When Apple announced the update to its MacBook Pro line in June 2012, we had anticipated a slimmer, new design and high-resolution screen. While that did happen in the form of the Retina display, the standard MacBook Pro range wasn't axed.
Enter the MacBook Pro mid-2012 model. Although its design is just like those from several years before it, it's what's under this latest Pro's skin and the addition of USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connections that sets it apart.
We've had the 15-inch, quad-core Intel i7 2.6GHz model in the office for a while now. Is it the professional's choice of wundermachine, or has the now-classic design got a little long in the tooth?
Design is at the heart of Apple products. From the box it's delivered in to the product itself, the aluminium-shelled MacBook Pro looks, without a doubt, very sleek and stylish indeed.
But the design isn't as groundbreaking as it once was. Sit it next to a machine three years older and you won't immediately notice the difference between the two. The giveaway signs are a slight shift in some of the keyboard graphics and the new ports and connection types to the machine's side. That doesn't detract from the latest model's elegance or how easy it is to use, but it does bring into question why Apple hasn't gone the extra mile for this release. Perhaps it was too busy getting excited about its Retina display model.
Our complaints list is small, but it's still not a flawless machine, even this many iterations into the series. Existing MacBook Pro owners will be only too aware of a couple of frustrations: the front ridge is somewhat "sharp" and is uncomfortable to the wrists unless they're covered; and the USB (and other) ports are so closely positioned that any snazzy, bulked-out USB key won't sit alongside and play nice with any others. We feel these issues should have been sorted out generations ago - surely small enough adjustments for a company as big and powerful as Apple?
But when the MacBook Pro is on form, it's great. The backlit keyboard is perfectly spaced, the keys have just the right amount of travel and controls for backlighting and screen brightness are exceptionally useful when working in bright or dark conditions.
The screen's 1440x900 pixel display may not sound as high as some of the competition out there because, frankly, it isn't. For an extra £80 Apple will install a glossy 1680x1050 version, though its reflective qualities may make outdoor, or on-the-go work a little trickier in the brightest of conditions. Still, whichever screen you go for there's no doubt that the MacBook Pro has a superb viewing angle and brightness that few competitors can compete against.
Unlike the slimmed-down Retina model, the latest Pro doesn't benefit from size or weight adjustments. At 2kgs in weight it's not a bother to transport about though, but many professionals may consider this model as a straightforward desktop replacement. If the 15-inch model sounds too big there is always the less pricey and (obviously) smaller 13-inch version to consider.
Heat-wise the MacBook Pro can run rather hot, resulting in the body shell heating up on the underside and to the top left of the keyboard. This can feel hot to the touch, particularly if you like to work with it on your lap. Compared to the earlier models, at least in our preliminary tests, the 2012 model didn't run quite as hot and, therefore, there was far less fan noise. Over an extended period of months and years, however, greater demands on the machine don't guarantee that it'll stay as cool.
Existing MacBook Pro users considering an upgrade aren't going to find physical alterations to make their experience better, at least not in this standard version. First-time buyers, too, may want to give great thought to whether the 2012 version is the one to go for: let's face it, come 2013 Apple has to move the series forward with a redesign. Of course that's not confirmed, but we suspect a face-lifted model will be the machine to go for in 12 months' time.
Part of what makes the latest Pro special is what's on the inside. At the heart of this particular review model is a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor that can turbo boost up to 3.6GHz, plus there are two lots of 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM to total 8GB. However, unlike the Retina model there's no capacity to upgrade this Pro model with 16GB of RAM. Storage is handled by a 750GB, 5400rpm hard disk, or for (considerably) more cash you can opt in for an solid state drive (SSD) at up to 512GB in size.
All those numbers translate into smooth use. We've been manipulating large AIFF audio files while Photoshop sits merrily in the background with dozens of PSD files loaded, all with no issue at all.
The OS X Lion operating system - Mountain Lion is available as a free upgrade for those who purchase, it just wasn't installed on our review machine - also runs smoothly and offers all those great "Appley" gestures, corners, spaces and so forth.
Launchpad, Mission Control and the like will quickly become integral to your daily workflow. If you're unfamiliar with Mac OS X then it's easy to use, though it is a difference experience from a Windows machine - diehards of one operating system or the other may initially struggle with a switch between the two.
Or you can run both. Load up Boot Camp - Apple's own approved software that comes as standard - and you'll be able to partition the disk to include a second operating system such as Windows or Linux. Of course you'll have to buy the second OS at extra cost, but it might well be worth it.
The MacBook Pro, despite its power, isn't exactly a hardcore gamer's machine. Users of Steam will know only too well that lots of games won't run on the Mac platform. Arguably a Mac just isn't a gamer's platform, it's made for design professionals, video editors and the like. We reckon it's good enough to cut it in both camps, but it is a lot of cash to part with if your main point of purchase it to run computer games.
Apple has also - finally! - got on the USB 3.0 train for enhanced transfer speeds. There are two ports on this model, next to single Thunderbolt and FireWire 800 ports to ensure compatibility with whatever format you prefer to use. There's also an Ethernet port, SD card slot and, on the opposite side, an optical drive to read DVD and CD. We suspect this will be the last MacBook Pro to feature an optical drive if the Retina model - and indeed competitors' Ultrabook models - is anything to go by. There's no Blu-ray support, a feature that has been ignored by Apple.
There's no doubt that the MacBook Pro (mid 2012) is one great-looking, powerful machine that will serve many professionals well. The user experience is smooth thanks to the latest operating system, and the Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 transfer speeds are a big step forward compared to the previous generation.
That said the MacBook Pro design has been around for a long time now. It still looks good, but is just less groundbreaking than it was at its inception, and the release of the MacBook Pro with Retina display really overshadows this 15-inch model. With that in mind it might make more sense not to spend £1500-1800+ and instead wait for a 2013 release or plump up the extra cash for the SSD-loaded, RAM-fuelled Retina display version.
There's also no avoiding the fact that this is a pricey machine. There are similar Windows-based PCs out there that will cost many hundreds of pounds less, and that does pose the argument to turn to the main opposition as a consideration. Most Ultrabooks, however, haven't quite managed to combine the power with the overall built quality of Apple's devices quite yet - that's something that Apple really has got down to an art.
Overall there's still a lot of love to be had for the MacBook Pro. Externally it might not be quite so fresh, but it's still a classic. Paired with the improved connections and all that internal power it's still up there with the best laptops on the market today. After a week of use it feels just as effortless now as it did when it first loaded with incredible speed - and it's things like that which make all the difference in day-to-day schedules.
It won't be for all, and a more significant update might have been expected, but we still love it.
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