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Apple's unibody MacBook Pro: an in-depth review with video

Apple's newly redesigned 15" MacBook Pro improves upon the graphics, RAM, and CPU performance of the previous generation while adopting the strong lines and unibody construction of the MacBook Air, the keyboard of the 2006 consumer MacBook, the environmentally friendly design of last year's iMac, and the iPhone's headphone mic, resulting a strong package of cross pollination across Apple's various branches.

AppleInsider spent upwards of 50 man hours on this six-page review of Apple's new MacBook Pro. Therefore, the report is quite lengthy. Readers looking for information on specific topics can use this jump menu (below) to easily navigate to the relevant segments.

Position in the MacBook family

The new 15" MacBook Pro and its smaller 13" MacBook companion have rejiggered Apple's notebook lineup. In particular, the company has redefined the features it regards as "Pro." The new MacBook Pro is distinguished by its high performance dedicated GPU, the availability of Firewire-800 (Apple now regards FireWire as a Pro-only feature, having ceded the consumer market to USB entirely), an ExpressCard/34 expansion slot (only ever offered on Apple's Pro notebook line), and the larger display sizes and faster CPU options only offered on the MacBook Pro.

The company has pulled the entry level MacBook up into the MacBook Pro's standards in many aspects, including graphics performance suitable for playing most games, a backlit keyboard option (on the high end MacBook), and the same high quality aluminum physical design, moving the MacBook from being an iBook replacement to a scaled down MacBook Pro, albeit lacking FireWire.

Both new notebooks also now aligned alongside the MacBook Air, adopting its same lines and rigid construction while increasing the internal space to allow room for the features the Air cut in its efforts to pare down its weight and size.


Missing from Apple's lineup is a small Pro notebook; Apple assumes that if you want a screen smaller than 15" you're either likely to be looking for the thin and light, highly mobile MacBook Air or are primarily looking to save money, and willing to give up some of the Pro features to do that. The two new models Apple introduced this month also reveal that the company is aiming broadly at the most valuable targets in the retail-oriented notebook market, rather than trying to please everyone with a scattershot array of scores of models from $600 cheapies to $3000 game notebooks (as Dell and HP offer), or only selling to a narrow niche of high end mobile users (as Apple was doing just a half decade ago).


For comparison shots of the new MacBook and MacBook Pro, see: High-quality photo comparison: the new unibody MacBooks


Unibody design changes

Apart from being scaled up, the unibody MacBook Pro is otherwise identical in build to the new consumer MacBook and significantly different than the MacBook Pro it replaces, both in design and in features. We'll detail the changes first, then provide a review of which features are welcomed improvements, which are cost cutting disappointments, and which are just differences users will have to apply their own subjective opinions on when considering the new model.


Rather than using a thin aluminum pan outfitted with an internal skeleton to provide strength and rigidity, covered by a thin top panel (as the previous MacBook Pro and Aluminum PowerBooks have used over the last half decade), the new unibody MacBooks are machined from a block of aluminum to create a strong, single-piece shell that is covered in back by two thin panels, one of which is screwed down, the other of which pops open easily to present the now internal battery and the much more accessible hard drive.


In addition the to new case design, the unibody MacBooks borrow a number of design ideas that first debuted with the 2006 MacBook: a recessed keyboard frame that backs the keyboard into the top surface of the machine, allowing the lid to shut without the screen hitting the keys; a lid that now shuts with magnetic attraction rather than using physical latches as the previous MacBook Pro; and a new internal layout: the ports on the MacBook Pro are now all aligned along the left side, following the top-left corner logic board layout of the original MacBook, which similarly placed the optical drive up in the top-right corner and put the battery and hard drive along the front edge for easy access from the rear cover.


Also new to the MacBook Pro is its black keyboard that extrudes through the top palm rest surface as separate keys (the previous MacBook Pro had a silver-colored, single panel keyboard); a larger multitouch trackpad that acts as a single physical button as well as being programmable to serve right and left button features and multi-fingered gestures, a thinner lid that presents a display fit behind a sheet of glossy glass surrounded by a black margin (as opposed to a silver-colored, metal margin as the previous Pro and as the current Air uses); and a redesigned hinge, which is not only distinguished in the same stark black outline as the margin around the display and on its backside edge, but also behaves differently, as we describe below.


For more information on unibody construction process, see: Apple details new MacBook manufacturing process

Appearance, body fit and finish

After five years of Aluminum Powerbook/MacBook Pro speed-bumps and minor updates within the same case design, the new unibody construction premiered by the MacBook Air promises to stick around for at least that long. It's a very welcome change. As we noted in regard to the MacBook Air, the new MacBook Pro is absolutely rigid, not just in its flex-free body, but even in its ultra thin lid.

The new machined construction also bumps up the fit and finish dramatically. We were fairly pleased with the appearance and construction of the old MacBook Pro, but the new unibody model simply blows it out of the water and makes it look clunky and fragile in comparison. It's really that much of a difference. If you're not in the market for a new notebook, you should avoid looking at the new models or you will seriously risk falling out of love with your current machine.

The entire case of the new unibody MacBook Pro is once piece from the top palm-rest surface though to the thin bottom cover. That gives the machine an ultra solid feel with smooth rounded corners, precisely machined ports that lie behind 3mm wall of solid metal rather that floating in a plastic shell suspended behind the thin aluminum skin, and lacking the plastic gasket rimming the edges of the body and lid as the previous model had.

The new body certainly isn't indestructible, but drops or dings are less likely to bend the case out of alignment. The fragility of the previous MacBook Pro is particularly evident around the unit's front corner optical drive slot, where any blow to the front edge of the machine can warp the thin metal pan so that the slot doesn't line up well enough to spit out a disc properly. Even normal wear and tear can flex the old case, lid, and internal components to the point where things don't line up.


The new machine puts the optical drive on the top-right corner, where the more rigid shorter side of the unit is also bolstered in strength by the fact that the drive itself is positioned behind a much thicker and stronger shell opening. While one could probably smash the opening closed with a hammer, the likelihood of bumping the slot out of its precision alignment with the drive mechanism seems far less likely.

For comparison shots of the new MacBook Pro and its aluminum predecessor, see: High-quality unboxing photos: late 2008 15" MacBook Pro

On page 2 of 6: The Air-tight display lid; The glossy screen; & The extruded keyboard.

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