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.


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 :)

  11. Well said. My mid 2007 15″ MBP unfortunately broke down and I’m looking for a replacement. I have a hard time deciding between the 13″ Air or the new 13″ MBP.

  12. @Darrell Etherington
    Who cares what you do? Why do you try to influence others based on your rants?

  13. NOT happy about the Thunderbolt implementation. If you want to use a monitor (DisplayPort) AND a storage device, you’ll have to chain them, with a monitor at the end of the chain. So you can only have one device with a monitor at any time, and you have to disconnect your monitor to disconnect your storage device. And you’d better make sure that the Thunderbolt storage device you buy has a chaining port.

    Imagine if, five years ago, they came out with a laptop with ONE USB 2.0 port that also served as the DVI port.

    Definitely not impressed. So much for USB 3.

  14. I am also disappointed that Apple is not offering an anti-glare option with the 13″.

  15. If you are a video editor or sound editor, this update is big for portable editing. A company called Promise has already announced raid arrays of up to 12tb’s that are forth coming. I edit both sound and pict. plus some motion graphics w/lots of layers and doing this on laptop(i have the late 2007 macbook pro topped out) can be painful and forget high def.

    With hopefully 64bit FCP and hopefully multi threading coming this year I welcome 4 cores/1gb video ram and finally the ability to connect to a fast raid at 800MB/s and also connected to a 2k monitor all from a laptop at the same time. This was impossible unless you had the macpro tower and after market raid card to get that kind of input/output – and costs way more money. So under these conditions this update is one of Apples best. I agree for general tasks my daughters 2010 macbook is more than powerful enough to the job for some years to come. So it really depends on your needs, because I have been telling Apple for years can you give me something better than FW800(painfully slow) and they finally have delivered.

  16. r f*ckin kidding me? ‘a good price?’ macbook pros run into the thousands of dollars! they cost more than my entire desktop + laptop (at time of build). u can literally run mac osx on anything with an intel processor: i put it on a mid spec laptop that matched their macbook specs for under 600$

  17. If you are going to buy a new computer anyway, you could do worse than a new MBP… namely, a Dell. Any kind of Dell.

  18. I have to agree. While I would love a quad-core processor, I’ll probably continue on my path of maybe getting an updated 27″ iMac when they’re refreshed. Maybe.

    I picked up an 11″ MacBook Air for ultimate portability, since my 17″ MBP is kinda bulky to carry around. I use the MBA more than the MBP, and in most cases, it’s faster because of the SSD, even with only 4 gig of RAM (I have 8 in the MBP). Even running tons of apps, the MBA is rarely slower than my MBP… or more accurately, rarely slows down to the speed of my MBP. :)

    Maybe I’ll stick a 256 gig SSD in the MBP and live with it for another year. I already have a USB3-compatible 1TB external drive for extra storage.

  19. I can agree. I have an April 2010 MBP 13″. Yes the i7 sounds good on paper, but I am not going to upgrade based on that. The April 2010 model also has 10 hour batter life (in reality unless you only play music on it and let the screen sleep you only get about 6 of normal use). But the big one that pisses me off is the resolution on the 13″ MBP still at 1280×800. I could understand if they were unable (or willing) to go to 1400×900, but the Air has it. This now makes the 13″ feel more like the redheaded step child, as it as been passed over twice in a row on the refresh. That is just sad!

  20. I’m waiting for the new MBA with Thunderbolt, and a new desktop display that takes Thunderbolt and has USB, FW 800, and GB Ethernet ports on it. One cable to connect the air. The monitor as a docking station. Now THAT is what the future portends….

  21. Have to agree with your assessment — I also have a mid-2009 maximum 13-inch model. It’s a great machine, but my biggest beefs have (and apparently still are):
    – battery life
    – glossy, low-rez screen
    – overall weight

    Apple is definitely saving the heavy artillery for the summertime Lion rollout… bummer!

  22. as for no peripherals being available for Thunderbolt, there were two RAID systems announced. The Pegasus Thunderbolt, http://www.promise.com/storage/raid_series.aspx?region=en-global&m=192&rsn1=40&rsn3=47, and something from LaCie. Having a RAID capable of 800MB/s (their literature) connected to a MBP running FCP sounds like something I’d buy a new MBP for, but that’s just me.

  23. Likewise. I wanted to see what came out, but nothing really draws me in. I want the smallest laptop possible that will connect to a large display. Why does everybody limit the processors and memory in small laptops? A 256gig ssd in the 11.6 Air would make me jump. Even an expensive aftermarket card would make me jump!

    From the PowerBook 2400c, small laptops were my thing. An iPad-like Mac that docked would be ideal, and that is probably what 10.7 is going to begin to address.

