Yesterday Apple overhauled its entire notebook line, moving everything to Ivy Bridge CPUs with Intel HD Graphics 4000 and USB 3. Ivy Bridge means a bit more processing power and improved energy consumption. HD 4000 graphics has one-third more cores than 3000 (16 vs. 12), and Apple is claiming up to 60% improvement there.
USB 3 is a biggie, as USB 3 drives have been available for quite a while and are far less costly than Thunderbolt drives. USB 3 has 10x the bandwidth of USB 2.0 and half that of Thunderbolt, which should be perfect for most users. Bear in mind that just because USB 3 has 10x the bandwidth of USB 2.0 doesn’t mean the drives themselves will have 10x higher throughput. 10x is simply the maximum improvement you’ll see.
On the SSD front, it looks like Apple has adopted SandForce-based SSDs* with 6 Gb/s SATA Revision 3, so you’ll see the maximum possible SSD performance. On the down side, the new SSDs use a different connector than earlier ones, so no third-party alternatives will be available for a while.
As the new models are so new, we haven’t seen any benchmarks yet, so we’ll have to make some educated guesses along the way.
13″ MacBook Pro
The new entry-level 13″ MacBook Pro has a 2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 4 GB of system memory, and a 500 GB hard drive in its base $1,199 configuration. The step-up model gives you a 2.9 GHz dual-core i7, 8 GB of memory (Apple’s stated maximum, although OWC can sell you 16 GB), and a 750 GB hard drive. Compare this with the Late 2011 13-incher, which has a 2.4 GHz dual-core i5, 4 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive at the same retail price and its faster 2.8 GHz twin, with the same 4 GB of memory and a 750 GB hard drive.
Factor in USB 3 on the 2012 machines, and you’ve got a much faster data bus for backing up or booting from an external drive.
Probably the biggest drawback of the 13″ MacBook Pro is its 1280 x 800 pixel 13.3″ display – exactly the same resolution as the first MacBook offered in 2006 and less than the 1440 x 900 included with the 13.3″ MacBook Air. It’s disappointing that Apple doesn’t even offer that as an extra cost build-to-order option.
Most users are going to find 500 GB of storage more than enough, and I suspect the dual-core 2.5 GHz i5 processor is going to also be plenty of power for the vast majority of users. 4 GB of memory is going to be fine with OS X 10.7 Lion most of the time, although OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion will undoubtedly be a bit more demanding of hardware – and when OS X 10.9 ships (probably next year), it will probably be more demanding yet.
Fortunately, it’s easy to upgrade memory in MacBook Pro models, so if you find 4 GB just isn’t enough, you can upgrade later.
Apple doesn’t offer any high speed hard drives for the 13″ MBP. You get to choose between 5400 rpm hard drives and fast (but expensive) 128, 256, or 512 GB SSDs at $200, $500, and $1,000 respectively.
Apple is blowing out refurbished 13″ MacBook Pros at $929 for the 2.4 GHz i5 model and $1,149 for the 2.8 GHz i7 machine. You save $270 at the entry level, but if you don’t need the better graphics or slightly faster CPU of the 2012 model, the 2.4 GHz model offers a lot for the price. And the refurbished 2.8 GHz i7 model saves you $350! USB 3 would be nice, but with that price difference….
MacMall is selling brand new 2011 13-inchers at a discount: $1,100 for the 2.4 GHz i5 model and $1,350 for the 2.8 GHz i7. For $94 difference, I’d pick the new models without hesitation – you get a slightly faster CPU, one-third faster video (estimated), USB 3, and a free upgrade to Mountain Lion when it releases in July.
15″ MacBook Pro
Apple’s powerhouse portable is the 15″ MacBook Pro with its quad-core Ivy Bridge CPUs. The base model includes a 2.3 GHz i7 processor, 4 GB of system memory, and a 500 GB hard drive. The faster model includes a 2.6 GHz quad-core i7, 8 GB of RAM, and a 750 GB hard drive. As with the 13″ MacBook Pro, you can get bigger hard drives and SSDs; unlike the smaller MacBook Pro, you can also order the 15-incher with a fast 7200 rpm hard drive.
By way of comparison, the Late 2011 15-incher has a 2.2 GHz quad-core i7 at the entry level and a 2.4 GHz i7 at the top (but with only 4 GB of memory vs. 8 on the new model). Retail prices were the same $1,799 at the bottom and $2,199 for the better model.
One big difference between the Late 2011 and Mid 2012 models is in the graphics department. Last year’s 15″ MBP used Radeon HD 6750M graphics, while this year’s model adopts Nvidia GeForce GT 650M graphics. Power hungry users can get a 2.7 GHz i7 as a $250 upgrade from the 2.6 GHz model, but such a tiny boost in clock speed probably isn’t justified except in the most extreme cases.
Unlike the 13″ MacBook Pro, here you can order a higher-resolution display. The 1680 x 1050 hi-res screen adds $100 to the price, and another $50 of you want that in an antiglare finish.
Among those who want a 15″ display, the entry-level 2.3 GHz model is probably going to be completely satisfactory for most.
Apple’s online store has 2011 15″ refurbs starting at $1,359 for the 2.2 GHz 4/500 model, with the 2.4 GHz 4/750 going for $1,699. On the slower model, you’re saving $340, which is nothing to sneeze at. For the faster model, you can save an even more impressive $400. For most users, I don’t think USB 3 or better graphics are going to outweigh that difference in price.
MacMall has the Late 2011 2.2 GHz model on close-out for $1,600, which saves you nearly $200 – and you can save the same amount by choosing a close-out 2.4 GHz model over the new 2.6 GHz one. That’s definitely enough to get your attention, so you’re going to want to weigh the cost difference against a minimal difference in CPU speed, somewhat better graphics, that wonderfully fast USB 3 port, and a free upgrade to Mountain Lion (which otherwise costs just $20, probably the lowest price for a commercial operating system ever).
The Bottom Line
Close-out and refurbished prices may drop even further, but at this point the refurbs have the best overall value, while close-out prices are much closer to the value of the Mid 2012 15-incher. Looking forward, the 2012 models have a lot to commend themselves: better graphics, USB 3, and Bluetooth 4.0. For now, 4 GB should be plenty of memory for most users, but Mountain Lion will be more demanding of resources, and who knows how much OS X 10.9 will want when it comes around?
For backing up or booting from an external drive, USB 3 is going to be a big deal. Although few (if any) drives are 10x as fast as when used with USB 2.0, any USB 3 drive will be considerably faster on a USB 3 port. That’s probably the key technological difference between the new MacBook Pros and their ancestors.
* Since reporting that the new MacBooks have SandForce-based SSDs, OWC has learned that some do and some don’t. Some have Samsung SSDs, and there’s no way to know which SSD your model has until you’ve bought it.