Apple revamps MacBook Pro line, adds Thunderbolt port

Apple on Thursday released the latest update to its MacBook Pro portable computer line, more than 10 months after the laptops’ last revision. The new versions feature a new series of Intel processors, updated graphics cards, and a new connectivity standard dubbed Thunderbolt.

The new MacBook Pros feature Intel’s latest dual-core and quad-core Intel Core processors from the Core i5 and Core i7 lines, which Apple says will make the entire line of portables up to twice as fast at their predecessors when performing CPU-intensive activities. The low-end 13-inch model has a 2.3GHz Core i5 processor and its big brother uses a 2.7GHz Core i7 that’s the fastest dual-core processor Intel makes. Meanwhile, the 15-inch and 17-inch models are sporting an all quad-core line up, with Core i7 processors that run at up to 2.3 GHz.

Intel refers to the processors used in the new MacBook Pros as its “second-generation of Core i processors”; during development, they were codenamed “Sandy Bridge.” Earlier this year, Intel discovered problems in the chipset of Sandy Bridge processors that were shipping, but Apple vice president of worldwide Mac hardware marketing David Moody told Macworld that the company was using the latest updated versions, which corrected the flaw.

Graphics also got a revamp in this version, with the 13-inch models sporting an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 chip that’s part of the Core architecture; the 15-inch and 17-inch versions featuring both the Intel integrated chip and a discrete AMD Radeon HD processor with up to 1GB of memory. As with previous models, the system will automatically switch to the higher-power chip when using more graphics-intensive applications. Apple is among the first vendors to be using the AMD Radeon HD 6750M, which it says can deliver up to three times better performance than previous technology.

But the newest feature on the MacBook Pros is a new connectivity technology called Thunderbolt. Co-developed with Intel, Thunderbolt has two bi-directional channels that can transfer data at up to 10Gbps each, a speed that’s 12 times faster than the theoretical maximum of FireWire 800. The technology is based on the PCI Express protocol that most Macs use for internal I/O, but via adapters it can support pretty much any other type of connectivity protocol, including FireWire, USB, and Gigabit Ethernet. It also allows users to daisy chain up to six devices together. “It’s fast, it’s simple, and it’s flexible," said Apple’s Moody.

On the new MacBook Pros, Thunderbolt uses the same plug that current Macs use to connect to DisplayPort-compatible displays; it can still connect to those devices, and Apple’s adapters for hooking up to HDMI, DVI, and VGA video will continue to work. Apple expects Thunderbolt to be adopted widely as a new standard for input and output.

While Apple said it had nothing to announce on Thursday in terms of Thunderbolt adapters for existing connectivity protocols, the company pointed out that the technology is not an Apple-exclusive and that via Intel, Thunderbolt would be available to third-party device and cable makers.

In addition, the MacBook Pros now feature built-in FaceTime HD cameras, which are capable of 720p widescreen high-definition video. At 1280 by 720, the cameras have three times the resolution of previous cameras and allow for better video calls using Apple’s FaceTime software, which is included on all new Macs (it’s available to existing Mac owners for 99 cents on the Mac App Store).

The new models feature the same aluminum unibody enclosures as the older line, with the glass Multi-Touch trackpad, LED-backlit displays, and backlit full-size keyboard. And the SD card slot has been upgraded to accept faster, high-capacity SDXC cards.

Apple also told Macworld that the battery testing procedure on the new MacBook Pros was the same that it used when introducing the revamped MacBook Air last fall. It calls the test “more rigorous” and says that even using that test, the new MacBook Pros achieved 7-hour battery life across the line.

The 13-inch model starts at $1,199 for a 2.3GHz with 320GB hard drive and $1,499 for a 2.7GHz with 500GB hard drive. For the 15-inch model, there are two configurations: one with a 2.0GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, AMD Radeon HD 6490M, and 500GB hard drive starting at $1,799, and one with a 2.2GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, AMD Radeon HD 6750M and 750GB hard drive starting at $2,199. The top of the line 17-inch MacBook Pro comes with a 2.2GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, AMD Radeon HD 6750M, and 750GB hard drive—it’s priced at $2,499.

Updated at 5:58 PT with more information on configurations and prices.
Updated at 6:39PT with details from Apple.
Updated at 9:06PT with note on SDXC card slot.

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