8 times the bandwidth of an ExpressCard slot, reducing the impact of Apple’s foot-dragging on USB 3.0.
All three models come with 4 GB of RAM standard, but upgrading RAM is fairly straightforward. OWC already offers an 8 GB upgrade kit for a very-reasonable $88.99, after a $26 rebate when you send them the original RAM. It is disappointing that Apple only offers 5400 rpm hard disk drives across the board, but at least the drives perform reasonably well (unlike my Mac Mini!) Upgrading the hard disk drive to a faster model, hybrid Seagate Momentus XT, or SSD is fairly easy as well.
My final area of concern is the screen resolution. Although the new 13″ MacBook Air offers a high-resolution 1440×900 screen, but the new 13″ MacBook Pro sticks with just 1280×800. This is a step down from my old 15″ model, let alone the glorious 2650×1440 iMac I use in my home office. This resolution issue was the main thing to give me pause, and almost derailed my purchase entirely.
Comparing the MacBook Pro Models
One additional comparison is worth considering. The 2011 MacBook Pros all offer high-performance Sandy Bridge CPUs that rival Apple’s current-generation desktop computers. But not all CPUs are created equal, and it can be difficult to weight the cost versus the benefits.
One important consideration is that the Core i7 CPU used in the 13″ model has just two cores, while the Core i7 found in the larger machines has four. In fact, there is very little difference between the Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs used in the 13″ model apart from clock speed, but the quad-core chips are in another performance league entirely.
I decided to compare the Geekbench scores of all five basic models against their cost. As an additional twist, I added in the cost of the AppleCare extended warranty since I recommend everyone buy it. Interestingly, AppleCare is $100 cheaper on the 13″ model than on the larger MacBook Pros. This extends the cost difference between models – the basic 13″ MacBook pro costs a full $700 less than the cheapest 15″ model once AppleCare is added!
Once we compare how many GeekBench points our dollar buys, it’s clear that the base models are winners. Although the up-rated Core i7 CPUs do offer more performance, it doesn’t offset the additional cost.
Buyers might still consider the higher-end models for other reasons. The 2.2 GHz 15″ MC723LL/A model is particularly attractive thanks to its upgraded Radeon HD 6750M graphics card. And an additional $100 spent on upgrading this model’s display to 1680×1050 is probably money well spent as well!
Base Model or Up-Rated?
I decided that the 13″ MacBook Pro was right for me, so the next question was which version to get. Apple offers to basic models at retail, the 2.3 GHz Core i5 and 2.7 GHz Core i7. Although the CPU used in the 13″ model is a previously-unknown and still-unannounced model, it is part of the new Sandy Bridge series.
The only differences between these two models (apart from $300 on the sticker) are the following:
- Both use a dual-core CPU with hyper-threading and HD 3000 graphics, but the Core i7 CPU in the upgraded model runs 400 MHz faster and has 1 MB more L3 cache. This translates into 900 Geekbench points (about as fast as two iPads) or 15%.
- The upper model also features a 500 GB hard disk drive, though it spins at the same 5400 rpm speed.
That’s it. $300 extra buys 15% better performance and a bit of extra space. If Apple had offered some compelling difference (a high-res screen, for example, or a 7200 rpm drive) it might be compelling. Some buyers might jump to the conclusion that the Core i7 CPU has four cores like the 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pro models, and the technically-savvy might think the Core i5 doesn’t have hyper-threading or has just 6 graphics execution units, but they would be wrong.
As it stands, there is no really good reason to buy the more-expensive 13″ MacBook Pro, so I decided on the base model. The cost savings went to AppleCare and two Mini DisplayPort adapters.
The combination of portability, performance, and build quality made the base-model 13″ MacBook Pro the right choice for me. Others might be tempted by the upgraded graphics, quad-core CPU, and high-resolution display of the 15″ model. But the dual-core i7 CPU in the up-rated 13″ MacBook Pro is hard to justify, as is the massive 17″ model.