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Review: Apple's MacBook Pros test the PC in me

Here's the situation: I don't know much about Macs. I used them regularly in grade school and college and have had opportunity to tinker with them now and again in my adult life, but I'm far from an Apple expert.

But I'm not a Mac hater. Really. I've used Windows PCs almost exclusively for more than a decade, but I've not really had much of a choice in the matter - part of my job is reviewing games, and Apple hasn't exactly catered to my crowd.

So don't look at this article as a review of Apple's new MacBook Pro series. Rather, think of it as a report from a lifelong PC user who's always been a little Mac-curious and is now taking a peek over the fence.

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The first thing I look at upon encountering any new laptop is its spec sheet (I am, after all, a PC guy), and I have to admit that I like what I see in the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros Apple lent me for evaluation - though it's the latter that really catches my eye.

The 13-incher has a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5 processor that's upgradeable to a 2.7 GHz Core i7, Intel's fastest dual-core CPU. Combined with 4 GB of speedy memory and Intel's integrated HD Graphics 3000 GPU, it makes for a very fast experience. I had no trouble multitasking, running any of the apps I downloaded from the Mac App Store, viewing multimedia, or running FaceTime HD, Apple's video-calling app that takes advantage of the MacBook Pro's built-in 720p camera. I did run into some performance issues playing more advanced games - Civilization V on Steam simply wouldn't run - but, to be fair, this probably isn't the notebook Apple intends for people interested in graphics-intensive applications.

Those people should look at the much more powerful 15- and 17-inch models, both of which employ Intel Core i7 quad-core processors running between 2.0 and 2.3 GHz (my test rig clocked in at 2.2 GHz). Integrated Intel graphics are here as well to maintain battery life while engaged in productivity tasks or surfing the net - Apple says all of their new MacBook Pros will run for about seven hours in standard usage scenarios - but these larger machines also come with an AMD Radeon HD card, either the 6490M with 256 MB of onboard video memory or the 6750M, which has a gigabyte of dedicated RAM. The latter card was in the model I tested. Result: Civilization V didn't just work, it ran beautifully with most graphics settings maxed.

The new MacBook Pros are the first machines to feature a brand new I/O technology from Intel called Thunderbolt that offers data transfer speeds of up to 10 gigabites per second. That's a dozen times faster than FireWire 800 and more than twice as fast as the still nascent USB 3.0 standard. I didn't have any peripherals on hand with which to test this new port - manufacturers are still rushing to design and build them - but I can imagine plenty of useful scenarios, from ultra-quick backups to real-time high-definition video capturing. Thunderbolt will eventually come to Windows machines as well, but for now it's a MacBook Pro exclusive.

The display is worth a few words, as well. I've tested a lot of laptops with a lot of different screens, and the LED backlit displays on the two MacBook notebooks I tried are among the very best. Capable of remarkable brightness, deep blacks, and excellent viewing angles, they made viewing everything from documents to pictures to HD video a pleasure.

It felt a shame, though, that I wasn't able to watch any Blu-ray movies on these lovely displays. I expect to see Blu-ray drives on any higher-end Windows PC. Even Toshiba - for years the format's primary opponent - finally caved and began including Blu-ray drives in some its machines last year.

Blu-ray's absence might be understandable had Apple eschewed optical disc technology altogether in hopes of pushing people toward the cloud. However, Apple's notebooks still come with "SuperDrives," which support DVDs and CDs, meaning Blu-ray's omission wasn't an ideological decision. One can only conclude Cupertino isn't backing the technology because it would rather have people purchase HD content directly from iTunes and Apple TV. It feels like a big poke in the eye to folks like me who have amassed sizable Blu-ray libraries and enjoy watching their movies on the go.

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Apple's computers often take a beating from critics in the price department, and its new machines are no cheaper than their predecessors. The 13-inch book I tried - the least expensive in Apple's MacBook Pro stable - is $1,249.00, while the tricked-out 15-incher goes for $2,249.00. A 17-inch MacBook Pro can easily soar over $3,000, depending on the options chosen.

However, I did some comparison shopping and found Windows PCs with similar specs to be in the same ballpark, more or less. HP's new 12.1-inch Intel Core i5-560M-powered Elitebook, for example, is $100 less than a 13-inch MacBook Pro, but has a slightly smaller display and no optical drive. Meanwhile, Alienware's 15-inch M15x configured to an equal price and similar specs has a slower Intel Core i7 CPU factory clocked to 1.7 GHz, but a more powerful graphics solution in the Radeon HD 5850. Put simply, the price argument doesn't seem to be quite as black and white as it once was.

Especially once you factor in Apple's aesthetic and build quality, which, regardless of what Mac detractors might like to believe, add significant value. Only the grinchiest of gadget connoisseurs would deem these clean and elegant machines unattractive. I'm looking at both of the MacBooks sitting on my desk right now, and their graceful lines and silky smooth coverings alone are enough to make me want to get busy with them.

Plus, they feel remarkably sturdy - and I'm not just talking about Apple's acclaimed aluminum unibody cases. The clever magnetic power port that snaps tight without any pressure; the similarly magnetic clasp that keeps the lid securely shut without physical wear and tear; the broad and responsive multi-touch trackpad; the delightfully firm backlit keyboard that feels as though it could easily weather a three-year old's tantrum-energized fists - everything about these notebooks feels designed not just to please the eye but also to last. That's got to be worth something.

And some Apple fans would point out that even if they are paying a bit extra for their Apple-stamped machines they consider it an investment in Mac OS X, an operating system that Apple has always been fond of saying "just works." I'll be frank and state I'm not familiar enough with Apple's OS to say whether I enjoy using it more than Windows. At this point I'm so comfortable with Microsoft's platform - which I've never (well, almost never) found as aggravating as some - that I can navigate it without even thinking. OS X is admittedly eye-catching and intuitive, but I suspect it would take daily use over months to become as relaxed with it as I am with Windows, and I don't know that I would ever feel as though I'm in the driver's seat the way I am with Microsoft's operating systems.

I'm not sure whether I'm ready to make a switch to Apple computing, but after spending a couple of weeks with the company's latest MacBook Pros I know that I'm not opposed to the idea. There is little denying that these are very good computers. However, from where I stand, they'd be even better if they were a little more affordable, could play Blu-ray discs, and were supported by a few more of my favourite software developers.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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