Hands on: Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro packs a punch

Hands on: Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro packs a punch

Faster processors, more battery life and a better display make for a great -- and small -- package

A side shot showing the ports on the 13-in. MacBook Pro, including the SD card slot on the right, next to the headphone jack.

A side shot showing the ports on the 13-in. MacBook Pro, including the SD card slot on the right, next to the headphone jack.

A new LED screen

The new LED screen in both 13-in. MacBook Pro models offers a 60 per cent wider color gamut than previous models, according to Apple. It's a change that's readily apparent when comparing the screen on the new MacBook Pro to the one in the MacBook it replaces -- and that earlier screen was no slouch.

"Wider gamut" means more life-like colors and deeper color saturation. As an example, I took a picture this spring of a purplish-blue iris that, on the just-discontinued MacBook, looked very good. But on the new MacBook Pro, the same picture is stunning. Color subtleties that weren't as obvious on the older model are clearly apparent: the iris looks less blue, more true-to-life purplish. The older screen also had a slightly filmy look when compared to the new one.

One thing that hasn't changed: the screen resolution. The new MacBook Pro offers the same 1280 x 800-pixel resolution as the old model, which is perfectly appropriate for a laptop this size. Text is razor sharp, and the screen is more than bright enough to use outdoors, even in direct sunlight. And since the LED is backlit, the screen comes up to full brightness right away. Pre-LED screens usually needed about 20 minutes to fully brighten.

Under the hood, the changes are evolutionary. As noted earlier, the 2.53GHz Intel processor is plenty fast for just about any data-crunching you have in mind. (The less expensive model has a 2.26GHz processor.) The standard 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 RAM should be plenty for most users, though you can splurge and double it to 8GB if you want. Splurge is the word, too, as 4GB chips are super-pricey: You'll pay Apple $US1,000 to have 8GB of RAM installed, way more than makes sense. Even buying from a third-party vendor will set you back $US700.

Frugality alert: If you opt for the $US1,199 MacBook Pro, note that it comes with just 2GB of RAM. Apple charges $US100 to double it to 4GB. Either pay Apple to do it, or do it yourself. Down the road, you'll be happier.

Hard drive options

Another sensible move would be to upgrade the hard drive. (The cheaper MacBook Pro has a 160GB drive; this one comes with a 250GB drive that spins at 5,400 rpm. You can jump to a 320GB drive for $US50 more -- or double your drive space to half a terabyte for $US150 above the sticker price. (Those drives also spin at 5,400 rpm.) That's great if you have a large and growing collection of tunes, pictures or videos.

Alternatively, you can trick out the MacBook Pro with a solid-state disk (SSD) drive for an extra bit of speed. You'll give up storage, however, as the biggest SSD drive offered by Apple right now is 256GB for a very pricey $US800. If you're on a budget, skip the SSD until prices come down.

About the only drive you can't order through Apple on this model is a 7,200-rpm model, which is unfortunate, as a 7,200-rpm drive would offer a speed boost at a reasonable price. You can always add your own, however, although doing so is a little more involved than it used to be. Unlike the MacBook it supersedes, the MacBook Pro doesn't have a separate drive compartment that's easy to access. Now you have to remove 10 screws and take off the entire bottom of the laptop to access the drive bay. Once there, you remove one screw, unplug the drive, plug in your replacement and reverse the process.

I'll say this: The new setup gives the bottom case a very clean look (no seams or latches), if such aesthetics matter to you.

Performance and extras

With the standard drive, the MacBook Pro is a solid performer. I used the Xbench benchmarking app to see how this model would compare with earlier Apple laptops. The MacBook Pro churned out a score of 139, which is surprisingly speedy, given that the last-generation 15-in. MacBook Pro with the same 2.53GHz processor turned in a score of 123. As always, benchmarking tests can vary, but that kind of jump is noteworthy and indicates that this laptop offers performance that's completely in keeping with its new Pro designation.

For comparison purposes, a top-of-the-line 17-in. MacBook Pro with the optional 3.06GHz processor and a 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive yielded an Xbench score of 176. (I'll be offering up a full review on this particular laptop soon.)

It's important to note that performance is more than just the clock speed of any one processor. Underlying architecture changes involving the hard drive, RAM speed, Level 2 cache size and graphics processors all combine to make a difference in how a computer feels. For the megahertz-focused, Primate Labs offers a rundown of how various systems stack up in case you want to know more. And LowEnd Mac has a look at how various processors fare in Apple's consumer laptops, including the MacBooks.

All of the rest of Apple's laptop goodies continue unchanged. The lighted keyboard -- with white lettering on black keys -- has a solid feel that matches the laptop's. The oversized trackpad, which is covered with a thin layer of glass for smooth multi-touch gestures, works great. It may take new users a little while to get used to the integrated clicker button, but it works exactly as billed.

The SD card slot also performs well. Slide your SD card in and a disk icon shows up on your desktop. You can then transfer photos or data with drag-and-drop ease. Personally, I'd probably continue to connect my digital camera to my laptop with a USB cable, but photography pros with multiple SD cards lying around will likely appreciate the slot. And you can even boot up the MacBook Pro with a copy of Mac OS X installed on an SD card, according to an Apple Knowledge Base document.

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