Apple MacBook Pro (Late 2011) review

4.5 out of 5
£999 (as tested)

For

Power, power, power, design, battery, screen

Against

Not cheap, no Blu-ray

The 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro, until recently, was a bit of a misnomer. There wasn't much Pro about a Core 2 Duo processor and the Sandy-Bridge-packing 15- and 17-inch options out specced it massively. It felt like a bulkier MacBook Air and in some cases, its thinner cousin could even out-pace it. 

Late 2011 however sees the arrival of a new 13-inch MacBook Pro, complete with OS X Lion and thankfully i5 and i7 Sandy Bridge processors. Does the 13-incher finally feel pro again? Or is it still sluggish compared to its larger screened brethren? 

I put the P in Pro

The MacBook Pro has been the laptop to aspire to in Apple's product lineup. At the top end, with all the bells and whistles, you can get an absurd amount of power out of a portable -as long as you're prepared to pay the price. A fully upgraded 17 inch option for example can be all you could ever need for even the most intense computing tasks. The same now applies to the 13 inch offering we have for review here. With a 2.8 GHz i7 processor inside, 4GB of RAM and Intel HD graphics 3000, it's a potent package.

From the outset it becomes clear that this is a quality laptop. Apple's usual packaging finesse makes opening even its box a bit of an experience. As per usual, paperwork is relatively thin on the ground, but the packaging itself is so perfectly put together, that it more than makes up for it. You get a laptop, charger and AC power cord. There is also an instruction booklet which will get those new to Mac OS up to speed on its basics, as well as showing some basic maintenance directions. 

Boot the thing up and that LED backlit display makes itself immediately apparent. Those who aren't used to Apple's display quality will be impressed, but if you are making the upgrade from a previous LED-packing Mac, then don't expect it to be much different. It is a gorgeous looking screen with deep blacks, rich colours and top notch viewing angles. Those who intend to use a MacBook Pro for video or photo editing wont be disappointed, you will however likely want to get its display calibrated. The downside, of course, is that it's a glossy screen, and that means you'll see reflections in bright conditions. 

The next thing that makes itself known on boot is the inclusion of the new Sandy Bridge processors. OS X Lion does a great job of speeding up the system start, but we cant help think that the i7 contributed to the sub-10 second boot time. Add in a solid state drive and expect things to only get quicker. So far, so good power-wise. The laptop definitely feels Pro again.

I can take whatever you throw at me

In order to really gauge what sort of power the 13-inch MacBook Pro has to offer, we needed to throw some serious applications and tasks at it. First-up was booting Aperture and running a load of photo imports and exports through it. Opening the program was almost instant, so was loading full res stills and exporting and resizing multiple snaps. 

We then fired up just about everything we could find on the Mac we were set for review. We had Logic, iPhoto, iTunes, Garageband and iMovie as well as Safari open with multiple tabs running flash. It handled the whole lot a doddle. Sure the fan made itself known with a bit of a hike in speed, but other than that the laptop itself didn't struggle. 

A little more than 4GB of RAM would help make things even better, but other than that, a 2.8 GHz i7 is more than enough grunt for those looking to do some hefty computing tasks. 

A lot of the niceties of OS X Lion can take maximum advantage of the extra speed found in the new Pro. Say, for example, you use Launchpad a lot to load apps, it will open with no lag and scrolling between pages is as smooth as it is iOS. Similarly Mission Control also behaves very well. 

Design rethink?

Playing a game of spot the difference with the new MacBook Pro isn't exactly easy. In fact it is impossible as the laptop looks entirely identical to last year's release. 

What has changed is the inclusion of a FaceTime HD camera, which from what we tested, didn't show too big an improvement over non-HD offerings. It is definitely better, but not by much. 

This might just be us, but it appears that the magnetic closing system in the laptop's hood has been slightly redone. The laptop's lid now closes smoothly and the pops shut when it gets near to the body of the computer. 

One major difference you'll spot, is the inclusion of a Thunderbolt port. Whilst a simple bit of extra connectivity might seem rather unexciting. To those in the know, Thunderbolt could be enough to justify the purchase of the laptop alone. The new I/O port is one of the highest speed data transfer systems on the market, as well as offering power to displays and other peripherals. Think of it as a next step from USB or FireWire, unifying display and inputs under one port. 

Not so much a design change, but more a product of what a 13-inch laptop and a Sandy Bridge processor creates, is the portability and power factor. Until now, the 13-inch MacBook Pro hasn't quite been capable of packing the sort of computing power needed by, say, a pro photographer or videographer. The 15-inch was usually the stepping off point for those who worked with images for a living. This changes with the Sandy-Bridge-equipped machine. And we've been transporting the 13-inch around in our bag for a week now, editing video and pushing loads of hi-res images through Aperture. No issues whatsoever so far, and most importantly, no spinning beach ball.

Verdict

It might have been a relatively quiet upgrade for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but it is most definitely a necessary one. Sandy Bridge does the job of speeding the laptop up to the degree that it again feels like a piece of pro kit. 

This is important, as at £999 you expect quite a bit of laptop for your money. It certainly delivers, bringing an all-in-one package, perfectly suited to those interested in the power of a MacBook Pro, but not willing to carry the weight or price of the larger 15-inch and 17-inch laptops. Sure they might pack quad-core setups, but ultimately most tasks tick along fine, although perhaps a tad slower. 

Not much else can be said about the 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro refresh. It is faster, packs Thunderbolt and has a larger hard drive. If you are after a lighter laptop, with plentiful power, this is the one to go for. It might not be cheap, but it does the job the Apple way and that is no bad thing.