The Apple MacBook Pro 15in (Early 2011) makes many breakthroughs, none visible from the outside - yet one of those revisions alone may transform personal computing thanks to a welcome boost in connectivity speeds. We take a closer look at the quad-core 15in MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt connector

It’s been heralded for years now, but Apple is the first to market with the fastest computing technology we’ve ever seen.

And we’re not talking about the Intel Sandy Bridge processor inside, even if this is also the first notebook with a second-gen Intel Core Series processor to pass through the PC Advisor Test Centre.

No, what makes this laptop a true pathfinder is its connectivity.

Joining the ubiquitous USB 2.0 and the faster FireWire ports is a new connector, now dubbed Thunderbolt.

This is the electrical incarnation of Intel’s Light Peak technology, conceived as a hyper-fast optical connection standard for uniting computers and their peripherals. It may not be ready in its optical form just yet, but we’re already promised technology here  to deliver 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) transfers.

Rock that Unibody

Externally to the casual eye, there’s nothing that will differentiate this new MacBook Pro from the last. It uses exactly the same industrial design, based on a monocoque chassis milled from solid aluminium.

There’s the same backlit keyboard assembled from Scrabble pieces, large multi-touch trackpad, and edge-to-edge glass-fronted display. Those holding out for a redesign of the casework may have to wait for the succeeding series.

But why count down those days anyway? Well, aside from the ill-conceived reflective glass screen, this Unibody generation of Mac portable bucks a common trend almost set in stone by modern computing.

That is, the current Apple MacBook Pro design is bigger and heavier than its predecessor.

Before Apple launched this shape of MacBook Pro in late 2008, the 15in model measured 357 x 242mm, was 25mm thick and weighed 2.45kg.

With the Unibody revision of autumn 2008, the 15in Apple portable gained weight and girth, now up at 2.54kg and 364 x 249 mm.

It’s no heavier than much of the Windows competition though; and importantly, stronger. Considerably stronger, not to say more elegant.

Two versions of MacBook Pro are offered prêt á porter - both taking quad-core Intel Core i7 chips, running at either 2.0GHz or 2.2GHz. This is the controversial 32nm Sandy Bridge series, which early tests have already established is a marked step-up in performance from the previous processor generation.

Out goes nVidia graphics processors, replaced with AMD cards in the 15in model, while falling back to a revised integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics solution when high-calibre horsepower is not required.

As with the last generation, this MacBook Pro will switch between GPUs without user intervention. But this system is not without its issues.

NEXT PAGE: Graphics switching issues and performance benchmarks >>

See also:

More Apple Mac notebook reviews

Last year's Apple MacBook Pro 15in review

Thunderbolt demonstrated at CeBIT by Promise Technology

What is Thunderbolt?

We tried using Skype 5 for Mac, for instance, and noticed that the MacBook Pro was switching to high-power graphics. That’s overkill for an app that normally only has to field low-res video, where the integrated Intel graphics would be more than capable of rendering these, or indeed high-definition video. The result is unnecessarily short run times from battery power.

Whether this error is Apple's or Skype's is immaterial: the end user should be able to rely on intelligent switching working correctly to get best battery performance. But for interested users, there are ways to override less-than-clever switching choices.

While Apple doesn’t give much fine-grained control of graphics cards, gfxCardStatus, a freeware program, has fortunately just been updated to v2.0.1 for use with AMD GPUs.

This little app sits in the menu bar and allows you to manually switch between Intel and AMD graphics. Or you can set it to stay Intel for battery use, and AMD on mains power. It will also tell you which apps are invoking a switch to AMD/nVidia when in Apple's default dynamic-switching mode.

Storage upgrade

For storage the new MacBook Pro models still rely on the 2.5in SATA notebook hard disk, 5400rpm as standard; or you can specify 7200rpm drives or even an SSD when ordering online from the Apple Store.

We were impressed to see that Apple has updated the Serial ATA bus to SATA 6Gbps. Even though the 5400rpm hard disk inside won’t make use of the added bandwidth, there are more SSDs becoming available now that do, such as the Crucial RealSSD C300.

Less certain is OS X’s support for the TRIM command on SSD storage.

Some early reports have suggested that the software build of Snow Leopard already installed on these new models will activate this technology (which keeps SSDs in a healthy state by pre-erasing unwanted data blocks) - although perhaps only when using SSDs supplied by Apple at time of purchase.

Other commentators have questioned the need for TRIM in Mac OS X, since the operating system seems to manage quite well without it. Anecdotally, MacBooks used by the author, and fitted with both Apple and third-party SSDs, have not been subjectively slowed down, as Windows machines fitted with SSDs are wont to do after use.

We did see a useful improvement in the webcam image on this new MacBook Pro model. Apple has only provided VGA-resolution video on its iSight cameras ever since it pioneered putting webcams in laptop screen bezels in 2006.

So in place of 0.3-megapixel (640x480-pixel) resolution, we now have a 0.9-megapixel widescreen-format camera available, boasting 1280x720 resolution.

And its low-light performance is markedly improved too, as we discovered by comparing video-chat quality between MacBook models.

Update: Older models too may have been fitted with HD-capable sensors, up to 1280x1024, but were limited in software to 640x480.

AMD Radeon graphics

The new graphics processor introduces DirectX 11 support to a Mac portable for the first time.

While this has zero interest for full-time Mac OS X users, it does allow some more sophisticated graphics effects from certain Windows games when running Windows 7 in Boot Camp.

More usefully for all, the raw speed of this AMD card beats the nVidia chips previously favoured by Apple.

In the FEAR game benchmark, the new Apple MacBook Pro with AMD Radeon 6750M could average 92 frames per second (fps) at Maximum quality.

