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Apple MacBook Pro 2011 (13-inch) Expert Review

Apple Macbook Pro 13" MC700

Rating: ★★★★☆

While Apple’s previous generation of laptops took full advantage of Intel’s Core i5 and i7 chips in the 15- and 17-inch versions, we said in our last-gen MacBook Pro review it felt like it was falling behind its stablemates, stuck as it was with a Core 2 Duo processor.

It meant that although the larger machines lived up to their ‘Pro’ moniker, you had to wonder about the smallest model, especially looking at the power packed into the Alienware M11x thanks to Intel’s new Core i-series processors.

However, now we have a new MacBook Pro 2011, and the 13-inch version has gone straight from the bottom of the class to the top when it comes to power, as you’ll see during the remainder of our MacBook Pro review.

Overview and specification

Apple’s claiming as much as double the speed in some tasks from these new CPUs, thanks not only to technologies such as Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost, but also the new single-chip design in the Sandy Bridge architecture.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

Apple supplied us with the higher-powered Core i7 version of the MacBook Pro 13-inch, which is £1299, though there’s also a £999 Core i5-powered version.

However, the brand new Core i5 and i7 chips aren’t the only big news in the MacBook Pro of 2011. There are always plenty of Mac rumours just before a new release, and it was all about Intel’s Light Peak tech this time round.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

The leaks turned out to be accurate this time, and Apple confirmed the new high-speed I/O port (now renamed Thunderbolt)In the new MacBook Pro range, it’s been merged with the mini-DisplayPort connection, creating a multipurpose I/O port capable of 10Gbps both ways.

There are a few other updates of note around the MacBook Pro 13-inch. Though its big brothers got shiny new AMD graphics cards, this model makes do with Intel’s latest integrated graphics.

Consistently the subject of derisive snorts in the past, Intel’s really upped its game in this area. The Intel HD 3000 graphics chip is now built into the processor, and should offer strong performance as well as solid battery life.

macbook pro 13-inch 2011

There’s also the new FaceTime HD camera, which enables you to make 720p video calls to another Mac (or lower resolution to an iPhone 4 and iPod touch).

One area that hasn’t been upgraded is the screen, which remains 1280 x 800, while there are still the usual Ethernet, FireWire 800 and USB ports, along with an SDXC card slot. The optical drive remains, too, as does the multi-touch trackpad.

Features & Design

Before we got into the major benchmarking and CPU testing of the new MacBook Pro 13-inch, which you can see on the next page, we started our time with it by looking at the new FaceTime HD video calling. It’s a bit underwhelming, to be honest.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

For a start, the call doesn’t come in at HD resolution for the person you’re calling by default (even if they’re on a compatible Mac), and there’s no option to automatically enlarge, unless you go fullscreen. You can manually resize, but you really should be able to snap to 720p.

But the actual quality of the video isn’t really any better, on balance. Certainly, the video is slightly sharper than what you get from the old cameras, with more defined edges and clearer background objects. However, it suffers from the classic ‘sensor too small’ syndrome that phone cameras have always had.

When held next to the built-in camera on the iMac we used in our benchmarking tests, the iMac’s image looked better because it let in more lightAny extra detail in the 720p image is lost in its darkness. You could try to light yourself well, but we’d have to be talking full-on studio lighting, almost.

We also have to say that we’re disappointed not to see a higher resolution screen in this model. The MacBook Air 13-inch has a 1366 x 768 panel, and the drop to 1280 x 800 here is noticeable if you’ve used both.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

That said, the screen is stunning. It’s got good viewing angles, and colours and clarity are second to none. The LED backlight is nice and even, though it’s ever so slightly lighter at the bottom of the screen (you’d have to be viewing a black image carefully to notice, though).

HD video in particular looks crisp, smooth and totally natural. Text is easy to read and the colours of icons stand out from each other beautifully.

If getting a higher-resolution screen in the laptop would have compromised its quality (with a lower colour gamut or poorer viewing angles, for example), then we can understand the lack of an upgrade as standard, but we really think it should be a BTO option.

