MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.2GHz and 2.4GHz

For more than a year, Intel has been touting a new mobile platform, code-named Santa Rosa. Combining the latest Core 2 Duo processors with a package of new support chips, the platform was supposed to deliver the biggest advance in notebook computing in years.

Now Apple’s first Santa Rosa-based laptops—the new 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros—have arrived, yet the improvements turn out to be fairly modest. In fact, the most important refinements in the latest models come not from the new chip set, but from separate advances in graphics processing and the display.

New Nvidia chip, screen technologies

Specifically, these MacBook Pros—one with a 15-inch display and 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, priced at $1,999 ; another 15-inch model with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo and a price tag of $2,499 ; and a 17-inch model with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, at $2,799 —feature a brand-new Nvidia graphics chip, the GeForce 8600M GT, in place of the aging ATI Mobility Radeon X1600. In the entry-level MacBook Pro, the chip comes with 128MB of dedicated graphics memory; the other two models have 256MB.

The new chip is designed to improve performance with demanding programs, such as 3-D games and HD video editors. Indeed, in frames-per-second tests with id Software’s Quake 4 and Doom 3 games, Macworld Lab found frame-rate improvements of 25 to 60 percent, compared with that of the Radeon X1600 in the 17-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo CPU.

On the other hand, the new 15-inch machines lagged well behind the older models in the Lab’s standard Unreal Tournament testing. We’re still waiting for explanations from Apple, but we suspect that the problems stem from software drivers and applications that are not yet fully tuned for the new chip. If so, those issues should be resolved in the coming months.

In the display arena, the $1,999 and $2,499 MacBook Pros are the industry’s first notebooks with 15-inch screens backlit by light-emitting diodes (LEDs) rather than fluorescent bulbs (technically, cold cathode fluorescent lamps [CCFLs]). LEDs offer several clear advantages: they require less power; they reach full brightness instantly (whereas CCFL bulbs take several minutes to warm up to full brightness); they should maintain their brightness throughout the life of the notebook, without the gradual dimming that afflicts CCFL displays; and unlike CCFLs, LEDs don’t contain mercury gas, a known neurotoxin that could escape into the environment when the notebook is disposed of.

Because 17-inch screens with LED backlighting aren’t yet available, the flagship MacBook Pro still has CCFL backlighting. For an extra $100, however, buyers can now order the 17-inch model with a resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, instead of the standard 1,680 by 1,050 pixels. If you’re working with HD video, you’ll appreciate the higher resolution—for the first time on an Apple notebook, you’ll be able to work with 1,080p content at full native pixel resolution. But small type and screen controls look pretty tiny at this high of a resolution; however, the upcoming Leopard release of Mac OS X may include automatic adjustments to alleviate that problem.

Other enhancements

As usual, new models bring faster processors, though in this case the differences are slight: the $1,999 15-inch model runs at 2.2GHz, compared with 2.16GHz in the previous generation; the other two models’ processors operate at 2.4GHz, up from 2.33GHz. All three models now have a frontside bus—the data channel connecting the CPU to the rest of the system—that operates at 800MHz, compared to 667MHz previously, but the machines can’t take full advantage of the extra speed because RAM manufacturers aren’t yet producing 800MHz memory.

More important is the extra memory capacity of the new machines. The popular $1,999 model, which previously came with 1GB of RAM, now comes with 2GB, just like its siblings. While the last-generation MacBook Pros could handle up to 3GB, the maximum has now increased to 4GB. Apple currently charges a steep $750 for 4GB, but third-party suppliers charge much less—we found one reputable online vendor offering a 4GB kit for just $218.

The middle model in the lineup now has a 160GB hard drive, up from 120GB in the previous generation, but the $1,999 and $2,799 models have the same capacities as before: 120GB and 160GB, respectively. In all three units the SuperDrive is up from 6x to 8x. And all three models now come with 802.11n wireless networking enabled out of the box.

The Santa Rosa chip set, as well as the switch to LED backlighting in the 15-inch models, boosts the MacBook Pros’ battery life. In our testing, both the 15- and 17-inch models delivered an impressive 3 hours, approximately, of DVD playback. This represents a gain of 11 percent for the 15-inch models and 14 percent for the 17-inch model over the previous generations. Surprisingly, we didn’t do as well—about 2.5 hours—in our wireless productivity test (writing in Microsoft Word while listening to streaming audio and checking e-mail via AirPort) on the 15-inch unit. Without the streaming audio, however, the batteries lasted just over 3 hours.

Otherwise, all three models have the same array of features as their Pro predecessors: Gigabit Ethernet; Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate); FireWire 800 and 400 ports (but no eSATA); an ExpressCard/34 expansion slot (but no PCMCIA slot or internal modem option); a DVI-out port with dual-link support for Apple’s 30-inch Cinema HD Display plus an adapter for VGA displays; a scrolling trackpad and superb illuminated keyboard; a built-in iSight camera; an Apple Remote; and, of course, a MagSafe power connector.

Macworld Lab Test

Speedmark 4.5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21 Compressor 3 iMovie 6.0.2 iTunes 7.2 Finder
SUITE SUITE RENDER MPEG-2 ENCODE AGED FILTER MP3 ENCODE 1GB FOLDER
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.2GHz 217 1:28 1:00 2:12 0:51 1:01 2:32
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz 229 1:21 0:54 2:02 0:49 0:56 2:14
17-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz 233 1:19 0:54 2:02 0:49 0:56 2:14
17-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.33GHz 223 1:16 0:57 2:07 0:50 0:59 2:20
13-inch MacBook Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz (black) 202 1:27 1:02 2:16 0:52 1:10 2:26
Mac Pro two dual-core/2.66GHz (quad-core) 310 0:54 0:28 1:27 0:38 0:53 1:57
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics .

Speedmark 4.5 scores are relative to those of a 1.25GHz Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Zip Archive scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.4.9 with 2GB of RAM, with processor performance set to Highest in the Energy Saver preference pane when applicable. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 15 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema4D. We used Compressor to encode a 6minute:26second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. 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 created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 1GB folder.To compare Speedmark 4.5 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Apple Hardware Guide.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Brian Chen and Jerry Jung.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you have a recent MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo, there’s probably no compelling reason to trade up (unless you can’t live without the higher frame rates, the optional extra resolution, or a fourth gigabyte of RAM). But if you’re still using a PowerBook or a Core Duo-based MacBook Pro, you’ll get a dramatic performance boost from the latest models. The 17-inch model obviously remains the choice for people who require maximum screen space, no matter its heavier weight, bigger size, and higher price. Between the two 15-inch models, the $1,999 model is now a much better bargain—in my book, the differences don’t justify a $500 premium.

[ Henry Norr is a veteran Mac technology writer based in Berkeley, Calif. ]

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