Apple Updates MacBook Pro Lineup: Three Big Leaps Forward

As we’d expected for a few days, Thursday saw the release of a brand new MacBook Pro lineup. Though these machines look more or less identical on the outside, they come complete with upgraded processors, new graphics capabilities, and the all-new “Thunderbolt” I/O standard.

Today we’ll be providing a quick overview of what to expect in the new lineup, along with a few thoughts on hardware features we’re surprised to see left out!

The Story of the Day – Thunderbolt

As the original inventor of FireWire, Apple isn’t new to the idea of forging ahead with a new I/O technology. After extensive collaboration with Intel, they have today launched the first Apple product that includes the new “Thunderbolt” connector.

Thunderbolt Performance

Thunderbolt Performance

Not content with the speed and capability offered by FireWire and USB, Apple and Intel have created a new technology that far exceeds what we’ve come to expect from a humble notebook port. This replaces the old Mini DisplayPort socket on the side of the MacBook Pro, but don’t worry, you won’t need a new adapter.

Because Thunderbolt is based upon the DisplayPort technology, your existing peripheral or adapter will work just fine. Rather than just supporting a display, this new standard will also be able to connect to next generation devices, hard drives, and video capture hardware.

In terms of speed, it’s pretty spectacular. Thunderbolt is twenty times faster than USB 2.0, and over twelve times faster than FireWire 800. This is a huge step forward, and something that will revolutionise how we’ve come to interact with external hardware.

Just to put things in perspective, Intel states that this speed is quick enough to transfer a full-length HD movie (of around 10 – 20GB in size) in less than 30 seconds. If you’re interested in finding out more about the technical details, take a look at Intel’s information page which should explain everything you need to know.

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly Apple roll this new I/O standard out to their other devices – I’d expect we’ll see it become commonplace across the whole line-up within 12 months.

Supercharged Processors and Graphics

It’s time for the obligatory “multipliers” that make your existing machine feel old and tired. Today’s release sees new MacBook Pros that have “Up to 2x faster processors and 3x faster graphics.”

The majority of new models ship with quad-core Core i7 Intel Processors, with state of the art AMD Radeon HD graphics capabilities. If you opt for the 13″ device, you can choose either an Intel Code i5 or Core i7 dual-core processor.

Memory-wise, each model comes bundled with 4GB of RAM as standard, and there’s a build-to-order option for upgrading to 8GB if you feel the need.

It’s difficult to argue against the benefits of having a quad-core notebook, but I can’t help feeling that (for many of us, at least) we’ve reached a stage where processor speed is no longer the main factor on which to judge a machine…

If you’d like to find out more, take a look at the full specifications page and indulge in the obligatory “let me just price this up, out of interest” process.

FaceTime in HD

FaceTime in HD

FaceTime in HD

The new MacBook Pro models come with a much improved FaceTime HD camera, capable of capturing triple the resolution of the previous generation. This allows for 720p video calling to the iPhone 4, new iPod touch, or other Mac computers.

The updated 1.0 release of the FaceTime software comes bundled free with the new MacBook Pro models, but you’ll need to pay $0.99 to use it on your existing Mac. As you’d expect, it’s available now through the Mac App Store.

But Why 5400 RPM?

Something that myself, and many others, are surprised to see is the standard inclusion of a 5400 RPM hard drive. With all the hype about performance improvements and better processors, it’s a major oversight not to offer an SSD as standard (or at least a 7200 RPM drive).

I’m sure that Apple have their reasoning for this – hopefully not just to hold back the feature as a selling point for the next update a year from now.

Personally, I’ve found that upgrading to an SSD offered the single largest performance improvement I’ve ever seen on a notebook – far more than upgrading the processor (which, as we all know, never really makes your machine “twice as fast”).

Have You Been Holding Out?

On the whole, this new line-up of MacBook Pro hardware is certainly more of an evolution than anything else. I’m incredibly eager to see how Thunderbolt evolves, but there isn’t a huge deal else to get particularly excited about.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – I’m always pleased to see Apple stick with a successful formula for a few product revisions, rather than re-designing a machine from the ground up with each release. I love the form factor of my MacBook Pro, and don’t feel that it has dated one bit over the past two years.

