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Summary:

Today saw the release of refreshed MacBook Pro notebooks, and the new models aren’t without charm. Despite some impressive spec bumps, and the brand new Thunderbolt port, this generation ends up leaving me cold, although it does plenty to whet my appetite for what’s coming next.

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Today saw the release of refreshed MacBook Pro notebooks, and the new models aren’t without charm. Despite some decidedly impressive spec bumps, and the brand new Thunderbolt combo display/data port, this generation ends up leaving me cold, although it does plenty to whet my appetite for what’s coming next.

Few Brand New Bits With Limited Use

The MacBook Pro actually introduces very little that we haven’t seen before. The big two new additions are the new Core i5 and i7 processors that use Intel’s latest Sandy Bridge processors, and Thunderbolt, the DisplayPort-integrated fast data transfer connection tech that can manage dual channel transfers of up to 10Gbps per channel.

Apple says the new version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is “up to twice as fast” as the previous generation, and Thunderbolt is definitely a technology with plenty of promise. But speed bumps are going to come with every major update, and Thunderbolt, while it has promise, doesn’t connect to anything as of yet (besides maybe other Macs and DisplayPort monitors).

No Change Where I Need It Most

I use a mid-2009 13-inch MacBook Pro as my mobile workstation, and from the updates I’ve seen today, there’s nothing that Apple included that would affect the areas where improvement would have the most pay-off.

Occasionally, I admit I could use a little more processing muscle when it comes to having tons of applications open, including Photoshop, but generally speaking, I’m happy with the notebook’s speed and performance. What I’m not happy with about my machine are exactly the things that this update fails to address. Specifically, I’m talking about battery life, display options and improvements, and physical footprint.

The new Pros all offer seven hours of battery life. That probably adds up to a bit more real-world usage than previous models, despite shorter life claims, thanks to Apple’s more honest testing methods. But it doesn’t provide a significant boost to the life of previous built-in battery Mac notebooks, which is something that would definitely have me rushing out to the nearest Apple Store, since the ability to work untethered is still the prime motivating factor behind owning a laptop in my opinion.

Because notebooks are portable, you make tradeoffs with regards to the display. Screen real estate is limited, and things can get pretty cramped pretty quickly if you’re using a lot of apps at once. But Apple appeared to be making considerable strides in this area, since the MacBook Air it unveiled late last year offered a generous 1440×900 resolution display on the 13-inch model. Yet the new 13-inch MacBook Pro keeps the same 1280×800 resolution as previous generations, and doesn’t even come with a matte screen option, unlike its bigger siblings. Better resolution screens are destined for the platform, but they aren’t here yet.

The design of the Pro’s enclosure also remains the same. It’s a fine design, and one that I quite like, but it’s getting fairly long in the tooth and I think Apple could make major improvements by borrowing from the MacBook Air. We’ll likely see weight loss and a slightly slimmer machine with the next major revision of the platform, which at this point seems bound to be just over the horizon.

Transition Phase

In my opinion, these MacBook Pros represented a stopover on the way to something truly great. The next generation will likely boast all the improvements (speed bumps, Thunderbolt, etc) we’ve seen today, but be optimized for and ship with OS X Lion (and may include bigger trackpads to support its new multitouch features), and introduce more advancements in battery and screen technology. Plus, we’ll likely see an improved MacBook Air that inherits plenty from this generation of MacBook Pro, which might be a better option for lighter users. Finally, by the time the next update rolls around, we’ll have a better idea of what to expect from the Thunderbolt-capable device ecosystem, and Apple will have worked out any kinks that may appear with that brand new tech.

The MacBook Pro is a great buy with awesome specs at a good price, but if you don’t have an urgent need and you’ve only recently upgraded, take my advice and hold out for better things yet to come.

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  1. I think you nailed it. I was already getting ready to upgrade my early 2008 MBP a new iMac before I get out of grad school; I see nothing here to change my mind. Might hold out a bit to see if SandyBridge and Thunderbolt come to the iMacs soon, but not a really big deal.

