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It’s standard practice for Apple to offer customers to chance to upgrade processors, hard drives, and other components of its hardware line. These configure-to-order (CTO) systems are not generally found on the shelves of your local Apple Store; instead, you customize your order directly from Apple’s online store. The new MacBook Pro models released by Apple last month continue this CTO tradition, giving customers the choice of ordering a souped-up laptop.

We ordered a specially-configured MacBook Pro of our own. And while we only mouse-rate standard configurations of Macs, we still like to run CTO systems through our standard suite of tests. We believe this approach gives you a better idea of the type of performance bang you can get for spending the optional bucks.

As a refresher, the MacBook Pro models released in October feature a new unibody construction, DDR3 RAM, Nvidia’s Hybrid SLI technology which uses two graphics chips-a GeForce 9400M integrated in the motherboard plus a discreet GeForce 9600M GT. The standard MacBook Pro configurations we’ve already tested and reviewed come with either a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, and a 250GB hard drive in the $1,999 model or a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo processor with 4GB RAM and a 320GB drive in the $2,499 offering.

If you don’t mind spending an extra $300, though, you can upgrade to a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor. Other options for the MacBook Pro include a faster 7,200-rpm hard drive ($50 off if you downgrade to 250GB of capacity, or an extra $50 if you want 320GB) as well as a state-of-the-art (and expensive) solid-state drive that costs an extra $500 for 60 percent less capacity than the 320GB 5,400-rpm drive found in the standard 2.53GHz system.

We tested a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive (total cost: $2,849). As expected, our tests show this to be one lively laptop.


Configure-To-Order MacBook Pro Tests

Speedmark 5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 10.5 Compressor 3.0.4 iMovie HD iTunes 7.6 Quake Finder Finder
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/ 2.8GHz (4GB RAM, Unibody, 7,200-rpm hard drive)* 259 0:49 0:45 1:31 0:41 0:56 73.9 3:52 1:00
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/ 2.53GHz (4GB RAM, Unibody, 5,400-rpm hard drive) 231 0:56 0:53 1:41 0:44 1:00 65.7 4:37 1:15
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.6GHz (2GB RAM, 5,400-rpm hard drive)* 206 1:16 0:51 1:57 0:44 1:01 65.1 4:45 1:50
20-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.66GHz 254 0:50 0:48 1:41 0:43 0:57 67.6 4:06 1:10
Eight-core Mac Pro Xeon/2.8GHz 308 0:49 0:15 0:51 0:32 0:48 74.2 3:53 1:11
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics. * denotes configure-to-order system.

Speedmark 5 scores are relative to those of a 1.5GHz Core Solo Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.2 with 2GB of RAM, unless otherwise indicated. 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 Cinema 4D XL. 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 Film Effect from the Video FX. menu to a one-minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Quake’s 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 duplicated a 1GB folder, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files and then Unzipped it.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, CHRIS HOLT, AND JERRY JUNG


In Speedmark 5, our overall system performance benchmark, our CTO MacBook Pro posted a 12 percent higher score than the standard 2.53GHz MacBook Pro with its 4GB of RAM and 320GB 5,400-rpm hard drive. The custom 2.8GHz system was 13 percent faster than the 2.53 GHz MacBook Pro in our Photoshop test suite and 15 percent faster than that model in our Cinema 4D test. The 7,200-rpm hard drive also helped the custom MacBook Pro create a Zip archive of a 2GB folder 16 percent faster than the 2.53 MBP; it was 20 percent faster when unzipping the file.

We also compared this latest CTO MacBook Pro with another specially-configure laptop, a 15-inch model with a 2.6GHz Core 2 Duo chip from June 2007. The 2.6GHz MacBook Pro featured 2GB of slower DDR2 RAM and a 160GB hard drive. The new CTO model posted a 26 percent improvement in Speedmark scores, with faster results across the board highlighted by a 36-percent faster Photoshop score and a 22-percent faster Compressor score.

To see how well this custom laptop compares to a desktop system, we compared the results to a 2.66GHz 20-inch iMac with 2GB RAM and a 320GB 7,200-rpm drive. Our CTO laptop performed very similarly to this $1,499 all-in-one desktop, with the 2.8GHz MacBook Pro topping the iMac by just 2 percent in Speedmark 5. The laptop finished just one second faster in Photoshop and iTunes MP3 encode tests, two seconds faster in iMovie, and three seconds faster in our Cinema 4D render test.

Pitting the configured MacBook Pro head to head against a 2.8GHz 8-core Xeon Mac Pro with 2GB RAM and 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, we see that the $2,799 Mac Pro enjoys a 19 percent advantage in Speedmark 5 scores. Individual tests show large differences in processor-intensive tests like Cinema 4D, where the Mac Pro finished in one-third the time of the 2.8GHz MacBook Pro and 44 percent faster in our Compressor MPEG encoding test. The MacBook Pro’s 4GB of RAM helped it tie the Mac Pro in our Photoshop tests, and, in many of the other tests, the results were very close. The CTO MacBook Pro even edged past the Mac Pro by one second when zipping a 2GB folder test and by 10 seconds when unzipping the same archive.

There’s one other standard MacBook Pro configuration—a 17-inch model powered by a 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo chip. It’s arrived in our Lab and we’ll have the benchmarks soon.

[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]

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