It's been a big 2008 for Apple. The iPhone 3G was their breakthrough product and is well on its way to replace the iPod as Apple's cash cow. Combine this with the undeniable success of the App Store and we find Apple making huge inroads into clique-y mobile phone market. Either side of the iPhone launch the year has been punctuated with impressive notebooks from Apple. January 2008, MacWorld will be remembered for the brown manila envelope encased MacBook Air. Announced in more private surroundings, October saw the update to the popular MacBook and desirable MacBook Pro lines. 2008 has been the year that Apple concentrated on portables and boy has it borne fruit.
Apple often receive stick for design over substance and in many cases this is well deserved but in the latest MacBook and MacBook Pro the aesthetics behold an engineering marvel. Dubbed the 'late 2008' Macbooks, these machines are encased in skins machined from a single block of aluminium giving a feel of a tank but with the lightness of a feather.
This look debuted in the MacBook Air with the gap between the seams of aluminium being minimised to the point of disappearance. An almost complete banishing of plastic created a notebook that felt tightly put together, something IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad owners have experienced to a lesser degree for years now. While on the desk this may just be eye candy but to really appreciate it you must pick up the machine. With the MacBook Air it's impressive because swevlt notebooks usually end up feeling flimsy (just ask any Toshiba Portege R500 owner). With the the MacBooks, it feels like a brick built house when combined with the reassuring yet not obese 2.5kilo weight. The Poser's workhorse? Unashamedly.
Beauty and the beast
Under the aluminium skin the MacBook Pro sports Intel's latest processor, the model being reviewed contains a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor. For a mobile machine this is more than capable of blazing through routine tasks and even handling more specialist ones such as RAW photo processing, H.264 video encoding and lower end video editing. Since Apple moved over to Intel processors, processing power has never been lacking but finally default configurations include a realistic amounts of memory. 2GB of DDR3 is supplied in the basic MacBook Pro but go for the 2.53 or 2.8GHz model and you have 4GB. If you are thinking of running Windows through Parallels or VMWare Fusion, 4GB is a realistic minimum.
2008 has been the year when solid state hard drives finally became affordable. It doesn't come as standard on the MacBook Pro but the 128Gb drive is a reasonably priced option. The biggest advantage of SSDs in notebooks is not the battery life savings, in fact many reviews have found that battery life increases are minimal at best. Also it's not the lack of moving parts. With many hard drives having motion sensors, the read/write head in hard drives are parked long before they come crashing down on any platters. It is quite simply the silky smooth running of day to day tasks. For most this alone won't be enough and coupled to the fact that you are left with around 110GB of storage after OS X and default applications being installed, the SSD represents a double whammy of cost and space. The standard hard drive option is perfectly viable and the latest case design makes it absolutely trivial to upgrade to a SATA 2.5" SSD in the future.
Aside from the aluminium skin, Apple have vaunted the inclusion of two graphics processors in the MacBook Pro. Integrated video in the form of NVIDIA's 9400M chipset aims to serve all the graphical duties when the machine is running off the battery or set to anything but maximum performance mode. For most tasks this is absolutely fine but if you fancy some gaming then you'll want to use the discrete Geforce 9600M GT. Currently MacOS doesn't allow switching between integrated and discrete modes without logging back in. However that was the least of the problems suffered by your reviewer.
Our MacBook Pro seems to have severe heat problems when in performance mode. Most notebooks these days get warm and many manufacturers have stopped using the term 'laptop' because their portable machines are uncomfortable to use on your lap. However there is a marked difference from uncomfortable to outright skin charring heat. Surprisingly the problem isn't the cooling itself but rather the threshold at which the two internal fans spin up. From our tests this seems to be linked with CPU temperature rather than overall system temperature or graphics processor temperature. The problem? In standard light usage (word processing, Web browsing and email) the system will reach temperatures in excess of 60C. Run a processor intensive application and the fans will cool the system perfectly well.
This heat issue seemed to be the root cause of a complete system failure within four weeks of first boot. Apple's service was put to the test and came up roses but it cost them a new "logic board" - motherboard to you and me, something the local Apple Store billed £745 to Apple for. The solution to this problem according to a "Genius"? Download a fan control application such as smcUltity and run it. Not exactly the most slick solution but it does work, at least until Apple readjust the fan control software in OS X themselves.
