Apple says that its latest MacBook Pro laptops, equipped with Intel Core 2 Duo processors in place of the Core Duo chips that powered the first generation of the family, “deliver performance that is up to 39 percent faster.” Based on past experience with the company’s benchmark boasts, I expected to find myself writing, in effect, “Sure, but you’ll never see anything close to that in real life.”
So imagine my surprise when I began to study the results of Macworld Labs’ performance tests on the new notebooks: the new $2,499 version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, with a 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo processor , outpaced its similarly priced predecessor, which had a 2.16GHz Core Duo chip, by 30 to even 40 percent in tests with very real applications such as Adobe Photoshop CS2 (running on Apple’s Rosetta code-translation technology), Compressor, and iTunes. Those results are all the more striking when you consider that our Core Duo comparison system had a 7,200-r.p.m. hard drive, while the new MacBook Pro with Core 2 Duo processor had a stock 5,400-r.p.m. drive.
Granted, the overall speed-up on Macworld ’s Speedmark suite wasn’t quite so dramatic, but a gain of 18 percent or so is nothing to sneeze at.
Moreover, for the first time, an Intel-based Mac laptop outperformed the fastest PowerBook on apps running via Rosetta. In our suite of Photoshop tests, both Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros outpaced the 15-inch 1.67GHz PowerBook.
And extra performance isn’t the only benefit of the new models: they also come with double the memory of their predecessors, larger hard drives, and—especially in the 15-inch models—several other welcome enhancements. It all adds up to a surprisingly substantial improvement in a family that was already superb.
Bigger caches and faster graphics
The new MacBook Pros look virtually identical to their predecessors, and the overall structure of the family hasn’t changed: there’s still a single standard 17-inch model priced at $2,799 (which we’ll review as soon as we receive one) and two 15-inch configurations at $2,499 and $1,999.
In each case, the Core 2 Duo runs at a slightly higher clock speed than the Core Duo chip in the previous generation: in the 17-inch model and the more expensive 15-inch configuration, the processors now operate at 2.33Ghz, up from 2.16GHz, while the less expensive 15-inch version’s Core 2 Duo runs at 2.16GHz , up from 2GHz.
Those clock-speed increases explain only part of the improvement in performance that we found in the 15-inch models. Another factor is more Level 2 cache memory: the Core 2 Duo chip (previously code-named Merom ) includes 4MB of L2 cache, dynamically shared as needed, between the two processing engines etched on the same sliver of silicon; the original Core Duo (code-named Yonah ) had only 2MB of shared L2 cache. In addition, the Core 2 Duo includes several other technical enhancements: for example, the new chip’s SSE3 Vector Engine, used in some audio, video, and scientific applications, now processes 128 bits of data at a time, compared to 64 bits in the Core Duo chip. Finally, although Apple won’t disclose the details, its engineers have also squeezed out a little extra performance by tweaking the workings of the ATI Radeon X1600 chip that handles graphics processing in the MacBook Pros.
Battery life unchanged
Some early speculation about the Core 2 Duo predicted that, in addition to boosting performance, it would cut power consumption. Those reports turned out to be untrue—battery life in the new MacBook Pros is about the same as in the previous generation. Apple says you can expect up to 2.5 hours of DVD playback on both the 15- and 17-inch machines, or up to 3.5 hours of wireless productivity (editing in Microsoft Word while receiving e-mail wirelessly, for example) on the 15-inch and a half hour more than that on the 17-inch. In my tests with the 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, I actually did a little better (2 hours and 35 minutes) at DVD playback. I managed only 3 hours and 9 minutes of wireless productivity.
More memory, bigger drives
Beyond the processor, Apple has doubled the RAM in each standard MacBook Pro configuration: the 17-inch model and the 2.33GHz 15-inch one model come with 2GB of RAM—a pair of 1GB SO-DIMMs—while the base 15-inch model has a single 1GB SO-DIMM. As our benchmark results suggest, going from 1GB to 2GB of RAM has only a modest effect on speed, but it enables you to keep more big applications—or more operating systems, if you use Parallels Desktop ( ) virtualization software—open simultaneously without running into delays when you switch among them.
