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Hands-on: The new multitouch MacBook Pro

If you like the iPhone's touch screen, you'll like this laptop's trackpad

You're going to want to swipe this MacBook Pro. And pinch it. And twirl it, too.

Actually it's not so much the 15-inch MacBook Pro you're going to be swiping -- it's the new multitouch trackpad it features. The trackpad, which represents the biggest change from earlier MacBook Pro models, borrows some of the same hands-on -- maybe I should say fingers-on -- user interface touches that premiered in the iPhone. The change to a multitouch trackpad means you can use the trackpad to perform a number of functions that heretofore required key combos or trackpad taps and clicks.

Late last month, Apple unveiled an incremental update to its popular aluminum-clad MacBook Pro line and its entry-level MacBooks. Apple's professional-level laptops now sport 45-nanometer Penryn processors from Intel, the latest versions of the Core 2 Duo chips that have been in use since 2006.

Other improvements include a switch to an LED screen in the 17-inch model instead of the fluorescent LCDs used until now; 200GB or 250GB hard drives (depending on model); up to 512MB of video RAM; and the multitouch trackpad. (And no, according to Apple officials, the new trackpad functions won't be ported back to earlier models; they can't be, since the multitouch trackpad requires a combination of software and new hardware.)

Nice features -- but not cheap

If you're jonesing for multitouch, head out to the Apple store and plan on coughing up some money. The 15-inch model starts at US$1,999, which nets you the 2.4-GHz processor, a 200GB hard drive spinning at 5,400 rpm and an NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 256MB of video RAM. For US$500 more, Apple gives you a 2.5-GHz processor, a 250GB hard drive and 512MB of video RAM. If you want to upgrade to an optional 2.6-GHz chip, that is a built-to-order option that will cost you an extra US$250.

That same hardware, including the 2.5-GHz processor, underpins the basic US$2,799 17-inch model -- with the added benefit of the larger display. The 2.6-GHz processor is available for an additional US$200 -- US$50 less than it costs to order that same processor in the 15-inch model. (Bias alert: A 17-inch model with the high-resolution screen is my personal fav and the one I have at home.)

While both the 15-inch and 17-inch models can be upgraded to the faster 2.6-GHz processor, stop before you buy. Is 0.1 GHz of clock speed really worth US$200 or US$250? For most people, the difference in real-world, day-to-day use between the three Core 2 Duo processors is negligible -- I would save my money and invest in more RAM or opt for the speedier 7,200-rpm hard drive Apple offers. Either is almost certainly a better investment (though you'll want to get the RAM from a third-party reseller, not Apple, which charges too much).

The 15-inch model reviewed for this article was totally tricked out with the faster 200GB hard drive, 2.6-GHz processor, 4GB of RAM and 512MB of video RAM. If you're going for the 15-inch model and want the ultimate, this is it. With the stock 2GB of RAM, this model would cost you US$2,799. With the 4GB of RAM Apple installed in our review unit, you d pay a whopping US$3,199. That s why you should buy extra RAM elsewhere.

If the price tag scares you, don't worry -- the basic US$1,999 model offers just about everything you need. If you want to splurge, get the faster hard drive and you're out the door for US$2,099 plus tax.

Here, however, is the main point: If you bought the last-generation model in January and are wondering whether you should upgrade, you need answer only one question: Do you absolutely, positively need the new multitouch trackpad? If not, there's no need to spend more money now. But if it's been a couple of years since you last bought, and your first-generation Core Duo-based 15-inch model is getting a little long in the tooth, keep reading.

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The same great design

Although I've been a fan of the 17-inch MacBook Pros -- and before them, the PowerBooks -- most Mac laptop users I know like the size and portability of the 15-inch models. If that's you, you'll be happy to know that the latest batch of MacBook Pros are largely unchanged.

I was afraid after reviewing the new MacBook Air that Apple would move its pro line to the black keyboard prominent in the Air. This design works, sort of, in the slim, trim Air, but it would cheapen the look of the MacBook Pro. Apple, thankfully, heard my silent plea and stayed with the same style as the previous models -- and as before, the keyboard is illuminated in dimly lit areas.

