Review: Apple MacBook Pro 17''

 
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Published: March 11, 2010 11:00 PM
By Fabien Pionneau

The 17'' MacBook Pro that we tested features a number of upgrades from the default configuration.  These include a matte screen (an extra £41), a 3.06 GHz processor (£245), 8 GB of RAM (£491) and a 7200 rpm hard drive (£41).  This particular configuration is therefore more expensive than the prices you can see above.  Everything else about the laptop is the same though, and these extra upgrades are only worth it for the most demanding users.  For more details, see the 'Processor Power' section below. 

The 17'' MacBook Pro is the biggest and most powerful laptop in Apple's current line-up.  Its unibody frame, made from just a single piece of aluminium, boasts an impressively solid design and finish.  Without a doubt, this is one of the most luxurious laptops available today,  a first impression that was quickly reinforced when we started using it.

Handling, design and build: top quality finish for exceptional user comfort

With Apple, we're used to very well-made laptops, and the 17'' MacBook Pro is no exception to that trend.  It's a remarkable piece of design, and everything apart from the screen and the keyboard is made from aluminium, which makes for a solid, clean laptop that's a treat to handle.  Whether you're an Apple fan or not, it's hard to deny that the MacBook Pro comes as close as possible to a faultless design.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 keyboard

The version we tested has a matte panel, which isn't the case for other MacBooks, and something you can add for a supplement of £41.  What actually happens is that Apple removes the glass panel that covers the screen on its other laptops, meaning the display sits slightly further back into the bezel (whose aluminium finish now shows through) rather than being flush with the edge of the lid.  It's just as aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately, it's a question of personal taste.  Personally, we prefer a matte display for practical purposes, as they avoid irritating reflections and greasy fingerprints.  When you fold the screen down, it closes using a hidden magnet, which keeps it firmly in place.

The keyboard is very comfortable.  It could easily have been wider, or included a numeric keypad, but at 15 mm square, the keys themselves are a decent size and it's easy to type on, and writing is a soft, quiet affair.  You can choose 16 different levels of backlighting, and by default, the intensity of the backlighting of both the keyboard and the screen adjusts automatically according to ambient light levels.

The trackpad is currently the best available on the market.  Over half of the lower surface is clickable, and the whole area offers multitouch, allowing you to zoom, rotate and scroll using several fingers.  It's easy to slide your fingers across, comfortable to use and accurate.  The only disappointment is the noise made when you click it in, which isn't as quiet as it could be.  If you're going to be using it in public, we suggest you turn on clicking by tapping. 

Apple MacBook Pro 17 webcamThe webcam is excellent, and is as fluid as we'd expect; contrast and sharpness are also up to scratch.  You can still see enough in the dark, even if the white balance struggles a bit with artificial light sources.

Despite having a 3.06 GHz processor, two graphics cards and a very slim chassis, the 17'' MacBook Pro is very quiet.  The whole fan sits underneath the hinge that supports the screen.  That's useful as it means you can rest it on your knees without worrying that it will overheat.  Thanks to the excellent heat dissipation of the aluminium frame, the fan only moves up a gear when you're performing more demanding tasks like video encoding, 3D and photo editing), without actually becoming loud: the ventilation is audible, but still perfectly under control and never irritating.

As with Apple's other laptops, connectivity is the MacBook Pro's big weakness.  You get three USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, a FireWire 800 port and an ExpressCard slot, as well as a microphone jack and a headphone jack that doubles up as a S/PDIF output.  Video output is covered by a mini DisplayPort, which means you'll need to buy an adapter if you want to connect it to a screen with a DVI or HDMI input.  All of theses inputs and outputs are found along the left-hand side of the machine, along with the magnetic power cord, which is useful as it prevents your laptop falling off your desk if you give it a tug.  Alongside the connectivity options that are included, we would like to see a memory card reader, an e-SATA port and an HDMI port.  On the right-hand side, all that's there is a slot-in DVD writer.  It's very well integrated with the frame of the laptop, but still makes rather a lot of noise when you're changing discs or using it to install software.