The MacBook Pro’s design hasn’t changed, which means a class-leading unibody aluminium enclosure. While not overly heavy, it’s not exactly super-lightweight either, but then that’s what the MacBook Air’s for.

The backlit keyboard is one of the under-rated parts of the current MacBook Pro rangeFor all the bluster over power, excellent usability hasn’t been overlooked The keys move softly, but have a nice click when fully depressed, though they remain very quiet.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

Tying into this is usability is the multi-touch trackpad. It can seem gimmicky on the face of it, but when software really makes use of it, such as in Twitter for Mac and several of Apple’s own applications, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Once you start using it regularly, it’s very hard to give up.

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion looks set to expand on this hugely, and we think multi-touch interaction will be a strong selling point for future Macs (if it isn’t already).

Now that we’ve mentioned Lion, we can’t ignore that it casts something of a shadow over these laptops. It’s due a summer release, so if you buy now you’ll likely find yourself with some OS envy later in the year.

We’re not suggesting it should deter you from buying now – summer’s still some way off – but it’s something to consider.

The big news on the side of the MacBook Pro is the new Thunderbolt I/O. This 10Gbps port is based on PCI Express, meaning it’s more or less protocol agnostic. Peripherals could be made that enable USB and FireWire devices to attach to it, and more, along with displays.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

Apple and Intel have shown the tech (known previously as Light Peak), transferring huge amounts of data to an external SSD RAID and driving a 1080p display simultaneously.

With the ridiculous transfer speed on offer, you should be able to transfer a Full HD movie to your laptop in just 30 seconds. And it’s actually 10Gbps in two directions, so if you’re transferring stuff out and in at the same time, you don’t end up with the bandwidth of each halvedRemarkable stuff.

Thunderbolt passes through the mini-DisplayPort connection that used to occupy the same space on the machine, so the current Apple Cinema Display will work, just without the data transfer part.

Thunderbolt’s inclusion really serves as a reminder of the ‘Pro’ part of the MacBook Pro. It may seem like overkill for the average joe, and that’s because it is, at least for the moment. But for video editors and other pro users, it means they can take full advantage of the portability of a laptop and the power of Intel’s newest processors without compromising on disk space or speed.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

So far, there are no peripherals that use Thunderbolt, so it’s firmly one for the future. We were a little disappointed not to see a Thunderbolt-ready Cinema Display arrive with the new MacBook Pros, but we’re sure it’ll come.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro still features other ports, of course. There’s an Ethernet port, six-pin FireWire, two USB ports and an SDXC card reader.

On the opposite side is the optical drive, which is still Apple’s standard SuperDrive, which means dual-layer DVD burning and no Blu-ray.

Performance & benchmarks

The real story for the 2011 MacBook Pro range is the astonishing performance of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors. The 13-inch model has seen perhaps the most notable jump of all, skipping the early Core i-series entirely and going straight to the hard stuff.

Though CPU boosts normally show through in longer, more processor intensive tasks than in general use, the new MacBook Pro feels incredibly snappyPrograms barely bounce on the dock before launching, and there’s generally a notable lack of waiting.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

We always attributed the MacBook Air’s instant wake from sleep to its SSD, but clearly Apple’s been making tweaks to Mac OS X that go beyond the storage medium, because this MacBook Pro is just as fast to wake when you open the lid.

As you might expect, we put the 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor through its paces. To give it a real challenge, we put it head to head with a 27-inch iMac powered by a last-generation, quad-core Intel Core i5 chip.

By all rights, it shouldn’t be a fair fight. It’s four real cores in the iMac versus two real cores and four virtual ones (thanks to Hyper-Threading) in the MacBook Pro. A 7200rpm hard disk in the iMac faces a 5200rpm drive in the MacBook Pro. Both machines feature 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 RAM. It’ll be a whitewash to the iMac, won’t it?

Erm, not exactly. First up is NovaBench from the Mac App Store, which tests a range of hardware on each machine. The iMac’s overall score was 1103, which destroys the MacBook Pro’s 654.

