Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro wins over a skeptic

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

There’s something I have to say at the outset of this review: From the time Apple announced the first 17-inch PowerBook G4 models five years ago, I’ve always been a little prejudiced against them. I’d never have tried to talk someone out of buying one, but I always shared my opinion that a laptop with a 17-inch display barely qualifies as a laptop at all. It seemed to me that the 17-inch PowerBook and its successor, the Intel-based MacBook Pro, was simply too big, too bulky and too heavy—though I confess I’d never carried one around.

With that out of the way, let me say this: I have spent a week getting to know Apple’s newest 17-inch MacBook Pro—the 2.6-GHz model with LED backlighting, to be specific—and I’m still not sure it’s the perfect machine for me. Much like the ultraslim MacBook Air isn’t for everyone, neither is the biggest of the MacBook Pros. But it is one incredibly impressive laptop, and it doesn’t seem as bulky as I’d always thought.

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First, let me detail what this particular model will set you back, should you decide to buy it. The 17-inch model starts at $2,799 and comes with a 2.5-GHz processor and 2GB of RAM. Opting for the marginally faster 2.6-GHz processor adds $250 to the bottom line. Want 4GB of RAM instead of 2GB? Tack on another $200 if you buy your memory from Apple. And if you’re going for broke, you might get the high-resolution screen for another $100. That brings the price to $3,349 for a fully tricked-out MacBook Pro. Of course, you’re also getting the most powerful laptop Apple has ever made.

It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from the MacBook Air, which sacrifices performance, storage space, RAM expansion and a full set of peripheral ports to deliver an amazingly small and light footprint. By contrast, the 17-inch MacBook Pro delivers all of the processing power, RAM options and storage capacity of an iMac—along with approximately the same screen real estate. That makes the big MacBook Pro a desktop replacement in virtually every sense of the word, even if it gives up some of the ultraportability that the MacBook Air offers in spades.

Though it is approximately twice the weight of the MacBook Air, I can’t really say that the 17-inch MacBook Pro is overly heavy. Despite my assumptions about its bulk, at 6.6 pounds, it is actually lighter than I expected. That makes it just over a pound heavier than the 15-inch MacBook Pro and about a pound and a half heavier than the 13-inch MacBook .

Even though it isn’t overly heavy for its size, there is definitely a size issue (for better or worse, depending on your perspective) to this computer. Sitting next to a MacBook, it looks huge. The MacBook Pro even seemed big when it was being taken out of the box. I had to laugh at the idea of putting it into the backpack-style case that has served me for both a MacBook and one of the very first 15-inch MacBook Pros.

The best notebook screen in the world

The LED screen is new to the 17-inch line with this model. I’d seen this technology on the MacBook Air and thought it was impressive then in terms of screen brightness, but on the MacBook Pro, it is simply stunning. Even during the operating system’s start-up sequence, when there’s nothing but a gray screen with a darker gray Apple logo on screen, I found myself staring at it. By the time I’d finished walking through the Setup Assistant, I was as as much in love with this display as I was with my first HDTV.

The 17-inch high-resolution model offers a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, the same as the 24-inch iMac and the 23-inch Apple Cinema HD Display. (It costs $100 more than the standard fluorescent backlit model, which offers a more modest 1,680-by-1,050-pixel native resolution.) The LED backlighting is the one you want: It’s bright, crisp and at full power immediately. With the glossy screen—an option for MacBook Pro displays—the brightness and color brilliance is out of this world. It has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

At resolutions high enough to view 1080p digital video content without scaling, it’s no surprise that Apple had digital video in mind when it designed this laptop. Loaded with Final Cut Pro (or Final Cut Express if you’re more hobbyist than professional videographer) and coupled with an HD video camera, this machine is a dream for portable video production, be it for a school project or the nightly news. The stock Nvidia G3Force 8600M GT video card with 512MB of GDDR3 SDRAM video RAM will be welcome in this niche as well.

Of course, the advantages of this display and the video hardware paired with it aren’t just for people who spend hours a day working with media applications such as Apple’s Pro apps or the Adobe CS3 suite—all users will appreciate the screen real estate and the video quality. When watching movies, the high resolution, bright screen and impossibly rich colors can’t help but conjure up thoughts of a portable, high-end LCD television. Having this machine on hand to watch movies might even make flight delays enjoyable—or at least a lot more tolerable. One disappointment, given that the display can display HD content natively, is that HD movies from the iTunes Store are still only available via the Apple TV.

The screen and, perhaps more importantly, the Nvidia G3Force 8600M GT card also make this a great gaming machine. Yes, I know that hard-core gamers will call gaming on a Mac an oxymoron, but this machine delivers a great experience: 3-D rendering is better than on most recent Macs—except, obviously, for the Mac Pro models—and the result is on par with what you’d expect from this level of hardware.

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