Because of the unibody frame, there's no direct access to the inside of the laptop from underneath, and even the battery is permanently attached.  You can remove the bottom half, however, by undoing four small screws.  Our friends at ifixit show how it's done.  You can get at the RAM and the hard drive relatively easily this way, but if you want to go any further, things are trickier.

Apple MacBook Pro 17 Apple MacBook Pro 17
Apple MacBook Pro 17''

DVD Writer

Apple MacBook Pro 17 Apple MacBook Pro 17
Trackpad

Power, RJ45, DisplayPort, 3 USB 2.0, FireWire, mic,
headphones and ExpressCard slot


Procesor Power: top level multimedia performance


The version of the MacBook Pro we tested included the most powerful CPU in an Apple laptop, an 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo which is available for a supplement of £245.  That's helped along by 8 GB of RAM, instead of the 4 GB that comes by default.  This last option, which costs £491 is very expensive, and will only be worth it for those who want to do advanced photo, video and audio editing.  That's the case for some professionals, no doubt, but for most people, it's far too much.  In general, we don't really know why an option like this is so expensive.

That said, the overall performance is excellent for a laptop, which means you can easily do not just office work but also photo and video editing.  The MacBook Pro 17'' reached a score of 126 in our Photoshop CS4 and iTunes tests, compared to 98 for the white 13'' MacBook, which used a 2.26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor.  Scores like these are comparable with PC laptops.

We still suggest you upgrade the hard drive to the 7200 rpm version instead of the 5400 rpm default for an extra £41, as this gives better read and write speeds that won't hold you back.  More demanding users can go for a 128 GB or 256 GB SSD if speed is a real priority.  These two options are both currently very expensive, at £163 and £530.99 respectively.

You can play Blu-ray quality 1080p HD video using just the processor.

Gaming: recent titles only available with detail turned down

The handful of games that are available for Mac work fine on this laptop.  The Nvidia GeFore 9600M GT makes gaming a treat, as long as you keep the graphics set to medium when you're playing at native resolution.  With 1920 x 1200 pixels on the display, the demand put on the graphics card is pretty high, meaning we often found ourselves either turning the level of details or the resolution down.  We don't advise you use the second option as it has too much of a negative impact on the precision of the display.  There's a special page in the Apple store that talks you through which games are available for Mac.

Audio Quality: good speakers and an excellent audio output

For once, we're glad to be able to say that we've found a laptop with decent audio quality.  The two speakers, one either side of the keyboard, produce good sound.  Although you can't expect too much bass, we were impressed by how even everything sounded.  There is plenty of detail, and treble doesn't take over.  The audio quality on offer here is a long way from what a dedicated set of speakers would produce, but it's still worth pointing out that the MacBook Pro produces excellent sound for a laptop.  And even if you don't like the speakers, the 17'' MacBook Pro also includes digital audio inputs and outputs, meaning you can enjoy 5.1 sound via an optical cable.

Portability & Battery Life: best in class

Apple claims that the MacBook Pro 17'' has a battery life of up to eight hours, and using our test procedure, it managed a very admirable 5 hours 15 minutes with the screen brightness at 100 cd/m², WiFi turned off and headphones plugged in while looping video.  That's an exceptional result for such a large laptop, and for once, having a bigger screen doesn't reduce battery life, but increases it!

This incredible performance is due to the size of the battery (95 Wh) and by the use of Mac OS X, which has been tweaked to make optimal use of the hardware in the MacBook Pro.

The aluminium unibody frame has allowed Apple to break records for thin, light laptops with a 17'' screen: the MacBook Pro 17'' weighs just 2.99 kg and is only 25 mm thick.  The charger is also very lightweight.
5/5 Apple MacBook Pro 17'' DigitalVersus 2010-03-12 00:00:00

Pros

  • Excellent design and finish
  • Very comfortable to use
  • Powerful
  • Quality matte panel
  • Excellent battery life and quiet to run

Cons

  • Connectivity options only just acceptable
  • Loud DVD drive

Conclusion

The MacBook Pro 17'' is an exceptional laptop in more ways than one. It's powerful and quiet, but also offers great battery life. The screen is much better than its competitors, and the manufacturing quality is impeccable. The only drawbacks are a slightly noisy DVD writer, a limited range of ports and a very off-putting price tag.

OUR SCORE 5/5
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