15-inch Apple MacBook Pro £1499

15th Nov 2011 | 12:50

15-inch Apple MacBook Pro

Processor and graphics upgrades for 15-inch MacBook Pro

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Ivy Bridge processors; Intel HD Graphics 4000; New Nvidia discrete GPU; Faster memory; Optical drive;

Dislike:

Slow optical drive; Hard drive only 5400rpm; No Retina screen option; Only one Thunderbolt port; Heavy;

Introduction

Apple's mid-2012 MacBook Pro update isn't all about the Retina display. As well as introducing its top-of-the-range Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display, Apple also refreshed its regular MacBook Pro range.

The two 13-inch MacBook Pros and two 15-inch MacBook Pros were upgraded, but the 17-inch MacBook Pro was discontinued.

Standard, off the shelf prices for the 15-inch MacBook Pros are the same as for the previous generation, with the cheaper 2.3GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro costing £1,499 in the UK or $1,799 in the US and the more expensive 2.6GHz 15-inch Apple notebook going for £1,799/$2,199.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

On paper, the 15-inch MacBook Pro mid-2012 refresh is a minor update. The new non-Retina 15-inch MacBook Pros use the same form factor as their late 2011 predecessors, looking outwardly identical. The same unibody enclosure is used, whereby the body of the notebook is milled from a single block of aluminium, giving great strength without adding weight.

The screen is the same 15.4-inch LED-backlit display as before, the 720p FaceTime camera is unchanged and the keyboard still lights up in the dark for ease of typing. All the changes made to the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro are under the hood.

The processors have had a minor speed bump, but the upgrade is more significant than a comparison of their relative clock speeds implies. The new chips are Intel's third-generation Ivy Bridge processors, where the previous generation of MacBook Pros used second-generation Sandy Bridge CPUs. These new processors boast upgraded integrated graphics.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

The discrete graphics processors have also been upgraded, to the latest Nvidia GPUs. Faster onboard memory is used, too.

Unlike the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which features a completely new design focused on creating a thinner, lighter version of the MacBook Pro, the regular 2012 15-inch MacBook Pros retain their optical drives.

Storage remains faithful to the hard drive format, which offers significant advantages in terms of cost and capacity, but can't match the speed and lightness of the Retina display MacBook Pro's solid state drives.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

Connectivity is very much the same as before, with Thunderbolt, FireWire 800, Gigabit Ethernet and USB catered for, although the two USB ports are now USB 3.0.

In common with most Macs, the new Apple MacBook Pros can be upgraded and customised if you order online through Apple's website. You can add more memory to the cheaper of the two 15-inch MacBook Pros, and boost the processor of the more expensive model.

The storage drive can be upgraded in either version, to a bigger hard drive or a solid state drive, and you can opt for a 1680 x 1050 high-resolution glossy or anti-glare screen on whichever 15-inch MacBook Pro you choose.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

While the new MacBook Pro with Retina screen is undoubtedly the mid-2012 refresh's headline-grabber, the regular 15-inch MacBook Pros have distinct advantages of their own. As well as being cheaper, they're far more upgradeable than the Retina notebook, which offers few customisation options.

If you need an optical drive, the regular MacBook Pros retain the built-in SuperDrive, and the hard drive (which can be replaced or upgraded by you) offers greater onboard storage capacities.

If you're prepared to put up with the extra weight and don't need the Retina screen, a regular 15-inch MacBook Pro could be just what you're looking for.

But what does it offer by way of performance and specifications? Let's take a look.

Specifications

The new Ivy Bridge processors are quad core Intel Core i7 chips in both 15-inch MacBook Pros. Their Turbo Boost feature means that when processing demands are high, under-used resources can be reallocated to temporarily boost their speeds - temperature and power considerations allowing.

The cheaper of the two new 15-inch MacBook Pros has a 2.3GHz processor that Turbo Boosts up to 3.3GHz.

The high-end regular 15-inch MacBook Pro runs at 2.6GHz, Turbo Boosting to a maximum of 3.6GHz. Order from the Apple Online Store and you can upgrade the higher-specced machine to a 2.7GHz processor that Turbo Boosts up to 3.7GHz.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

All MacBook Pro processors offer Hyper-Threading, whereby two threads can run on each of the processor's cores, giving eight virtual cores on these quad-core chips.

The Ivy Bridge processors have integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 chipsets, which give an improvement of up to 60% over their predecessor's Intel HD Graphics 3000.

The discrete graphics chip has also been upgraded, an Nvidia GeForce GT 650M with 512MB or 1GB of GDDR5 memory replacing the AMD Radeon HD 6750M or 6770M used by the late 2011 15-inch MacBook Pros.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

The onboard RAM has been given a speed boost too, with 1600MHz DDR3L memory replacing the 1333MHz memory used before. The 2.3GHz model has 4GB off the shelf, which can be upgraded to 8GB on the Apple Online Store, with the 2.6GHz version having 8GB as standard.

Despite not having a Retina display, the regular 15-inch MacBook Pros retain the great screen used by previous generations. It boasts a 1440 x 900 native resolution and extremely good viewing angles.

You can upgrade to a 1680 x 1050 high-resolution glossy or anti-glare display if you wish, but even this doesn't come close to the Retina MacBook Pro's incredible 2880 x 1800 resolution.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

The new 15-inch MacBook Pros have 500GB and 750GB 5400rpm hard drives, respectively. Custom options for both versions include a 750GB drive running at 7200rpm, a 1TB HDD at 5400rpm or solid state drives of 128, 256 and 512GB capacity.

These regular 15-inch notebooks retain their FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet ports, unlike the Retina MacBook Pro, which proved too thin to house them.

