Review: Apple MacBook Pro 17" (2011)

 
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Published: April 14, 2011 11:00 PM
By Pierre Anzil / Alexandre Botella
The MacBook Pro 17 inch 2011 is the latest Apple laptop to join our review. After the 13 inch and 15 inch versions, what does the 17 inch have up its sleeve for us?

Design and build: impeccable finish

The design and excellent finish are almost identical to those on the 15 inch. There are however certain things that you may tolerate on the 15 inch but which stick in the throat when it comes to the 17 inch.

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Take the keyboard for example, with separate keys. It is exactly the same size as the keyboard used on the 13.3 inch machine. With all that available acreage on the sides, you'd think Apple would have at least added a number pad, usually standard on a model this size.
The keys nevertheless offer supple and extremely quiet keying. Their positioning makes for instinctive typing.
 
Nor is the touchpad any bigger here than on the 13.3 inch model. Is this a problem? Not really, as it's still bigger than on many laptops. Multi-touch (zoom, rotation, scrolling with several fingers and so on), wide and clickable, it has a very fluid, comfortable and precise glide. Activating the 'tap to click' option in 'system preferences' means you don't have to push the touchpad in to click and this makes the action quieter and slightly faster.

Compaq Mini 311cThe webcam (1280 x 720 pixels) gives a good quality picture. Exposure is fine and it captures movement very well. The image is detailed in light areas but you do lose a certain amount of detail in darker areas, as you do on many models. It is however perfectly okay for everyday use.

The connectivity is very similar to that on the 15 inch. The right hand side of the machine is reserved for the slot-in disk player/rewriter. The rest is on the left, namely the power supply, the RJ45, a Firewire 800 port, three USB 2.0 ports (compared to two on the 15 inch), an SD card reader, the audio connectivity (headphones socket and mic) and finally a Thunderbolt port.

Remember, Thunderbolt is the name of the new high-speed connection Apple are now using. An Intel technology, it mixes the DisplayPort connector with Light Peak technology. Along the lines of FireWire, this all-in-one connection can link up up to 6 peripherals of any type, including those dedicated to video. Backwards compatibility with DisplayPort is assured, as long as the screen is the last link in the chain. As we didn't have any compatible peripherals in editorial, we haven't yet been able to test performance speeds and display but we'll be getting to this as soon as possible.

The fan also behaves similarly to the one on the 13.3 and 15 inch versions. That's to say silently on start-up and noisily as soon as you launch 3D modeling and other heavy applications. Even against background noise, it's pretty audible. On the other hand, temperatures remain under 42°C. Although not a problem, some gamer models remain under 38°C. For information, air is expelled from the top and not the side and the hottest area is therefore between the screen and the keyboard.

On some MacBook Pro units, this hot air can be a problem, to the point of causing the machine to bug. The laptop blocks and you have to restart it. Apple has reacted by publishing an update to correct the problem, It seems to be effective on all 17 inch models.


MacBook Pro 17-inch temperature readings when you push the components hard
Readings taken using a Fluke Ti25 (Distrame) camera

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Underneath, with the panel off

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  Power supply, RJ45, FireWire port, Thunderbolt port, USB 2 (x3), ExpressCard port, mic and headphones out
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DVD rewriter


Processor power: excellent performance

The MacBook Pro 17 inch does as well as the 15 inch version. This is logical as they both use the same processor, an Intel Core i7-2720QM. The four physical cores are really nice to have in 3D modeling where the 8 virtual cores (4 physical cores x 2 thanks to hyperthreading) are fully used. When it comes to retouching images, audio/video encoding and file compression, performance is excellent. The Core i7-2720QM has a processor index of 135. It can handle all applications and processing times are short.

HD 1080p video playback (Blu-ray equivalent) is a walk in the park for such a machine. Although the processor can easily handle this task itself, it's preferable to let the integrated graphics chipset handle it. It does so very well and consumes less power than the graphics card or the processor. How do you do this? Don't touch anything, Mac OS X and QuickTime will handle it automatically.

Mac OS X 64-bit takes 28 seconds to boot. It turns off in under five seconds. Once again, this is very good as you generally have to wait twice as long: the sign of a responsive machine.

Gaming: good capacity

The mid-range graphics card (AMD HD 6750) isn't as high performance as the processor. It can however run most games titles in native definition. With some titles that are very demanding in 3D resources you may want to restrict options to medium or low (Crysis, Metro 2033, or Colin McRae: DIRT 2).

Audio: very good

We're starting to get used to the fact that the sound on the MacBook Pros is excellent. We feel as if they could have done even better however in the space available on this 17-inch machine. Come on Steve, make an effort! Apart from that, it's still top of the pile when it comes to laptop audio.

Battery life: a very good score

While the 15 inch disappointed us a little when it comes to battery life (4h50), the 17 inch does better. The biggest model in the 2011 range lasted 5h35 (video playback, headphones plugged in, screen at 100 cd/m², wi-fi and Bluetooth deactivated). The 13.3 inch (without a discreet graphics card) lasted 8 hours under the same conditions. Note, while you don't quite get the 7 hours promised by Apple, a 5h + battery life is better than pretty much any other 17-inch machine and better than some netbooks.

This laptop is of course too big to carry around all that much. 3 Kg may well be reasonable for a laptop this size, but you'd definitely feel it in your bag.
5/5 Apple MacBook Pro 17" (2011) DigitalVersus 2011-04-15 00:00:00

Pros

  • Good CPU performance
  • Battery life of 5h35
  • Good quality panel
  • Shell nicely finished
  • Good gaming capacity

Cons

  • Noisy fan
  • No number pad
  • Glossy panel (matte option)

Conclusion

A powerful processor, a good quality panel, an impeccable finish, a graphics card that can handle a good few games titles and really excellent battery life: this is what you get with this 17 inch machine. Even its little imperfections (lack of number pad) don't affect its 5-star rating.

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