Low End Mac’s Compleat* Guide to the 17″ MacBook Pro

The 17″ MacBook Pro has seen its time come and go, as sad as that reality may be. Apple stopped making its largest sized flagship portables after 2011 in favor of smaller 15″ class Retina Display units that pack more pixels along with more graphics and processing power into a smaller package.

Unibody 17" MacBook ProThis progression may be a good or bad thing, depending on what features you crave in a portable Mac, but there are only two words that can describe the 17″ MacBook Pro that can’t be replicated no matter how hard Apple tries, without bringing back things that are now missing from their modern machines (internal optical drives for physical media, internal expansion bays, etc.) and those words are “portable workstation.”

The 17″ MacBook Pro indeed is a portable workstation, and from the beginning it was created to be a designer’s and multitasker’s best friend. You can literally have two or three full pages of text side-by-side or two browser windows open simultaneously on models with 1920 x 1200 displays and still get the full picture without too much difficulty or squinting from zooming out. All 17″ models had an internal optical drive and an ExpressCard34 slot, providing more expansion and storage options than Retina Display machines.

From its inception with the original 2006 2.16 GHz  Core Duo model to the final unibody versions released in late 2011, there has been a wide variety of features and capabilities added, but only one thing has always been there to immediately turn heads and grab attention – the massive 17″ display. Without further delay, witness the progression of Apple’s largest MacBook Pro, beginning with the mid 2006 models:

Mid 2006 (Core Duo)

mbp17-240

Important facts for the Mid 2006 17″ MacBook Pro:

  • The Mid 2006 17” MacBook Pro was a continuation of the 17” PowerBook G4, first introduced in 2003 when Apple transitioned from Titanium to Aluminum as the metal of choice for their laptop cases.
  • The case style remained largely the same as the 17″ hi-res PowerBook G4 that it replaced, with the only clear difference being the slightly thinner case, IR port for Apple Remote, and iSight Camera integrated into the bezel, centered above the LCD panel, the notable changes in ports from CardBus to ExpressCard technologies for expansion, and the omission of the built-in fax modem connection (in favor of an extra USB 2.0 port).
  • MagSafe technology was introduced, which allows the computer to both safely charge from the power supply and aids by preventing damage to the unit if the cord is tripped over or suddenly pulled (since the connection is magnetic it can be disconnected/dislodged as easily as it is connected).
  • Battery runtime was noted to be the same as the Hi-res PowerBooks at around 5.5 hours, and all USB ports could accommodate high-powered devices simultaneously.
  • The color depth of all non-unibody MacBook Pro models was actually a step down at 18-bit color from the full 24-bit color previously offered on the late model PowerBooks. These 18-bit color panels would remain constant throughout the 17″ MacBook Pro line until the unibody models were released in early 2009.
  • The LCD panels of these early models was 1680 x 1050, equal to that of the 17″ hi-res PowerBook G4. The matte display was standard at this time, with a glossy display as an option (this would be the reverse case with the unibody machines introduced in early 2009).
  • The Mid 2006 models shipped with Core Duo processors (soldered) and thus are limited to Mac OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard.
  • The optical drive retains a PATA connection, which will be retained throughout all non-unibody MacBook Pros, while the hard drive is on a SATA bus.
  • You can only achieve SATA I (1.5 Gbps) throughput on this MacBook Pro, although SATA II and SATA III drives are backwards compatible.
  • Max RAM (667 MHz PC2-5300 DDR2) is 2 GB. Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.

Late 2006 (Core 2 Duo)

Important facts/changes introduced with the Late 2006 17″ MacBook Pro:

  • The Late 2006 MacBook Pro continued with the exact same graphics in its predecessor (Radeon X1600 with 256 MB GDDR3 VRAM) and the same case design, but began shipping with Core 2 Duo processors. As a result, those who held off and waited to upgrade a few months later can max their OS out another generation with OS X  10.7.5 Lion, rather than Snow Leopard, allowing for increased versatility (limited to 32-bit mode due to the 32-bit kernel of this model).
  • Battery runtime was noted to be the same as the previous model at around 5.5 hours, and all USB ports could accommodate high-powered devices simultaneously (this would be the last model to support three high-powered devices as future models would only allow one).
  • You can only achieve SATA I (1.5 Gbps) throughput on this MacBook Pro, although SATA II and SATA III drives are backwards compatible.
  • Max RAM (667 MHz PC2-5300 DDR2) is increased to 3 GB (although it is widely known that 4 GB is possible using 2x 2 GB SO-DIMM modules). Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.

