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  • Are the New MacBook Pros Lacking Something?

    March 9th, 2011

    The benchmarks are pouring in, and it does appear the recent MacBook Pro speed bump delivers far more performance than what you’d expect from an incremental hardware upgrade. Much of that is due to the use of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processor family across the board, available in dual-core or quad-core configuration, depending on which model you select.

    In passing, I should point out that the high-end models are the first Apple note-books to incorporate a quad-core processor, largely because previous Intel parts just used too much power to afford exceptional battery life. That’s one of the advantages of Sandy Bridge, along with speedier number crunching, of course.

    It appears Apple also found the right configuration for most of you, incorporating the new Intel/Apple Thunderbolt connection port. It masquerades as just another MiniDisplay port designed to accommodate an external display. But once peripherals arrive, you’ll get the equivalent of an external PCI Express port, which gives you the potential of adding up to six external devices that will in many ways match what you can do with the super-expensive Mac Pro. But don’t forget the Mac Pro only has three empty slots, but I grant that future models will most assuredly get Thunderbolt too.

    As far as benchmarks are concerned, the results depend on the testing process. Macworld, for example, rates the standard $2,499 version of the 17-inch MacBook Pro as 53 percent faster than its predecessor, from last spring. Other tests that don’t depend on specific applications as Macworld’s does, but test raw CPU horsepower, rate the fastest MacBook Pros as superior to a Mac Pro, at least the version released last year. We’re talking about workstation-class performance here, and these results may sharply reduce the need for heat-generating and costly minitowers in many work environments, even for content creators.

    Sure, you’ll have to pack your peripherals separately, but imagine having a single portable workstation that you can use at the office or at home, while yielding little in terms of the performance you need to do your work when compared to a desktop equivalent. It won’t be long, in fact, before MacBook Pros have six-core and eight-core processors. Maybe next year!

    At the same time, the critics will, as usual, point to the stuff that Apple doesn’t give you. Some wonder why Apple can’t add a few more USB ports. Why should you have to lug along a USB hub, and, perhaps, plug it somewhere so you get the proper amount of current passing through those ports? And what about Blu-ray? Isn’t Apple behind the curve there, or are they simply looking towards a future where physical media becomes irrelevant? It’s not just that Steve Jobs regards Blu-ray licensing as a “bag of hurt.” Besides, I just wonder how many potential MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air purchasers fret because there’s no Blu-ray available, except as an external device from a third party. I bet not so many.

    Indeed, it probably won’t be long before optical drives themselves become passe. Not this year, but maybe in 2012. But just being able to pop one in would be nice, as in the old days, before Apple’s design sensibilities mandated smooth surfaces without creases.

    In all, however, Mac note-books continue to earn rave reviews for elegance and performance even from tech publications who aren’t strictly Mac-centric. They are, unfortunately, usually downgraded for price. The standard meme is that you can buy a Windows note-book for much less. You’re paying the infamous Apple Tax, which may seem true until you do a fair comparison.

    Take the latest and greatest 17-inch MacBook Pro. Now the equivalent product in Dell’s lineup appears to be a Dell Precision M6500 Mobile Workstation. One configuration, preselected by Dell in a fashion that came fairly close to the $2,499 MacBook Pro, lists for $2,924, but, with instant savings, you can order one for $2,249. But remember that Dell’s prices change frequently, and may depend on which entry-point you select to check their online catalog. I chose Small Business.

    OK, the Dell’s a bit cheaper, but the processor is a 1.73GHz Intel i7 quad-core processor from the older Clarksfield family, compared to the 2.2GHz Intel i7 quad-core Sandy Bridge that comes standard on the MacBook Pro. The performance variation is apt to be huge in light of the enhancements incorporated in the 2011 part, not to mention improved power efficiency. That’s certainly worth an extra $150 by any fair estimate.

    But this is how those price comparisons often go. Large PC box makers such as Dell and HP have huge numbers of potential configurations, and it’s very easy to put something to together that appears to smoke a Mac in terms of sale price. But if you attempt to assemble the parts and software bundles as closely as possible, suddenly the Apple Tax is minimal or non-existent in many cases. Yes, I realize that the standard or custom Mac product may have features you don’t want, while others you need are not available. However, I continue to maintain that the only way to evaluate alleged price differences is to compare apples to apples.

    It’s unfortunate that too many product reviewers prefer to repeat so-called conventional wisdoms by rote rather than check their facts. They might be in for a rude awakening. Certainly Apple’s customers are still flocking to their “luxury” personal computers, and are continuing to abandon those “cheaper” PCs.



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