MacBook Pros (Early 2011)

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Since the MacBook Pro battery is built-in, you can’t swap in a fully charged battery. So how long the built-in battery lasts on a charge becomes much more important, and Apple says the MacBook Pro battery should last up to 7 hours. Apple changed the way it tests battery life, so it’s hard to know whether 7 hours represents an improvement over last year’s MacBook Pros. For the old models, Apple claimed up to 10 hours of battery life for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and between 8 and 9 hours for the 15- and 17-inch models.

Macworld Lab performs a quick-drain torture test to gauge battery life in a worst-case scenario. Using QuickTime Player, we loop a movie file that has been ripped from a DVD to the hard drive. We view the movie in full screen mode with screen at full brightness, and AirPort connected. Our battery life tests differ dramatically from Apple’s, so comparing the results to Apple’s specification isn’t comparing apples to apples.

In our tests, the new MacBook Pros all lasted between 5 hours, 39 minutes (the 17-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 model) and 5 hours, 53 minutes (the 13-inch 2.3GHz Core i5 model). Those results are better than the results for last year’s line.

Both of the 13-inch MacBook Pros lasted longer than older 13-inch 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, which lasted 5 hours, 23 minutes. The 13-inch 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro lasted 30 minutes longer, and the 13-inch 2.7GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro lasted 18 minutes longer.

More dramatic improvements were found with the 15-inch MacBook Pros. The 15-inch 2.0GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro lasted 50 minutes longer than the 4 hours, 53 minutes by the old 15-inch 2.53GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro. The 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro lasted 54 minutes longer.

The 17-inch 2.2 Core i7 MacBook Pro also showed an impressive improvement, lasting 48 minutes longer than the 4 hours, 51 minutes posted by the old 17-inch 2.53GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro.

Options

Not satisfied with Apple’s preconfigured systems? You have a ton of options for customizing your MacBook Pro.

The 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM used in all of the systems can be upgraded from the standard 4GB (two 2GB modules) to 8GB (two 4GB modules) for an additional $200.

The hard drives in each MacBook Pro can be upgraded, but the price for each upgrade depends on the drive in the standard configuration. For example, an upgrade in the 13-inch 2.3GHz Core i5 model from the standard 5400-rpm 320GB drive to a 5400-rpm 750GB drive costs $150. In the 13-inch 2.7GHz Core i7 model, upgrading from the standard 5400-rpm 500GB drive to a 5400-rpm 750GB drive costs $100.

A 7200-rpm 500GB hard drive upgrade is available for the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros. It’s an extra $100 with the 15-inch 2.0GHz Core i7 model. On the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros with the 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, switching from the standard 5400-rpm 750GB drive to the 7200-rpm 500GB drive comes at no cost.

Solid-state drives (SSDs) in capacities up to 512GB are also available for all systems. As with the hard drives, the pricing depends on the standard hard drive. For example, to swap out the standard 500GB hard drive in the 15-inch 2.0GHz Core i7 model to a 512GB SSD costs $1200. Upgrading the standard 750GB hard drive in the 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 model to a 512GB SSD costs $1100.

For an extra $250, the 2.2GHz Core i7 processors in the $2199 15-inch MacBook Pro and the 17-inch MacBook Pro can be replaced with a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 with 8MB of shared L3 cache (up from 6MB you get with the standard 2.2GHz processor).

The 15-inch models have the option for a high-resolution (1680-by-1050) glossy widescreen display ($100) or a high-resolution antiglare widescreen display ($150). The 17-inch has only an option for the high-resolution antiglare widescreen display ($50). The 13-inch models don't have such display options.

(Macworld reviews and rates standard configurations only, though we may test and publish benchmark results of Macs with custom configurations when available.)

Macworld’s buying advice

The new MacBook Pros offer a mix of improvements, familiarity and compromise. The CPU performance and battery life are much improved, and the graphics performance of the discrete Radeon HD 6750M in the 15- and 17-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 models was much faster than any MacBook Pro we’ve tested. There’s also the high data throughput of the new Thunderbolt port. The screen, weight, keyboard, speakers, and number of ports remain the same. As for compromises, there’s the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor, which turned in results that are either slower or similar to the integrated graphics used in last year’s MacBook Pros. The discrete Radeon HD 6490M graphics processor in the 15-inch 2.0GHz Core i7 model performed similarly to the discrete graphics found in last year’s 15-inch models. And there aren’t any Thunderbolt peripherals available yet.

If you’re deciding between a $999 MacBook and an $1199 13-inch MacBook Pro, the choice is clear: Spend the extra $200 on the MacBook Pro, which is a better performer and has more features. The 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro is the model to look at if you’re looking for the best combination of size and performance. The 17-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro can be seriously considered a replacement for a desktop computer.

[James Galbraith is Macworld’s lab director.]

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