MacBook Pro 2011 15″ Review

Pros: 2nd-Gen (Sandy Bridge) i7 Quad-Core processors, Unibody design is still as good as it gets, battery life is a cut above the competition.

Cons: Price, No USB 3.0, no HDMI out, Generally runs a tad warm, discrete graphics card runs hot and slurps power when in use.

Summary: In past years, I always passed on Apple’s MacBook Pro despite my considerable interest because I couldn’t reconcile the the premium price tag with specs that were anything but cutting edge. This year, however, Apple made a significant stride towards making the MacBook Pro more competitive with what Engadget has accurately described as “one of the more aggressive refreshes in the machine’s history.”

The most prominent improvement is the inclusion of Intel’s Sandy Bridge quad-core CPUs. Apple, while known for being an innovator and trendsetter in the mobile device market, has never been an early adopter when it comes to their Mac products. So it was a big surprise when MacBook Pro started offering Sandy Bridge less than 60 days after its debut (and was, in fact, the first to make the CPU available en masse following the Cougar Point chipset fiasco). These processors have been the key component in a package that has yielded some of the most impressive benchmarks of any notebook PC to date (though it’s only fair to note that this gap is likely to narrow significantly once other manufacturers start offering their own Sandy Bridge models). This powerhouse CPU is packed inside Apple’s sturdy and sexy unibody design, complete with Apple’s industry-leading, marvelous glass trackpad (and gesture support), and comfortable keyboard. Even after 3 years on the market, this is still the design to beat (HP Envy seems to be catching up but, for the time being, the unibody design has no equal).

One of the more subtle improvements is an upgrade of the iSight camera to an HD webcam which allows for HD FaceTime calls (strangely, PhotoBooth and Skype for OS X still take VGA shots only, but I’d expect that an update is forthcoming).

The display is a big selling point for true professional users. Apple is one of the only portable PC makers to still offer 16:10 displays (most have opted to follow the TV-inspired trend of 16:9). As someone who does a fair amount of software development and web design, I can attest to the usefulness of the extra vertical pixels. The LED-backlit panel itself is above average [in relation to other laptop displays] in practically every measure of quality. The 15″ MacBook Pro allows customers to choose from two very usable resolutions (1440×900 and 1680×1050). This might not seem like much, but most other manufacturers don’t offer customers more than one resolution and, with most 15″ notebooks, that resolution is a mere 1366×768. All praise aside, one has to wonder when Apple, reputed for making aesthetically-pleasing devices, will start offering RGB LED displays in their MacBook Pro line.

Battery life has been one of MacBook Pro’s “tent-pole” features in recent years. Interestingly, Apple’s published rating of up to 7 hours for the new battery is a slight decrease from last year’s model. Apple has explained this as the result of using a more realistic testing approach. So how long does this battery really last? It should go without saying that it largely depends on how you’re using your MacBook. For casual usage with some video playback, most users will see this machine top out at around 5 and 1/2 hours (give or take 30 minutes). And while that figure is shy of the 7 hours claimed by Apple. it’s head and shoulders above most of the competition. If your use case involves frequent participation of the discrete GPU, lengthy encoding/decoding sessions, or other tasks with a heavy processing payload, then the battery life will decrease precipitously. And since the battery isn’t replaceable in an on-the-go fashion, some professionals might be well served by adding to their arsenal a portable external power source (photography professionals working on-location, for example). See the “Windows Performance” section below for information on the how the battery performs when booting into Windows 7 using Boot Camp.

The new Thunderbolt I/O port is an interesting prospect but isn’t really a draw at this point as no Thunderbolt-enabled peripherals have hit the market. In fact, I’d say we’re at least 12 months out from knowing whether this technology has a reasonable shot at success/proliferation. Personally, I expect the first few batches of Thunderbolt-enabled devices to be priced considerably beyond the average consumer’s budget. The silver lining, as confirmed by Intel, is that there’s no exclusivity on Thunderbolt which means that other PC makers are free to implement the technology when they feel the time is right.