But that score doesn’t tell the whole story. When broken down, it looks very different, and a bit embarrassing for the older machine. The iMac’s RAM speed is rated at just over 5GB/s, while the MacBook Pro’s is a whopping 8GB/s. The iMac takes the drive write speed crown thanks to its 7200rpm disk, clocking in at 100MB/s against the laptop’s 74MB/s.

The processor score is where it really gets interesting. The MacBook Pro’s Core i7 bested the iMac’s Core i5 by a very small margin in every single CPU test – floating point and integer operations per second, and MD5 hashes calculated per second.

How did the iMac win so handily overall then? The Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics might be an improvement, but the AMD 5750 in the iMac is in another league. The MacBook Pro got 66 frames per second in the tests, the iMac managed 992. No, we haven’t added an extra digit there.

MacBook pro 13-inch (2011)

  • NOVABENCH: The iMac is on the left, the MacBook Pro 13-inch on the right

We moved onto GeekBench next (in 32-bit mode). It gave us a similar story, although with slightly different results. This suite skips over the graphics capabilities, so it was mano y mano for the two CPUs.

The MacBook pro pipped it, with a score of 6910 against the iMac’s 6680. The laptop won on integer performance again (just), but the iMac edged it out for floating point performance. The killing blow came in the memory performance, with the MacBook Pro comfortably besting the iMac in both tests.

Remember, the two machines have identical RAM, so this is an area Intel has clearly been working hard on improving in its new CPU and chipset technology.

MacBook pro 13-inch 2011

GEEKBENCH: The benchmark summary for the iMac

MacBook pro 13-inch 2011

GEEKBENCH: The benchmark summary for the 13-inch MacBook Pro

Of course, benchmarks only ever tell part of the story. The real question is how the two processors match up in a real performance test.

We gave both machines an identical 1080p video to encode from the Apple Intermediate Codec to H.264 in QuickTime X. The original video had a bitrate of 68Mbps, which would be scaled down to 10Mbps as part of the encode.

The laptop managed a respectable three minutes and 29 seconds, but was beaten soundly by the iMac, which did it in three minutes exactly. The MacBook Pro’s four virtual threads might do well in benchmarks, but there’s no substitute for real cores.

What’s particularly telling about the MacBook Pro’s encoding time is that it means it isn’t using the Quick Sync Video feature in the Sandy Bridge chips for this operation. We hope this is something enabled in the future, because the hardware encoding it’s capable of should increase speeds dramatically.

Our final PU test was an iTunes encode from AAC to MP3. We converted one album, totalling 13 tracks and one hour long. The iMac converted them all in 47.4 seconds, but the MacBook Pro nicks the plaudits by performing the task in just 44.6 seconds.

We switched to gaming next, without any high hopes. Integrated graphics have always been awful, so we weren’t expecting much here.

In fact, we had to reassess that. We fired up Torchlight first of all, which isn’t particularly graphically intensive but can have a lot happen on screen at once. It ran perfectly smoothly at all times at the screen’s maximum resolution with most of the effects on high (antialiasing and V-Sync were turned off).

We switched to Portal next, also at 1280 x 800 with many options set to ‘High’. It totally battered our expectations. We were expecting it to run, if a little choppily, but we weren’t expecting to get 80-90 frames per second!

However, we soon saw why we were getting such good framerates: V-Sync was turned off here, too. It was tearing the screen in three or four places when it got busy, and was just horrible to look at, so we delved into the settings and turned it on.

Things immediately settled down to 30 frames per second. There were occasional dips below that, but it was held there solidly in general, so was perfectly playable. Again, this was at 1280 x 800.

With the graphics having already pleasantly surprised us, we switched to some slightly newer games.

Left4Dead 2 is based on the same engine as Portal, but with some upgrades. Like Portal, it was perfectly playable.

At 1280 x 800 with V-Sync on, Antialiasing off, Shader Detail set to ‘Low’ and Effect Detail and Model/Texture Detail both set to ‘High’, it did its best to keep locked to 30fps. It’s wasn’t entirely successful, dipping slightly below fairly regularly, but with a few settings tweaks you could mitigate that.

To get Borderlands to run smoothly, we had to lower all of its settings, but run it did. We genuinely weren’t expecting to be able to get a remotely smooth framerate, but it actually wasn’t unplayable even at 1280 x 800 with many effects set to high. It was choppy as hell, but worked.