Mid 2007 (Nvidia)

Important facts/changes introduced with the Mid 2007 17″ MacBook Pro:

  • The Mid 2007 MacBook Pro ushered in many important changes. The first was a switch in graphics from ATI to Nvidia’s GeForce 8600GT 256 MB. Note that the GeForce 8600GT had a significant failure rate, which prompted a recall fully funded by Nvidia and facilitated by Apple, which is now expired and no longer listed on Apple’s site. Late 2007 models that shipped with the 256 MB GeForce 8600GT seem to be much less affected than the Early 2008 units and as such, only the Early 2008 units were specified in the recall. The GeForce 8600GT supports OpenCL technology (allows the GPU to be utilized take on some of the computations typically reserved for the CPU).
  • You can no longer attach more than one high-powered USB device, although battery life has reported to be slightly better at 5.75 hours.
  • The architecture changed from the Merom to the Santa Rosa Intel chipset.
  • These models were the first to offer a high-res 1920 x 1200 screen as a build-to-order option.
  • These are among the oldest Macs that can run OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple’s latest version as of this writing. Even more interesting, these were the last to ship with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. This allows you to theoretically choose from six generations of OS X, the most possible of any Intel Mac.
  • With Core 2 Duo processors rated at 2.4 and 2.6 GHz (on the built-to order configuration), these are among the fist Macs to meet official reqirements for iTunes 1080p video playback.
  • A 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo processor is also the official recommendation for 1080p playback for Blu-ray discs on a Mac if you desire to install a Blu-ray equipped optical drive and enable playback through third party solutions. See Blu-ray No Longer a ‘Bag of Hurt’ for Macs for general information on installing a Blu-ray drive and the software needed for playback in OS X as well as $90 USB 2.0 Blu-ray Drive also works inside a Mac mini for information regarding the UJ-225, which can also be used to install in all pre-unibody 17″ MacBook Pros.

    Note: The UJ-225 is a dual-layer BD-RW/DVD-RW drive that stands 12.7mm tall utilizes a PATA connection. This is a big advantage for the 17″ MacBook Pro non-unibody models, which are designed to both fit a 12.7mm optical drive and utilize the PATA optical drive connection.

  • You can only achieve SATA I (1.5 Gbps) throughput on this MacBook Pro, although SATA II and SATA III drives are backwards compatible.
  • Max RAM (667 MHz PC2-5300 DDR2) is increased to an official 4 GB (although it is widely known that 6 GB is possible using a 2 GB SO-DIMM and a 4 GB SO-DIMM). Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.

Early 2008 (Penryn)

Important facts/changes introduced with the Early 2008 17″ MacBook Pro:

  • The Early 2008 17″ MacBook Pro models were the last to utilize the traditional 2-piece design (a new unibody design was issued with the next model in early 2009).
  • Pushing through yet another architecture change with the Penryn Intel chipset, these models offered a significant increase in performance, but that performance came at a cost – battery life. It was clear that new technology was needed in the battery department, so this would be the last 17″ MacBook Pro to have a removable standard lithium-ion battery. Battery life is now rated at 4.5 hours, a drop of more than 20% from the previous 5.75 hours on Late 2007 models.
  • Available for new build-to-order options were the impressive 1920 x 1200 LED backlit display and a 512 MB version of the GeForce 8600 GT. Note that the GeForce 8600GT had a significant failure rate, which prompted a recall fully funded by Nvidia and facilitated by Apple, which is now expired and no longer listed on Apple’s site. Early 2008 models with the 256 MB version of the GeForce 8600GT were most affected and as such were the ones specified in the recall. The GeForce 8600GT supports OpenCL technology (allows the GPU to be utilized take on some of the computations typically reserved for the CPU).
  • You can install the UJ-225 Blu-ray drive in this 17″ MacBook Pro and unleash its full capability as well, as these MacBook Pros also meet official reqirments for 1080p Blu-ray playback. This is the last MacBook Pro to be able to accept the UJ-225 for a Blu-ray upgrade, as the unibody models that follow are thinner and require a 9.5mm SATA optical drive such as the UJ-167 or UJ-267.
  • You can only achieve SATA I (1.5 Gbps) throughput on this MacBook Pro, although SATA II and SATA III drives are backwards compatible.
  • Maximum RAM is still 4 GB officially (6 GB unofficially) and remains the same 667 MHz DDR2 PC2-5300 used by prior 17″ MacBook Pros. The Early 2008 17″ MacBook Pro will be the last to use this type of memory. Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.