The 2011 MacBook Pro does lack a few things that a PC labeled as “Pro” and sold in 2011 probably should have — GPU is good, but could be better (though I assume the nVIDIA/Intel debacle played a role in that), no USB 3.0, still only 2 USB Ports, 8GB RAM option is cheaper than last year but still overpriced, no HDMI port — but nothing about it is so archaic as to cause the price point to be downright offensive as it was in years past. One thing a number of reviewers have criticized is Apple’s consistent resistance towards Blu-Ray implementation. I’m on the fence on this matter as I find myself sipping on the Kool-Aid of those who are clamoring for the outright removal of the optical drive. If we could see an affordable SuperDrive with Thunderbolt and Blu-Ray support down the road, then I think that would be a fantastic compromise (though the latter seems highly unlikely as Steve Jobs himself has made his position against Blu-Ray clearly known).

After being on the fence about buying my first Mac for a few years, this refresh convinced me to finally pull the trigger. Yes, the price is still higher than it perhaps ought to be and some of the hardware isn’t quite cutting edge, but the new processor lineup coupled with the fantastic design made for a package that totally won me over. A recent negative experience with a different notebook also played into this decision (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re not worried about the story):

In early January I was in need of a notebook and was itching to try out the just-released Sandy Bridge processors. This was days before the Cougar Point issues were brought to light. I bought a 15″ Pavilion dv6t Quad Edition from HP. I customized a fully spec-ed out rig (i7-2820QM, 8GB RAM, 1GB AMD Radeon 6570). Through a discount program and a coupon, I made my purchase for a very reasonable price. It was fast and ran every Windows task I threw at it capably but, in every other regard, it was the worst notebook I’ve ever used. The screen (which res’d at a paltry 1366×768) had horrendous contrast and a frustratingly small arc of optimal viewing angles. The trackpad was extremely stiff and poorly designed (right-clicking was an arthritis-inducing nightmare). The standard 6-cell battery was only good for 2.5 hours of light-to-moderate use. I sent it back in less that two weeks. Given the vast difference in quality of user experience, components, and design, the significant price difference between that PC and the MacBook Pro seems infinitely less confounding.

OS X Performance: As a first-time Mac user, I can’t accurately compare the OS X performance of this machine to previous Macs, but I can say that just about every task I’ve attempted has been quick and fluid. There’s no doubt in my mind that this rig will meet and/or exceed OS X performance expectations at nearly every turn. Casual users will be pleased to know that this year’s MacBook Pro continues to handle with ease the more mundane tasks of web browsing, light-to-medium business productivity (iWork or Office), and correspondence. Professional users will likely find this machine adequate in most areas, though some concerns arise when working in situations that requires the constant attention of the discrete GPU as the heat output is considerable and the battery life dips well into the paltry ranges occupied by the rest of the industry.

UPDATE — March 17th, 2011: As a newcomer to OS X, I find myself wowed by the wide array of features and built-in tools, but disappointed by the general lack of stability. OS X has crashed on me more times in one month than three versions of Windows have (XP, Vista, Win7) in nearly a decade. This factor will likely warrant consideration the next time I look to purchase a PC.

Windows Performance: I know a lot of Mac users won’t care much about this, but it seems worth commenting on since so many people out there still use Windows at home (and it’s a subject with which I have considerable experience). I’ve been running Windows 7 through BootCamp from time to time and put the system through some considerable paces (I’m a software developer, so mainly large computations and heavy RDBMS queries). From a performance standpoint, the MacBook Pro seems to handle everything swimmingly (though not quite as well as the aforementioned HP notebook in some regards). And Windows has never looked as good as it does on the MacBook Pro’s lovely screen. That said, there are a couple downsides to the experience. Apple hasn’t included graphics-switching drivers to support Windows installations through BootCamp, so the discrete GPU runs constantly when booting into Windows. As a result, the machine runs much hotter in Windows (LubbosFanControl set for a minimum of 4000rpm seems to keep things running in the mid-to-upper forties [Celsius] range for most non-gaming situations). Also, the splendid battery life enjoyed in OS X is cut in half when running Windows. It’s a bit of a bummer for someone who does a fair amount of work in Visual Studio and SQL Server and might be a nuisance to hardcore gamers (though I honestly wouldn’t recommend this system to a hardcore gamer anyway) but I imagine a lot of Apple’s core Mac user base won’t have a big problem with it. I’m eager to try Parallels or Fusion at some point and compare the experience to BootCamp.

