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New MacBook Pros (Late 2011) feature updates that boost performance and value

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  • Generic Company Place Holder Apple MacBook Pro MC724LL/A Notebook

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Last week’s announcement of updates to the MacBook Pro was so low-key you might have missed it. And truth be told, it wasn't the flashiest update Apple has ever made to its portable lineup, with new processors and graphics highlighting the changes. While the improvements in the new MacBook Pros are modest when compared to the models they replace, there's plenty to like about the upgrades—especially if you’re the owner of an older laptop and you’re mulling an upgrade.

What’s new

While MacBook Pro prices stayed the same as the models introduced earlier this year, the components inside received subtle—yet welcome—updates. The $1199 entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro upgrades its 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5 processor to a faster 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 chip; its 320GB hard drive has been swapped out for a 500GB model. The $1499 13-inch MacBook Pro now has a 2.8GHz dual-core Core i7 processor and a 750GB hard drive; it previously had a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7 processor and a 500GB hard drive. The 13-inch models continue to use the same Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics as the previous MacBook Pros.

The 15-inch models were updated with 2.2GHz ($1799) and 2.4GHz ($2199) quad-core Core i7 processors, up from 2.0GHz and 2.2GHz, respectively. Graphics in the 15-inch systems also saw an upgrade: The $1799 model now has a 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750M, while the $2199 model has a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6770M. The storage capacity hasn’t changed on the 15-inch models, with a 500GB hard drive in the $1799 model, and a 750GB hard drive in the $2199 model.

As with the previous generation of MacBook Pros, the 17-inch $2499 model matches the $2199 15-inch model in all specifications, aside from screen size and the addition of a ExpressCard/34 slot.

What hasn’t changed

Externally, the new MacBook Pros are identical to the early 2011 models. The glossy LED backlit screens each measure 13.3-, 15.4-, and 17-inches diagonally, with 1280-by-800, 1440-by-900, and 1920-by-1200 pixel resolutions, respectively. All systems have a full-sized, backlit keyboard, as well as glass multi-touch trackpads with gesture support.

The FaceTime HD webcam, stereo speakers and built-in microphone remain the same, as do the number of ports on every model: one FireWire 800, one Gigabit Ethernet, a MagSafe power connector, and one audio in and one audio out port. The 13- and 15-inch models have two USB 2.0 ports and a SDXC card slot. The 17-inch model has three USB 2.0 ports and an ExpressCard/34 slot. All of the new MacBook Pros have a Thunderbolt port, which was introduced in the early 2011 models

Benchmarks: 13-inch MacBook Pros

In terms of performance, the differences between the latest MacBook Pros and their immediate predecessors are, for the most part, as subtle as the upgrade announcement. The new $1199 13-inch 2.4GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro is just a little over 4 percent faster than the 2.3GHz system it replaces. The $1499 13-inch 2.8GHz Core i7 model is about 9 percent faster than the system it replaces.

The most interesting results were in our Photoshop and Aperture tests, which are both faster on the older systems. According to Apple's website, the MacBook Pro may adjust processor speed to avoid running into thermal issues. That could be happening in these tests. It's also possible that the hard drives may be affecting the results.

Benchmarks: 13-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Speedmark 7Duplicate 2GB FolderZip 4GB FolderUnzip 4GB FilePages '09 Open Word Doc
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i5 (Late 2011) 146 68.6 249.1 146.4 83.7
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.8GHz Core i7, (Late 2011) 164 54.1 208.0 114.8 84.3
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5 (Early 2011) 140 69.7 271.1 180.3 89.8
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.7GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 151 66.4 224.9 149.8 103.0

Speedmark 7 results are scores; higher scores are better. All other results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 13-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Import iMovie '11 ArchiveiMovie '11 Share to iTunes: MobileiTunes 10 AAC to MP3 EncodeHandBrake 0.9.5 Encode
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i5 (Late 2011) 109.3 88.2 88.8 203.8
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.8GHz Core i7, (Late 2011) 95.8 79.0 79.0 174.0
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5 (Early 2011) 116.0 87.5 99.7 210.0
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.7GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 107.0 90.8 78.7 186.0

Results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 13-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Cinebench OpenGLCinebench CPUParallels WorldBench 6 Multitasking Test on Windows 7Photoshop CS5 Action Script
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i5 (Late 2011) 12.9 155.2 318.0 145.8
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.8GHz Core i7, (Late 2011) 13.4 132.3 269.7 138.1
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5 (Early 2011) 12.5 161.0 328.0 128.0
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.7GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 12.7 140.7 274.0 122.4

Cinebench OpenGL results are scores; higher is better. All other results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 13-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Aperture 3 Import and Process 207 PhotosiPhoto '11 Import 500 PhotosMathematica 8Portal 2 (1280x800)
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i5 (Late 2011) 118.6 178.4 1.09 61.5
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.8GHz Core i7, (Late 2011) 113.7 151.5 1.11 67.1
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.3GHz Core i5 (Early 2011) 121.3 171.7 0.95 61.8
13-inch MacBook Pro/2.7GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 105.4 162.2 1.02 59.5

