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17-inch MacBook Pro

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At first glance, you could easily mistake the new 17-inch MacBook Pro for its predecessor, the legendary 17-inch PowerBook G4 (   ; January 2006 ). The new model has roughly the same dimensions—at 15.4-by-10.4-by-1.0 inches and 6.8 pounds, it’s a shade wider, but a tenth of a pound lighter—and it retains the familiar aluminum enclosure and sleek design.

Inside, however, the new top-of-the-line Apple laptop incorporates not only a completely different processor, but a slew of other changes you should consider before deciding whether—or when—this is a machine for you.

Guess who’s inside?

The most fundamental change, of course, is the adoption of an Intel CPU in place of the PowerPC G4. Specifically, the new model incorporates a 2.16GHz version of Intel’s Core Duo chip, which combines two complete processing engines with 2MB of fast Level 2 cache memory on a single sliver of silicon. Feeding the processor via a 667MHz frontside bus is 1GB of DDR-2 (Double Data Rate) RAM—up from 512MB in the last PowerBook G4 model. Fortunately, a gigabyte now fits on one SO-DIMM module; another slot remains free for additional memory, up to the system’s 2GB maximum (unchanged from recent PowerBooks).

The machine’s graphics processor, now sitting on a PCI Express bus, is an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600—not the speediest that ATI or Nvidia has to offer, but a definite step up from the last PowerBook’s aging Mobility Radeon 9700. Supporting the chip are 256MB of dedicated video RAM, twice as much as in the previous model.

What all these technical changes mean to you depends on what software you run. Apple says the system is “up to five times faster than the PowerBook G4.” You’re not likely to experience that kind of a speed-up, though, unless you run the same carefully selected benchmarks that Apple relies on—or perhaps if you install Windows XP (under Apple’s Boot Camp or Parallels’s newly-renamed Parallels Desktop utility) and then compare performance to what you used to see with Microsoft’s Virtual PC.

In real life, with Mac software, you’ll enjoy a welcome improvement in the performance of Mac OS X itself—the Finder feels snappier than it has in years—as well as performance boosts in the iLife suite, in Apple’s professional applications (such as Final Cut Studio or Aperture ), and in other programs that have been adapted to run directly on the Intel CPU.

Though rarely five times faster, the speed boosts are in many cases significant, especially in programs that can take full advantage of the Core Duo’s two processing engines. For example, encoding a six-minute, 26-second video into MPEG2 format with Apple’s Compressor utility took just under four minutes on the new laptop, compared to more than seven and a half minutes on a PowerBook with a 1.67GHz G4 (as seen in the benchmark chart below).

17-inch MacBook Pro Benchmarks

Speedmark 4.5 Adobe Photoshop CS2 Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21 Compressor 2.1 iMovie 6.0.1 iTunes 6.0.4 Unreal Tournament 2004 Zip Archive
17-inch MacBook Pro/2.16GHz Intel Core Duo 193 2:26 1:06 3:59 1:01 1:28 63.1 2:48
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.16GHz Intel Core Duo* 189 2:32 1:06 4:03 1:00 1:24 57.6 2:39
15-inch PowerBook/1.67GHz PowerPC G4 131 1:34 3:54 7:32 1:50 2:12 21.4 3:29
20-inch iMac/2GHz Intel Core Duo 217 2:31 1:11 3:22 1:02 1:19 56.0 2:32
Power Macintosh/2GHz Dual Core PowerPC G5 224 1:02 1:07 2:47 0:50 0:57 45.8 2:50
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference system in italics . Asterisk (*) denotes system tested with optional 7,200-rpm hard drive.

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 10.4.6 with 1GB of RAM, with processor performance set to Highest in the Energy Saver preference pane when applicable. 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 recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema4D. We used Compressor to encode a 6-minute, 26-second 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 used Unreal Tournament 2004’ 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. To compare Speedmark 4.5 scores for various Mac systems, visit our Apple Hardware Guide .—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

On the other hand, many important Mac applications aren’t yet available in Universal versions (Apple’s term for programs that include code for both Intel and PowerPC processors). The company’s Rosetta code-translation technology makes it possible to run existing PowerPC programs on the Intel-based Macs, but the translation slows them down. Among these programs, those that are not particularly processor-intensive—Microsoft Office, for instance—still feel quite responsive. But when you turn to more demanding applications, the performance penalty for relying on Rosetta is more noticeable.

The key package here is Adobe’s Creative Suite, the bread and butter of many of the graphics and publishing pros who make up the primary market for Apple’s high-end portables. Macworld ’s scripted test of 14 common operations in Adobe Photoshop CS2 took two minutes, 26 seconds to complete on the 17-inch MacBook Pro, compared to one minute, 34 seconds on a 1.67GHz PowerBook G4. If you perform such tasks only occasionally, you can surely tolerate that kind of performance penalty, but if you do so all day long, the price will likely seem pretty steep, especially because you’ll be paying it for many months to come. (A Universal version of Adobe Creative Suite isn’t expected until the software’s next major update, currently scheduled for Spring 2007.)

