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Chris Cardell

Hands-on MacBook Pro 13-inch June 09

MacBook Pro 13-inch4 days ago (June 11th 2009) Apple moved their 13-inch unibody MacBook into the MacBook Pro family. To qualify this, they lowered the price (backwards?) and improved the specifications. Among the improvements, an enhanced battery (up to 7 hours), elevated clock speeds (up to 2.53GHz), additional RAM (up to 8GB), an SD card reader, FireWire 800, a wider colour gamut and a backlit keyboard as standard. This review is of the 2.53GHz version with standard configuration. Including shipping, it’s currently priced at £1,149 at the Apple Store (U.K.), which as ever, isn’t in our favour (us Brits). At the current exchange rate, if you were to buy the laptop in the US, you’d see a saving of almost £250. It consists of:

2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
4GB (two 2GB SO-DIMMs) of 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM; supports up to 8GB
250GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm
SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory
Built-in iSight camera
Built-in 10/100/1000BASE-T (Gigabit) Ethernet
One FireWire 800 port (up to 800 Mbps), two USB 2.0 ports (up to 480 Mbps), SD card slot
Built-in AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi
Built-in Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) module
60W MagSafe Power Adapter, AC wall plug, power cord

What’s in the box?

MacBook Pro 13-inch Box

Once you’ve taken out the MacBook Pro, there’s very little to be excited about unless power cords, cleaning cloths, documentation and installation disks tickle your fancy. The Apple Remote costs an additional £15, even when purchasing the high-end 17-inch MacBook Pro (£1,849 upwards). You could call it focus or stinginess, either way, any luxuries come at extra cost. For that reason I invested in the “tech air 3506” (for up to 15-inch MacBook Pros), unfortunately realising at a later stage that they do a 3512 version that’s geared towards the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Nevertheless the bag looks great, it has acceptable protection and tons of pockets. Those who work in particularly quiet areas should avoid this bag as the Velcro release is rather loud.

tech air 3506

In terms of mass, the MacBook Pro isn’t light, you might call it reassuringly heavy at 2.04 kg. I’ve personally never used a notebook that feels so well built. The screen mechanism allows extension to roughly 130 degrees. If you require a screen that opens fully flat (180 degrees), this isn’t the laptop for you, although I’m struggling to think of a scenario where this would be essential.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Box Open

Heat output is very impressive, after testing the laptop on a number of different surfaces, the build up of heat is mild at worst. It dealt with carpet extremely well and had no issues with jeans. Noise output, it has none. The laptop seems to make absolutely no noise, to hear anything at all, your ear needs to within an inch of the keyboard.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Safari

Battery life has been lengthened in exchange for full integration (non-removable). The battery is supposedly non-removable, which isn’t entirely true. Once you’ve opened the back of the laptop, battery exchange only requires the removal of two tri-wing screws and a sticker (according to iFixit). This isn’t ‘unlock and remove’ as you’d find on most laptops, but that said, 7 hours is double the life of a typical laptop.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Closed

Apple doesn’t make cheap laptops, that isn’t to say they aren’t good value. People can easily be misled by high starting prices, but when you actually parallel the 13-inch MacBook Pro against comparable laptops, it fairs well. The Dell Studio XPS 13 sits in the same price bracket. From what I’ve read, the Dell manages around 4 hours without AC power, it overheats and sports a mishmash design. The main advantage of the Dell is the ability to switch between discrete graphics and integrated. The discrete graphics provide greater performance, while the integrated provides greater battery life. This feature comes as standard with MacBook Pros 15-inch upwards, but isn’t included in the 13-inch MacBook Pro, either as standard or upgrade. This is one of the greatest downfalls of the 13-inch Pro, with only integrated graphics, some might argue that it shouldn’t therefore be part of the Pro line. Apple has seemingly always been one to skimp on graphics.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Closed

Resolution. Possibly a little low? 1280×800 has been standard on 13” widescreen laptops for as long as I can remember. The 8” widescreen Sony Vaio P-series laptop has a resolution of 1600×768. Now this resolution is blatantly ridiculous, but with that said, the MacBook Pro has an extra 5” to play with and still has a resolution well under the Vaio.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Closed

I’m aware that a number of people have concerns regarding the reflective screen, glass covers the display from edge to edge. If I had the choice I would opt for a matte display. The LED display is bright enough that it isn’t enough of an issue. The laptop when open is a work of art, personally I don’t find the back of the laptop all that attractive, however the lid does provide an enormously satisfying clunk when closed.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Closed

I ran a quick microphone test, the microphone is omni-directional which is a good thing? Probably. Similarly the speakers appear to be more than acceptable for a laptop.

