Unibody MacBook Pro 15″ Review

A month or two ago (I’m bad with time estimates) I finally broke down and decided I needed a new laptop. For perspective my old laptop is a PowerBook G4 with a 15″ screen. It held out but after four years it has finally become too slow for daily use. For instance it can not reliably run YouTube movies and Skype at the same time. On top of this Apple and will not support the PowerPC processor with the next Mac OS version by the looks of it.

Being a UNIX addict I looked at two options. The first was a cheap netbook which I’d put Linux on and the second was another Mac. I ended up getting a Mac since my last one ran so well and netbooks doesn’t have the power to run virtual machines which I use daily at work. I settled on the cheapest unibody MacBook Pro with a 15″ screen. I didn’t find the slight increase in processor speed not a higher end graphics card which I’ll never use on a laptop worth the extra money and honestly I find 15″ to be the perfect balance between portability and screen real estate.

First off I’ll zip through the feature list. It’s pretty must the same features you find on most laptops these days. It has build in 802.11n draft WiFi, Bluetooth, CD/DVD RW (it supports every format of DVD RW I’m aware of),two USB 2.0 ports, one Firewire 800 port, 1 gigabit Ethernet port, an audio in jack, and audio out jack, webcam, microphone, and SD card slot, and finally a connector for an external monitor. The laptop itself is made of aluminium and is very thin and lights for a 15″ laptop.

The first thing I want to note is the battery. The battery is integrated so you can’t easily pull it out and swap in another battery when it’s out of juice. This may be a huge problem for many people and honestly I thought it would be one for me. But with the screen a full brightness while using WiFi I can easily get five and a half hours out of the battery so long as I’m not running a virtual machine. This satisfies my power requirements but may not satisfy those who have to be on a ten hour flight without access to one board airplane power. I will note replacing the battery itself is easy, all you have to do is pull off the back plate (just a series of Philips head screws) and it’s right at the trackpad end of the body. Overall I’m amazed at the battery life this thing gets since I’ve not had a laptop yet that could manage five hours with the screen brightness all the way down and WiFi disabled.

The next thing to note is the screen, it’s gorgeous. The color definition is great and the LED back lighting makes the image on the screen appear as if it’s painted on. With that said the screen is also incredibly glossy. Although this makes the picture look nicer it also reflects everything behind it. You can see yourself if the screen image is dark and any light source will glare on the screen. Although I find this to be a disadvantage normally I haven’t really had an issue with it. This could be due to the fact I’ve had a glossy screen laptop in the past and learned to angle the screen in such a way that any light sources behind me aren’t reflecting off of the screen. Honestly though if the screen image consists mostly of lighter colors (blues and white let’s say) you won’t notice the reflection.

Then there is the keyboard. It uses chiclet style keys. Apple has been transitioning to this type of keyboard since the MacBook was first introduced. The MacBook pros were the last series to have a regular keyboard until the unibody ones were released. Personally I haven’t no issues typing on either setup so I haven’t noticed any problem. The keys are also back lit so when you’re in a dark area the letters on the keys will glow a soft blue. I had this feature on my previous two PowerBooks and absolutely love it. Although I touch type and therefore never look at the keys the back lit keys are just cool looking.

Just under the keyboard is the trackpad. I know there usually isn’t much to say about trackpads but the one on the new MacBook Pros is fairly unique. First of all it’s made of etched glass instead of plastic. The idea here is that is won’t wear down (get shiny) like plastic trackpads eventually do. Until I’ve had the laptop for a year I’ll not notice this though. I do notice the trackpad feels smoother under my finger and it’s easier to do really minute movements with it. The second thing to note about the trackpad is that is doesn’t have a button at the bottom of it. Instead the entire trackpad presses down as a button. This allows for using gestures which the new MacBook Pros make heavy use of. For instance tapping on the trackpad works as a regular left click while tapping on the trackpad with two fingers works as a right click. Moving two fingers up, down, left, or right works as a scroll wheel would. Swiping with three fingers navigates though program specific objects (documents, pictures, files, etc.). Swiping up with four fingers reveals the desktop and swiping down with four fingers shows all the windows open on the current desktop. Finally you can zoom in and out using a pinch motion with two fingers. These features do speed up navigation quite a bit.

One last thing I’ll cover on the generic features list is the external monitor port. The new MacBook Pros use a mini DisplayPort connector instead of regular DVI or VGA connectors. This means if you want to hook up to any monitor besides Apple’s current 24″ Cinema Display you’ll need to get an adapter. I will warn you the mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter doesn’t have connectors for the four pins by the “blade” nor a connector for the vertical “blade” pin (bear with me I’m trying to use a little technical jargon as possible). So make sure to check your DVI connector before picking up Apple’s official adapter.

This laptop has plenty of processing power for my needs. It comes equipped with a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. This is roughly equivalent to my desktop which has two 2.66 GHz dual core Xeon Woodcrest processors. This translates to plenty of speed for running multiple virtual machines and anything else you would normally want to do with a laptop. It also comes with 4GB of RAM which is on the low end side for my uses but it can be upgraded to 8GB (Note never buy official Apple RAM. Always get the bare minimum Apple sells and upgrade the RAM using any decent and cheaper RAM such as Kingston or Crucial. You’ll get all the advantages with half the cost). I’ll probably upgrade the RAM sometime down the road.

I did upgrade the hard drive in this thing already. It came with a 5400 RPM 250GB drive so I went with a Western Digital 7200 RPM 320 GB drive. It’s faster and has more space. Likewise upgrading the drive yourself saves you money over ordering a larger and faster drive from Apple (I got my drive for $80.00 on Newegg while Apple wanted $100.00 for the upgrade). The drive still seems slow compared to my four drive RAID on my desktop but it gets the job done. Do note if you want to lay down some serious coinage you can put in a solid state drive which I hear greatly speeds up the drive read and write times.

I’m not going to review Mac OS since other people have done that to death. Needless to say everything runs acceptably fast (no computer is “fast enough” in my book) for what I need. I can run two virtual machines simultaneously without much issue. The only reason I can’t run three is because the hard drive begins to choke under all the read and write accesses. Aperture works great without any real noticeable slow down as well. Overall I love this machine so far and look forward to four more years on it (hopefully).