The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

While Apple grandly updated their notebook line to the new unibody design, the 17-inch MacBook Pro, Apple's granddaddy of mobile computing, was left behind. Now, the 17-inch model joins its siblings—with promising bonus features.

Design

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

With nothing to scale this image, it's nearly impossible to tell the new 17-inch MBP from the 13- or 15-inch unibody macs. From the outside, it's the same thing, only bigger. At first it's a little intimidating to see such a large, unadorned block of metal. But at 6.6 lbs, it's actually not as heavy in your hands as you'd expect. And at .98-inches in stature, it's only ever so slightly thicker (.03 inches) than the other two MacBooks.

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

Apple will tell you that the MBP17 is the thinnest, lightest 17-inch notebook in the world. We'll tell you that for a monster of a laptop, it manages to not be too monstrous. The 17-inch (1920x1200) screen is a sharp, contrasty and colorful panorama, but it's the little touches that make the MBP17 manageable: The system's near-silent operation (using a 256GB SSD instead of a hard drive) is almost unnerving. Its underside gets warm, but never hot. And the unibody design makes particularly good sense in this larger size, as the wide chassis does not flex to your grip as you might expect.

The battery is one of the only components that's significantly different than that of the smaller machines. Striving for 8-hours of battery life the newly designed power pack screws right into the chassis. (Lots more on that topic below.)

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

What's missing, however, is the underside hatch that made for easy hard drive and battery replacement. This smart design feature, recently introduced in Apple's 13- and 15-inch unibody laptops, has been replaced by a series of screws to remove the bottom panel, and another series of screws to remove the battery. Removing a few screws is by no means a horrendous exercise, but we can't help but feel that it's a step in the wrong direction. The most spend-happy pro users will be the most likely to crack the lid of their laptops—so this design choice will likely annoy a key part of the MBP17's target audience.

What's Different About It?

Compared to the MBP15

• Supports 8GB of RAM; the MBP15 only supports 4GB

• Includes a 256GB SSD option; the MBP15 only a 128GB

• The MBP17 includes five speakers with a wider frequency response

• There's one extra USB port (3 total)

• Slightly faster processor options

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

(note: shot comparison of 13-inch model)

Compared to the old 17-inch MBP

• 40% larger battery (95WH vs. 68WH)

• Glossy and matte screen options are now available

• The screen has equal resolution, but a 60% wider color gamut

• Unibody structure, of course

Performance

The MBP17 features a 2.66 or 2.93GHz processor, up to 8GB of RAM and dual Nvidia 9400M (integrated) and 9600 (discrete) graphics cards. A 320GB 5400RPM hard drive comes standard, but that can be upgraded to a 320GB 7200RPM drive or a 128GB/256GB solid-state drive. (Note: There's no option for a 500GB hard drive, though they are readily available if you want to swap one in.)

The model we tested was fully loaded, with a 2.93GHz processor, 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD.

Still, because the MBP17 is so similar to the 15 internally, we're going to point you in the direction of our last review for benchmarks on the dual Nvidia 9400M and 9600 graphics cards. We also ran Xbench and uploaded the predictably impressive results to their database. However, one feature we wanted to be sure to check out was the new 256GB SSD option, a drive made by Toshiba. It's a $750 upgrade that we were able to test in our review model.

SSD Speed Benchmarks:

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

Against the stock drive that comes with MBPs, the speed gains are obvious. However, the SSD market is still very young. There are only a handful of drives out there, so how do you know if Apple's $750 offering is price competitive?

Searching through the XBench results forums, we found a user who tested out a G. Skill Titan 256GB SSD on a unibody mac. It's not rated to be as fast as Samsung's $1000 SSD gold standard, but according to these benchmarks, it's still considerably faster than the drive Apple will sell you. The catch? The Titan runs $500, or $250 less than Apple's bundled Toshiba. In other words, as with most upgrades, you're still better off going through a third party for your SSD.