Are you impressed with the announcement today? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


  • Bob

    Thunderbolt (Light Peak) is not based on DisplayPort. It is an entirely new interface that happens to use the DisplayPort connector (and is compatible with DisplayPort).

    Initially Intel wanted to use the USB connector for Light Peak, but the USB Implementers Forum didn’t approve. http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/02/23/22012/

  • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

    Thanks for the info, Bob. Interesting to hear about the USB discussion!

    I’d stand by my statement in principle though. To quote the Apple website: “Thunderbolt is based on two fundamental technologies: PCI Express and DisplayPort.” – http://www.apple.com/thunderbolt/

    It also seems that Intel has now completely dropped the Light Peak name as well!

  • Jack

    i like the name “Light Peak” better than “thunderBolt”

  • Arve

    I’m disappointed to be honest. I can’t help but feel like they are holding out on SSD to have some news to bring next year, and instead of focusing on proprietary I/O-ports they could just go with USB 3.0.

    The USB 2.0 performance in OS X is horrible, and I assume they’ll do the same with USB 3.0 just to make the Thunderbolt seem like a bigger improvement.

    • Mailia

      You can either have an Air if you want to have a fully SSD, light experience or you can buy a MacBook Pro with an SSD in. The MacBook Pro isn’t ready to go on SSD diet now, because they are costly and people still need the larger storage.

      • Simon

        You’re partially right, the prices are still too steep for the regular consumer to make a complete switch.

        One solution would be to replace the optical drive with a smaller (40-60 GB) SSD start-up disk. That’s what I did to my 2010 MBP.

  • http://www.perezfox.com Prescott Perez-Fox

    Thunderbolt seems great, except for the fact that nothing will be able to take advantage of it. A typical operation for me is transferring a video file —often more than 1 GB — from one computer to the Drobo (external HD) connected to another. The two computers are connected via a router. So here we’ve got the Ethernet of both computers, the transfer speed of the router, the I/O of USB 2.0, the type of cables used (Cat 5e) and the speed of all hard drives involved. So replacing one connection with Thunderbolt won’t change things at all. I wish it did.

    The good news, it seems, is that Thunderbolt will be backwards-compatible with everything else, including USB 3.0, which is starting to appear. Hopefully, this will be adapted sooner rather than later, and we’ll be able to take advantage. For example, will we be able to buy a Thunderbolt card for our Power Macs or PCs?

  • http://florianwardell.net Florian Wardell

    Two things are simply unacceptable on a 2011 notebook: The poor pixel density and the 256MB GPU on the lower end 15″ MBP (absurdly coupled with a QuadCore).

  • http://garrettgee.me Garrett Gee

    Do you know if they will be available with High Res No Gloss screens?

  • http://www.myfacture.com netking17

    My Startup had just been funded and I bought 10 MBP in a row.

    This time I don’t feel fucked up : my machines are still fresh and all have SSD (wich is, I agree, by far, the best improvement you can get on a daily use basis).

    This is certainly a cool hardware update, but Thundebolt is of no interest to us (we’re web guys, no big files).

    Let’s see what the new iPad have to deliver :-)

  • Chris

    I totally agree with what you added on the end about ‘form factor’. I’m glad Apple decided not to give the MacBookPros an aesthetic overhaul just to get people to update. I kind of want to squeeze another year or two out of mine. LOL!

    It’s funny though…. I seldom find that the ‘big’ updates are that handy for me. It’s the little ones that are unannounced that I love. Like when they changed the powercord so that it ran along the case instead of sticking straight out. THOSE are the little things that make it a better user experience for me.

  • http://butenas.com Ignas

    I expected much more… To tell a true – nothing special. I’m not interested in transferring big files and why MBPro 13” has just intel video card?! I bought MB last year and it has NVIDIA card. Also battery life reduced. I think they wanted to put new CPU which eats too much power and they didn’t upgraded battery, so only one chance – take out good video card… In short – disappointed.

  • Glyn

    with thuderbolth using the same port as the display one, does it mean that last year’s macs can use this technology?

    • Simon

      No. They have matching connectors, and you’ll probably be able to use the DisplayPort apparel on a new MBP, but not the other way around. Although you can plug a ThunderBolt cable into your 2010 MBP DisplayPort, the underlying ThunderBolt technology that allows these fast transfer speeds is not present.

