Apple MacBook Pro 17in review

16 Mar 2009

Aside from the extraordinary screen, it's typical Apple: impeccable design and build quality meets merely average value for money.

Price when reviewed: 
1,949(£1,949 inc VAT)
4

Apple's products are some of the most divisive and compelling in the industry, so it's no surprise that the 15.4in MacBook Pro prompted plenty of debate. The good looks, solid design and build were offset by a number of niggles: some disliked the scrabble-tile keyboard, others baulked at the non-removable battery, and plenty didn't approve of the unusual button-free trackpad.

For all the fuss back then about aluminium construction and button-less trackpads, though, the most striking feature of the new 17in MacBook Pro is more traditional: the screen. It's not an RGB LED panel, such as the impressive panel on the Dell Studio XPS 16, but traditional white LED technology. No matter: the screen is remarkable, matching the Dell's with fantastic colour range, accuracy and clarity.

You can do plenty with it as well, thanks to the 1,900 x 1,200 native resolution. It's the highest currently available on a portable, and offers significantly more space than the 1,680 x 1,050 screen on the Dell. It's a close-run thing, but if multi-tasking and perfect colour reproduction are vital to you, then the Apple's screen is unbeatable.

The screen is bordered by the same classy black surround as the 15.4in MacBook Pro, and Apple's focus on good design and sturdy build quality is evident throughout. The famed 'unibody' construction, whereby the laptop is crafted from a single block of aluminium, has resulted in superb build quality: there's no squashy wrist-rest or unnervingly flexible lid here. This quality is matched by the minimalist style that is now the norm for Apple notebooks. From any angle, this is a good-looking laptop.

The trackpad remains both the main innovation and bone of contention in usability terms. As with the 15.4in model, our first few minutes saw us constantly attempting to click the bottom of the pad, where the mouse buttons would ordinarily be. Instead, the mouse pad itself functions as one large button, with several 'multitouch' functions available in specific applications, and other controls for navigating OS X more easily: swiping four fingers horizontally, for instance, is the OS X equivalent of ALT-TAB. Swipe four fingers up and your open applications glide to the edges of the screen to reveal the desktop. Inevitably, the gestures don't work in Vista, although a two-fingered click brings up context menus.

The keyboard uses the scrabble-tile layout also seen on Sony's VAIO laptops, but we're not entirely convinced. While the base of the keyboard is solid, the keys themselves are a little flimsy and lack travel. The under-key LED is a useful addition, however, for typing in the dark.

As with the 15.4in MacBook Pro, the ports are grouped on the left-hand edge. The 17in MacBook Pro gains a USB port over its 15.4in sibling, bringing the total to three. You also get Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, audio in and out, an ExpressCard/34 slot and a Mini-DisplayPort output. When compared to almost any rival, however, the MacBook Pro's offering seems stingy. There's no eSATA, for instance, and a few more USB ports wouldn't go amiss. The lack of a standard display output is also an annoyance: a converter from Mini-DisplayPort to DVI costs £17 before VAT; a converter to Dual-Link DVI costs an extortionate £68 before VAT.

The Intel Core 2 Duo Mobile T9550 processor runs at 2.66GHz and delivered a benchmark result of 1.34, which is excellent. It's more than enough to motor through OS X and demanding design and creative applications. Gaming performance is just as assured, at least at lower detail settings. Like the 15.4in MacBook Pro, the 17in version has two GPUs: an Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT and an lower-power Nvidia 9400M chip for prolonged battery life. The latter isn't up to gaming, but in our medium-quality Crysis benchmark the 9600M GT scored 22fps; dropping the settings to Low resulted in an eminently-playable 76fps.

Details

Price ex VAT £1,695
Price inc VAT £1,949
Overall rating 4
Features & Design 5
Value for Money 2
Performance 5

Warranty

Warranty 1 yr return to base

Physical specifications

Dimensions 394 x 268 x 24mm (WDH)
Weight 2.950kg

Processor and memory

Processor Intel Core 2 Duo T9550
RAM capacity 4.00GB
Memory type DDR2

Screen and video

Screen size 17.0in
Resolution screen horizontal 1,900
Resolution screen vertical 1,200
Resolution 1900 x 1200
Graphics chipset Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT
VGA (D-SUB) outputs 0
HDMI outputs 0
S-Video outputs 0
DVI-I outputs 0
DVI-D outputs 0
DisplayPort outputs 1

Drives

Capacity 320GB
Optical disc technology DVD writer
Replacement battery price inc VAT £0

Networking

Wired adapter speed 1,000Mbits/sec
802.11a support yes
802.11b support yes
802.11g support yes
802.11 draft-n support yes
Integrated 3G adapter no

Other Features

Wireless hardware on/off switch no
Wireless key-combination switch yes
Modem no
ExpressCard34 slots 1
ExpressCard54 slots 0
PC Card slots 0
USB ports (downstream) 3
FireWire ports 1
PS/2 mouse port no
9-pin serial ports 0
Parallel ports 0
3.5mm audio jacks 2
SD card reader no
Memory Stick reader no
MMC (multimedia card) reader no
Smart Media reader no
Compact Flash reader no
xD-card reader no
Pointing device type Touchpad
Speaker location Below screen
Hardware volume control? no
Integrated microphone? yes
Integrated webcam? yes
TPM yes
Fingerprint reader no
Smartcard reader no
Carry case no

Battery and performance tests

Battery life, light use 6hr 58min
Battery life, heavy use 1hr 0min
Overall application benchmark score 1.34
Office application benchmark score 1.22
2D graphics application benchmark score 1.51
Encoding application benchmark score 1.32
Multitasking application benchmark score 1.33
3D performance (crysis) low settings 76fps
3D performance setting Low

Operating system and software

Operating system Apple Mac OS X 10.5
OS family Mac OS X