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Apple 2.2GHz 15″ MacBook Pro Expert Review

Apple MacBook Pro MD318B/A

Rating: ★★★★☆

Other than a new Thunderbolt port, the overall build and design of the new MacBook Pros – including the 15-inch, quad core, 2.2GHz Core i7 model reviewed here – remains the same.

But under the hood, the line-up takes a significant leap forwards in performance and power.

The entire range of MacBook Pros has now moved over to the second-generation Core series processors, known by the code name Sandy Bridge and based on Intel’s 32nm production process. Even the new MacBook Pro 13-inch model now uses Core processors.

While the 15-inch and 17-inch versions moved to the first-generation Core processors with the mid-2010 refresh, the 13-inch model was unable to do the same because a legal dispute stopped Nvidia graphics chipsets being integrated into Core CPUs, whose own integrated graphics lacked power. Not so now.

The second-generation, Sandy Bridge Core-series processors have Intel HD 3000 Graphics, which is on a par with Nvidia’s integrated chipset. At last, the entire MacBook Pro range can leave behind the ageing Core 2 Duos.

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. The 15-inch models offer quad-core chips – Core i7s running at either 2.0GHz or 2.2GHz.

Specifications

Like the rest of Apple’s MacBook Pro range, this top-end 15-inch, quad core 2.2GHz Core i7 model has moved up to a second-generation Core processor, codenamed Sandy Bridge.

These new CPUs integrate the processor, cache, memory controller and graphics engine on a single chip. Because data doesn’t have as far to travel, each of the processor’s cores can get on processing it instead of waiting for it to arrive. This new micro-architecture is much more efficient, making for increased performance.

The Core processors’ Turbo Boost feature has been optimised for the new Sandy Bridge chips.

When the computer’s operating system requests the highest processor performance state (for example, when running processor-intensive tasks), and the processor is operating below power, current, and temperature specification limits, Turbo Boost 2.0 automatically allows its cores to run faster than the base operating frequency.

It shifts core frequency in smaller increments than before, allowing the processor to manage performance without sacrificing efficiency. If not all cores are in use, power can be relocated from idle to active ones.

Turbo Boost 2.0 activates Turbo Mode more often and remains there for longer than before, even when all cores are active. As a result, the quad core 2.2GHz Core i7 used in this MacBook Pro can reach 3.3GHz under Turbo Boost 2.0.

All Sandy Bridge mobile processors include Hyper Threading, a feature that’s now standard on every MacBook Pro. Hyper Threading allows two threads to run simultaneously on each of the processor’s cores. Thus, the quad-core processor used in this particular model has eight virtual cores.

Thanks to Hyper Threading, applications optimised for multicore processors run smoother and faster, and the computer is able to multitask with greater efficiency.

The Sandy Bridge processors‘ integrated graphics are much more powerful than the Intel HD Graphics used in the first generation of Core chips, now called Intel HD 3000 Graphics. Compared to previous generations, content creation under integrated graphics is up to 42 per cent faster and gaming up to 50 per cent quicker.

An integrated video decoder saves on battery power when watching movies. On the Mac

Book Pros, the built-in encoder lets you make HD video calls using Apple’s FaceTime application.

When more graphical power is required, the MacBook Pro switches to its discrete graphics processor. This is an automatic process – no user intervention is needed. On this top-end 15-inch MacBook Pro, the discrete GPU is an AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory.

We’re promised up to three times the performance offered by the discrete graphics in the previous MacBook Pro generation.

But perhaps the most interesting innovation enjoyed by the new MacBook Pros is Intel’s new Thunderbolt port. Previously known by the code name Light Peak and developed in close collaboration with Apple, Thunderbolt is a new, high-speed and very versatile data port.

It’s based on PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies, so it can be used for displays as well as data peripherals such as storage drives, and is a dual-channel input/output protocol capable of speeds of up to 10Gbps in both directions.

Thunderbolt enables you to daisy chain up to six high-performance peripherals using a single port without using a hub, and soon-to-be available adapters will enable you to use it with USB and FireWire peripherals. Thunderbolt provides native support for Mini-DisplayPort displays, and you can connect a DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA monitor using existing adapters.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt port replaces its Mini-DisplayPort, but the notebook retains its two USB 2.0 and single FireWire 800 ports.

Other improvements offered by the new MacBook Pros include a 720p FaceTime HD camera, with three times the resolution of the older iSight webcams and improved low-light resolution. The notebook’s SD card reader can now handle high-capacity SDXC cards.

Performance

The previous top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro was a dual core 2.66GHz Core i7. It’s a tribute to the power of the second-generation Sandy Bridge chips that in our Xbench test that looks at CPU, memory and hard drive performance, the newer 2.2GHz processor almost matched it, scoring 132.76 against the older 2.66GHz processor’s 136.58.

But our Cinebench test, which looks at the Mac’s 3D rendering capabilities, really showed what the newer MacBook Pro could do.

With the processors restricted to only one core, its improved graphical capabilities meant it increased its predecessor’s score by a respectable 17.6 per cent. But with all cores in play, this year’s quad-core, eight-thread 2.2GHz Core i7 was a full 81 per cent up on the mid-2010 dual core 2.66GHz machine.