Mathematica 8 results are scores; higher is better. Portal 2 results are framerates; higher is better. All other results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 15-inch MacBook Pros

The $1799 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro is a little more than 12 percent faster than the 2GHz model it replaces, with graphics performance being the biggest change. With its Radeon HD 6750M graphics, the $1799 model displays 85 percent more frames per second in Cinebench’s Open GL test than last year’s comparable model and its 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics processor. Our Portal 2 tests also shows great improvement, with the new $1799 model displaying 160 frames per second, as compared to the 68.6 frames that last year’s $1799 model was able to display. The graphics in the new $1799 model are identical to that found in last year’s $2199 model, and the Portal and Cinebench OpenGL test results of those two models are also practically identical.

The new graphics in the $2199 15-inch 2.4GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro perform a little faster than the graphics in the previous $2199 model, a 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro. Overall, the new $2199 model’s graphics run about 7 percent faster overall than its predecessor. The new $2199 model displayed nearly 12 percent more frames per second in the Cinebench OpenGL test, and 8 percent more frames per second in our Portal 2 tests.

The new 17-inch model is a little more than 4 percent faster overall than the early 2011 17-inch MacBook Pro.

Benchmarks: 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Speedmark 7Duplicate 2GB FolderZip 4GB FolderUnzip 4GB FilePages '09 Open Word Doc
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 190 74.4 245.5 168.9 88.6
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 219 52.7 217.4 131.6 76.0
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 216 55.8 223.4 123.5 79.0
15-inch MacBook Pro/2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 169 73.7 261.1 153.3 89.4
15-inch Macbook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 205 59.6 234.3 125.5 83.3
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 207 54.2 219.3 119.9 76.1

Speedmark 7 results are scores; higher scores are faster. All other results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Import iMovie '11 ArchiveiMovie '11 Share to iTunes: MobileiTunes 10 AAC to MP3 EncodeHandBrake 0.9.5 Encode
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 82.2 60.8 80.6 108.2
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 70.2 52.6 71.5 100.5
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 68.3 54.9 72.0 99.1
15-inch MacBook Pro/2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 81.0 85.3 84.9 115.6
15-inch Macbook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 73.7 65.0 75.2 106.9
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 74.2 66.8 81.9 103.2

Results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Cinebench OpenGLCinebench CPUParallels WorldBench 6 Multitasking Test on Windows 7Photoshop CS5 Action Script
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 38.7 81.9 288.3 147.9
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 43.3 76.0 234.0 149.8
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 42.6 76.2 261.3 149.5
15-inch MacBook Pro/2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 20.9 86.9 280.7 144.5
15-inch Macbook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 38.8 81.9 267.7 148.9
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 38.8 82.0 265.3 147.5

Cinebench OpenGL results are scores; higher is better. All other results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

Benchmarks: 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros (Late 2011)

 Aperture 3 Import and Process 207 PhotosiPhoto '11 Import 500 PhotosMathematica 8Portal 2 (1280x800)
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 117.2 186.2 1.55 160.0
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 103.9 141.2 1.64 174.3
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core i7 (Late 2011) 103.0 142.5 1.64 169.6
15-inch MacBook Pro/2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 115.5 170.4 1.46 68.6
15-inch Macbook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 101.5 141.2 1.52 160.9
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.2GHz Core i7 (Early 2011) 106.5 139.7 1.57 156.0

Mathematica 8 results are scores; higher is better. Portal 2 results are framerates; higher is better. All other results above are in seconds; lower is better. References models in italics. Best result in bold.

How we tested. We duplicated a 2GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 2GB files and then unzipped it. In iMovie ’11, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes using the Mobile Devices setting. We converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used HandBrake 0.9.5 to encode a single chapter from a DVD previously ripped to the hard drive to H.264 using the application's Normal settings. We recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors in Cinebench and ran that application's OpenGL, frames per second test. We ran a timedemo in Call of Duty 4 at a resolution of 1024-by-768 with 4X anti-aliasing turned on. We installed Parallels 6 and ran WorldBench 6's Multitask test.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, Mauricio Grijalva and William Wang

Battery life also seems to be similar to the last set of MacBook Pros, getting between 5.5 and 6 hours of battery life in our fullscreen video playback test at full brightness.

Macworld’s buying advice

The new MacBook Pro lineup won’t cause any buyer’s remorse for those who purchased a member of the early 2011 family, or perhaps even for buyers of a 2010 MacBook Pro. If you have a laptop that's older, however, the late 2011 MacBook Pros feature faster processors, larger capacity hard drives in the 13-inch models, and improved graphics in the 15- and 17-inch models that combine to make already attractive systems an even greater value.

[James Galbraith is Macworld’s lab director.]

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