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MacBook Pro is built to last

If the unibody MacBook Pro were a car, it would be an eight-cylinder, hybrid, luxury SUV with full body armor
  • Tom Yager (InfoWorld)
  • 06 November, 2008 08:55

Apple has done a complete and meaningful redesign of its top-selling commercial notebook, the MacBook Pro, for durability, serviceability, energy efficiency, and eco-consciousness. A one-piece, rigid, machined aluminum frame ("unibody") forms the MacBook Pro's internal structure, a design feature it shares with the new aluminum MacBook and MacBook Air. As with the MacBook Air, the clamshell laptop that upended the thin-and-light PC notebook market, Apple made some marvelously unorthodox design decisions for the MacBook Pro.

The MacBook Pro looks grand, no doubt, but I take little notice of eye-catching gimmicks. In this case, all that makes the MacBook Pro prettier than its predecessor has irrefutably rational reasons for inclusion in the design. Mounting the display glass flush with the lid's rounded edges is a nice look, but there's also a larger purpose: A continuous rubber gasket seals the display to the domed aluminum lid and guards against shock and vibration. Unlike with a more rigid seal, the gasket eliminates stress points that would cause the lid to bow from crush pressure.

Now the MacBook Pro, MacBook, and MacBook Air share the gapless keyboard that debuted with the original MacBook. I thought that, next to MacBook Pro's silver, typewriter-like keyboard, the MacBook keyboard looked cheap and kid-friendly. If the plastic MacBook's keyboard is cheap, its implementation in the MacBook Pro is anything but. The key grid is machined into the unibody core; plus, the keys do not rattle, the caps cannot pop off, and the honeycomb frame grabs the keys so tightly that it's hard to jam a fingernail between a key and the aluminum around it, so dust and debris have little chance of getting in. As a bonus, the whole top surface, keys and all, wipes clean with a damp cloth.

My only gripe with the new keyboard is the backlight. Apple used light pipes on previous MacBook Pro models so that only the key legends were lit. Now the entire key bed is illuminated, and light leaks distractingly from around and beneath the keys. With large white legends on black keys, I don't use the backlight as much as the old white-on-silver required.

Apple replaced the MacBook Pro's trackpad, a component I consistently found problematic, with a larger pad that has a matte glass surface. As advertised, the new pad is smooth as silk, even slippery to the point that when you click, it's hard to keep your finger in the same place. This makes tap-to-click menus, as well as drag and drop, an extra challenge. It seems that Apple adjusted for this by turning the trackpad into a tactile button; you mash on the lower half of the pad to click. Dumping the button made room for a bigger pad; it works best to click near the horizontal center. The trackpad is now so large that it could double as a little graphics tablet, but Apple tells me that a stylus isn't in the cards.

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Ins and outs

I've already alluded to the near-aerodynamic clamshell profile: It doesn't taper down to a slender nose as the MacBook Air does, but the MacBook Pro is much easier to carry without a case than its squarish predecessors, and it wedges between books and papers when hurriedly stuffed into an overstuffed backpack or bag. I recognize the hidden benefit of the clamshell: When closed, it's practically crushproof. It's not scratchproof, so don't put it in close quarters with anything metal, an iPhone included.

You need to watch out for one significant flaw in the chassis design: The battery/disk compartment cover has an easily pushed-in latch that's right where you pick the machine up when moving it with the lid open. For me, it has popped open accidentally twice. Apple points out that a Kensington lock prevents the battery door from opening. But it also blocks the DVD drive, so it isn't really a solution.

All the external I/O ports have been moved to one row along the left side: Ethernet, 800MHz FireWire, two USB 2.0, DisplayPort, audio-in/out (analog and optical), and ExpressCard. Apple has moved the battery charge gauge from the bottom to the left side as well. Current Mac users will need to buy adapter cables to connect to FireWire 400 peripherals and DVI (Digital Visual Interface) or HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) displays.

The USB 2.0 ports are side by side and too close together to be used at the same time unless you intentionally shop for cables with skinny boots. It worked better to have the USB ports on either side of the chassis.

Power efficiency is, and should be, an overriding concern in electronic equipment. Apple had already taken the key step of replacing fluorescent-display backlights with LEDs, eliminating mercury and lowering power consumption while creating two things that fluorescent-lit notebooks lack: the colors black and white. The black frame around the MacBook Pro's display really shows this off.

Power to the pixels

Apple reached deep inside the MacBook Pro for its next power chop, this time focusing on chip count and the GPU (graphics processing unit). Intel's chip set relies on separate north and south bridge chips for interfacing with memory and peripherals. Apple tapped Nvidia for a desktop-derived, single-chip solution that carries with it the benefit of a low-power integrated graphics processor that's twice as fast as Intel's own.

Integrated graphics is all that MacBook and MacBook Air users get, but as has always been the case, a gamer-class 3D GPU is core to the MacBook Pro's logic. Apple has reached out to Nvidia for this as well, and it leverages this single-source componentry to do a marvelous thing: When you need killer 3D, you flip on the 32-way discrete GPU. When you're working in productivity software or even playing HD movies, you can shut off the big, hot, power-hungry GPU and switch to the integrated graphics processor. Switching does not require a reboot, but it is necessary to log out so that all programs using the GPU are closed.

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Apple claims that with the integrated graphics processor running, the unibody MacBook Pro can achieve five hours of battery life with the screen at 50 percent brightness, productivity apps in constant use, and Wi-Fi operating. This is supported by my field tests. The machine also runs much cooler with the discrete GPU disabled. One battery issue I have identified is a noticeably longer charging time. Apple may have done this to address complaints about heat during charging. While the new charger is a bit smaller, it has the same output.

I have many more findings to pass along, but I've relegated these to detailed pros and cons that I'll share on my Enterprise Mac blog. Each day with the unibody MacBook Pro adds to the list, but that's a testament to the breadth of Apple's changes. There are a few steps backward from last year's model, but these are generally minor. On the criteria that matter most to me -- durability, longevity, flexibility, power efficiency, and ecological impact -- I've yet to come across a mainstream notebook that measures up to the unibody MacBook Pro. Apple's MacBook Pro is still the best notebook you can buy.