There's also a single high-speed Thunderbolt port, an SDXC card slot and two USB ports that, for the first time in a Mac, are USB 3.0.

The built-in 77.5Wh lithium-polymer battery lasts for around seven hours of wireless internet use. The two new 15-inch MacBook Pros measure 2.41 x 36.4 x 24.9cm (0.95 x 14.35 x 9.82 inches) and weigh 2.56kg (5.6lbs).

Performance

In our benchmarking tests of the cheaper 2.3GHz new 15-inch MacBook Pro, the upgraded processors and graphics proved their worth.

Even comparing the cheaper 2.3GHz MacBook Pro of 2012 with the more expensive 2.4GHz version from the late 2011 refresh, we see the 2012 MacBook Pro has a significant edge in gaming.

The late 2011 MacBook Pro ran Doom 3 at 184.7 frames a second, and Call of Duty 4 at 86.7fps, but the newly refreshed cheaper 15-inch MacBook Pro managed 189.0fps and 87.5fps, respectively.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

In our Cinebench test, which rates the Mac's rendering capabilities, the new notebook scored 18395, up 16.5% on its more expensive predecessor's score.

A feature the MacBook Pros have enjoyed for some time is automatic graphics switching. Instead of having to open a preference pane and set the notebook's graphical capabilities to Better Performance (so using the discrete graphics chip) or Better Battery Life (using the integrated graphics chipset), this is now achieved on the fly, with no user intervention required.

When graphical needs are low, the integrated chipset is used to save the battery. When more graphical power is needed, graphics processing automatically switches to the discrete chip.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

The take-up of USB 3.0 in PCs means USB 3.0 peripherals such as external hard drives are common. Its adoption in the new MacBook Pros is extremely welcome, especially because the faster-still Thunderbolt protocol has been slow to catch on, and is proving expensive.

USB 3.0 can carry up to 4.8GB/s, which is 10 times faster than USB 2.0's 480MB/s. It's backwards-compatible with the older USB standard, so your USB 2.0 peripherals still work with the new MacBook Pros.

Although 2.56kg is a far from outrageous weight for a 15-inch notebook, Mac users have been spoiled by the ultra-portable MacBook Air and tantalised by the thinner, lighter 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Apple MacBook Pro 15inch review

The regular 15-inch MacBook Pros aren't heavy compared to other laptops of a similar size, but if you plan to carry one around a lot, or for long distances, it might be worth considering dropping a little power and a few features and buying a 13-inch MacBook Pro, or spending a little more and getting the Retina model.

The MacBook Pros have surprisingly good audio, with stereo speakers housed under grilles to the left and right of the keyboard. No notebook will ever put in an audiophile performance, but playing music through your 15-inch MacBook Pro's internal speakers isn't as excruciating as you might expect. Bass response is reasonable, and they have a decent amount of volume.

Like all Macs, the new 15-inch MacBook Pros come supplied with the latest version of OS X and the iLife suite. New Macs purchased before the release of Mountain Lion in July 2012 get a free upgrade.

Verdict

Next to the design revolution that is the MacBook Pro with Retina display, the regular 15-inch MacBook Pro refresh appears very minor. But looks can be deceptive.

Processors have been updated to the latest version of Intel's Core i series of chips, with an integrated graphics chipset that's up to 60% more powerful than its predecessor. The discrete graphics processor has also been upgraded, and is again up to 60% better than before.

The 2012 notebook refresh introduces USB 3.0 to Macs for the first time. Faster onboard memory has been used, too, with 1600MHz RAM replacing the previous generation's 1333MHz memory.

We liked

Although the regular 15-inch MacBook Pros lack the raw sex appeal of the Retina display model, there's plenty to commend them over their high-end stable mates. The standard 15-inch MacBook Pro is far easier to repair or customise than the Retina version; you can add memory or change the hard drive yourself.

If you've no wish to open up your notebook, a range of upgrade options are available on the Apple Online Store, including swapping the HDD for a solid state drive. And unlike the Retina MacBook Pros, the regular notebooks retain the in-built optical drive, Gigabit Ethernet port and FireWire 800 port.

Although the processors are only slightly faster than the last generation's, faster memory and better internal and discrete graphics give the new MacBook Pros a considerable performance boost. Gamers will appreciate the extra graphical power, as will video editors and those who deal with large images.

Early adopters who buy before the release of Mountain Lion - the next version of OS X, due in July 2012 - get a free upgrade.

We disliked

We haven't got much cause for complaint here. There's no online option to upgrade the screen to a Retina display, but that would probably be too much to ask. The optical drive is long overdue an update. Given Apple's well documented hostility to Blu-ray's licensing terms, a high density drive was never on the cards. But surely we could do better than the 8x SuperDrive, which hasn't been upgraded for years?

We wish the regular 15-inch MacBook Pros had a second Thunderbolt port like the Retina display models, and although it's not unduly heavy by 15-inch notebook standards, it's pretty weighty for a portable Mac.

Final verdict

Although not a massive update, the mid-2012 refresh sees the 15-inch MacBook Pro take a solid, confident step forwards. In many of our tests, the cheaper 2012 15-inch MacBook Pro outperformed the more expensive late 2011 model.

It's possible the new 15-inch MacBook Pros could fall between two stools. It lacks the Retina screen beloved by creative professionals, is more expensive than the MacBook Airs or the 13-inch MacBook Pros and is less portable than any other model in Apple's notebook range.

But fast processors and discrete graphics give it more power than smaller 13-inch MacBook Pros, without losing the optical drive, high-capacity storage options and upgradeability like the Retina MacBook Pros.

The 15-inch regular MacBook Pro still has a place in the pantheon of Apple notebooks, especially for those who hook it up to a Thunderbolt Display to use it as a desktop machine most of the time, but carry it around when necessary.

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