Recommendation: If you’re in need of a notebook, the 2011 MacBook Pro is a tempting package, particularly if you’re an avid Mac user. It’s not perfect for everyone — hardcore gamers, WIndows enthusiasts/exclusivists, and shoppers on a budget should stay away —  but it’s a fast and powerful machine with an unmatched design and a fantastic user experience. That said, I’m not sure I’d rush out to the store just yet. If you’re on the fence and can wait until early 2012 then I’d recommend doing so for the following reasons:

  • Apple’s next Macbook Pro refresh is likely to include Intel’s forthcoming CPU bump codenamed Ivy Bridge (scheduled to debut in Q4 2011) which, if Intel meets their goals, will have 20% better performance, use slightly less power and have a considerably more favorable TDP rating (less thermal output).
  • Intel’s integrated graphics will no doubt improve somewhat. I doubt it will be enough of an advancement to merit the outright removal of the discrete GPU from the higher-end MacBook Pros, but it could be enough to raise the cross-over threshold where the discrete GPU takes over, which would have a positive impact on battery life and net thermal output in several use cases.
  • OS X 10.7, codenamed Lion will have been released, as likely will the inevitable first service release that resolves some of Lion’s must-fix RTM bugs. Somewhere in this mix will likely exist improved graphics drivers (performance on the AMD Radeon 6570M is reportedly underwhelming in comparison to the nVIDIA 330M in the 2010 MBP line in some areas, primarily gaming).
  • Maturing SSD technology may finally put SSD upgrades at a point of mainstream accessibility. Right now, the bang is too small for the considerably large buck. Apple may also include TRIM support for non-Apple-supplied SSDs when Lion ships.
  • There will be a much clearer picture of where Thunderbolt stands.
  • From a driver perspective, it appears Apple doesn’t quite have a handle on some of the new hardware. Some issues were fixed by the 10.6.7 update released on March 21st but the user community is still abuzz with stories of random freezes (apps and system), application incompatibilities, heat spikes/fan spin-us, and so on.

A Note about Heat: I’ve criticized the heat output of the 2011 MacBook Pro a few times in this review. One hand, it’s only reasonable to expect that the inclusion of cutting-edge CPUs into MacBook Pro’s slim form-factor is going to tax the computer’s cooling resources. Power and cooling have long been a sort of cat-and-mouse game and this time power clearly has the upper hand.

On the other hand, I still think the 2011 MBP gets hotter faster than it ought to. For comparison, my last laptop was a Dell Inspiron E1705, purchased in November of 2006 and outfitted with a Core 2 Duo @ 2.2GHz and 4GB of RAM. I used that computer for nearly 4 full years before it was stolen during a break-in in October of 2010. For most of  time during which I used that laptop, it rarely reached 75C and only surpassed that mark when full-on gaming (and that was with modest fan speeds). The 2011 MacBook Pro seems to eclipse 75C regularly for even the most trivial of tasks (Web pages with RIA plug-ins such as Flash & Silverlight, YouTube/Hulu/NetFlix, non-GPU intense gaming, Xcode development) and passes 90C within moments of embarking on true “heavy load” operations (video encoding, large rendering jobs, moderate-to-heavy VM activity, 720p or 1080p streaming from some sources).

Recommended Reading:

  • iFixit Teardown   — http://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/MacBook-Pro-15-Inch-Unibody-Early-2011-Teardown/4990/1
  • Engadget Review — http://www.engadget.com/2011/03/04/macbook-pro-review-early-2011/

My Specs: 2.3 GHz i7 Sandy Bridge quad-core CPU, 8GB PC10600 DDR3 1333MHz RAM (ordered 4GB from Apple and performed an aftermarket upgrade), AMD Radeon 6570 GPU w/1GB DDR5 VRAM, 1680×1050 glossy display

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