Hands on: Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro packs a punch

Faster processors, more battery life and a better display make for a great -- and small -- package

When it comes to Apple laptops, what's in a name? More specifically, what does adding the "Pro" moniker to Apple's 13-in. MacBook mean?

It means that Apple again has three MacBook Pro models to choose from: this newly renamed 13-in. MacBook Pro, the popular 15-in. version and the larger 17-in. model. Best of all, the change comes with price reductions across the lineup -- the MacBook Pro line now starts at $1,199 for the basic 13-in. model, with a slightly more tricked out version going for $1,499. That's $100 less than the respective MacBooks that preceded them.

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With the latest update, the smaller Pro models not only get processor speed bumps, they also get a major improvement in battery life, an SD card slot, a FireWire 800 port, a better LED screen and, debuting in the entry-level version, Apple's highly regarded backlit keyboard. (As someone who used the 2.0GHz MacBook -- the one without the lighted keyboard -- for a couple of months, I can attest to the usefulness of the backlighting, especially with the black keys.)

The basics

The 13-in. MacBook Pro is the spiritual successor to the 12-in. PowerBook G4, which was discontinued three years ago when the company moved to Intel processors. The 12-in. PowerBook had a devoted following, and Mac fans decried its loss long after it was dropped. Although the 13-in. model is obviously a bit bigger because of the larger screen, it's close enough that fans of the smaller PowerBook should be satisfied -- at least until Apple offers up something like a netbook ( if it ever moves in that direction).

At first glance, the 13-in. MacBook Pro looks pretty much the same as the unibody MacBook it replaces. The ports, including the now-standard Mini DisplayPort for external monitors, are still located on the left-hand side of the chassis. Other than the Pro name and the addition of FireWire 800 and the SD card slot, not much has changed. This is a good thing, as the last model was one of the best-built laptops out there, thanks to the unibody manufacturing process Apple uses to carve these laptops out of solid chunks of aluminum.

The notebooks feel reassuringly solid and are relatively light, weighing in at 4.5 pounds. That's a pound less than the 15-in. MacBook Pro and two pounds less than the 17-in. Pro, making them perfect for toting around in a backpack on campus or at work. (The MacBook Air, which has the same size screen as the 13-in. MacBook Pro, still wins the light-weight honors, clocking in at 3 pounds.)

For review purposes, Apple sent over the top-end model, which comes with a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo processor (up from 2.4GHz in the previous model), 4GB of RAM, the aforementioned SD card slot and, best of all, the integrated battery technology first unveiled in January on the 17-in. MacBook Pro.

New battery, same graphics

The additional battery life is probably the biggest and most useful change to the 13-in. models in terms of how people use laptops day to day. According to Apple, the battery will last for up to seven hours of on-the-go computing, though that figure doesn't envision a lot of hard-drive-intensive activity. With the screen set to half brightness, which is still plenty bright, and iTunes streaming music over Wi-Fi, I managed just over four hours -- not bad considering the continuous wireless stream of data and the fact that the screen never turned off. If you use the more aggressive "longer battery life" settings in the Energy Saver preference pane -- and go easy on the streaming WiFi -- you can extend that time, though I've never been able to hit Apple's optimistic estimates.

The use of the built-in battery means that all of the MacBook Pros now use the adaptive charging technology Apple introduced in January on the 17-in. model. Though some Mac fans dislike the integrated approach, Apple says the new battery should last for 1,000 full charge cycles -- enough to go for about five years if you assume four full charge/recharge cycles a week. Since the technology is new, it's too soon to tell whether that estimate will hold up over time.

Both of the 13-in. MacBook Pros, as well as the entry-level 15-in. model that goes for $1,699, rely on the now-ubiquitous Nvidia GeForce 9400M video processor to push pixels. The 9400M can use up to 256MB of system RAM and drive an external monitor at 2560 x 1600 pixels.

I'm not a gamer, so I can't vouch for Apple's claims that the integrated Nvidia processor is between 2.5 and 6 times faster than the Intel GMA X3100 graphics chip used in the previous-generation MacBook for games like Unreal Tournament and Call of Duty. But I can tell you that video playback was top-notch, even for high-definition files.

Apple must really be happy with this GPU, because the 9400M is in every one of its laptops, including the MacBook Air and the 17-in. top-of-the-line MacBook Pro. In the more expensive models, it's paired with a discrete chip, the Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT.

A new LED screen

The new LED screen in both 13-in. MacBook Pro models offers a 60% wider color gamut than previous models, according to Apple. It's a change that's readily apparent when comparing the screen on the new MacBook Pro to the one in the MacBook it replaces -- and that earlier screen was no slouch.

"Wider gamut" means more life-like colors and deeper color saturation. As an example, I took a picture this spring of a purplish-blue iris that, on the just-discontinued MacBook, looked very good. But on the new MacBook Pro, the same picture is stunning. Color subtleties that weren't as obvious on the older model are clearly apparent: the iris looks less blue, more true-to-life purplish. The older screen also had a slightly filmy look when compared to the new one.

