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Review: Apple's early 2011 Thunderbolt MacBook Pros

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The Sandy Bridge advantage

Looking just at their clock speeds, it appears that the new Core i5 and i7 MacBook Pros are slightly slower than the machines they replaced. However, clock speed isn't a level measure of performance when you're comparing different chip architectures with different numbers of cores.

The previous 15 inch model offered a 2.4 or 2.53GHz Core i5 or a 2.66 GHz Core i7 (the 17 inch model offered the top two options only), while the 13 inch model used a Core2 Duo. New models supply a 2.3 or 2.7GHz dual core i5 (on the 13 inch Pro); 2.0, 2.2, or 2.3GHz quad core i7 options on the 15 inch model; and 2.2 or 2.3GHz quad core i7 options on the 17 inch version.

Despite the clock speeds, the new models' benchmarks in computing tasks are far higher. The new Sandy Bridge chips are really fast, and the new MacBook Pros provide twice as many cores on the mainstream models.

Like the previous generation of Core i5 and i7 Arrandale chips, the new Sandy Bridge chips include a memory controller in the die (it's actually bundled into the Intel HD Graphics chip, which sits next to the CPU in the same package). This integrated memory controller prevents the CPU from having to communicate with an external chipset to access RAM, offering new efficiency in how the processor can keep itself saturated with data. This in turn makes every cycle of the clock more productive.

The chips also use Intel's HyperThreading to schedule tasks in such a way to efficiently pack in as much work as possible into the available cores. HyperThreading can enable a two or four core processor to achieve the performance of a chip with twice the cores without actually using any more energy.

At the same time, the new chips can also do the opposite when there are not multiple threads available to run at the same time, thanks to a feature called Turbo Boost. The chips will effectively shut down the idle processor core and devote its power to the primary, enabling it to increase its clock speed to finish what it has available to do a little faster.

New in Sandy Bridge is support for a feature Intel calls QuickSync, which can dramatically speed video encoding and decoding tasks. Apple hasn't made any mention of support for this feature yet, but may still be working on support. Third party apps can also take advantage of the hardware acceleration technology. It is rumored that Apple will be leveraging new hardware encryption features in the Core i5 and i7 to support Mac OS X Lion's full disk encryption, a processor intensive task that should welcome the new dedicated chip support.

The shift of the 13 inch model to the new Sandy Bridge architecture makes the low end option more attractive than in previous MacBook Pro families, and helps to offset the slightly weaker performance of its Intel HD 3000 graphics compared to the integrated NVIDIA chip last year's model had.

All three models ship with Mac OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard, the same, latest version number available from Software Update. However, the new models include a new build, 10J3210 versus the latest generally available build of 10J567. This new build incorporates TRIM support for SDD optimization, as well as hardware support for the new Thunderbolt port and AMD Radeon HD graphics and new Sandy Bridge CPUs.

The New MacBook Pros in Review

The new MacBook Pros are the same thin, strong and attractive models as last year but now deliver a nice jump in processing and graphics performance while still holding on to the impressive battery life introduced with integrated batteries last year (even though the more conservative rating suggests that their battery life has decreased).

On the downside: the 13 inch model still doesn't offer a high resolution screen option nor a matte finish, nor speedier processor options.

All models come standard with 4GB of RAM, which is the minimum a "Pro" machine should deliver. Upgrading to 8GB now costs "only" $200 more, which is approaching reasonable but certainly not the cheapest option available.

Apple provides rather tepid 5400 rpm conventional hard drives as the core option, still supplying a big, inefficient internal DVD SuperDrive rather than a secondary bay for a second hard drive or SSD. A faster 7200 rpm 500GB drive is available for a $100 premium, or a larger 750GB, 5400 rpm disk is available for the same $100. A smaller but faster 128GB SSD is available for $200 more, with 256GB and 512GB SSD options priced at a steep $600 and $1200, respectively, for the 15 inch MacBook Pro. Some options on higher end models may be slightly less.

Unlike most PC notebooks, Apple's offerings don't include support for eSATA, Blu-Ray or HDMI output connectors, although the new machines now support audio output through the Mini DisplayPort, meaning users only need a cheap $30 dongle to route both HDMI video and high quality audio out through the Mini DisplayPort to an HDMI TV.

Thunderbolt now eclipses eSATA without adding another port, solving a long standing issue for users who want very high performance disk access on their notebook. Apple hasn't aggressively stripped FireWire and USB ports from the new machines, which would cause too much disruption for users given that Thunderbolt devices and docks are simply not yet available.

Rating 4 out of 5


Solid construction
Great battery life
Strong CPU and GPU update for all models
New Thunderbolt interconnect
New SDXC card slots on 13 and 15 inch models

No built-in HDMI port or Blu-Ray playback
Limited reasonably priced BTO upgrade options for SDD, RAM
No 13 inch high density display option comparable to the MacBook Air

Where to Buy

Several of Apple's larger authorized resellers have just received fresh stock of of the five standard retail configurations for the MacBook Pro. And a handful are offering considerable early discounts of up to $150 on the new models.

For its part, MacConnection is offering the lowest prices on the high-end 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros, while MacMall delivers the best deals on the 13-inch models and 2.0GHz 15-inch model through its 3% instant discount coupons, which are embedded in the price guide links below and are exclusive to AppleInsider readers.

For those readers considering a discounted purchase through one of these authorized resellers, it's noteworthy to point out that MacConnection requires that customers submit mail-in-rebates post purchase to achieve the prices listed in AppleInsider's Mac Pricing Guide, while the discounts shown for MacMall are instantaneous (including the 3% AI discount) and do not require any form of rebate.