  24. I was disappointed these models didn’t include at least preliminary support for USB 3.0 with upgrades to follow. For most uses, it’s likely to be faster, cheaper, and work with more stuff. Being on technology’s bleeding edge is no fun. Thunderbolt will only be practical when it’s better established.

    My interest lies in the next generation of the MacBook Air. The MBA has less need for speed and more need for external gadgets that connect only with USB, so hopefully it’ll ship with USB 3.0 and justify a purchase. It’s also coming out later in this year, which may mean Intel has more time to complete their USB motherboard chipset.

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  26. I am sure after reading this, engineers at Apple are all weeping from the shame of having let you down.

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  28. Steve W, Indialantic FL Thursday, February 24, 2011

    If the next iPad has a Thunderbolt port, so that it can be used with the MacBook Pro – as a second monitor, a sketchpad, a super trackpad, or just a touch screen – the other shoe will have dropped.

  29. I couldn’t agree more with Darrell’s assessment of the new Pro. I have one just a year old. Interestingly, I was always upset that battery life was lacking. Recently I was in the Apple store and a genius said, “You have a battery problem!” He took it in the back and when he returned, I had a pro which takes longer to charge up, but runs for several hours. I never could get an hour and a half out of it. Loving it now!

    I’m liking the new processors, but is that all you got? I’ll hold a while longer.

  30. Hahahahaha….. why not hold on forever because there will always be better things to come.

    Come to think of it this comes to mind…

    Why stand when you can sit.

    Why sit when you can lie down.

    Why lie down when you can sleep.

    Why sleep when you can die….

    Not my thoughts but Laozi’s (correct me if I am wrong)

  31. Yeash! The last thing I want is a thinner MacBook Pro. If anything, I wish someone would sneak into apples skunkworks and feed the pros a BBQ pork sandwich! I really dont get the obsession with anorexic laptops. Seriously, if a 5 or hell 7 lb laptop is too heavy for you, you need to hit the gym! Apple makes the air for everyone that thinks 5lb is too heavy.

    I’d rather see the pro get a weather-proof option, than get much more obnoxiously thin.

  32. Did anyone notice that this line of MBP’s has lower GHz’s than previous generation’s? My early 08 15″ MBP has 2.4 GHz which is higher than offered on any of these models. Why is that? Also I don’t get why the 13″ model on this line has higher GHz than the 15″ and 17″. Is this a result of the new processors or something?

    1. The outright clock speed of x86 processors stopped being a useful measurement of performance a long while ago.

      Just the same, i7s have a flexible clock that goes up to 3.4GHz. The nice i7s have twice as much L3 cache and twice as many cores.

      1. I don’t know what an x86 processor or L3 cache is but ok. What is a reliable measurement of performance?

    2. There isn’t one. You have to actually read about the products you want to buy instead of relying on, “which one has more gigahertz,” if you want a valid understanding.

      1. Well I wouldn’t know what to research if there is no industry standard. Thanks for the information though. I’ll be sure not to rely on GHz anymore.

    3. The best bet you have is reading about the hardware involved. Read reviews, benchmarks, articles, comparisons, etc. It’s a lot of money to spend without follow up.

      Here’s one I’ve had open in a tab for a while: http://ark.intel.com/Product.aspx?id=52227

  33. I’ll pile on here. Agree that the quad-core i7 should, in theory, make work faster. (That may also have something to do with why battery life is what it is; if they’d stuck a C2D in instead, we’d have more battery time to wait for the processor to finish twiddling.) Thunderbolt sounds great if you just look at the headlines (“up to 10 Gbit/sec!!!). Real-world teething pains are there to anyone who thinks about it a bit, and Paul C nails it with the fiddling limitations on TB.

    I’ve a mid-2009 15″ MBP that, like EmmEff, I’d love to pump up the RAM on. (C’mon, Apple; a 16GB RAM MBP 15″ would fly off the shelves, even with only 500 GB HDD!)

    But no matter how many times I stub my toe on something with Apple, I will never, ever set my balls on fire with a Dell again. The last Dell I had an experience with that wasn’t catastrophic was back around 1992 or ’93. When you stop hitting yourself in the head with that particular hammer, it feels so good.

  34. I am using a MacBook Pro Mid 2010 and I see no reason at all to change to this “new” MacBook Pro series.

    Small advice to all MacBook Pro owners: Get the full 8GB RAM! I changed a couple of days ago from 4GB and i see an overall 30% of speed gain. Cheaper and easier than any other upgrade option.

