- Review Date: 10/28/11
- Bottom line:
The Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch gets new hardware and software, including a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, AMD Radeon GPU, and OS X Lion, while keeping everything that works well, like the thin and stylish unibody design.
Updated quad-core Core i7 processor. Powerful AMD GPU with more dedicated memory. OS X Lion is superb. Improved battery life.
Competitors offer lower prices and larger feature sets.
In the competitive desktop replacement laptop category, there's no question that laptop manufacturers have been gunning for Apple's top spot, emulating every aspect of the MacBook Pro, from its comfortable keyboard and clickpad to its thin, under-an-inch profile. The Apple MacBook Pro (late 2011) ($1,799 direct) keeps the iconic look of previous iterations, with the same unibody design and backlit chiclet keyboard as seen on the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Thunderbolt) ($2,199 direct, 4 stars). It ratchets up the components, with all new graphics and processing hardware, and Apple's-award winning OSX Lion operating system. There may be one or two areas where competing desktop replacement laptops do better, but the total package is put together so well—design, software, and components are so well integrated—that it earns our Editors' Choice for desktop replacement laptops.
The MacBook Pro 15-inch's distinctive unibody chassis, milled from a single piece of aluminum, weighs 5.5 pounds and measures just 0.95 inch at its thickest point. It's the same weight as the Dell XPS 15z (Microsoft) ($999 direct, 4 stars), but just a hair thinner. Considerably thicker and heavier is the plastic bodied Toshiba Satellite P755-S5269 ($979.99 list, 4 stars), which measures 1.4-inches thick, and weighs in at 5.8 pounds.
The MacBook Pro 15-inch still sports an impressive 15.4-inch glass-covered widescreen display, with an eye-catching 1,440-by-900 resolution display. That resolution is a big step up from the standard 1366-by-768 found on most desktop replacement laptops, like the Dell XPS 15z and Toshiba P755-S5269, but there are higher resolutions available, like the 1,920-by-1,080 resolution screen found on the Asus N55SF-A1 ($1,249.99 list, 4 stars). Thanks to LED backlighting, the MacBook's display is bright, with rich colors, deep blacks, and sharp details. The sound is equally impressive, with the built-in stereo speakers providing strong, consistent sound, whether tested with the bass rumbling sounds of the Inception soundtrack or pumping out tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin. There was no noticeable distortion at high volumes, and the bass was robust for a laptop without a built-in sub-woofer.
The keyboard has the same black chiclet-style keys seen on previous models, with a bright white backlight providing visibility even in dimly-lit conditions. Those who don't care for the flat-topped keys of the MacBook Pro 15-inch might prefer the sculpted keycaps found on the Dell XPS 15z (Microsoft). The MacBook Pro's, however, is one of the most comfortable laptop keyboards. Apple's clickpad continues to be the best in the business, due in no small part to the fact that Mac users don't often need the right-click functions that Windows users may rely upon. Though several laptops have attempted to match Apple's smooth, glass-surfaced clickpad, most competing laptops currently offer separate right and left mouse buttons, like the Dell XPS 15z and Toshiba P755-S5269. Unhindered by this requirement, Apple's multitouch clickpad continues to be the most comfortable and responsive we've seen.
The feature set is virtually identical to that of the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Thunderbolt): There's a slot-loading DVD drive, two USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 800, an SD card slot, and the as-yet-exclusive Thunderbolt port. The Asus N55SF-A1, in contrast, offers a Blu-ray drive, while the Dell XPS 15z hastwo USB 3.0 ports and HDMI output, in addition to the same mini DisplayPort capability offered by the Thunderbolt port. And most laptops with a media card reader support formats beyond SD, such as the Toshiba P755-S5269, which also supports MultiMedia Card, Memory Stick, and Memory Stick Pro formats.
The MacBook Pro 15-inch is also equipped with Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. The 500GB, 5,400rpm spinning hard drive is spacious enough to store your programs and media collection, though it's considerably less space than the 750GB drives inside the Toshiba P755-S5269 and Asus N55SF-A1. For more storage space, you'll need to either pay a bit extra for the larger hard drive (750GB, 5400rpm for additional $100) or select the next configuration up (the $2,199 model) which has a 750GB drive standard.