The 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro has an AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete graphics processor, which comes into play automatically when running graphics-intensive applications such as games.

Aspyr’s Mac conversion of id Software’s Doom 3 ran at a very impressive 171.4 frames per second – a full 42 per cent faster than the previous high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro. The more modern Call of Duty 4 managed 84.3 frames per second, which again is very impressive.

At the time of writing, the MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt port is of limited use because, other than displays, compatible peripherals have yet to emerge. Unfortunately, this leaves us unable to run a time test, but having seen the Thunderbolt port in action at the Apple briefing that launched the new MacBook Pros, we can safely say it will revolutionise input/output technology.

Connecting the notebook to an Apple display and a prototype Thunderbolt-compatible hard drive, Apple was able to transfer large files between the external drive and the MacBook Pro at unprecedented speeds.

A Thunderbolt connection can transfer a full-length 1080p HD movie from an external hard drive to your MacBook Pro’s internal hard drive (or vice versa) in around 30 seconds, and you can back up enough 196kbps MP3s to play continuously for a year in around 10 minutes.

According to Apple, the battery on the new MacBook Pros lasts for seven hours, which on paper is down from the eight to nine hours enjoyed by the previous high-end 15-inch model.

This is not the case; the reduction reflects Apple’s new testing procedure based on Wi-Fi use, which better reflects the way the MacBook Pros are used in the real world. In our own test, we used a Wi-Fi connection to log onto the BBC’s iPlayer site, and watched the news channel at fullscreen for four hours, 45 minutes on a single charge, which is very impressive indeed.

The MacBook Pro’s battery is internal and cannot be replaced by the end user, but it gives around a thousand discharge and recharge cycles, which is almost three times the lifespan of a standard notebook battery.

There’s very little to criticise here. We’d have loved a Blu-ray drive, even as a custom option, but it was never going to happen. The 8x SuperDrive, unchanged from the previous model is looking old. Perhaps it’s time for a faster optical drive, Blu-ray or otherwise.

Like all MacBook Pros, this one comes with a glossy screen as standard, but if you order online at the Apple UK site, you can swap it for a higher-resolution glossy screen for an extra £80 or a high-res antiglare screen for £120. There should be an option for a matte display of the same resolution as the out-of-the-box screen, and it shouldn’t cost £40 more than the equivalent glossy screen.

Yet despite these minor moans, the new high-end 15-inch MacBook Pro is good value for money. It’s streets ahead of its predecessor, but only slightly more expensive.

Final Thoughts

The new MacBook Pros, including this quad core 2.2GHz 15-inch Core i7 model, have undergone a significant upgrade with only an inflationary price increase. With the latest processors, new graphics, a cutting-edge high-speed I/O port, an upgraded built-in webcam and a more capable SD card reader, the top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro is considerably more capable than the equivalent model from the mid-2010 upgrade.

We Liked

The new, second-generation Sandy Bridge Core series processors make significant advances over their predecessors. Their upgraded integrated graphics rival the Nvidia 320M chipset used in the previous generation of 13-inch MacBook Pros.

The Turbo Boost feature has been refined and optimised, transferring power from idle cores to active ones and giving all the cores a short burst of extra speed on demand, provided they’re operating within power, current and temperature limits.

The quad-core 2.2GHz Core i7 used in this MacBook Pro can reach 3.3GHz under Turbo Boost 2.0Hyper Threading runs two threads on each of the processor’s four cores, allowing tasks to be spread more evenly and the MacBook Pro to multitask more efficiently.

The MacBook Pros have switched to AMD discrete graphics, with this particular model benefitting from an AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 memory.

Its performance when running graphically intensive applications such as games is outstanding, running Doom 3 with its visual detail set to maximum at 171.4 frames per second, and the more recent Call of Duty 4 at 84.3fps. Battery life is equally impressive; you can work for the best part of a day on a full charge.

Thunderbolt makes its Mac debut on the new Pros. Although of limited use until compatible peripherals become common, it could well prove the future of input/output connectivity. It’s capable of speeds of up to 10Gbps in both directions at once, and you can daisy chain up to six peripherals on a single Thunderbolt port.

We Disliked

We’ve little cause for criticism here. While we realise we’re never likely to see a Blu-ray drive in a Mac (notebook or otherwise), it’s time the optical drive was upgraded from the 8x SuperDrive we have here. An option for an antiglare screen that isn’t tied to increasing the resolution would be welcome, too.

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Pros

  • Powerful AMD discrete graphics
  • High-speed Thunderbolt port
  • Excellent battery life
  • Improved quality webcam

Cons

  • Expensive
  • No Blu-ray drive nor even a faster DVD drive
  • No standard-resolution matte option
  • Limited upgrade options
  • Thunderbolt devices currently scarce

Verdict

The new 15-inch quad core Intel Core i7 MacBook Pro isn’t cheap, but given the quality and the improvements it has enjoyed over the previous model, it represents very good value for money. It’s the most capable MacBook Pro to date, and a real joy to use.

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Apple 2.2GHz 15

 


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