That’s a generous quick-step in the right direction, if compared to the 57fps we saw from the previous fastest 15in MacBook Pro (Mid 2010) with nVidia GT 330M. So in this example, we can see a 62% games performance lift.

We also tried our STALKER: Call of Pripyat benchmark, which enables benchmarking of Microsoft DirectX 11 graphics rendering.

At entry-HD resolution of 1280x720 and Medium detail, we saw a 'daytime' average of 35fps, rising to 70fps in the 'rain' setting.

At the MacBook Pro's native screen resolution of 1440x900 and highest detail settings within the game, these figures were maintained to playable framerates of 35fps and 41fps in the same two game environments.

But it’s the Intel Core i7 processor that really lets the new MacBook Pro 2011 soar.

We thought the previous model was quite nippy when it scored 115 points in the WorldBench 6 test. With its Sandy Bridge quad-core chip, this MacBook Pro scored 132 points in the same test.

To put that into perspective, that’s the kind of score that performance-tuned £1000 desktop Windows PC systems were garnering eight months ago in our labs.

NEXT PAGE: Thunderbolt thoughts >>

Right now, the remarkable 10Gb/s advertised speed of the Thunderbolt connection remains untested and will have to be taken on trust. We simply have nothing to connect to the Thunderbolt port, other than an Apple LCD display.

At the UK press launch of the range, we saw a LaCie Little Big Disk external SSD and a Promise Pegasus R6 six-bay RAID drive – the latter connected and working – but at present no other devices using Thunderbolt technology have been announced, let alone launched.

What we have seen at CeBIT 2011 in March was a Promise R6 delivering 625MB/s read speeds as it channeled four uncompressed 10-bit HD video streams to a MacBook Pro over Thunderbolt.

Impressive, but only a fraction of what the spec suggests is possible. Or more precisely, exactly half of the nominal throughput rating, since 10Gb/s equals 1250MB/s.

Shaped like the Mini DisplayPort that’s been used on Apple Macs for two years, this Thunderbolt connector is also still required to connect an external display.

That monitor would have be at the end of a daisy-chained string of Thunderbolted devices though, with your high-performance RAID or solid-state storage connected in between.

Which we forsee introducing a problem in daily use: most desktop peripherals are connected in a more hub-like fashion, with mice and keyboards and thumbdrives and cameras all taking their own separate wired link to the PC. This makes removal of any one device a simple matter of pulling out its plug.

Thunderbolt, like FireWire before it, uses a chained approach to connection, all devices linked to each other down a line with a single point of connection on the computer.

Say you want to remove your super-fast external SSD drive that’s in the chain. By unplugging this device, you’ll lose your picture on the monitor at the end of the chain. You'll also be required to manually dismount any other storage devices connected after that SSD.

As soon as Thunderbolt devices start to hit the market, what we’ll need is a Thunderbolt hub, and quickly.

 NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict >>

See also:

More Apple Mac notebook reviews

Last year's Apple MacBook Pro 15in review

Thunderbolt demonstrated at CeBIT by Promise Technology

What is Thunderbolt?

Apple MacBook Pro 15in (Late 2011): Specs

  • 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-2720QM
  • 6MB shared L3 cache
  • 15.4in (1440 x 900) 16:10 glossy LED-backlit LCD display
  • Mac OS X Lion
  • auto-switching graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000 and AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1GB GDDR5 memory
  • 750GB 2.5in 5400rpm SATA HDD
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 RAM
  • 1 x Thunderbolt
  • 1 x FireWire 800
  • 2 x USB 2.0
  • SD/SDXC card slot
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 8x DVD±RW slot-load optical drive
  • backlit keyboard
  • 1280x720 webcam
  • mic, stereo speakers
  • audio line-in (analogue and Toslink digital), headphone/line out (analogue and Toslink digital)
  • multi-touch trackpad
  • IR remote control sensor
  • 77.5Wh non-removable lithium-polymer battery
  • 85W MagSafe power adaptor
  • iLife software
  • 364 x 249 x 24mm
  • 2.54kg
  • 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-2720QM
  • 6MB shared L3 cache
  • 15.4in (1440 x 900) 16:10 glossy LED-backlit LCD display
  • Mac OS X Lion
  • auto-switching graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000 and AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1GB GDDR5 memory
  • 750GB 2.5in 5400rpm SATA HDD
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 RAM
  • 1 x Thunderbolt
  • 1 x FireWire 800
  • 2 x USB 2.0
  • SD/SDXC card slot
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 802.11a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • 8x DVD±RW slot-load optical drive
  • backlit keyboard
  • 1280x720 webcam
  • mic, stereo speakers
  • audio line-in (analogue and Toslink digital), headphone/line out (analogue and Toslink digital)
  • multi-touch trackpad
  • IR remote control sensor
  • 77.5Wh non-removable lithium-polymer battery
  • 85W MagSafe power adaptor
  • iLife software
  • 364 x 249 x 24mm
  • 2.54kg

OUR VERDICT

Externally, this 2011 revision to the 2008-design Apple MacBook Pro isn’t even evolutionary, since there’s no visible change - save a lightning legend logo by the Mini DisplayPort connector. But since that port is actually a Thunderport link, this may just turn out to be a revolutionary development in the history of personal computing. Now, at last, we can shift data between devices at 21st, rather than 20th-century speeds. But the other upgrades to this season’s MBP should not be forgotten: a Sandy Bridge quad-core processor that makes this portable as fast as a race-tuned desktop from last year; and AMD graphics that outpace the nVidia kit by a serious margin too. If you need workstation power in an inch-thick slab, we can’t think of any reason to look elsewhere for the best notebook on the planet.

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