The MacBook Pro 15-inch also comes loaded with OS X Lion, which our reviewer recently called "the best consumer-level operating system ever created." It's packed to the brim with new features, like enhanced trackpad gestures, automatic file backup and recovery, and built-in apps for immediate usability. Included with OS X Lion is a collection of preinstalled applications, but it might be a stretch to call them bloatware, seeing as they're all highly-rated programs in their own right. Upon starting the machine, you'll have Apple's Time Machine backup and recovery program, Safari web-browser, iChat, FaceTime (which takes advantage of the MacBook's built-in 1280-by-720 webcam), iTunes, and iLife, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, and even GarageBand.
While the design and features of the MacBook Pro 15-inch haven't significantly changed, it has received an entire overhaul of its components, with a new processor and graphics card. The new 2.2Ghz Intel Core i7-2675QM quad-core processor is a bump in speed from the 2.0GHz CPU found in the previous iteration. In Cinebench R11.5 rendering test, the new MacBook scored 5.08 points, a fraction of a point ahead of the MacBook Air 15-inch (Thunderbolt) (5.07). Both scores are well ahead of the nearest quad-core-equipped desktop replacement laptops, like the Toshiba P755-S5269 (4.79 points) and Asus N55SF-A1 (4.35 points).
In processor-straining multimedia tests, the MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) completed Handbrake in 1 minute 30 seconds and Photoshop CS5 in 3:39. Similarly equipped systems produced decent times, like the Toshiba P755-S5269 (1:36 in Handbrake; 3:54 in CS5) and the quad-core equipped Dell XPS 15z (2:17 in Handbrake; 3:40 in CS5), but no current desktop replacement had faster multimedia performance.
There's a new AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete video card with 512MB of dedicated memory, doubling the 256MB offered previously. The new hardware produced excellent frame rates in our two gaming tests, Crysis (81 frames per second) and Lost Planet 2 (66.7fps) at medium detail settings and 1,024-by-768 resolution. These scores beat out the previous MacBook Pro 15-inch (Thunderbolt) (74.8 fps in Crysis; 65.7fps in Lost Planet 2) and Dell XPS 15z (52.3 fps in Crysis; 36.4 fps in Lost Planet 2). The only laptop to come close is the Asus N55SF-A1 (77.2 fps Crysis; 55.3 fps Lost Planet 2). With scores like these, the MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) is a viable choice for gaming as well as productivity and multimedia tasks.
Thanks to Apple's automatic graphics switching technology, the MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) was able to alternate seamlessly between the AMD discrete graphics for gaming and 3D-intensive tasks and the Intel integrated graphics for less demanding day-to-day productivity tasks. The result was improved battery performance, as a discrete graphics chip (if left on) is a huge power drain. In our MobileMark 2007 battery-life test (run in Windows 7 via BootCamp) the MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) lasted 5 hours 26 minutes with its 77.5Wh battery. It outlasted the previous MacBook Pro with the same battery (4:40) and Toshiba P755-S5269 with a 48Wh batter (5:07), but fell behind the Dell XPS 15z (Microsoft), which had a 64Wh battery (7:13). It should be noted, however, that the Apple environment, which is built with this battery in mind, includes power management as an integrated part of the Apple OS, has historically produced better battery life, according to anecdotal testing.
The Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) is an effective refresh, beating out competitors and previous MacBooks alike while maintaining the look, feel, and price of previous iterations. It offers beefier hardware, improved performance, new software, and the best user experience around. If price is an issue, or if you're a devoted Windows user, then the former Editors' Choice Dell XPS 15z (Microsoft) is probably the better choice for you. If you want more entertainment options, like a Blu-ray drive or a 1080p display, the Asus N55SF-A1 gives them to you for less. But if you want a computing experience that's as intuitive as it is powerful, the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (late 2011) is the desktop replacement laptop to beat and the new Editors' Choice for the category.