So after I’d installed a few updates and played with PhotoBooth, I decided to see how it would deal with Microsoft’s forthcoming operating system, Windows 7. The installation ran smoothly entirely from battery. I haven’t had much of a chance to test the battery in detail, but I ran it down in around 4-5 hours by leaving it on full brightness, installing Apple updates, partitioning the disk, installing Windows 7 Build 7000 and generally giving it a fairly hard time. Once installation was complete, I installed the BootCamp drivers on Windows, the software didn’t seem to install the graphics driver, which was installed through Windows Update after one failed attempt. Afterwards I could run a performance test using Windows built in benchmarking system. The MacBook Pro scored a fairly disappointing score of 3. Windows’ benchmarking system doesn’t average the scores of your components, but instead takes the lowest score, taking the stance that a computer is only as fast as its slowest component. The score is due to the 250GB 5400 rpm Serial ATA hard disk. The upgrade cost to a 128GB solid state disk is more than £100 greater on the Apple website than by external means. With all the advantages of solid state, I’ll eventually be looking to upgrade to a 128GB solid state disk. It will be interesting to see how much the solid state disk will boost the score. The processor scored highest with 6, while memory scored 5.5, graphics a mighty impressive 5.2 and gaming graphics 4.4. Unfortunately the trackpad drivers created for Windows are plain awful. It is impossible to use “tap click” without tapping when taking your finger off the trackpad and it’s generally far to sensitive to the touch. A number of people on a number of different forums echo my feelings and these feelings are from months ago, so I doubt the issue will be addresses by Apple for some time.

MacBook Pro 13-inch Closed

Mac OS X Snow Leopard will be hitting shelves in September 2009, I talked to support who stated, “I am sorry but neither a set date nor price has been announced for the UK”, the upgrade for those who buy a MacBook Pro between now and release will be around £7. I’ve read some articles saying this is no more than a service pack. A service pack is a collection of updates, Snow Leopard is far from a collection of Leopard updates. It may include few new features, but under the hood it has been re-written in a number of key areas. I believe it will provide considerable performance gains.

The integrated graphics isn’t a problem for me, nor the semi-fixed battery or anything else I’ve mentioned. It’s the trackpad that I have an issue with. I’m fine with trackpads, but for starters, this is simply unnecessarily big, so much so that it’s more “in the way” than an advantage. This along with typical Mac acceleration (the faster you move the mouse, the greater the acceleration) is just something to get used to. Why can’t we just use the infamous ThinkPad pointing device? I’ve always considered trackpads a step backwards, am I crazy?

Finally I’d like to point out Apple’s impressive dispatch and shipping speed, after the order was sent, the laptop arrived in just two days along with the carry case. Well done Apple!

This entry was posted on Friday, June 12th, 2009 at 10:16 pm GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  • Mark

    Yes… you’re crazy (about the ThinkPad thing).

    Great review though. It’s really good to read your honest thoughts. This review stands out due to its relevance to the everyday user, compared to the others I have read (PCMag, CNet, which go over the same info that was in the WWDC keynote. You’ve made me start thinking about a SSD. My wife might have some words for you…

  • Editor

    Thanks for your comments Mark!

    An informal tone, which probably lacks the structure you’d see at CNET, but I think it contains most of the info you’d expect.

    I had a look at alternative laptops for a few hours yesterday. The Vaios are currently all outdated. The ThinkPads are hugely overpriced. There are Dell deals to be had, but most of their laptops seem to have some sort of major pitfall. In terms of high-end laptops, I can’t see anything out there that competes with Apple.

    I started using the ThinkPad pointing device at a young age. Thankfully I’m quickly getting used to the Mac’s trackpad.

