Apple's New Laptops (Mid 2012)

MacBook Pro 15-inch and 13-inch non-Retina models occupy the consumer space

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How We Tested: We ran Mathematica 8’s Evaluate Notebook Test.

Compared to each other, the new high-end 13-inch 2.9GHz system clocked 17 percent faster overall than the new low-end 2.5GHz model. Beefed up RAM (8GB as opposed to 4GB in the low-end model) accounted for the improvements in the Photoshop results over the low-end model and previous models. However, the upgraded i7 processor is more powerful than the i5 processor in the low-end version, and the consequences showed up across the testing suite as the i7 bested its i5 sibling in nearly every test.

Connectors, sound, and noise

Both non-Retina laptops have the older MagSafe power connector, as opposed to the Retina model, which has an updated part to accommodate its thinner frame. On the left side of the case, the 15-inch model has ports for gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800, and Thunderbolt, two USB 3 ports, an SDXC card slot, and separate ports for audio in and audio out. The right side is dominated by the 8X SuperDrive for double-layer DVD burning. The only difference for the 13-inch model is the combined audio in/out port, the same as the Retina model.

The 15-inch MacBook Pros sport speakers with a subwoofer underneath a set of grilles on either side of the keyboard, and they're not bad at all; I did not perceive much deficiency in the bass, and the sound is rather loud at maximum volume, with little distortion or feedback. They're not high-end speakers, but they're better than most computer speakers I've heard.

While the 13-inch model can mostly be described as a mini 15-inch model, there are some key differences when it comes to the sound system. The smaller model lacks the topside grilles and thus sound from the speakers is inferior in quality compared to the larger model. Music sounds flatter, tinnier, and has less resonance and depth than the speakers on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. If sound quality is a big part of your user experience, either in creating or listening to audio, be sure to take that into account.

The other side of sound is noise. Apple appears to have mostly solved the noise problem for normal operations with these new models. Even running a video with the DVD in the drive did not kick up the fans or significantly add to the noise level, though I did hear the drive running, faintly, when I put my ear very close to the machine. When I watched a movie from the hard drive, it was similarly quiet, and I never heard the fan with either model.

As for the heat factor, I can say that despite a very small bit of warming, the bottom of the unit stayed cool and comfortable in my lap for a long time during regular use, and even when watching streaming video or video running via DVD in the drive. Both models heated up significantly however with Handbrake encoding. The bottom of the case, especially near where the lid opens and closes, tended to get too warm to keep on my lap during that operation.

Battery life

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a built-in 63.5-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery, while the 15-inch model has a 77.5-watt battery. Apple says battery life lasts about 7 hours on all the new MacBook Pro models, based on its "wireless web test suite," though Macworld's lab tests are a little more rigorous. We found battery life in the same ballpark throughout the new models, with fairly negligible variations. All the new laptops topped five hours of continuous use, with the 13-inch 2.5GHz model besting all other new models at 5 hours and 47 minutes.

The bottom of the line 15-inch MacBook Pro came in second place in battery life at 5 hours and 38 minutes. The poorest battery performance came from the 13-inch model with the i7 processor. It lasted only 5 hours and 3 minutes.

All the regular MacBook Pro models compared favorably with the Retina models in terms of battery life. The 2.3GHz Retina MacBook Pro lasted 5 hours and 10 minutes, while the top of the line Retina model conked out at just under 5 hours.

Macworld’s buying advice

The traditional MacBook Pros hold fast to their unibody form factor and design, upgradability, and price, and target the mid-market of non-creative professionals that seeks to balance features with affordability. The new MacBook Pros are not flashy like the new Retina MacBook Pros, but they offer advantages in price and the flexibility to get into the system and tailor it to your needs after purchase.

With form factors shrinking, the 15-inch MacBook Pros seem increasingly like desktop machines, with the 13-inch models taking precedence on the portable side of the equation. If you’re in the market for a 13-inch model, the obvious choice, especially in terms of performance, is the 2.9GHz Core i7 model. It tops its Core i5 sibling in almost every benchmark. While I wish the screen resolution were higher, the 2.9GHz model is a beautiful machine.

If you bought one of the MacBook Pros last year, there's no compelling reason to purchase one of these new machines. Simply upgrading the RAM or the hard drive might benefit performance enough to nearly meet or exceed the new offerings. However, if you've been hanging on to an older system and are experiencing sluggish performance, you won't be sorry if you picked up one of these new laptops.

That said, if your heart—not to mention your professional needs—settle on a 15-inch model, the flagship MacBook Pros with a Retina Display come at a steep price. For artists, photographers, and videographers taking this on the road, it can't be beat—even at the $400 premium over the non-Retina MacBook Pros. Moreover, if you're planning to add a solid-state drive and more RAM to one of the 15-inch models, the price of upgrading may actually meet or exceed that premium. If you can live without the DVD drive and spinning hard disk, shelling out for a machine with a better screen, and a lighter, thinner case, is essentially a no-brainer.

Editor's note: Updated on 6/20/12 at noon PT to correct the native resolution of the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

[Jackie Dove is a Macworld senior editor.]

At a Glance
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