One thing that hasn't changed: the screen resolution. The new MacBook Pro offers the same 1280 x 800-pixel resolution as the old model, which is perfectly appropriate for a laptop this size. Text is razor sharp, and the screen is more than bright enough to use outdoors, even in direct sunlight. And since the LED is backlit, the screen comes up to full brightness right away. Pre-LED screens usually needed about 20 minutes to fully brighten.

Under the hood, the changes are evolutionary. As noted earlier, the 2.53GHz Intel processor is plenty fast for just about any data-crunching you have in mind. (The less expensive model has a 2.26GHz processor.) The standard 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 RAM should be plenty for most users, though you can splurge and double it to 8GB if you want. Splurge is the word, too, as 4GB chips are super-pricey: You'll pay Apple $1,000 to have 8GB of RAM installed, way more than makes sense. Even buying from a third-party vendor will set you back $700.

Frugality alert: If you opt for the $1,199 MacBook Pro, note that it comes with just 2GB of RAM. Apple charges $100 to double it to 4GB. Either pay Apple to do it, or do it yourself. Down the road, you'll be happier.

Hard drive options

Another sensible move would be to upgrade the hard drive. (The cheaper MacBook Pro has a 160GB drive; this one comes with a 250GB drive that spins at 5,400 rpm. You can jump to a 320GB drive for $50 more -- or double your drive space to half a terabyte for $150 above the sticker price. (Those drives also spin at 5,400 rpm.) That's great if you have a large and growing collection of tunes, pictures or videos.

Alternatively, you can trick out the MacBook Pro with a solid-state disk (SSD) drive for an extra bit of speed. You'll give up storage, however, as the biggest SSD drive offered by Apple right now is 256GB for a very pricey $800. If you're on a budget, skip the SSD until prices come down.

About the only drive you can't order through Apple on this model is a 7,200-rpm model, which is unfortunate, as a 7,200-rpm drive would offer a speed boost at a reasonable price. You can always add your own, however, although doing so is a little more involved than it used to be. Unlike the MacBook it supersedes, the MacBook Pro doesn't have a separate drive compartment that's easy to access. Now you have to remove 10 screws and take off the entire bottom of the laptop to access the drive bay. Once there, you remove one screw, unplug the drive, plug in your replacement and reverse the process.

I'll say this: The new setup gives the bottom case a very clean look (no seams or latches), if such aesthetics matter to you.

Performance and extras

With the standard drive, the MacBook Pro is a solid performer. I used the Xbench benchmarking app to see how this model would compare with earlier Apple laptops. The MacBook Pro churned out a score of 139, which is surprisingly speedy, given that the last-generation 15-in. MacBook Pro with the same 2.53GHz processor turned in a score of 123. As always, benchmarking tests can vary, but that kind of jump is noteworthy and indicates that this laptop offers performance that's completely in keeping with its new Pro designation.

For comparison purposes, a top-of-the-line 17-in. MacBook Pro with the optional 3.06GHz processor and a 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive yielded an Xbench score of 176. (I'll be offering up a full review on this particular laptop soon.)

It's important to note that performance is more than just the clock speed of any one processor. Underlying architecture changes involving the hard drive, RAM speed, Level 2 cache size and graphics processors all combine to make a difference in how a computer feels. For the megahertz-focused, Primate Labs offers a rundown of how various systems stack up in case you want to know more. And LowEnd Mac has a look at how various processors fare in Apple's consumer laptops, including the MacBooks.

All of the rest of Apple's laptop goodies continue unchanged. The lighted keyboard -- with white lettering on black keys -- has a solid feel that matches the laptop's. The oversized trackpad, which is covered with a thin layer of glass for smooth multi-touch gestures, works great. It may take new users a little while to get used to the integrated clicker button, but it works exactly as billed.

The SD card slot also performs well. Slide your SD card in and a disk icon shows up on your desktop. You can then transfer photos or data with drag-and-drop ease. Personally, I'd probably continue to connect my digital camera to my laptop with a USB cable, but photography pros with multiple SD cards lying around will likely appreciate the slot. And you can even boot up the MacBook Pro with a copy of Mac OS X installed on an SD card, according to an Apple Knowledge Base document.

Final thoughts

Overall, Apple has taken what was already a highly successful, feature-rich laptop, given it a new name, upgraded the hardware, added a better screen and a new SD card slot -- and dropped prices across the line. Price cuts are not in Apple's DNA. Usually, it adds new hardware and keeps prices intact to keep customers coming back.

Whether Apple planned it this way or not, the 13-in. MacBook has already been making its way into the corporate world, given the features it offers at a business-friendly price. The June upgrades should make it more attractive still. (Disclosure: We've rolled out last-generation MacBooks to a number of people here at Computerworld.)

The combination of lower prices, better hardware and solid-as-a-rock design should entice both consumers and enterprise buyers, even in these financially tight times.

This story, "Hands on: Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro packs a punch" was originally published by Computerworld .

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