Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need
If the new MacBook Pro and its amazing Thunderbolt don't blow your mind, you're not paying attention
Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: Configuration as tested
The system that Apple supplied for testing is the standard-configuration 17-inch MacBook Pro: 4GB of DDR3 DRAM, quad-core 2.2GHz second-generation Core i7 CPU, 750GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, 8X slot-loading SuperDrive DVD burner, and an AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. The price as tested: $2,499.
Because the configurations are virtually identical, nearly all of my discussion and conclusions can be applied directly to the 2.2GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro as well as the 17-inch unit under test. The more budget-conscious 15-inch model with a 2GHz CPU is obviously a tad slower, and it has a slightly less robust GPU (AMD Radeon HD 6490M with 256MB of GDDR5 memory). Even so, it shares the important traits of four cores, Hyper-Threading, Turbo Boost, fast memory, and a discrete GPU, so any performance hit should be well offset by the cost savings.
After a couple of passes through this review, I'm going to indulge in a bit of shorthand for your sake. From here out, when I say "Thunderbolt MacBook Pro," I'm referring to the virtually identical 2.2GHz 15- and 17-inch models. You can project my findings to the 2GHz 15-inch unit (not tested), adjusting for the slightly slower CPU and GPU. I tried to weave assumptions about the 13-inch MacBook Pro (not tested) into the story, but my preference for facts leads me to acknowledge the 13-inch model's existence, describe its configuration, and leave it at that. It's a fine machine at a very appealing price, but with two cores and no discrete GPU, it targets a different audience.
Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: CPU and video
The 15- and 17-inch Thunderbolt MacBook Pro are nearly identical: Intel quad-core Core i7 CPU with 6MB of Level 3 cache and 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM (user-expandable to 8GB). Video is supplied by an Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics chip and an AMD Radeon HD 6000-series discrete GPU.
To simplify things, we'll say that there are two GPUs in these MacBook Pro models: the Intel GPU and the AMD GPU. OS X switches between them as you launch and close apps, depending on whether those apps are deemed to benefit from the GPU. How does Apple know? It is a single-source supplier for all developer libraries (frameworks) for such features as video playback, 3D rendering, image manipulation, and PDF formatting. Apple also developed OpenCL, a programming language that's used to accelerate computation by off-loading math to the GPU. Whenever you load a GPU-enabled application, OS X seamlessly switches to the AMD GPU, and it keeps the AMD GPU in control until you close all GPU-enabled apps. The AMD GPU also kicks in when you plug in an external display.
I don't know your working style, but for me, the only thing the Intel GPU is good for is the log-in prompt. Intel's not particularly good at graphics -- a point to remember if you're comparison-shopping for notebooks. A Core i7 machine with integrated-only graphics is not a worthy alternative to MacBook Pro.
In previous MacBook Pro designs with Nvidia controllers, the discrete GPU put out a lot of heat, even at idle, and drained the battery rapidly -- not so with AMD's GPU. I see a more dramatic improvement in battery life from switching off Wi-Fi (do this when you plug in Ethernet) or lowering screen brightness than I do from closing GPU-enabled apps to put graphics in Intel mode.