    I purchased a 60GB SSD today, the OCZ Solid Series SATA II 2.5” 60GB SSD for £133.96 including P&P. I’m not all that knowledgeable regarding SSD’s, but I believe they vary somewhat in speed. I was originally looking at the Corsair 128GB 2.5″ SATA-II Solid State Hard Drive, but realised that it featured lesser speeds. The Corsair states:

    Read: Up to 90MB/sec
    Write: Up to 70MB/sec

    Whereas the OCZ drive I purchased features:

    Read: Up to 155MB/sec
    Write: Up to 90MB/sec

    Having used a number of netbooks that have less than 8GB space for some time, 60GB is plenty to work with, especially with the masses of affordable external HDDs available.

    Ah, while writing this comment I’ve come across the Samsung PB22-J 64GB 2.5″ SATA-II Solid State Hard Drive. Which boasts:

    Read: Up to 220MB/sec
    Write: Up to 120MB/sec

    The Intel X25-E Extreme 64GB 2.5″ SATA-II Solid State Hard Drive features even greater speeds, but is far more expensive.

    Read: Up to 250MB/sec
    Write: Up to 170MB/sec

    I think I might have to cancel my order and carry out some further research. I’ll be posting a tutorial/article on the process of installing an the SSD in the MacBook Pro. Hopefully everything should go to plan.

    Thanks again Mark. Let me know if you have any queries.

  • Editor

    Samsung PB22-J 64GB 2.5″ SATA-II Solid State Hard Drive ordered for £137.99 including P&P.

  • Karl

    Thank you for a great review, as Mark said – your review is much more informative for the everyday user than the big websites. Nice photos as well =)

    I’ve always been a Windows user, but for the past two or three years I’ve been looking more and more at the Mac’s. Now with the release of the Macbook Pro 13 I’m really considering to swap as I like the design, the form factor and the fact that it’s much more silent and cooler (heat that is…) than most of the PC laptops.

    I read with great interest that you installed windows 7 on you mac, how does it perform? Did you run into any problems, or was it really a matter of pushing in the disc and go? I’ve been a Win 7 user since the first version was leaked in late 2008, if I get a mac I’ll install it with bootcamp for sure!

    Again, Thanks for a great article!

  • Editor

    Thanks Karl!

    Installation was very smooth. Essentially it involves 8 significant steps:

    – Run Boot Camp on Mac OS X.
    – Partition the drive using Boot Camp.
    – Insert installation DVD.
    – Go!
    – You’ll then have to select a few Windows 7 options.
    – Once Windows has completed installation, insert the Mac OS X installation DVD, which will automatically run the boot camp software. This installs nearly all necessary drivers.
    – After installing an anti-virus program, connect to the Internet and run Windows Update, this should detect and install the Nvidia display driver.
    – Go to the ‘System’ control panel item, activate your copy of Windows 7.
    – Run the performance test which should automatically enable the Aero theme.

    Once Windows Update has completed installation of the Nvidia driver, make sure you run the performance test, you’ll then be able to use the translucent Aero theme which looks great on the LED screen. I would use Windows 7 as my primary operating system on the Mac if it wasn’t for the awful trackpad driver. It’s fine if you leave it in its default settings and click down on the trackpad, but if you want to use a soft tap, it’s useless. I’ll be looking for a third party utility that fixes the issue, I’m not all that hopeful.

    If you’re happy clicking down the trackpad for each click or you use an external mouse then I’d highly recommend using Windows 7 on the Mac. If like me you prefer to tap the trackpad to click, then at the moment it’s unusable, you’ll find yourself clicking constantly without meaning to.

    Performance is let down only by the HDD, which I’m hoping will be fixed with a replacement SSD.

    MacBook Pro 13-inch Windows 7 Performance

  • Sandi

    After reading this review (and others) I have purchased my first MacBook Pro. I have gone for the standard configuration for the 13″ 2.53 GHz as I thought going for the faster model now would give added longevity to the machine. I also purchased a Tech Air case for it as well, as your comments were so favourable.
    I will be using OS X rather than Windows as I prefer the former, but I will be interested to see how Windows 7 performs. At the moment I see no need for Windows on my machine as most of the programs that I use will export and import quite happily to a Windows environment.
    The only thing that I forgot to buy was a mini displayport to VGA adaptor so I can hook up with the multi-media equipment at work.

