Intel Core i7 processor, meet the Apple MacBook Pro: what happens when the world's fastest mobile processor meets the world's best designed notebook computer.

Apple was a little late in slipping Intel's new mobile processors into its notebook line. The first Intel Core i7 for mobile use appeared late last year, but only now do we see one offered in a MacBook Pro, the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7.

The reason for the delay is not too hard to find: Apple's wise reticence in fitting an ill-suited processor just to follow tech fashion.

In the desktop range, the Intel Core i7 pretty much rules the roost in high-end personal computing. It's a quad-core processor equipped with HyperThreading (to virtually double four cores into eight) and TurboBoost, which autonomously ramps up one or two physical cores' clock speeds at times of peak demand.

Problem is, the first Core i7s tuned for mobile use were still blighted with challenging power demands – which equals terminal battery life and excessive heat and noise.

HP took the Core i7 plunge for its HP Envy 15 notebook, but that is one hot laptop that demands a huge strap-on battery pack to give half-decent mobile life.

The Core i7-720QM inside is a true quad-core architecture – but has a high thermal design power (TDP) of 45W to match. And its regular clock speed is only 1.6GHz.

Then Intel released the 2.66GHz Core i7-620M in January, with the ability to impulsively overclock to 3.33GHz. Note, though, that Apple cites 3.06GHz as its peak speed.

Nevertheless, Turbo'd thus it's still the quickest clocking chip ever to grace an Apple notebook. Its maximum TDP? A more manageable 35W, the same as the former-fastest Core 2 Duo used by Apple, a 2.8GHz T9600.

The only gotcha for quad-core fans is that this Core i7 inside the Apple MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7 is actually a dual-core processor chip. Lucky, then, that despite the quadesque i7 badge, its proving to be one helluva way to power a performance laptop.

But before we look at those benchmarks, there's more to the new top-flight Mac portable than a new CPU.

Apple MacBook Pro 15in profile

All ports on the Apple MacBook Pro 15in are ranged along the left side: (from left to right) MagSafe power connector, gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800, Mini DisplayPort, two USB 2.0, SD card slot, mic input with Toslink digital optical in, headphone output with Toslink out, battery-level button and eight concealed LEDs

In essential form and running gear, the new MacBook Pro range is the same as last year's Unibody family – except for a new graphics switching engine, and with two entirely new graphics processors to switch between.

In the case of the top-spec 15in model, fitted memory is still 4GB and storage is a 500GB, 5400rpm, hard drive. It is possible to specify faster 7200rpm hard drives, SSD storage, and up to 8GB of RAM.

Other material differences in the new line-up are a fractionally larger integrated battery in the Apple MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7 (up to 77.5Wh, from 73Wh), and a trackpad that now features inertia scrolling. Like the iPhone, a good stroke of the fingers sends a page coasting along even after you remove your hand.

Construction of the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7 is still the best in the business. Hewn from solid metal block and finished in a natural satin aluminium, this Unibody chassis is stiff, lightweight and durable. No chippable paint or chintzy plastic trim interferes with the complete professional look.

We're still reeling from Apple's decision to fit a glare screen on its pro notebooks, though. There remains an anti-glare LCD panel as a build-to-order option, although this higher-resolution 1680x1050 matt panel now adds £120 to the price.

NEXT PAGE: The graphics double act, and the benchmark results >>

Intel Core i7 processor, meet the Apple MacBook Pro: what happens when the world's fastest mobile processor meets the world's best designed notebook computer.

Graphics double act

The first GPU is built into the Intel Core i7 CPU itself, an Intel HD Graphics controller taking 256MB of the 4GB avaiable system DDR3 RAM.

This chip, a little slower than the outgoing low-power nVidia 9400M, hands over to an nVidia GeForce GT 330M with 512MB GDDR3 RAM. And crucially, it now does so without your intervention, as and when the system needs more graphics grunt.

This new nVidia GeForce GT 330M discrete card is based on a 40nm manufacturing die, reduced from the 65nm of the outgoing nVidia GeForce 9600M GT card. This alone should improve its power efficiency.

The number of processing cores increases by 50%, from 32 to 48, and when walking on the Windows side, the card supports DirectX 10.1 for gaming. nVidia specifies this GT 330M with a core speed of 575MHz, but it seems Apple's has mildly underclocked this card in the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7, to 500MHz.

Apple MacBook Pro 15in plan view

Apple pioneered the backlit keyboard and multi-touch trackpad, often imitated now on Windows notebooks

When Apple's dual-graphics technology first appeared with the Unibody MacBook Pros, you were required to log out and back in when deciding between best graphics performance for games and 3D rendering, or lowest power consumption. Now, it's all taken care of behind the scenes, without such messiness.

Apple's solution differs subtly from nVidia's own Optimus graphics-switch technology for Windows laptops, by sensing a need to step up or down, rather than doing so when a recognised graphics-hungry app is launched.