      In other words, just because an industrial sprinkler fits on your water tap doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be able to move an industrial amount of water. The connector fits, but the tap can only deliver so much.

      • Glyn

        i understand, thanks.

  • Chris

    Wow, I can see how Apple makes so much money. I’ve only had my 15 inch i7 pro for 3 months and I WANT THE NEW ONE lol. I guess I’ll have to get used to the heartbreak… that or get a job

  • Simon

    The inclusion of ThunderBolt is ridiculous. Why?

    - Transfer speeds of 10 Gb/s (= 2,125 GB/s)
    - Hard disk supports read/write speeds of 20-100MB/s

    • mysteryfishnsea

      Ah, but SSD r/w speeds are approaching 1.4 Gb/s sustained…they’re not the standard yet, but neither were 7200rpm drives when Apple introduced USB…

  • http://www.twitter.com/sswinkels Sebastiaan Swinkels

    IMHO they should’ve done something about those slow harddrives, 5400rpm is just unacceptable. 7200rpm should be the basemodel, with an option towards a couple of SSD’s.

    As far as ThunderBolt is concerned, i’d love to see the drives being able to actually feed the data quick enough to even use half of its capacity.

    Glad i didn’t get a MBP though last week, i would’ve been quite disappointed now haha.

  • mr.me

    Don’t let the numbers fool you… You would think that the Graphics Card is slow for a 2011 macbook pro, but the GPU is actually now located on the same chip as the central processor therefore making it loads faster.

    While i agree that SSD is way better than the 5400/7200 drives, let’s not act like it isn’t available. You can go ahead and add the $200 for that 128 GB SSDrive if you really want it.

    All in all I see this update more as a prosumer update, which is awesome for heavy gamers/video editors/graphic designs/musicians… But as tempting as it is, I’m waiting for the iMac to receive a similar upgrade.

  • http://www.arsenalreport.com Ix Techau

    The reason for 5400rpm is simple: battery life.

  • Steve

    Well this will be my first experience of a mac as I look to start a (on the side for now) career in freelance web design/development.

    The lack of SSD as a standard was disappointing but the benefits, for me anyway, are worth the cost.

    15″, 2Ghz, 8Gb, 256Gb SSD, Hi-Res AntiGlare. cant wait.

  • lukechesser

    I have to agree with mr.me. It may not seem like a big update for a lot of web designers, but for video guys this is huge. I’ve been checking the intel website for lightpeak three or four times a week for the last year, waiting on it to come to life. This is huge for video capture, since we’re going to see HD become a standard, and 2k is going to become that high-priced possibility. If the computer technology is lagging behind the camera, there is a problem. They’re ahead by at least a few years right now, which is good to see so that we can get proper peripherals built and figure out the bugs before it becomes possible to upgrade to 2k without going RED epic and spending $50,000.

  • Tim

    I have to say, I am a bit surprised (or maybe disappointed) at the Thunderbolt thing, although I knew they were working on it. The reason being, EVERYTHING is moving toward cloud storage and wireless technology. The only thing a faster computer port is good for is video files. That’s it. Period. In a few more years, there probably won’t be any I/O ports on computers. There may not be any hard drives either.

    Apple should be working on a faster wireless technology, not faster I/O. USB 3 is fast enough for most people’s uses. This just seems like another proprietary format that people will need to buy adapters for in the future.
    I am very surprised at the lack of USB 3. This should now be standard on all computers.

  • http://cudazi.com/ cudazi

    I think I’ll be picking a 15″ up soon – I’ts been a while, how long do MBP’s typically take to customize & ship?

  • http://www.cansurmeli.com C@N

    Thunderbolt is something really huge. I really would like to see peripherals supporting Thunderbolt. 800 MB/s second!!!! That’s just amazing.

    But on the other side of the medallion it seems like Intel killed it’s future technology, USB 3.0, without even giving birth to it.

    Also not to mention that new MBP’s blazingly fast.

    I want one right now. :D

  • http://www.favorpals.com AHR

    Does anyone know the type of SSD they are using in the new Macbook pro? I am concerned they are still using the old model which was the lower end of the SSDs in the market. Thanks.

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