Early 2009 (Unibody)

Glossy_Matte_17MBP

Important facts/changes introduced with the Early 2009 17″ MacBook Pro:

  • The Early 2009 MacBook Pro introduces many features that would carry on until the end of the 17″ MacBook Pro line. The first and obvious being the unibody design we are more familiar with today. The change to unibody was groundbreaking, since the entire unit is machined from one block of aluminum, creating a sleeker, seamless look. The bottom case is easily removed, providing access to memory, hard drive, and optical drive, allowing upgrades to be easily performed.
  • The only constant from the prior model was the continued use of Penryn Core 2 Duo processors at 2.66 GHz or 2.93 GHz (build-to-order configuration).
  • The optical drive connection was switched from PATA to SATA and a 9.5mm height optical drive must be used (this would be standard across all sizes of the unibody MacBook Pro). The UJ-167 (BD-ROM/DVD-RW) and UJ-267 (BD-RW/DVD-RW) are ideal optical drive upgrades for all unibody MacBook Pros.
  • Multi-touch, glass touchpad introduced that allows for additional gestures such as swipes with 3 and 4 fingers and more (this new touchpad was exclusive to the 17″ MacBook Pro in early 2009 and introduced later in the 15″ and newly introduced 13″ models).
  • 1920 x 1200 LED backlit display is now standard. Choices remain for the glossy display (illustrated above left) or a matte option (above right). The difference is seen with a black trim on the glossy display models and a silver trim that matches the rest of the case on the matte display units.
  • Graphic designers rejoiced when Apple revealed that the displays on the new unibody MacBook Pro returned to true 24-bit color.
  • Dual graphics card configuration that is selectable through power settings (integrated GeForce 9400M with up to 256 MB of VRAM shared with system memory and a discrete GeForce 9600M GT with 512 MB of dedicated GDDR3 SDRAM)
  • SATA II is now standard, doubling throughput to 3 Gbps, allowing for faster SATA II hard drives and solid state drives.
  • RAM is now PC3-8500 DDR3 1066 MHz and can now be maxed out at 8 GB. Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.
  • The FireWire 400 port was dropped, but you can still connect to a FireWire 400 device courtesy of FireWire 800-to-FireWire 400 cables or adapters.
  • The biggest change brought with the unibody design – and perhaps most important – is the new built-in battery. Although no longer easily serviced by the end user (in fact, removal voids warranty), battery life under typical use has nearly doubled to 8 hours of run time (when using the GeForce 9400M and 7 hours with the dedicated GeForce 9600M GT)!

Mid 2009

important facts/changes introduced with the Mid 2009 17″ MacBook Pro:

  • The Mid 2009 MacBook Pro includes all of the features of the Early 2009 models, but it was given a speed bump to 2.8 GHz on the standard model and 3.06 GHz on the build-to-order option. Every other feature of these remains the same, including the Penryn Core 2 Duo processors, RAM, SATA II bus, etc.
  • This would be the last 17″ MacBook Pro to ship with OS X 10.5 Leopard.
  • This would be the last 17″ MacBook Pro to ship with Core 2 Duo processors, as the 2010 and 2011 models incorporate Intel’s newer Core i5 and Core i7 processors.

Mid 2010 (Dual Core i)

  • The Mid 2010 17″ MacBook Pro brought forth much faster Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors. Overall performance at the same 2.66 GHz speed on the dual core Core i7 configuration compared to the 2.66 GHz Penryn Core 2 Duo processors found in Early 2009 models has improved by about 50%.
  • This time three configurations were available: A base 2.53 GHz dual core Core i5; a 2.66 GHz dual core Core i7 and a 2.8 GHz dual core Core i7.
  • Graphics solutions are significantly improved with a discrete GeForce 330M (also with 512 MB of VRAM), compared to the previous model that uses the GeForce 9600M GT, providing nearly double the performance. The integrated solution this time is Intel HD graphics. In some cases this was be a step back for light gaming when the GeForce 9400M provided excellent integrated graphics performance, but it was more efficient for normal use.
  • The Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors are easier on battery life, increasing run time in discrete and integrated graphics solutions to 8 hours and 9 hours, respectively, under normal use.
  • RAM remains the same at PC3 DDR3-PC8500 1066 MHz and a max of 8 GB officially. Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.
  • These models are the first to ship with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard as the pre-installed OS X and the last that can utilize a retail Snow Leopard disc to install OS X, as 10.6.3 would be the final retail version (also released in mid 2010).

