The new Apple MacBook Pro computers were released yesterday. After months of rumors we finally got to see what new goodies Apple added to its flagship portable computer line. As usual some of the rumors turned out to be true, and some turned out to be false. The MacBook Pro has always been a great system, and of course the latest ones are the best ever. The question is, should you buy one?
So what exactly did Apple add to the new MacBook Pro line? Depending on how you look at it either quite a bit, or really not too much.
Physically the computers are exactly the same. Same aluminum unibody design. Same multi-touch trackpad. Same three choices for screen size (13", 15", or 17"). Same backlit keyboard. From the outside you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the new models and the ones that they are replacing.
The real changes are mostly hidden inside the system. The biggest change comes in the form of Intel's "Sandy Bridge" processors, which have been added to all three MacBook Pro models. Apple claims that these new processors, in either i5 or i7 flavors with up to four cores, enable all three new systems to run up to twice as fast as their predecessors. In addition to the new processors Apple also bumped up the graphics performance across the board by switching to the Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor for everyday computing on all models, and replacing the NVIDIA chipsets on the outgoing 15" and 17" models with AMD Radeon processors including up to 1GB of GDDR5 memory on the new 15" and 17" systems.
The other two significant hardware changes that Apple made on the new models are the inclusion of a new higher resolution camera (which Apple dubs a "FaceTime HD" camera) and a brand new high-speed data port called Thunderbolt.
The FaceTime HD camera allows you to make video calls at up to 720p resolution to other MacBooks or iOS devices such as iPhones (and most likely iPads come next week). The introduction of the new FaceTime HD camera also marks the official release of FaceTime for Mac, which had previously been available only in its beta form. I suspect that we will see the next crop of iPads and iPhones include this higher resolution FaceTime camera as well, but time will tell.
The Thunderbolt port is a next-generation data port, based on Intel's Light Peak technology (now universally renamed Thunderbolt) that supports speeds up to 10Gbps. To put this in perspective, this is about twenty times faster than USB 2.0 speeds and twelve times faster than Firewire 800 speeds. The port uses the same connection as DisplayPort, and can thus also be used to drive an external display. In fact the new Thunderbolt standard allows you to daisy chain up to six devices together so you could theoretically connect multiple hard drives and your external display all by connecting just one cable to the MacBook Pro.
It is also worth mentioning that Apple enhanced the SD card slot on the 13" and 15" models so that it can now be used with SDXC cards. This allows you to use cards that exceed 32GB in storage capacity. Previously the slot would only accept the SDHC standard, which is limited to 32GB.
It looks like Apple's goal with the new MacBook Pro lineup was to really bump up performance as much as it could without having to change the physical characteristics of the computer too much. The external ports are still in the same place, there's still an optical drive, there's still a single hard drive, and the keyboard and trackpad are still the same. All the standard components that could be replaced with better, faster versions were replaced (save for the hard drive... more on that in a moment). Even the addition of the Thunderbolt port didn't actually require an additional port because it also doubles as the external display port that was already on the previous model MacBook Pro.
There were two rumors that I was hoping to see come true, and neither did: Solid-state drives coupled with traditional hard drives and built-in wireless data.
The solid-state drive rumor was that Apple would be including a small, 16GB or so, solid-state drive in the system to handle the operating system and application storage coupled with a larger traditional hard drive for use as the actual storage for your pictures, video, etc. The thinking being that having all the "guts" of the software running on the solid-state drive would speed up the overall system, but not increase the price dramatically because the main storage would still be handled by a traditional, less costly hard drive.
The other rumor, around built-in wireless data, was a simple carryover from the iPad lineup. People can use their iPad anywhere thanks to the built-in wireless data option, but Apple has still not sold a regular computer with this feature. There are many MacBook Pro and MacBook Air users out there (myself included) who would love to have the option of using their system while away from Wi-Fi, especially if an a la carte price was available that did not require an ongoing contract (as is offered with the iPad). Sure there are ways around this such as using a USB adapter or a mobile hotspot, but neither is as elegant as having the technology built-in.
Should you buy one?
That's the big question. I think for most people the answer is going to be "no". Apple really hasn't added any breakthrough features with this round of updates. When the current MacBook Air was released several months ago Apple touted it as "the next generation of MacBooks". This seemed to imply that future MacBook Pro models would also gain some of the new features that were added to the MacBook Air line (namely the adoption of solid-state storage and even thinner form factors). From the looks of things we'll have to wait for at least one more update cycle before we see any drastic changes to the MacBook Pro lineup.
When you look at all the updates that did make it into the new model (processor, graphics, Thunderbolt port, SDXC card reader, and HD FaceTime camera) it's quite obvious that they are mostly geared towards overall speed and performance increases (with the exception of the camera). However, for most common computing tasks the outgoing models were already plenty fast. If you are browsing the web, downloading music, watching videos, or even doing standard photo editing from your digital camera you most likely will not even notice the speed increase on the new systems, and even if you do it certainly won't be enough to justify the cost of upgrading.
The Thunderbolt port is a nice addition, but how practical it is remains to be seen. There are only a few Thunderbolt compatible accessories on the horizon right now, plus this interface seems to be in direct competition with USB 3.0, which has already been adopted by several accessory and computer manufacturers.
Don't get me wrong. Apple builds great hardware and the new MacBook Pros are no exception. It just seems that they are built for a few select groups of people. If you're a working photographer or video editor and use your MacBook Pro on the job everyday then updating to these new systems is probably worth it. Likewise if you are just now purchasing your first MacBook Pro or are looking to replace a several year old model then the new models may be the ticket for you (although I strongly recommend considering the MacBook Air models as an alternative for regular consumer use).
For everybody else, especially people that already have a one or two year old MacBook Pro, I have to recommend that you skip this model and hold out for whatever comes next. These new models are certainly not the true "next generation of MacBook", although they may be a step in that direction.