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

The other bonus to SSDs is how quickly they boot. From the picture, you can see that our MBP17 booted in 31 seconds, despite me having a few hundred icons on the desktop. The MBP15 (normal hard drive, 4GB RAM) took about 90 seconds to load a similar configuration, or "three times longer" in marketing speak.

Battery Life

Everything so far about the new MBP17 is all well and good, but we think there's one claim in particular that's going to interest consumers the most: A 7-8 hour battery life*.

*Assuming screen at half brightness, Wi-Fi on, light browsing, light word processing (so no Bluetooth but otherwise a standard configuration). 8 hours on integrated graphics, 7 hours with more beefy discrete GPU.

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

Indeed, the MBP17's battery is huge. It takes up roughly the whole bottom half of the computer's underside. To make the battery as big as possible, Apple removed even the battery's removal mechanism. Apple's lithium polymer pack screws in and promises a shelf life of 1000 complete charges—which also means 2000 half recharges or 4000 quarter recharges—before the battery depletes to 80% capacity.

And while we didn't have the time to test Apple's 1000 recharge claim, we were able to run some battery tests.

First we put the system up against a day of blogging. This test was admittedly harder than Apple's cushy benchmarking, but I wanted to see how it would stand up to true pro use. So with the screen just a hair above half brightness, Wi-Fi on, Bluetooth off, backlit keyboard on, discrete graphics on, heavy web browsing and occasional Photoshop work, we achieved 3 hours 57 minutes of run time.

Should we be pissed? After all, Apple offers 7-8 hours in their ads! That's your call. In truth, we've found that most laptops hit about half their rated battery life under real world conditions (cough, netbooks, cough). If we can only cover our ears and hum through Apple's latest marketing campaign, we're actually fairly pleased with about 4 hours of heavy use from a fully loaded 17-inch laptop—especially since that metric includes no real compromises to our workflow.

We also wanted to simulate watching a movie on the plane. So we played back an MPEG4 with the screen at half brightness, discrete graphics off, backlit keyboard off, Wi-Fi off, Bluetooth off and headphones in. We received 4 hours 39 minutes of run time. That's nearly two hours longer* than we received from the MBP15, and 2 hours 30 minutes longer than we received from the MB13. That's basically the difference between watching one movie and watching two.

*The previous MBP tests had Wi-Fi on, the backlit keyboard on and speakers on. These alterations should account for a small amount of the increase, but my no means a majority. The 17-inch unit also has an SSD, but these non-spinning drives don't necessarily mean power savings.

For the Lazy Readers Needing a Summary

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

A 17-inch notebook has never been designed for the mainstream consumer. But then again, nothing about this MacBook Pro is aiming for the mainstream. It's a laptop that starts at $2800, and our fully loaded test model runs a hair over $5,000. Its screen is as big as most CRT monitors from just a few years back.

The thing should feel like a beast on the couch, but it actually doesn't. It's almost frightening how quickly you adjust, appreciating the extra screen space while disregarding that this system is supposed to be a "laptop" in name only.

If you can get over the purported 8 hours of battery life and settle for longevity around half that number, you'll be welcomed with a laptop that feels like a desktop but is actually a laptop. It's a Cadillac that you can just about park, a triple cheeseburger in the bun of a double, a stocky man in a well-tailored suit. And we're liking it. We just can't help but ask, why can't Apple fit a 256GB SSD or 8GB of RAM—or even a 4+ hour battery—into a 15-inch MBP?

The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

It's a big honking computer in a smallish package



The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

As with the other unibody systems, the MBP17 runs cooler and quieter than past MacBooks



The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

Battery life is reasonable, but will fall short for pro users looking for a true day of use



The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

Apple's Toshiba SSD upgrade is pricey for its performance



The 17-Inch MacBook Pro Review

There's no easy pop-off bottom panel like in other unibody models

External Sources [ifixit, Xbench]