The February 2011 refresh represents a great leap forward for the MacBook Pro range, especially the 13-inch models. Intel’s new Sandy Bridge second-generation Core-i processors make their Mac debut, giving a massive performance boost. Intel’s Thunderbolt connectivity protocol looks amazing, bringing speeds USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 can only dream of, and a handful of minor upgrades and polishes complete an excellent refresh.
The mid-2010 MacBook Pro refresh saw the 15 and 17-inch models move to Intel’s Core-i processors, supported by a dedicated GPU. But for technical and legal reasons, the 13-inch versions stuck with the older Core 2 Duo and an NVIDIA integrated graphics chipset. Thanks to the much-improved built-in graphics offered by Intel’s second-generation Core-i processors (known by the code name Sandy Bridge), the 13-inch MacBook Pro (whose logic board is too small to fit a discrete graphics chip) is at last able to drop the Core 2 Duo.
The built-in Intel HD 3000 graphics is on a par with the NVIDIA 320M chipset used before, allowing the smallest MacBook Pros to take advantage of the newer technology without sacrificing graphical power.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch: Processor
The dual-core processors chosen for the 13-inch MacBook Pros are surprisingly powerful. Skipping the bottom-of-the-range Core i3, the entry-level notebook has a 2.3GHz Core i5, and the higher-end model reviewed here boasts a 2.7GHz Core i7, the most powerful dual core processor on the market. The new CPUs integrate the processor, cache, memory controller and graphics engine on a single chip for increased performance.
Hyper Threading lets each of the two cores run two separate threads, giving four virtual cores in all. The advantage is that tasks can be spread more evenly when multitasking, and applications that take advantage of multiple cores run faster too. If some cores are unused, the Turbo Boost 2.0 feature shuts down idle ones and uses the saved power to boost the clock speed of active cores. This 2.7GHz Core i7 can run at up to 3.4GHz using Turbo Boost.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch: Thunderbolt
The new MacBook Pros have gained a new input/output technology too. Intel’s Thunderbolt, developed in close collaboration with Apple, is capable of transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps in both directions at once. To put this in perspective, it’s 12 times faster than FireWire 800 (800Mbps) and over 20 times quicker than USB 2.0 (480Mbps). In the real world, this means you can transfer a full-length HD movie in about 30 seconds, and a year’s worth of 196kbps MP3s in around ten minutes.
As well as data transfer, Thunderbolt can carry audio and video signals. A Mini DisplayPort monitor can be plugged directly into the Thunderbolt port (which replaces the Mini DisplayPort on the new MacBook Pros), and you can connect a DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA monitor using existing adapters, so there’s no need to buy a new external screen.
There’s no need to throw out your current peripherals either. The 13-inch MacBook Pros retain their FireWire 800 and twin USB 2.0 ports, and you can connect USB and FireWire devices to a Thunderbolt port using adapters. Best of all, up to six peripherals can be daisy-chained to a single Thunderbolt port.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch: Screen
Other tweaks and improvements for the new 13-inch MacBook Pros include a 720p FaceTime camera and an SDXC card reader. The impressive 13.3-inch LED-backlit 1280x800 screen, strong-but-light aluminium unibody construction and beautiful backlit keyboard remain the same.
There’s little to complain about here. We didn’t get a Blu-ray drive (again), but we didn’t really expect one. The stated battery time is down from ten to seven hours, but much of this is due to Apple’s new testing procedures, which better reflect real-world use. Actual battery life is on a par with the previous generation, and remains enough for a full day’s mains-free computing. Like all Macs, they’re not cheap, but at £999, the entry-level model is cheaper than its predecessor and the more powerful £1,299 notebook is only a little more expensive.
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch launch date: Out now, link Apple
Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch price: £999-£1299