And the unused integrated graphics chip in the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7 is said to be powered down, rather than put to sleep as in nVidia Optimus.

For the user, the end result is very welcome – longer battery life without any hassle. In most daily duties, particularly the ones you're likely to be undertaking on the move, there's really little need for constant full-power graphics.

Apple promises an extension from an already-good 7 hours, to 9 hours battery life in Mac OS X. (The 13in MacBook Pro, meanwhile, advertises up to 10 hours.)

We gave the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7 model our routine test in MobileMark 2007, a Windows-only benchmark tool.

Since Apple's – or anyone else's – graphics-switching technology is not supported when running Windows on any MacBook, the laptop locks solely onto the full-bore nVidia discrete card. Consequently we weren't optimistic of long life.

But even here, in what could almost be considered a worst-case scenario for unplugged runtimes, the fastest MacBook Pro lasted over 5 hours (302 mins) in the MobileMark 2007 Productivity test.

Game on

We put the main GPU of the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7 through its paces with a selection of gaming tests, with all testing made after using Boot Camp to create a dula-boot Windows/Mac OS X machine. We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit for all Windows-specific benchmark tests.

Starting with FEAR at Maximum quality, the Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7  averaged 57 frames per second (FPS), a good result, if only 2fps faster than the previous fastest MacBook Pro, with its nVidia 9600M GT card.

Crysis showed a wider gap though, earning 89fps instead of 78fps (1024x768, Low). At a more visually attractive High setting, this dropped to 23fps; when almost matched to native screen resolution (1440x960), it mustered only 14fps at High quality.

The graphics performance is good, and a measurable step up from the previous 9600M GT, but a little way behind ATI's HD 5650 found in more game-focused laptops such as the Acer 5942G (right).

In STALKER: Call of Pripyat, a mean average of 27fps was possible at native 1440x900 resolution and Medium quality, using DirectX 10, rising to 32fps at 1280x720.

Final notes: overall system speed

Cinebench R10 showed only small benefit of the Core i7's hyperthreading, with a single-vs-multicore step-up of 2.25x.

Xbench gave an impressive three-average result of 177.8. Interestingly, when locked on to discrete nVidia graphics only, we saw a subtle lift to 180 points. In Geekbench 2 (32-bit) in Mac OS X, the MacBook Pro scored 5401 points.

Overall real-world system performance saw the greatest gains. The previous best MBP scored 98 points in our WorldBench 6 test. This Core i7 iteration shot up to no less than 115 points. This makes it comfortably the fastest notebook computer to ever enter the PCA labs.

NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, Mid 2010) 2.66GHz Core i7: Specs

  • 2.66GHz Intel Core i7-620M
  • 4MB L3 cache
  • 15.4in (1440 x 900) 16:10 glossy LED-backlit display
  • Mac OS 10.6.3 Snow Leopard
  • Intel HD Graphics with 256MB system DDR3 RAM + nVidia GeForce GT 330M with 512MB GDDR3 RAM
  • Mini Display Port
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1066 RAM
  • 500GB 5400rpm SATA 3Gb/s HDD
  • DVD±RW DL
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 1 x FireWire 800
  • 2 x USB 2.0
  • SD/SDHC card slot
  • headphone jack with S/PDIF optical, mic in with S/PDIF optical
  • iSight webcam
  • built-in mic
  • stereo speakers
  • backlit keyboard
  • four-finger multitouch trackpad
  • light sensor
  • infrared sensor
  • 77.5Wh lithium-polymer battery, non-removable
  • MagSafe power connector
  • 364 x 249 x 24mm
  • 2540g
  • 2.66GHz Intel Core i7-620M
  • 4MB L3 cache
  • 15.4in (1440 x 900) 16:10 glossy LED-backlit display
  • Mac OS 10.6.3 Snow Leopard
  • Intel HD Graphics with 256MB system DDR3 RAM + nVidia GeForce GT 330M with 512MB GDDR3 RAM
  • Mini Display Port
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1066 RAM
  • 500GB 5400rpm SATA 3Gb/s HDD
  • DVD±RW DL
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 1 x FireWire 800
  • 2 x USB 2.0
  • SD/SDHC card slot
  • headphone jack with S/PDIF optical, mic in with S/PDIF optical
  • iSight webcam
  • built-in mic
  • stereo speakers
  • backlit keyboard
  • four-finger multitouch trackpad
  • light sensor
  • infrared sensor
  • 77.5Wh lithium-polymer battery, non-removable
  • MagSafe power connector
  • 364 x 249 x 24mm
  • 2540g

OUR VERDICT

Not only is the MacBook Pro 15in the best constructed notebook computer you can find, it’s now also one of the very fastest. In fact, it’s the most powerful laptop we’ve ever tested. There are alternatives with more powerful graphics systems, but none that maintain such a good balance between performance and extended battery life. If you need the best designed notebook money can buy, or just a safe and dependable operating system running on the fastest portable hardware, the MacBook Pro 15in Core i7 sets the new benchmark.

Find the best price