The 2011 MacBook Pro refresh is far more radical than it might seem. At a glance, the aluminium unibody Apple MacBook Pro line-up – including this top-of-the-range 17-inch model – look pretty much the same as their predecessors. But under the hood, they feature significant and very welcome advances.
Intel’s new second-generation Core series processors (Sandy Bridge) are used throughout the MacBook Pro range, even the 13-inch model, which missed out on the first generation of Core series CPUs due to a mix of legal disputes and practical issues.
The MacBook Pros have finally left behind the ageing Core 2 Duo chips, and no doubt the rest of Apple’s notebook line-up will also do so the next time they are refreshed.
In a welcome move, Apple has skipped the entry-level Core i3 processor and equipped all early-2011 MacBook Pros with at least a Core i5. This top-of-the-range 17-inch model, costing £2,099, brings us a quad core 2.2GHz Core i7, which you can boost to a 2.3GHz chip for an extra £200 if you order online at the Apple website and avail yourself of the custom option.
This top-of-the-range 17-inch MacBook Pro has near-identical specs to the more expensive of the two 15-inch models.
Both offer a quad-core 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, 4GB of 1,333MHz RAM, an AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete graphics processor with 1GB of GDDR5 memory, a 750GB, 5,400rpm SATA hard drive and a built-in seven-hour battery, which cannot be replaced by the end user, but lasts for around three times as many charge cycles as a standard notebook battery.
Similar custom options are available at the Apple online store too. You can beef up the processor to a quad core 2.3GHz Core i7, expand the RAM up to 8GB and you can replace the hard drive with a smaller but faster 500GB 7200rpm model, or even a solid state drive.
The new Sandy Bridge processors, built using Intel’s 32nm process, benefit from a redesigned micro-architecture where the processor, cache, memory controller and graphics engine are integrated on a single chip. This means data has less distance to travel.
For example, an integrated memory controller connects the processor directly to the RAM. With no bus to slow it down, the processors can spend their time processing data instead of waiting for it to arrive.
The Sandy Bridge Core processors offer a similar feature set to the previous generation of Core chips, but many of their key features have been improved. For example, Turbo Boost has been reinvented as Turbo Boost 2.0, with several advances over the first-generation chips’ Turbo Boost feature.
When The MacBook Pro is running processor-intensive tasks and the CPU is operating within specified temperature, current and power limits, Turbo Boost 2.0 automatically allows its cores to run faster than the base operating frequency.
If not every core is active, it can shift power away from idle cores to the operational ones, but even if all four cores are being used it can give them a smaller speed increase. Turbo Mode is activated more often and used for longer periods than before, and the quad-core 2.2GHz Core i7 used in this MacBook Pro can reach 3.3GHz under Turbo Boost 2.0.
Hyper Threading is now standard on every MacBook Pro, and allows two threads to run simultaneously on each of the processor’s cores. The quad-core processor used in this particular model therefore has eight virtual cores.
Thanks to Hyper Threading, applications optimised for multicore processors run smoother and faster as tasks are spread more evenly, and the computer is able to multitask with greater efficiency.
The second-generation Core i7’s processor graphics have been revamped. Intel HD 3000 Graphics are on a par with the most powerful integrated graphics chipsets. An integrated video decoder saves on battery power when watching movies, and a built-in encoder lets you make HD video calls using Apple’s FaceTime.
When running graphically intensive applications, graphics processing automatically switches to the MacBook Pro’s powerful new AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete GPU.
The 17-inch MacBook Pro includes a single Thunderbolt port, alongside a FireWire 800 and three USB 2.0 ports.
Based on PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies, Thunderbolt is a brand-new dual-channel I/O protocol that’s capable of data transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps in both directions, carries a higher-than-HD video signal and eight-channel audio, and can support up to six daisy-chained peripherals in a single port.
Thunderbolt provides native support for mini-DisplayPort screens, and you can connect a DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA monitor using existing adapters.