    1. I would argue that a solid state is your go-to upgrade for instant performance. It doesn’t have to cost you more than 8GB of ram either. Having extra memory does allow more opportunity for things to be cached but ultimately the bottleneck is still the spinning mass.

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  36. Totally aggree with you. Great post.

  37. I disagree ; there is a BIG performance gain in i5 compared to c2duo. It’s obvious the next generation will be better than the current, but if you always wait for the next, you will never updgrade : )

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  39. I’m not sure why you guys are whining. Nobody forces you to upgrade. You guys have 2009, 2010 models. Mac are built to last (a bit). For other people like me who don’t own a Mac book pro, this is the model we’ve been waiting for. Thunderbolt gives access to eSATA (not to mention already announced 10Gbps storage products). In combination with a Quad core i7 it means I can do my render my video and audio on the train at speeds that are day and night when compared to the previous models. Just check the price of what a fiber card costs to be able to achieve a mere 4Gbps (theoretical) on the already expensive Mac pro to render video and you’ll understand that this Thunderbolt thing is the real deal.

  40. There will ALWAYS be better things coming later. If you’re happy with what you have, no reason to change.

  41. i’d expect a major upgrade to the screen to become touch capable. or the camera to enable similar free-space gestures … the macbook pro and tablet should converge in user interface. i guess as SteveW said below, using an iPad as secondary touch monitor might be the way for now.

  42. Wow! No wonder I have never came to this site.

    All MPBs (which essentially means all Apple laptops meant to replace a desktop system) now have double the number of cores on one chip. Lesser clock speed does not mean slower–more cores in a Mac means much better performance–even for everyday use in OS X SL. The new Intel chips have h.264 encoding and decoding on the chip when the software takes advantage. The clock speed of the RAM is now 33% faster at 1333MHz–this is top of the consumer line–and it’s in the low end MBP! At this time, beside the HD speed being the bottle neck, the RAM speed is what people notice next–even if they don’t realize the source of the performance. Oh, and Thunderolt. Come on people!

  43. @Michael: Dear $DEITY, no!!

    That would be an epic fail; HP tried that last year with one of their Windows desktops and it pretty much sat on the shelves once people figured things out.

    Try this: While you’re sitting at the keyboard, hold one hand up to your screen. Keep it there for the entire time you’re using the computer, moving it to random points every few seconds.

    Feel how tired your arm gets after a few minutes? Feel how much effort it is to move your hand back and forth between the display and the keyboard, where your hand’s real work is done?

    I trust Apple to know better than to go down this rabbit hole. Touch interfaces are great for handheld devices: my iPhone is dead-finger tech, as I expect my iPad 2 to be. But as I sit here, hammering away on a keyboard as I have for the last 35 years, I’m thankful that I don’t have to constantly manipulate the display. Heck, I put a lot of effort into minimising my mouse use.

  44. @jeffDickey you may be right, it’s an interesting question. i can imagine pointing/dragging might be an easy way to review a document with someone else for example at the coffee shop. perhaps the camera in the mac can start interpreting our eye and finger movements and offers a natural way to complement the keyboard (image recognition embedded in cell phones was talked about at MWC 2 weeks ago). Gesture based control is definitely on the way. perhaps as you say, different devices might need different variants of interfacing, and perhaps matched to te type of work under way.

    other topic: i have the 7200rpm 500GB drive on last year’s mac. i think i read flash prices will drop dramatically in a few months, and i am hoping larger flash are on the way so i’m trying to hold out for a “cheap “1TB flash drive. Does replacing the drive with flash make a big difference in performance (and battery) ? my mac performs reasonably well but seems to pause at times i think when accessing the drive.

  45. My suggestion is to NEVER UPGRADE until the new model is FOUR TIMES FASTER than the old model.

    Compared to my Mid-2007 Macbook Pro 17 Core2Duo, the new MacBook Pros are only THREE TIMES FASTER.

    Thus, I need to wait one further model upgrade when the speed reaches FOUR TIME FASTER. This may occur in the Fall of 2011, when Mac OS X Lion is in full force and some kinks and bugs are worked out of the new operating system.

    A new generation of computer occurs when it is FOUR TIMES FASTER than the old generation.

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  47. you’re right on spot. such a nice piece of hw/sw these 13″ mbp’s are, yet they have screen resolution from last century. common, apple, gives us something better!

  48. You should know this is not a minor speed bump. It is a major speed bump. I also think TB is a pretty big deal and we will see peripherals for it soon because storage and other accessory makers see it as a money maker. So if you don’t need additional speed thats one thing but it is just not accurate that this is a minor speed bump upgrade and you should know that by now. Also the GPU in the higher end 15″ is the fastest Apple has ever had.

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