This month, Apple rolled out updates to both the MacBook and MacBook Pro.
Of the two, the new MacBook Pro offers more talking points; the chips have been replaced, not just sped up, and the trackpad now includes all those lovely Multi-touch gesture controls we first saw on the iPhone and, more recently, the MacBook Air.
Latest processor technology
The processors in the MacBook Pro represent the latest mobile version of the Intel Core 2 Duo range. Gone are Intel's Merom chips, which were the first mobile C2D chips when launched back in 2006.
Replacing them are the smaller, faster Penryn chips, which drop energy consumption down to 35W from the Merom's 44W. While the clock speed has not been bumped up all that much, advances to the circuitry bring better battery life and overall performance.
Meanwhile, the price has stayed the same, though admittedly the Apple Remote is now an optional extra (£15), whereas before it was bundled for free.
Inside the latest Macbook Pro
Compared to the slinky MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro seems like quite a chunky laptop, though it's still less than an inch thick and this 15-inch model weighs just 2.5 kilos.
Three MacBook Pros are available: 15-inch 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 15-inch 2.5GHz and a 17-inch 2.5GHz. Plenty of upgrade options are available at the point of sale, and chief among these options is an upgrade to 2.6GHz chips on either the 15-inch or 17-inch models, and of course more memory, some screen options and bigger drives.
The only hardware upgrade you can make after purchase that doesn't void your warranty is to install more RAM.
All MacBook Pros ship with 2GB of memory (667MHz DDR2) and can expand to 4GB. The entry-level 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, still a very fine workhorse, ships with a 200GB hard drive, up from 120GB, and NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics processors with 256MB of video memory.
The 2.5GHz 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros ship with 512MB of video memory and the same NVIDIA graphics cards.
The Penryn chips can carry a larger L2 cache, circuitry that speeds access to commonly used data, and this has changed. It has dropped to 3MB (from 4MB) on the entry-level 2.4GHz MacBook Pro, while being raised to 6MB on the other two models.
Why the drop occurred is a mystery to us, but the usual benchmark tester in the Mac community seems sure that the drop hasn't affected performance too badly. We didn't review the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro.
The brushed-aluminium finish, optical drive, port allocation, wireless standard (802.11n), and most other specs remain the same. The display options, in contrast, are wider than they have been before. Glossy screens are optional on all the MacBook Pros at no extra cost.
The reflectiveness of these screens is less of an issue than it is on the iMac range, because the glare is easier to reposition with a laptop. We think the colour range is better with the glossies, but we recommend that you visit a store to see both display in action before buying.
The 15-inch MacBook Pros have been available with the more eco-friendly, lower-powered LED backlit screen since the last MacBook Pro update eight months ago, but now the 17-inch models get this option too, though you need to pay extra for it.
Replacing the standard LCD backlit screens (1,680x1,050 pixels) with the 17-inch LED screen (1,920x1,200 pixels)will cost you £60, which seems reasonable to us.
Considering the low price, we recommend getting the LED option if you go for a 17-inch model. The battery life you'll save is the deal-maker, while you can feel warm and fuzzy about having a screen that's also mercury and arsenic-free. LED screens also dim and light very quickly.
The other hardware upgrade of note is the trackpad. Since the advent of Multi-touch gesture commands on the iPhone and iPod touch, it was only a matter of time before the same level of natural command arrived in the Mac laptops.
The MacBook Air was the first Mac to bring in pinch, swipe and rotate gesture commands in addition to the drag and two-finger scroll commands from early pads. Five minutes after firing up iPhoto and playing around with photos, you'll be a natural. The two-finger expand zoom function is incredibly useful.
During web browsing you can use finger gestures to shift a page and move forward between pages, to scroll up and down, to zoom in and out, and to drag elements around. Fantastic. We know that other manufacturers have experimented with this technology, but none has nailed it as well as Apple.
Leopard was launched between this and the last MacBook Pro update. As with the new Apple Keyboard, the Macbook Pro's offering has changed to better serve the new OS.
This beautiful sprung keyboard, which is a work of art in itself, now comes with Exposé, Dashboard, and media-browsing shortcut keys overlaying some of the function keys. All very welcome additions.
The jump up in speed is fantastic. You can feel the greater L2 cache and faster chips kick in right out of the gate, and the MacBook Pro sprints through video and graphics work, thanks to that doubling of video RAM.
We experienced a near 20% increase in our Photoshop radial blur test over last year's 2.2GHz MacBook Pro. Our multiple CPU Cinebench 10 rendering test returned a 5,444 score compared to 4,931 for last year. These are jumps in performance that you can really feel.
Xbench, a benchmarking application that takes a snapshot of general system specs, averaged a score of 122.5. This figure is more than twice the performance of the MacBook Air (49.68), and approaching the latest 2.4GHz 20-inch iMac (146).
These results are not bad at all for a mobile workstation.
Should you wait for updates?
The MacBook Pro feels very responsive in day-to-day use. With a medium-sized photo library imported in, iPhoto opens and browses practically without a pause. Selecting, pinching and rotating images is near-instant, too.
The same is true across all of the iLife apps, and Photoshop is also beautifully swift. Battery life during normal use was 4 hours 34 minutes, and 3 hours 2 minutes during a flat-out DVD playback burn.
A question we often get asked is whether now is the right time to buy a Mac, or whether it's worth waiting for more power down the line. It took eight months for this update to arrive.
The Penryn chips started shipping in January 2008 and at the time of writing had yet to be updated with faster Front Side Bus, the next logical step that would prompt an upgrade.
Considering that Apple typically updates its Macs three months after better chips become available, and given that the old excuse of waiting for Leopard is no longer relevant, we recommend buying now.
The fact of the matter is, the sooner you are able to start enjoying your Apple laptop the better.