    Oh, regarding this: “Screen real estate is limited, and things can get pretty cramped pretty quickly if you’re using a lot of apps at once.” I agree, which is why I use Spaces. Being able to focus on the app at hand while other apps are hanging out in their own spaces is wonderful. Love it!

  2. When I made a similar statement about “Few Brand New Bits With Limited Use” at a popular Mac forum, I was lambasted for not recognizing this as one of the most monumental milestones ever in the evolution of the MacBook Pro. Excuse me?

    I’m a software developer. My 2009 15″ MBP is still PERFECT for me, except for the worn out battery and the 4GB memory limitation. The latter just prevents me from running more VMs using VMware Fusion.

    A computer can always be faster, but I cannot see running out and forking over $2k for what will give me nothing more than a small percentage of overall improvement.

    Down the road, I might find Thunderbolt support in a consumer-oriented RAID enclosure (Drobo?), perhaps along with USB 3.0 or eSATA adapter cable something I lust after.

    For the time being, I don’t need to upgrade so I won’t. Instead I’ll follow the prices of SSD disks downward and possibly replace the drive in my existing MBP for a nice, noticeable speed increase.

  3. Well, I had to return my defective mid-2010 13 inch and I’ve been waiting for this refresh specifically for Sandy Bridge.

    While it’s nice to see they put a new CPU in the 13 inch finally, my “custom” 2.3GHz high-res anti-glare 15 inch is already on its way.

  4. I think the coolest thing about Thunderbolt right now is the idea of a eSATA to Thunderbolt adapter. I have been wanting eSATA to show up on Apple products for years now. This is a way for expansion-less products to get it.

  5. Amen! Well stated. Unless my 2007 MBP 17 breaks down, I’m sitting this one out as well, since my main production machine is an iMac’10.

  6. I had high hopes for this update. I’m still using my early 2007 white Macbook and I’d really like to upgrade, but I’m finding it hard to justify buying another computer with an optical drive and hard drive. The Air really isn’t what I want right now, and I was hoping this MBP would bridge the gap. But we won’t be seeing a new MBP for a while because of this, so I think I might just take the jump.

  7. I suppose it looks a bit more impressive when you’re reading the news on a 2007 MBP. Little disappointed that the 15″ resolution wasn’t improved, but to me a quad-core i7 is more thank I could ask for, and I’m excited to see how this thunderbolt thing works out. I think i’ma do it.

  8. Battery life is something where satisfaction will not come about. Next we get 12hrs of battery life then someone else will be complaining it’s not enough. As far as looks of the MBP changing. It’s a great design already and the only way that you’ll notice a difference is if you changed the shape to a triangle. You can’t really do that much. I happy for you all that want to keep your old school MBPs. But I’m stoked about the update. However, yes I am somewhat dissappointed that they didn’t add 3G. I don’t know, I’d buy it and sell it before the new one comes out.

  9. Here is what I personally think, for the little it’s worth: Apple wont make a major revision of the current Mac Books. It will just phase them out as soon as they can offer a 500GB flash storage in a $999 model.

    Then we will just have Mac Book Air and Mac Book Pro lines.

    I base this off my wife’s recent acquisition of an Mac Book. The new Air had just been released and she was interested, but went for the Mac Book because it had much more storage for the same price. There was also a wrong perception that the Air was easier to break (when handling both, other than weight, I felt the Air case was way sturdier than the regular Mac Book’s hard plastic case.)

    I’m sure, if there was only the Air or the Pro to choose from, she still would had picked the Air had it offered 500GB or even 256GB, 128 was just not enough for her perception.

    So I predict next year’s Mac Book Air update will phase out entirely the regular Mac Book. After all, Jobs himself said he expects all laptops to be designed this way in the future during the 2nd Air’s introduction.

  10. Great article! I am looming at getting a new laptop and think I may just get last year’s model for cheap. Though the Thunderbolt drive is seriously amazing, I think it is true that there aren’t a lot of uses for it…. Yet! Maybe in the next few years I’ll update :)

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