Apple giveth…

Beyond the fundamental architectural changes that distinguish the 17-inch MacBook Pro, there are others that deserve attention. First of all, after a long series of cuts that gradually reduced the price of 17-inch PowerBooks from $3,299 to $2,499, the price of the new version jumps back up to $2,799.

Of course, with 1GB of RAM now standard, you’ll save on memory upgrades. Some users won’t require any additional RAM, and those who do can add a second gigabyte for $300 from Apple, or less than half that from online memory vendors.

The increased price of the MacBook Pro also buys an array of enhancements. The screen, for example, delivers the same high resolution (1,680 by 1,050 pixels) as the last 17-inch PowerBook, but the new version is noticeably brighter—36 percent brighter, according to Apple. (Apple also offers an optional “glossy” version of the screen.)

The new model also incorporates all the new features Apple introduced to its laptop line with the 15-inch MacBook Pro (   ; May 2006 ):

  • Built-in iSight camera
  • Apple Remote, infrared receiver, and Front Row interface software
  • MagSafe power connector, which can spare you from disaster by separating from the system if you trip over the cord
  • A relocated, much more effective antenna for AirPort Extreme. (The new high-end laptop finally gets better reception than my humble iBook G4.)
  • In addition, you’ll find a third USB 2.0 port and a new trackpad option that lets you make a secondary click (a.k.a., Control-click, or right-click) by putting two fingers on the trackpad as you click the button.

    Along with these refinements, you still get the advanced features that made recent 17-inch PowerBooks so popular: a dual-link DVI video-out port, with support for giant monitors such as Apple’s 30-inch Cinema HD display; keyboard backlighting and ambient light sensor; optical-digital as well as analog-audio input and output; Gigabit Ethernet; and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate). The new model’s 5,400-rpm hard drive holds 120GB, the same capacity as before, but it now sits on a Serial ATA bus, rather than an ATA.

    And those who were distressed by the elimination of FireWire 800 and the adoption of an older, slower SuperDrive in the 15-inch MacBook Pro will be relieved to hear that the new 17-inch model has both FireWire 400 and 800 ports and a slot-loading 8x SuperDrive with double-layer support.

    I am also happy to report that the two new 17-inch units I tested (a standard configuration purchased by Macworld and an upgraded review unit borrowed from Apple with 2GB of RAM and a 7,200-rpm drive) ran in virtual silence, even under heavy load. Using the Apple loaner in a quiet living room, I could detect a soft hum when I tried, but none of the whining that plagued some early buyers of the 15-inch MacBook Pro. And when it comes to heat dissipation, the new 17-inch model definitely gets hot on the bottom, but no more so than other high-performance laptops.

    …And Apple taketh away

    A couple of Apple’s design decisions did bother me, though. First, as in the other MacBook models, there’s no built-in dial-up modem. Most people won’t miss it, but those of us who travel to less-developed parts of the world or stay in bed-and-breakfasts, for example, do occasionally need dial-up connectivity. Apple does offer a $49 USB modem, but petite as it is, it’s another item to keep track of—and possibly lose. I wish Apple would offer an internal modem at least as a build-to-order option.

    I’m also sorry that an ExpressCard/34 slot is the only expansion option for the new model; leaving a PCMCIA/CardBus slot and/or adding a larger ExpressCard/54 slot would have given customers access to some interesting options, including new wide-area wireless technologies that aren’t yet available in the tiny ExpressCard/34. Besides, many digital photographers, especially professionals, still rely on CompactFlash memory cards, and there’s no way to fit a CF reader into a 34mm slot (something you could do with a larger slot and an adapter).

    Last but not least, the system’s battery life is disappointing. Apple says you can expect up to 5.5 hours per charge, but in my tests, working mainly in Word and Safari while streaming audio via Airport Extreme and keeping a handful of other applications open in the background—with Energy Saver preferences set to Better Battery Life—I averaged 2 hours, 39 minutes, less than half of Apple’s claim. Perversely, I did better—exactly three hours—when I performed the same exercise with Energy Saver set to Normal battery optimization.

    Macworld’s buying advice

    The 17-inch MacBook Pro is a fabulous machine for people who can afford it—and who conclude that its high performance, huge screen, and impressive versatility justify its size and weight. If you meet those criteria, the only real question is timing: Users who make heavy use of Adobe Creative Suite and other applications not yet available in Universal format may want to steer clear of the MacBook Pro for now. For everyone else, Apple’s latest 17-inch model once again defines the gold standard for portable computing.

    17-inch MacBook Pro
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