Many people like to make a point of mentioning the fact that Macs always had one button missing from their mice. Now Apple have done away with mouse buttons altogether, with the whole "glass" trackpad being a mouse button. Until a software fix, the multi-touch enabled trackpad was clunky and had a tendency to register clicks when it felt like it. The super-sized mouse buttons is not something you will miss when you revert back to normal trackpads but it is fairly intuative and multi-touch functionality is superb. As for the "glass" moniker, the surface is not glass at all but some form of thick plastic covering a standard trackpad.
For the first time Apple aren't offering the option of a matte screen finish on the new MacBooks. The glossy finish undoubtly improves colour contrast but for professionals, matte screens are an absolute must. When the screen is on, the LED backlight is bright and reflections aren't too bad, especially indoors. When outdoors however, it is far below ideal. Infact for those who want to use their MacBook Pro "on location" you will have to seriously consider another machine as the glossy screen is far more than just being irritating, it hinders your workflow. If time is money for you, then you really don't want to be wasting money trying to angle the screen to avoid glare. This isn't helped by poor vertical viewing angles of the screen. For a machine that is touting to be the professional photographer's best friend, the screen leaves a lot to be desired.
Battery life is about average for a 2.5kilo, 15.4" screen, high end Core 2 Duo machine. With typical usage you can expect anywhere between three to four hours however we found it as low as 120 minutes in maximum performance mode. You can however check the battery status on the side of the notebook through a very well implemented light readout which just oozes quality. Apple certainly haven't forgotten how to sprinkle the lust dust.
The less than perfect news continues with the lack of Blu-Ray drive and the singular FireWire port. With Blu-Ray drives becoming affordable the lack of this drive, even as an option is disappointing. One can only assume that Apple are awaiting the arrival of a profitable slot-loading unit. The single FireWire port would have made sense if Apple decided to include eSATA for external storage but it's clear that with 2009 set to see USB 3.0 break through, FireWire is on its way out. External monitor output is through MiniDisplayport. Although DisplayPort is set to banish DVI but there seems to be little need to go with the never before seen 'mini' variety, the normal DisplayPort connector is about the size of a USB socket. To compound matters even if you purchase a top-of-the-range £2400 notebook you'll have to shell out up to £68 for an adaptor. Of course we're being slightly obtuse, especially with the video port, but the lack of high-end I/O options and no built in memory card reader hurt those who have to work with removable media.
There is also a rather curious, unforeseen by most, side-effect to owning a late 2008 MacBook Pro. Most notebook cases made for 15" devices won't be large enough. We tried ones from boutique London manufacturer, Knomo and most cases in Apple's flagship UK Store on London's Regent Street all without success. If you want to be sure that your case or sleeve will fit you may need trade up to 17" versions.
Missing the mark
Reviewing a Macintosh is completely different to reviewing other bits of hardware. While a £500 PC or a £150 processor is seem almost as disposable, a Mac represents an investment of many years. To compare it to a machine released 18 months previously is meaningless, rather comparing it to something that is three or four years old is more useful.
If you have a G4 PowerBook, the new MacBook Pro will result you in taking trips to the seaside if you want to see spinning beach balls. Those with Intel based MacBooks will have to think harder about their possible upgrade. The problem is at present you cannot use both graphics chips in a Hybrid SLI mode to get utmost performance. Coupled to the immature design and heat issues, unless you desperately need a new MacBook Pro we would urge on the side of patience until the middle of next year when the Core i7 based models hit the shelves.
There are positives to take away from the MacBook Pro. In anybody's terms this machine is fast. If you want a desktop replacement then the MacBook Pro will do the job perfectly fine. The upgradability of the hard drive is utterly brilliant. Virtualising other operating systems, especially Windows XP is handled without a sweat. Take your pick between Parallels and VMWare, both are perfectly acceptable and the underlying hardware can more than cope with it. Forget the SSD option now and wait until late 2009 when faster and more capacious units will become available. The backlit keyboard and, eventually, the multi-touch trackpad became a joy to use.
The late 2008 MacBook Pro is a feat of engineering. The new chassis is clean cut, extremely well made and here for the long haul. The problem is the innards, although very impressive have been implemented poorly. Heat problems, questions remaining over the quality of the NVIDIA graphics processor, a screen which doesn't suit the machine's target audience and sub-par battery life takes the shine of what should have been a sure fire hit.