First Look: MacBook Pro: First day, first Lab tests

Our first MacBook Pros arrived yesterday—three 2GHz models bought with our own coin—and the testing started immediately. Macworld Lab has been churning away on benchmark testing, and we’ll post a review with complete in-depth results later this week.

In the meantime, I’ve been using one of the other MacBook Pro systems as my main system for about a day now. That’s right, I’ve taken the plunge—after a wait of a couple of hours while Apple’s Migration Assistant application copied all my files over from my PowerBook. The end result? This shiny new Mac laptop may be packed chock full of hot new technologies on the inside, but it still feels like home.

So, in the interest of immediate gratification and in advance of our forthcoming review, here are some notes about the MacBook Pro after 24 hours spent in its thrall.

Using the MacBook

I realize we’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: these Intel-based Macs are most definitely still Macs. For the past day, I’ve been using the MacBook Pro exactly as I was using my previous PowerBook, and have not noticed a single instance where there’s been something I’ve been unable to do because I’m running on an Intel processor. After the Migration Assistant did its thing, I was up and running with no major hitches. My windows are all right where I left them; my non-Universal-binary applications run without complaint…it’s like I didn’t switch systems at all.

One of the first things I did do upon switching was update several of my favorite utilities to Universal versions: after a quick download, DragThing, LaunchBar, SpamSieve, and several other programs were running at full, Universal speed. Initially I was concerned that my non-native applications were running quite slowly, because the spinning beach ball cursor made numerous appearances. But a quick check with the Activity Monitor application showed me the truth: my initial system slowdown was being caused by Spotlight indexing all the files I had just copied over to my new system. Once Spotlight finished its dirty work, the system became incredibly responsive, much more so than my previous 1.5GHz PowerBook.

Several of my bread-and-butter applications, most notably Eudora and Microsoft Office, aren’t currently available in versions that run natively on Intel processors. But I honestly haven’t perceived any slowness in those applications. (The one quirk I have noticed? The MacBook Pro’s Scrolling Trackpad feature didn’t seem to work quite right in Microsoft Word.)

How it looks

In terms of physical appearance, the MacBook Pro is almost identical to the 15-inch PowerBook G4. It’s slightly wider and thinner, although you wouldn’t notice unless you sat one model on top of the other. The screen’s slightly shorter, although it’s definitely brighter than the PowerBook G4’s.

A self-portrait of the MacBook Pro taken with the laptop’s built-in iSight camera and a nearby mirror.

Of course, right above the screen you’ll find the built-in iSight camera, and it works great. I was able to wander around our offices with the MacBook Pro while on a video chat, and it worked without a hitch. The quality of the picture seems pretty good, too.

The MacBook’s trackpad and mouse button are wider than the PowerBook’s, and several other features are slightly different—two screws that used to be visible on the keyboard plane of the laptop have been relocated to the sides, out of a user’s standard eye line.

The new MagSafe power connector works as advertised. Just this past weekend, I almost crippled my PowerBook by tripping over the cord and shooting it onto the floor. But in several attempts to topple the MacBook Pro, the MagSafe connector did its job, releasing its attachment to the computer and falling harmlessly to the floor.

The cable connecting the MagSafe connector to the AC adapter’s power brick is noticeably thicker than the one on Apple’s previous generation of laptop power cords, leading me to believe that it might be more rugged. The brick itself is larger, more the size of an AirPort Express than the previous-generation power brick.

After an hour of sitting in my lap, the MacBook Pro was definitely quite warm. I’m not sure if I’d say it was warmer than a PowerBook G4, but it certainly didn’t feel any cooler.

The MacBook Pro comes with a remote control and Front Row software, and that software worked just as we’ve seen it work on an iMac. My one attempt to hook up the MacBook to my TV set at home didn’t meet with much success, but I’m going to give it a few more tries; in the right scenario, the MacBook Pro and Front Row could double as a home entertainment hub at home or in a hotel room.

First tests

The tests we’ve done so far tend to suggest that these MacBook Pro models are comparable to the speed of the iMac Core Duo models. When compared to the previous-generation PowerBook G4, they’re clearly faster in most tests, shockingly faster in certain situations, and slower when it comes to running apps being translated by the Rosetta emulation technology.

Our best test result right now: the Universal version of Cinema 4D XL, a processor-intensive rendering application, which was 3.3 times faster on the 2GHz MacBook Pro than on the 1.67GHz PowerBook G4. Unreal Tournament 2004 took advantage of both the Intel processor and the MacBook Pro’s seriously upgraded video subsystems to post a frame rate 2.5 times greater than that of the PowerBook G4. These results bode well for use of the systems with Universal versions of professional applications and games. (And keep in mind that other Universal applications will likely get faster over time as they are optimized for Intel processors and increasingly take advantage of multiple processor cores.)

Our first Rosetta test on the MacBook Pro was our standard 14-task Photoshop CS2 suite, and the PowerBook G4 completed that task roughly 1.7 times as fast as the MacBook Pro. Photoshop is clearly usable on these new systems, but there’s no denying that processor-intensive tasks will take longer to execute so long as a Universal version of Photoshop is unavailable.

MacBook Pro: First Tests

Adobe Photoshop CS2 Cinema 4D XL 9.5.1 iMovie 6.0.1 iTunes 6.0.3 Unreal Tournament 2004 Zip Archive
SUITE RENDER AGED FILTER MP3 ENCODE FRAME RATE 1GB FOLDER
MacBook Pro 2GHz Core Duo 2:41 1:11 1:08 1:33 51.6 3:08
PowerBook G4 1.67GHz 1:34 3:57 1:50 2:00 23.0 3:29
iMac 2GHz Core Duo 2:31 1:11 1:02 1:25 51.6 2:33
“x Factor” 0.6x 3.3x 1.6x 1.3x 2.2x 1.1x

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italic. “X Factor” refers to the number of times faster the MacBook Pro 2GHz Core Duo is than the PowerBook G4 1.67GHz (1.0x = same speed.) Smaller numbers are better for all tests except Unreal Tournament.

All scores are in minutes:seconds except for Unreal Tournament results, which are in frames per second. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.5 with 1GB of RAM. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We rendered a project in Cinema4D. In iMovie, we applied the Aged video effect to a 1-minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 1GB folder—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

One of the big questions people have had about the MacBook Pro has been its battery life, and Apple’s been silent on the issue. Testing battery life is a pretty tricky thing, and we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. But I can report the result of our first battery test, in which we played a DVD on a 15-inch PowerBook G4 and a MacBook Pro until their respective batteries died, with Energy Saver preferences turned off. The end result: the MacBook Pro died after two hours and three minutes, and the PowerBook died four minutes later. So at least in our first test, the battery life of the MacBook Pro seems in line with the battery life on the last-generation PowerBook G4.

Stay tuned for an in-depth review of the MacBook Pro, with more detailed test results, later this week. And if you have questions about the MacBook Pro, including things you’d like to see covered in our review, please leave them in the comments thread attached to this story.

[ Jason Snell is the Editorial Director of Macworld and has been a Mac portable user since 1992. ]

(Updated 2/22 at 8:40 PM ET to correct mislabeled speed of iMac Core Duo test system.)

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