The built-in webcam, a 720p FaceTime HD camera, has three times the resolution of the old iSight camera and better low-light performance. Unlike the rest of the MacBook Pro range, the 17-inch model doesn’t have an SD card reader. It has an ExpressCard/34 slot instead, so you can fit a card reader if you wish.
The early 2011 17-inch MacBook Pro offers the same basic configuration as the more expensive of the two 15-inch models; the only differences are an extra USB port, an ExpressCard/34 slot instead of an SDXC card reader and, of course, a larger screen size.
So it’s unsurprising that in our benchmarking tests, the new 17-inch quad core 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro scored almost identically to the 15-inch quad core 2.2GHz Core i7 release. However, the 17-inch model it replaces, mid-2010’s 17-inch 2.53GHz Core i5, enjoyed parity with the mid-range 15-inch model rather than the high-end version.
This change is, of course, partly due to Apple releasing only two 15-inch versions with this refresh instead of the three options available with the mid-2010 update, but the move is nevertheless welcome. Having a single 17-inch MacBook Pro that wasn’t as powerful as the high-end 15-inch model just didn’t seem right.
Checking CPU, memory and hard drive performance with Xbench, the new 17-inch notebook outperformed its predecessor by just over 20 per cent.
The performance increase was even more pronounced when we compared their rendering capabilities using Cinebench. Using only one core, the new MacBook Pro was almost 30 per cent better, but with every available core in play it more than doubled the older model’s score.
The 17-inch MacBook’s AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete graphics processor comes into play automatically when running graphics-intensive applications such as games.
Doom 3, which was released for Mac in 2005, ran at a speedy 171.5 frames per second with its graphical settings at a system-hungry maximum. This is comfortably ahead of the 115.3fps its predecessor achieved with the same settings.
The more modern Call of Duty 4, which reached the Mac in late 2008, ran at an agreeable 84.3 frames a second.
We’ve been unable to run a time test on the Thunderbolt port because no compatible storage peripherals have been released at the time of writing, but we did see it in action at Apple’s launch briefing.
A large data file was transferred between a MacBook Pro and a prototype Thunderbolt external drive very quickly. We can quite believe Intel’s claim that a full HD movie can transfer in around 30 seconds, and enough 196kbps MP3s to play for an entire year can be backed up in around ten minutes.
Apple says the battery gives seven hours on a full charge, which on paper is down from the eight to nine hours claimed for the previous model. But this apparent reduction is due to a more rigorous testing regime rather than a genuine drop in battery power. These new tests are based on Wi-Fi internet surfing, and better reflect the realities of real-world use.
In our own test, we ran the BBC iPlayer’s live feed over Wi-Fi at fullscreen for five hours, 35 minutes on a full charge, a very commendable result.
No review would be complete without a few grumbles, but thankfully, there aren’t many here. We still haven’t got a Blu-ray drive, not even as a custom option, but we weren’t expecting one. Apple seems to have skipped this particular piece of technology.
A faster DVD drive would’ve been welcome, though. The 8x SuperDrive is looking very tired. Our iTunes encoding test has plateaued at just under six minutes to rip our test CD, with the optical drive proving the limiting factor.
With every Mac refresh bringing across-the-board performance improvements in all other tests, seeing no improvement in around two years in the iTunes test is almost embarrassing.
Although such a massive performance boost for an extra £160 represents a very good value for money increase, £2,099 is still a lot to pay for a laptop, and at that price, the optional antiglare screen shouldn’t cost an extra £40.
But even at the price, the early 2011 17-inch MacBook Pro is worth considering if you’re looking for quality and a large screen. It can’t be faulted for performance, its unibody build makes it strong yet surprisingly light and its screen is magnificent, boasting a resolution better than Full HD, along with great viewing angles.
The MacBook Pros are also full of agreeable extras, such as a backlit keyboard and a magnetic power cord that won’t pull your notebook off the desk if someone trips over it.