Early 2011 (Quad Core i)

  • The Early 2011 17″ MacBook Pro was the last to officially ship with Mac OS X Snow Leopard pre-installed and the last to ship with install media on optical disc. This was a special machine specific version (Mac OS X 10.6.6) on a gray disc.
  • These machines provided users with another amazing boost of power, moving to quad core Core i7 processors at 2.2 GHz and 2.3 GHz (on the built-to-order option) versus the dual core models it replaced. Performance again was increased by roughly 50% compared to prior models thanks to quad core processing.
  • Graphics saw another huge bump from the 512 MB GDDR3 GeForce 330M to a 1 GB GDDR5 AMD Radeon 6750.
  • These models also have the Sandy Bridge Intel chipset and the Intel HD integrated graphics were updated to the HD 3000, which allows for a future technology called AirPlay wireless display mirroring (introduced later with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion), giving you to ability to stream your display and audio to a display connected to an Apple TV 2 or Apple TV 3.
  • These were also the first 17″ MacBook Pros to ship with Apple’s new Thunderbolt technology, giving you the ability to connect to an Apple Thunderbolt Display or facilitate incredibly fast data transfers with other Macs.
  • These 17″ MacBook Pros were the first to incorporate full SATA III 6.0 Gbps throughput, giving you even more capacity to use the fastest storage devices available.
  • Apple switched midway through the production of this model to having OS X 10.7 Lion pre-installed and excluding the OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard install disc, making it difficult for users who needed Snow Leopard (for access to Rosetta for PowerPC application compatibility) to downgrade. The only easy (and most logical) workaround is to use Disk Utility’s non-destructive partitioning and create dual partitions, providing a blank destination to install OS X 10.6.6 on. You must then get a hold of the machine specific disc or a disk image of the 10.6.6 disc that shipped with the early versions of this machine (or it’s smaller 15″ cousin).
  • Battery life is now rated at a solid 7 hours, a slight step back from the prior model, but is now measured based on web browsing and a bit heavier usage than what was previously used to measure performance. In terms of real world use, you should expect similar battery performance compared to the prior model.
  • RAM is now PC3-10600 DDR3 1333 MHz and can be maxed out at 16 GB with 2x 8 GB SO-DIMMs, future-proofing these models significantly more than the prior model. Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.

Late 2011

  • The Late 2011 17″ MacBook Pro was essentially the same as the early 2011 models it replaced with a minor speed boost to a 2.4 GHz quad core, Core i7 processor on the base model and a quad core, Core i7 2.5 GHz processor on the build-to-order configuration. RAM is still the same PC3-10600 DDR3 1333 MHz used in the early 2011 models and still maxes out at 16 GB. Always look for verified Mac compatible RAM when upgrading.
  • The graphics were slightly updated to the AMD Radeon 6770, still with a dedicated 1 GB of GDDR5 VRAM
  • OS X Lion came pre-installed on all of these machines, but as with the case of models that shipped midway through production on the early 2011 version, installing Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.6 is possible by obtaining a machine specific 10.6.6 install disc or disk image from the 10.6.6. install media that came with the original run of 15″ or 17″ early 2011 MacBook Pros.
  • This was the final 17″ MacBook Pro, closing out a long line of Apple greatness that began approximately 8 years prior.

In Closing

The 17″ models provided some of the most versatility of any Mac ever made. Everything from the LED backlit 1920 x 1200 display (on such models that shipped with it or had it as an option) to ExpressCard 34, which remained throughout the line, provided power users, professionals, and enthusiasts with many options not possible on the 15″ and 13″ models. Every model is theoretically able to boot into OS X Snow Leopard, so you will never be without legacy applications if you pick up a 17″ MacBook Pro, courtesy of Rosetta compatibility. Every model has an optical drive, so you will never be without the potential to install software on the go or burn a disc when you need to.

The 17″ MacBook Pro is a true Mac user’s portable workstation, and so much more can be said about its advantages versus smaller form factors and the Retina Display models that replaced it. Curiously, Apple released “traditional” Ivy Bridge models of the 15″ MacBook Pro with optical drive in 2012 that shipped with built-in USB 3.0, but omitted the 17″ model, which has not yet returned to Apple’s lineup as of this writing and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future. The 2011 models have distinct advantages over all other models (SATA III, Thunderbolt, and AirPlay Mirroring in Mountain Lion and Mavericks), so if you are in the market for a 17″ MacBook Pro, consider a 2011 unit due to it having a strong mix of modern and legacy technologies.

* No, it isn’t a typo. Compleat is a legitimate, albeit archaic, spelling for complete. As Kenneth G. Wilson says in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: “This obsolete spelling of the adjective complete suggests an air of antiquity that seems to please some of those who name things….” We find that fitting for Low End Mac’s Compleat Guides to “obsolete” hardware and software.

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