As always, even the base MacBook Pro comes full featured, offering two FireWire ports (one of them FireWire 800) and two USB 2.0 ports, a built-in iSight Webcam, a super-sharp LCD, 802.11n Wi-Fi access, Bluetooth for easy pairing with wireless accessories and phones, and a DVI port for connecting to external monitors. Unlike the MacBook Air, the 15-inch model also offers an ExpressCard/34 slot. There's probably a kitchen sink inside, too.

Multitouch makes the difference

What sets the new MacBook Pros apart from their predecessors is the trackpad. Apple is understandably proud of this new feature, which mimics the finger gestures used to navigate around its popular iPhone. It was introduced with the MacBook Air, but it's not included in the new MacBook models also unveiled last month. I expect this feature to work its way down the food chain, so look for it in the next generation of MacBooks.

Multitouch allows you do a variety of things, depending on which app you're working with. In fact, Apple has included an interactive system preference pane to show you exactly which motion performs what task. If you're not used to pinching, twirling and swiping, you should definitely check it out first. Under System Preferences, go to Keyboard & Mouse and click on the tab that says Trackpad.

If you're surfing the Web with Safari, you can swipe back and forth between pages using three fingers. No more scrolling around to the back and forward buttons in the Safari toolbar, no more need for the Command-Arrow key combo. You can use the pinch motion to decrease the font size of Web pages, or a reverse pinch to make text size larger. It's elegant in its simplicity and implementation, and it quickly becomes second nature with regular use -- so much so that I keep trying to swipe between pages on my older 17-inch MacBook Pro. No dice.

Multitouch is even more useful in programs like Apple's iPhoto app. Here you can scroll around photos when you're editing or viewing them and rotate them using two fingers. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you're comfortable rotating, swiping and pinching, you won't want to go back to clicking and mousing to accomplish the same tasks. The same gestures are available in the latest version of Apple's Aperture 2 app, and my guess is we'll see them show up in more programs in the months ahead.

Already developers are coming up with ways to extend multitouch features. One of these you might consider trying is called MultiClutch. This little app, still in beta, installs an input manager that basically translates keyboard commands into common multitouch gestures for different applications. It is a beta, but users haven't reported any major problems with it. So if you have one of the new MacBook Pros, or a MacBook Air, and you're looking to extend the multitouch gestures available, it's worth checking out.

Unlike the larger trackpad in the MacBook Air, the trackpads in the new MacBook Pros are unchanged in size. No doubt, Apple didn't want to revamp the case by adding a larger trackpad, but it makes sense to do so, given the new multitouch capabilities offered. A bigger trackpad offers more room to pinch, twirl and swipe.

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A jump in performance

Multitouch aside, you're more likely to be considering one of these new notebooks if you're using one of the first-generation MacBook Pros, or an even older PowerBook. In that case, you're in for a serious speed boost. That's in large part because of Apple's 2006 shift from PowerPC processors to Intel chips -- the jump from PowerPC to Intel represented a much larger speed jump than the move from Core Duo to Core 2 Duo chips, though the improvement is still noticeable.

I don't have an older MacBook Pro or PowerBook to test this unit against, but the speed numbers put together by Apple should give you an idea of the difference. Using Photoshop CS3 to apply 45 common filters to a 120MB file, the new MacBook Pro is more than three times faster than the last generation PowerBook with a 1.67-GHz G4 chip; and it's 50 per cent faster than performing the same task on a MacBook Pro with a 2.16-GHz Core Duo processor. As always, your mileage may vary.

As for the new Penryn processors in the new models, they're manufactured using the 45nm process, meaning they should run a little cooler than their predecessors and squeeze out a bit more battery life. They also offer differing levels of Level 2 cache memory, which can offer a small speed boost. The 2.4-GHz chip has 3MB of Level 2 cache; the faster chips have 6MB of Level 2 cache.

I noted little difference in the performance of the new models and my last-generation MacBook Pro. I also never once heard the fans come on during routine use or even when pushing the processor with some heavy Photoshop use. Battery life was on par with previous models.

With its latest revision to the MacBook Pro line, Apple has taken what was already a solid laptop and added a few new tricks that should keep buyers coming back for more. No one who's bought a MacBook Pro in the last year should feel any buyer's remorse; their laptops stack up fine against the new generation. But anyone with a MacBook Pro that dates back to 2006, or who's still clinging to a PowerBook, would do well to check out the latest Apple has to offer -- especially because the multitouch features could come in handy in a pinch.