Though we’re impressed with the graphics performance of the new MacBook Pro 13-inch, the NovaBench results serves as a reminder that it’s still well behind a good discrete graphics card.

One thing we noticed when performing all of our tests was that the fans kicked in most when gaming, rather than during the video encodes. In fact, the fans got really loud when we had Portal running in particular.

As is usually the case with the aluminium MacBook Pros, the case can become pretty warm. However, it didn’t get as scorching as some previous models have, even when under major strain. Those loud fans clearly serve a purpose.

Lastly, we looked at the battery life of the MacBook Pro. To give it a good test, we forced the screen to a high brightness level and played a 1080p video at fullscreen in a loop while an active FaceTime call (over a wireless network) ran in the background. We then left the laptop to run down (though we did interrupt to run our iTunes benchmark tests – still without plugging in).

Hammering the battery like this, we got two hours and 45 minutes out of the MacBook Pro. It’s slightly less than we were hoping, but if you dimmed the screen and were just browsing casually, we could see you doubling this.

Final thoughts

When the 13-inch MacBook Pro range was first announced, many were hopeful that it would be the spiritual return of the much-loved 12-inch PowerBook. For some, it filled the role, but it didn’t have the eye-opening power that the dinky 12-inch laptop had.

That’s changed. Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors are simply an astonishing bit of technology, and the rejigged architecture combined with a high clockspeed in this Core i7 version enables it to come close, and even sometimes beat, the quad-core 27-inch iMac equipped with the previous generation of Intel chips.

Thunderbolt is a significant inclusion, too. It’s future-proofing more than something with immediate impact, but its inclusive nature when it comes to other ports means that it could become the one-stop port for connecting peripherals to the new MacBook Pros.

We liked

The power of this machine will just leave you gaping. It’s 13 inches. It’s 2kg. It’s desktop-class CPU power.

This doesn’t just come through in pro applications. This is an incredibly snappy and responsive machine to use for general browsing and casual use. Programs open quickly and there’s no waiting when multitasking.

The design is a superb as ever. The manufacturing oozes quality, from the solid aluminium body to the ever-useful MagSafe power adapter and backlit keyboard.

The screen is absolutely beautiful, despite the lack of a resolution upgrade. Colours are so natural and appealing, especially in HD video, and it’s so bright and clear that we can mostly forgive Apple for this one. As we said before, though, we really think it should be an option.

We like the idea of Thunderbolt, and its capabilities. To say we like much more than right now, with no peripherals to take advantage of it, would be overstating, but we think it could be a significant development for future laptop designs.

We disliked

The graphics have been improved, but they’re still below what we’d really like to see in a £1000+ laptop. Yes, many games will play well enough on it as is, and OpenCL is supported, but we’d still like to see graphics grunt to match the CPU.

The FaceTime HD camera is a bit of a letdown. It seems like an upgrade for upgrade’s sake, rather than a useful addition.

The world turns, and there’s still no Blu-ray appearance in Apple’s hardware. It’s less important in this model than the larger notebooks and desktops (and particularly the Mac Mini and its HDMI output), but it’s something that could put some people off.

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that £1,299 is quite a lot of money. As we said, quality and power is obvious in almost every part of this machine, but it’s
still no small change. The battery life was also a bit of a letdown, but not a major one considering the power on offer.

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Pros

  • Stunning display quality
  • Thunderbolt port
  • Superb construction and design

Cons

  • No option for high-res screen
  • No Blu-ray
  • Pretty expensive
  • Still a little weak graphically

Verdict

Intel and Apple are on to a winner in this ‘small notebook, massive power’ form factor. If additional graphics power isn’t important to you, then you can add half a star onto the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s scoreThe speed and capability on offer are just superb.

Though it certainly has reasons why some potential buyers will be turned off (not high-res enough screen, no Blu-ray, no discrete graphics), this is an undeniably
excellent machine. If you want serious computing ability in a small package, look no further.

Apple MacBook Pro 2011 (13-inch) Expert Review

 

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