  • Editor

    Congratulations Sandi! Please let us know your thoughts and opinions once you’ve received it.

  • Karl

    Thanks for your reply and info!

    A few additional Q’s:

    – Do you find the screen resolution to be limited? Most of the 13″ PC laptops I’ve been looking at have a 720p screen.

    – When you’re in Windows, does the Apple command keys work as the Windows start key?

    – From your review I draw the conclusion that you’re and old windows user (as I am), have you found it hard to swap to osx? Do you feel you’re missing some functionality or s/w from the windows environment? At the occasions when I’ve had the chance to try osx, I always find the “finder” toughest to get used to, I’m so used to the windows explorer…

  • Editor

    720p is technically 1280×720 which is less than 1280×800. Most 13.3″ notebooks have a resolution of 1280×800. It isn’t a problem in the slightest, I would say that OS X is more suited to higher resolutions, but there are very few 13.3″ laptops that offer greater than 1280×800. The 15-inch MacBook Pro offers a resolution of 1440×900. As someone who has become accustomed to the 1024×600 resolution of netbooks, 1280×800 is acceptable.

    I’ve been a Mac user for almost two years now. This is my first Mac laptop. Having been brought up on Windows, I find I can get more done on a Windows PC, but for day to day use I prefer the Mac. In particular, I don’t like the software that is provided for Mac that was originally created for PC. For example, Microsoft Office 2008 is below standard in my opinion. I use Entourage, but it’s missing a number of basic features that you’d expect from an email client and is not nearly as good as Outlook. I also prefer the Adobe suite on Windows rather than Mac. Similarly Skype appears to be missing some functionality. Firefox however is just as good on Mac as on Windows and there is plenty of great software around. Spotlight is one of the highlights of Mac OS X, it gives you the ability to find anything instantly. Windows Vista and 7 offer a similar feature, but I’ve found the Mac version to be far more reliable.

    Time Machine doesn’t apply to laptops quite as much as it does to desktops, not only is it stunning, but also extremely useful. I was running XP through Parallels and at some point I managed to corrupt the entire virtualisation. Without time machine I would have lost a fair amount of work and time. I simply ran it, travelled back through time and restored a version of the Parallels before corruption.

    I think it’s just something to get used to, it doesn’t take long. The command key is indeed the start key in Windows.

  • Karl

    Hi, just wanted to drop by to let you know that I bought myself a MBP 13″ 2.26mhz 4gb RAM and a WD ScorpioBlue 500gb harddrive =) I’m on cloud 9 at the moment…

  • Andre Vocent

    I am running Windows 7 RC 64-bit on my MacBook 13″ Aluminum with the same hard drive and it’s performance score is 5.3. My scores in order are 6.0, 5.9, 5.2, 4.4, and 5.3. I am not sure why you would have gotten such a low score on the MacBook Pro 13″. I have the same specs as you except for a slightly slower processor. Mine is equipped with the 250GB 5400 rpm SATA drive, 4GB of RAM, the Nvidia 9400M and the 2.4GHz CPU. You may want to confirm that all the dirvers etc. have been installed correctly. I am very happy with the performance of Windows 7 on my MacBook and you should get at least the same performance marks.

    Other than that, I would like to echo the thank you for the user’s perspective review that you have provided. Very well done!


  • Mike Dorsey

    Thanks for your review. I enjoyed it too. My new Macbook Pro 13 is 2 days old and I love it. I’m looking to put Windows 7 on Fusion next so I can do some work stuff. Thanks again.

  • Jason

    Quality review. I found this site while looking for people’s impressions on the 13″ MBP’s heat and noise output. My current laptop (Dell XPS M1210) gets so hot that it leaves red streaks on my legs, even after taking it apart and giving the cooling system a good cleaning. Ouch!

    It’s so hard to find honest reviews that aren’t just cleverly-disguised affiliate portals. Well done.

    Be careful about which SSD you buy. Some of them have a nasty habit of bringing the system to a grinding halt during intensive random write operations. My understanding is that the Intel and OCZ SSDs do not have this problem, but they are quite pricey.

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