And if you’re not satisfied with 2GB of RAM, all three MacBook Pros now accommodate up to 3GB. Since the machines have only two SO-DIMM slots apiece, you’ll need to combine a 2GB SO-DIMM with a 1GB module, but Apple says the imbalance will have only a minimal negative effect on performance. The main price you’ll pay is in dollars: Apple charges $575 to upgrade from 2GB to 3GB, and so far, if you can find a 2GB SO-DIMM at all from a third-party supplier, it will probably cost even more.
Apple also bumped up hard drive capacity: the 15-inch MacBook Pros now come with 120GB drives, while the 17-inch version holds 160GB. While the SuperDrive on the 17-inch model is unchanged (8x, with double-layer support), the 15-inch Pros have double-layer burning for the first time, and speed has increased from 4x to 6x. Finally, Apple also addressed one other complaint about the original 15-inch MacBook Pros: FireWire 800 is back, alongside a FireWire 400 port.
These enhancements come on top of all the other features that distinguished the original MacBook Pros: gorgeous screens, built-in iSight cameras, DVI ports capable of driving even Apple’s 30-inch Cinema HD Display, and so on. Remember, though, that there’s no built-in modem, nor any PC Card expansion slot; if you need dial-up support, you’ll have to buy Apple’s external USB modem ($49), and there are still only a handful of cards available for the Pros’ advanced ExpressCard/34 slot.
As between the two previous 15-inch configurations, the only differences besides processor speed are in memory: the $1,999 system has 1GB of system RAM and 128MB of dedicated graphics memory, while the $2,499 configuration has twice as much of both. You can upgrade to 2GB of system memory for less than the price differential, but since graphics memory is not easily upgradable, gamers and video pros may find the $2,499 model worth the price.
15-Inch Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros Tested
|Speedmark 4.5||Adobe Photoshop CS2||Cinema 4D XL 9.5.21||Compressor 2.3||iMovie 6.0.2||iTunes 6.0.4||Unreal Tournament 2004||Finder|
|OVERALL SCORE||SUITE||RENDER||MPEG-2 ENCODE||AGED EFFECT||MP3 ENCODE||FRAME RATE||ZIP ARCHIVE|
|15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/ 2.16GHz||209||1:16||1:01||2:17||0:54||1:11||63.9||2:48|
|15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/ 2.33GHz (2GB RAM)||226||1:10||0:57||2:07||0:51||0:58||72.9||2:22|
|15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/ 2.33GHz (1GB RAM)||222||1:11||0:57||2:07||0:51||0:58||72.1||2:39|
|15-inch MacBook Pro Core Duo/ 2.16GHz*||190||1:40||1:06||3:02||0:58||1:38||59||2:37|
|13-inch MacBook Core Duo/2GHz (Black)||167||1:48||1:12||3:18||1:03||1:34||17.7||3:03|
|15-inch PowerBook G4/1.67GHz||132||1:35||3:57||6:59||1:51||1:53||19.9||3:30|
Best results in bold. Reference systems in I. Asterisk (*) denotes system tested with optional 7,200-rpm hard drive.
Macworld’s buying advice
Apple’s latest update has made great laptops even better. Even if you make heavy use of Adobe’s Creative Suite or other applications that still aren’t yet available as Universal binaries (i.e., that can take full advantage of Intel processors), you will still benefit from buying the Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. The only real concern is economic: it’s been a while since Apple reduced its prices on pro laptops, and though they keep getting better, I wish they’d get a little cheaper, too. If that’s not a concern for you, though, you won’t find much else to criticize in the MacBook Pro.
[ Henry Norr is a veteran Mac technology writer based in Berkeley, Calif. ]MacBook Pro