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Review: 2011 Apple Macbook Pro – 13″

Sandy Bridge processors in, discreet graphics card out.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Apple products, over the years I’ve had a number of Macs, not to mention multiple iPods and a couple of iPhones.  But recently my enthusiasm for Mac’s had cooled.

Windows 7 and Windows Live had come a long way to competing with OS X and the iLife suite, and Apple seemed to be falling behind when it came to the latest hardware.  No amount of cutting edge designs can make up for a lack of performance in my book, it was time to return to PC’s.

This all changed in February this year when Apple upgraded their Macbook line to include the latest Sandy Bridge processors and newer graphics chipsets built right into the processor die.

Out of the box

The new Macbook Pro comes with even less in the box than ever before, as seems to be the fashion these days.  There isn’t even any kind of recovery disk, what you do get is:

  • The Macbook Pro
  • The mains charger
  • A Macbook Pro and OS X quick start guide.

And that’s about it; no recovery disks, no masses of paperwork, no case, nothing.

My only concern here is the lack of any sort of recovery media.  There isn’t even a recovery partition on the hard disk, which means that if you ever have to reinstall the OS, you’re kind of stuck unless you want to shell out £55 for OS X Lion on a USB stick.

However, if Lion is as reliable as Apple say it is then perhaps recovery media isn’t required.

Design

Not much has changed from the previous generation of Macbook Pros.  They still feature the same unibody construction which looks as beautiful as ever.

The black keyboard still features a variable backlight which is excellent for typing in low light levels, and the keyboard itself is incredibly usable.

The screen is a 1280×800 resolution which is just about enough for most uses.  A 900 or 1050 line display would have been better, but I can forgive Apple seeing as the display itself is incredibly clear and bright.  The variable LED back lighting gives an incredibly even display in almost all environments, except for direct sunlight.  However, this is a flaw of all glossy displays and not just the Macbook Pro.

To the left of the machine are the IO ports, reading front to rear:

  • A combined headphone / mic jack
  • An SD card reader
  • Two USB 2 ports
  • A Thunderbolt port
  • A Firewire 800 port
  • A Gigabit Ethernet port
  • The Magsafe power socket.

The rear of the Macbook has no connectors at all, while the right hand side plays host to the Superdrive (that’s a DVD-RW drive to the rest of us).

OS X Lion and iLife 11

All new Macs come with the latest version of OS X, Lion, as well as the latest version of the iLife suite, iLife 11.

Lion comes with a whole host of new features, though most of them you might not notice.  The important ones are as follows:

Full Screen Apps – The iLife suite and other key apps can now be run in full screen mode which makes the best possible use of the limited screen space on the Macbook.  It works well, though some 3rd party apps are having compatibility issues which can cause the apps to crash or the user to get stuck.  This shouldn’t be a problem for long though.

Mission Control – More of an evolution of Dashboard from the previous version, hitting the F3 key will bring up a new view which allows you to quickly switch between running applications and the different workspaces running on your Mac.

Launchpad – A carbon copy of the application launcher from iOS, it’s a great way to quickly access any of the applications on your Mac.  Just like with iOS you can organise apps into folders which can make navigating through large libraries of applications easier.

Autosave and Versions – OS X now saves your documents and projects on the fly, meaning that you can browse through previous versions the same way as you would with Time Machine.  The advantages of this are clear; say you remove a section from a document, make some more changes and then decide to replace the text.  You can navigate back through the different versions of your document and recover the parts that you want before pasting them back into the newest version.

New Multitouch Gestures – The use of multitouch has been expanded in Lion to take advantage of some of the newer features listed above.  Most commands work well on the large trackpad, though I have found myself swiping into Mission Control when I meant to scroll through a document.

The new version of iLife includes a few new tweaks.  The big three apps; iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband can all run in full screen mode.  The advantage of this is clear; it allows you to focus entirely on what you’re doing while making the most of your screen space.  It works well, iMovie in particular is very easy to use in full screen mode.

iMovie includes some funky new templates, though not enough of them if you ask me.  A larger library of templates would have been welcome, though the included ones are quite professional looking.

iPhoto in full screen mode allows you to experience your photo library in a whole new way, and gives you more space to work with when designing keepsakes such as photo books and calendars.

Garageband can also operate in full screen mode, but the big addition is the FlexTime feature which cleans up your tracks and keeps them in time with the rest of your backing tracks.  For amateur musicians or hobbyists this is a great feature and allows anyone to sound good no matter their playing ability.

Specifications and Performance

The 2011 Macbook Pro’s feature a whole host of performance improvements, not least of which is the inclusion of the latest Intel Core i5 processors.  The base model, priced at £999 comes with the following as standard:

  • Intel “Sandy Bridge” Core i5 processor – 2.3GHz quad core
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 320GB hard disk
  • Integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics
  • Built in Wireless N and Bluetooth connectivity
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Built in 7 hour battery

The Intel graphics are built into the new processor die, and use 384MB of the system memory.  The disadvantage of this is that it’s less powerful than the Nvidia 320m graphics card that was in the previous generation of Macbook Pro.

This is strange, why would Apple include a less powerful graphics card in a newer machine?  One answer could be that gaming is still not that prolific on Macs.  Steam has gone a long way to opening up the door, but most game producers still don’t take the Mac seriously as a gaming platform.  That being the case, why should Apple include a graphics card which would bump up the price and reduce the battery life of their notebooks?

That being said, the included Intel graphics card is capable of playing back some popular titles such as Portal 2 and Duke Nukem Forever on low/medium settings.  It’s not mind blowing, but it’s enough to occupy you should you want to play around on your Mac.

When it comes to processor hungry applications like iMovie, the Macbook Pro quite literally flies.  It outperforms my 2 year old iMac (which it’s replacing) when encoding HD movies, and it generally feels quicker than my old iMac or the previous generation Macbook.

Conclusions

The new Macbook Pro’s are a fantastic addition to Apple’s Mac lineup.  The whole package (the Macbook, OS X Lion and iLife 11) are well worth the £999 price tag.

This particular Macbook is replacing my 24″ iMac and a nearly new Windows 7 Netbook.  I honestly believe that it’s good enough and flexible enough to replace both machines and do their respective jobs well.

It’s powerful enough to be my main video and photo editing machine, has enough disk space available to hold my iTunes library and all of my photos, and is portable enough to be my day to day web browsing machine.

The “upgrade” to a less powerful graphics system is a bit of a let down, but given that most users won’t be looking at the Macbook Pro to be a serious gaming machine, it’s not too much of an issue.

Other than this the 13″ Macbook Pro is a worthwhile investment, if a little (as always with Apple) overpriced.

Author

Matt

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