Walt Mossberg

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MacBook Pro Tradeoffs

When Apple redesigned its laptops earlier this month, most of the attention, including mine, was focused on the entry-level MacBook. That was because of its popularity, and because Apple managed to make over the machine in a way that added some oomph and lots of style while actually making it thinner and lighter and preserving battery life. But what about the MacBook’s big brother, the 15 inch MacBook Pro, a powerful, if pricey, laptop favored by many power users? My verdict on the Pro’s makeover isn’t nearly as favorable, because there were more tradeoffs.

The new MacBook Pro costs the same, high, $1999 price as the old one, and Apple (AAPL) does give you more for your money — a faster discrete graphics processor; the same radical new button-free trackpad that’s in the MacBook; bigger hard disks. It’s also a tad thinner.

But some of the new model’s design features that were a dramatic upgrade on the entry MacBook were already present on the older Pro — an aluminum case, a bright LED screen, and the ability to perform some iPhone-like gestures on the trackpad.

And the new MacBook Pro is actually a downgrade from the old model in a few areas. For one, it has grown slightly larger and heavier, with a 4% bigger footprint and a bit more weight (5.5 pounds versus 5.4 pounds for the old one.) These aren’t huge sacrifices, but I believe that when companies strive to redesign laptops without increasing screen size, they should try for smaller and lighter, not the reverse.

Much worse is the loss of battery life. When used with its discrete graphics processor, the natural mode for the kind of audience at which the Pro is aimed, Apple claims it will get just 4 hours of battery life, versus the 5 hours it claimed for its predecessor, which also used a discrete graphics processor. That’s a whopping 20% reduction in battery life.

To compensate, Apple built in a second, alternate, graphics system, the same wimpier integrated graphics chip that’s used in the lower-end MacBook. Only when you switch to this alternate chip — a clumsy process that involves changing a preference in software — can you hope to retain the old 5-hour battery life.

Because I didn’t do a full review of the MacBook Pro for my Wall Street Journal column, I didn’t run my own battery tests on it. But MacWorld magazine did, and the magazine declared that battery life diminished to a significant degree compared with the previous model.

In addition, Apple now offers the 15 inch MacBook Pro only with a glossy screen, having removed the option for a matte screen that is often preferred by pros who work heavily with photos and videos, because of the glare and fingerprints it can attract. This glossy-only choice is also present on the MacBook, but it matters less there, because that machine isn’t usually the choice of graphics pros.

My bottom line on the new MacBook Pro is that it still provides a satisfying upgrade for power users willing to spend the money to move up from the MacBook or from a less powerful, or similarly powerful, Windows machine running the inferior Vista or XP operating systems. But, for owners of the most recent prior MacBook Pro, the new model’s tradeoffs make an upgrade an iffy choice.


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