Walt Mossberg

MacBook Pro Offers Promising Start to Era Of Intel-Powered Apple

I am writing these words on a sleek, fast laptop computer powered by an Intel processor. But unlike the vast majority of Intel-powered laptops, this machine isn’t running Microsoft Windows. It’s the latest Macintosh laptop from Apple Computer, and the first Apple portable to run on Intel processors. Like all Apple computers, it uses the company’s excellent Mac OS X operating system instead of Windows.

The new laptop, called a MacBook Pro, is the successor to Apple’s PowerBook models, and at first glance, it looks just like a PowerBook. But the MacBook Pro is quite different, and not merely because it uses a modern, dual-core Intel chip instead of the aging G4 processor its predecessor used.

I’ve been testing the MacBook Pro and comparing it to both a late-model PowerBook and a roughly similar Windows laptop, the new H-P Pavilion dv5000t. All three machines have 15-inch-wide screen displays.

The MacBook Pro

My verdict: The MacBook Pro is better than the PowerBook and better than the H-P, though it has some drawbacks. It is faster than previous Apple laptops, but the speedup isn’t as great as Apple’s claims suggest. At a starting price of $1,999, the same as the PowerBook it replaces, the MacBook Pro costs more than the H-P. But in my opinion, the price premium is more than justified by its superior design and features.

Apple is switching to Intel chips in hopes of getting greater speed at lower temperatures. It has rewritten its operating system and built-in software to run on the new Intel processors.

But some important Mac software published by other companies, like the Mac version of Microsoft Office, won’t be rewritten for awhile, so Apple has built in invisible translation software, which can slow things down. Despite this, the MacBook Pro seemed generally crisper than the PowerBook, with fewer spinning beach balls — the icon Apple uses to indicate a delay.

In my speed tests, the MacBook Pro beat the PowerBook at such tasks as importing photos and music, burning CDs, opening multiple Web sites and launching some programs. But most of the speed gains were slight, and even the biggest gains were nowhere near the 400% speed increases Apple claims. In a few tests, the MacBook Pro was actually slightly slower than the PowerBook.

I didn’t run a full set of speed tests against the H-P laptop because software differences make comparisons difficult. But using the Windows version of Apple’s own iTunes music software, I discovered that the H-P was faster than the MacBook at copying songs from a CD but slower at burning songs to a CD.

In my harsh battery test, where I turn off all power-saving features and play an endless loop of music, the MacBook Pro lasted two hours and 59 minutes, exactly the same as the PowerBook and 12 minutes longer than the H-P. In more normal conditions, I estimate the MacBook’s battery life could approach four hours.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro comes in two standard configurations. The $1,999 model has a 1.83-gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of memory and an 80-gigabyte hard disk. A beefier version, for $2,499, comes with a 2.0 GHz processor, one gigabyte of memory and a 100-gigabyte hard disk. Both versions are one inch thick, 9.6 inches deep and 14.1 inches long. Both weigh 5.6 pounds.

Compared with the PowerBook, the MacBook Pro has a slightly larger screen, at 15.4 inches vs. 15.2 inches. The screen is 67% brighter than the PowerBook’s but has a slightly lower resolution.

The MacBook Pro also comes with Front Row, Apple’s across-the-room interface for watching videos and photos and playing music, and it has a remote control. It also has a built-in camera for video conferencing. The PowerBook had none of these things.

But the MacBook has fewer ports than the PowerBook did. And it has a new, narrower industry-standard card slot. Unfortunately, almost no cards have been redesigned to fit the slot. “It also has a much larger electrical adapter than the PowerBook, and a slower DVD-burning drive.”

The H-P dv5000t I tested has the same-sized screen, the same amount of memory and the same processor as the $1,999 MacBook Pro. It also comes with an across-the-room multimedia interface, called Windows Media Center, and a remote. And it has some features the Apple lacks, including a slot for camera memory cards and an external TV tuner. At $1,659, after rebate, it seems like a bargain compared with the Apple.

But the H-P’s hard disk is much smaller, 60 gigabytes versus 80, and a whopping 13.3 gigabytes of that is devoted to special system-recovery software. To get near the Mac’s hard-disk capacity, you need a $110 upgrade, which raises the H-P’s price to $1,769, or $230 less than the Mac’s.

So what does Apple give you for that $230? You get a much better operating system; vastly better built-in software for Web surfing, email, photos, videos and music; a much brighter screen with much higher resolution than the H-P’s; twice the dedicated video memory; and the built-in camera. Plus, the H-P is quite bulky compared with the Apple. It’s a pound heavier than the Mac, and up to 77% thicker. Also, despite the recent discovery of a couple of harmless viruses for the Mac, the H-P is much, much more vulnerable to viruses and spyware than the Apple.

The MacBook Pro isn’t revolutionary, but it’s a promising start to the era of Intel-powered Apple laptops.

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