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Wednesday, March 09, 2011, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Review: Apple's early 2011 Thunderbolt MacBook Pros


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FaceTime HD

While the MacBook Pro's CPUs and GPUs have been rejiggered, their unibody construction and other features are largely unchanged: rigid aluminum cases with strong edges; good keyboard feel with backlit typing; a big, glass trackpad that supports gestures and secondary clicks; all the same ports as the previous models; and the same high quality displays with wide viewing angles and a glossy screen.

There are two new features however, the first being an improved FaceTime camera. Rather than only offering the basic VGA quality of previous MacBooks and the front facing camera of iPod touch and iPad 2, the latest MacBook Pros offer an HD version capable of higher quality video chat at 720p, similar to the rear camera of the iPod touch and iPad 2, but not quite up to par with the significantly higher quality iPhone 4 rear camera.

Other applications, ranging from Apple's own Photo Booth to third party apps like Skype, don't currently take advantage of the higher resolution capability of the new FaceTime HD cameras, but this is likely to change as the higher quality camera becomes the new standard.

Thunderbolt

The other main hardware feature of the new MacBook Pros is Thunderbolt, which augments the existing Mini DisplayPort connector to additionally provide external access to PCI Express, enabling external devices and other systems to interface with the new notebooks at blazingly fast speeds.

Right now, the potential of this new technology is largely untapped, as there aren't yet any devices on the market that support the new port. However, a variety of hard drive makers and media interface companies have announced plans to build new peripherals, docks and storage products. Until that happens, the new port continues to function as a standard DisplayPort interface while continuing to support DVI/HDMI and VGA output via dongle connectors.

Existing DisplayPort monitors, including Apple's LED Cinema Display, will be able to work at the end of a chain of multiple Thunderbolt disks and other devices. Due to the well documented, standardized nature of PCI Express, it is relatively easy for third parties to build devices that tap into the new speed, and alternative provide bridges to other interface types, including high speed Ethernet networking and potentially USB 3.0. If Thunderbolt becomes popular this year, it's possible that these MacBook Pros may be the last to sport FireWire 800, allowing Apple to drop support for it in the next year's models while still offering a Thunderbolt to FireWire bridge.

Thunderbolt is not only fast, but also smart, supporting Target Disk Mode (something no version of USB can handle) and networking as a switched fabric interconnect. Thunderbolt is very likely to show up on new MacBook Air models, as well as Apple's desktop line of Macs. However, the new interconnect is proprietary to Intel, so it probably won't appear on generic AMD-based PCs or on ARM-based devices like the iPad or other iOS devices.

Of course, Apple designs its own ARM chips, so it could add support for PCIe and Thunderbolt in future mobile devices if there were a demand. Currently, the blazing fast 10Gbps channels of Thunderbolt (which appears to support 10Gbps for Thunderbolt data and 10Gbps bandwidth dedicated to DisplayPort) are far faster than SATA 3 (6Gbps) or even Fibre Channel, combining a future proof data interconnect with convenient cabling based on Mini DisplayPort that is far in excess of anything a low powered mobile device might need in the foreseeable future.



Graphics and Batteries

The 13 inch Pro provides a 1280x800 LED-backlit glossy widescreen display, similar in pixel count to the 11 inch MacBook Air. There is no higher resolution option similar to the 13 inch MacBook Air, which Apple appears capable of sourcing.

The 15 inch Pro continues to offer a 1440x900 screen or a high resolution option of 1680x1050 for $100 more, with the high resolution option now available in gloss or "antiglare" matte versions. The 17 inch Pro supplies a 1920x1200 screen, also available in both glossy and "antiglare" matte versions.

Some early adopters of these models have experienced video problems. One of our three review models occasionally blanks video output to an LED Cinema Display attached via the Thunderbolt Mini Display Port, and once locked up entirely. This may be a situation that can be addressed by a firmware update, or may simply be bad RAM or other hardware on the specific model. There are not yet widespread reports of other hardware issues.

All MacBook Pros continue to ship with integrated batteries, which means you can't swap out external packs but that your internal battery will last about as long as two conventional notebook batteries anyway. The new models continue to provide the same 63.5, 77.5, and 95 Watt-hour batteries as previous models, but Apple now describes each as supplying "up to 7 hours" of wireless productivity rather than the previous rating of 10.

This new reduction in time is based upon a standardized test that drives the notebooks harder than previous tests, so there's not really a reduction in use but rather a more accurate comparison across Apple's product line. The company likes to stress that its products actually live up to their battery life ratings, as opposed to competitors that often over-promise and under-deliver.

The batteries are rated to last through 1000 cycles, meaning they should outlast conventional batteries and not need replacement throughout the primary life of the system (around five years). They can be replaced for a fee that's comparable to buying a new conventional battery.






Unique features among the three MacBook Pro model sizes

As with previous generations of MacBook Pros (review), the 17 inch model uniquely features three USB ports (rather than two on the 13 and 15 inch models) and an ExpressCard/34 slot (rather than just an SD Card slot on other MacBook models.) If you want an SD Card slot reader, you can get one for the 17" model's ExpressCard slot for about $20.

The card slot comes in handy if you want to use 3G WWAN card or have some specialized need for an interface like eSATA or additional Firewire ports, although Apple says its surveys show that only 10% of users ever actually use the ExpressCard slot. If you're in that minority of users who need it, the 17 inch model is the only way to get it on a MacBook. The 13 and 15 inch models integrate an SD Card slot supporting SDXD flash storage devices up to 64GB.

The 13 inch model supplies a single audio in and out port, which works with iPhone-style mic-integrated headphones as well as digital optical Toslink output. The 15 and 17 inch models additionally provide a second input port with support for both analog line and and digital optical Toslink input.



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