MacBook Pro: Five Years of Goodness
The first MacBook Pro shipped five years ago, the first "pro" Mac to make the transition from PowerPC to Intel. (The 17" 1.83 GHz and 20" 2.0 GHz Core Duo iMacs were the first Macs to make the switch to Intel, and the Mac mini would migrate to Intel at the end of February.)
The 15" MacBook Pro (MBP) had been announced on January 10, demo machines had been available to play with at the Macworld Expo, but the machine wasn't ready to ship in quantity until mid-February.
Best of all, while Apple had announced 1.67 GHz and 1.83 GHz versions, by the time it shipped, speeds had been bumped to 1.83 GHz for the $1,999 entry-level MBP and 2.0 GHz for the $2,499 top-end model. For $300 more, there was even a 2.16 GHz build-to-order option.
Apple did a great job with the Intel transition, just as it had with the move from Motorola 680x0 processors to PowerPC in 1994. Back then, the Quadra 610 case was used by the Power Mac 6100, the Quadra 650 case for the Power Mac 7100, and the Quadra 800 enclosure for the Power Mac 8100. On the PowerBook side, the 68040-based PowerBook 190 and PowerPC-based 5300 looked the same.
Despite significant changes under the hood, Apple wanted the new computers to feel comfortable to its users, so in addition to looking the same and running the same version of the Mac OS, the PowerPC models also had an emulator that allowed them to run 680x0 applications - much as Rosetta allows Intel-based Macs to run PowerPC apps.
The 2006 iMacs looked just like the Late 2005 G5 iMacs, the Mac mini would look the same until 2010, and the 15" MacBook Pro looked just like the 1.67 GHz PowerBook G4 that it replaced. They also ran the same Mac OS X 10.4.4 Tiger operating system, although Apple had separate PowerPC and Intel versions for the two hardware architectures. (With OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple shipped a universal binary version of its operating system that worked with both architectures.)
One key to Apple's successful migration was that the new Macs looked and worked just like the old Macs, although they were more powerful when running software compiled for the new architecture. With the exception of the 13.3" MacBook, an entirely new design that replaced the 12.1" and 14.1" iBook G4, Apple would recycle old enclosures and hold off on new cases until Intel was established.
The first MacBook Pro was not without its problems. Following its release in mid-February 2006, Apple kept making revisions to the MBP's firmware - about one per week - until it got the major bugs out. Problems addressed by firmware updates included whining, AirPort problems, flickering screens, and excessive heat. Fortunately for users, firmware updates were readily available online so early buyers could have the latest version.
At one point, Apple did move to a new logic board to address the whining problem; MacBook Pros with the newer logic board requires OS X 10.4.6 or newer.
Probably the biggest complaint about the original 15" MacBook Pro was that it did not include FireWire 800. Like the preceding Aluminum 15" PowerBook G4, it had USB 2.0 and FireWire 400, but the faster 800 Mbps version was missing. Rumor has it that this was because Apple had Intel design the logic board, but I think it's more likely that Apple made this compromise to get the MBP out the door without any further delay.
Another port complaint came from the move from a PC Card expansion slot, which Apple had adopted with the PowerBook 500 Series in 1994, to the newer, more modern ExpressCard/34 slot. This meant that PowerBook users were unable to bring their PC Cards with them to the new MacBook Pro.
Inexplicably, the SuperDrive in the Core Duo MacBook Pro was a 4x unit, half the speed of the one used in the last generation 15" PowerBook G4.
Moving forward, the biggest drawback of the original MacBook Pro is one it shares with all Intel-based Macs introduced prior to August 2006 - Intel's original Core CPUs do not support 64-bit operation. This wouldn't become a real concern until Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard arrived in August 2009, since it was the first version of OS X with full 64-bit support. (See The 64-Bitness of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard for more on what 64-bit means to Mac users.)
Unlike Windows and Linux, where separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the operating system are available, forcing users to choose one or the other, Snow Leopard supports both within the same operating system. The computer can choose which version to run at startup and, in most cases, can be forced to boot the alternate architecture. The big exception is early Intel Macs built around Core Duo CPUs - the chip does not support 64-bit operation.
64-bit operation is not a big deal to most users, which is probably part of the reason Apple created a unified 32-bit/64-bit operating system. And whether you're running the 32-bit or 64-bit version, OS X supports apps compiled for the other version - as long as the CPU has 64-bit support. That's important, as most older Intel Macs boot into 32-bit mode by default.
For power users, 64-bit can be a big deal. Only 64-bit apps can use more than 4 GB of memory, which is more memory than older Macs support. And 64-bit software can be faster - up to 50% faster according to Apple.
The Core Duo MacBook Pro only supports up to 2 GB of memory, and the CPU only supports 32-bit operation, which makes the first generation model less desirable than later models, all of which support at least 3 GB of memory and 64-bit operation.
Apple innovation brought us a brand new power connector with the MacBook Pro. The MagSafe connector addresses the problem of notebooks getting knocked to the floor when you stumble over the power cord. Apple's solution is to use a magnet to hold the power cord in place. Trip on the cord, and it simply pulls away from your MacBook. No telling how many repairs have been avoided thanks to this clever design.
The 15" Core Duo MacBook Pro was Apple's first notebook with dual-DVI support for Apple's 30" Cinema Display.
The switch to Intel CPUs made it possible to run Windows natively or in parallel with Mac OS X, which was probably one of the most compelling reasons for Windows users to consider switching to Mac. In fact, the MacBook Pro in its various incarnations since 2006 has often been called the best laptop for running Windows.
The MacBook Pro showed the world that Apple was serious about the Intel transition. With a dual-core processor running at 1.83 GHz or higher, it had far more computing power than the single-core 1.67 GHz G4 found in the last generation PowerBook.
The weekly firmware updates showed that Apple was not content with letting its pro users suffer with glitches that hadn't been worked out prior to release. Even though it took about six weeks for Apple to get all the bugs out, early adopters were not left out in the cold.
By today's standards, the Core Duo MacBook Pro is not a power user machine. Although there's plenty of power compared with G4 PowerBooks and for running everyday tasks, the 2 GB memory limit and lack of 64-bit support really make this a great consumer notebook today, no longer the pro machine it once was.
On the used market, dealers currently sell this model in the $620 to $700 range, depending on CPU speed, installed memory, and hard drive size. Core 2 Duo models, which run faster, has Firewire 800, and supports 64-bit mode as well as more memory, start at $790.
For typical home and office use, a used 15" Core Duo MacBook Pro has a lot to offer. As with any notebook this old, plan on replacing the battery (about $100). In addition, you can upgrade to OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard for under $30 and max out memory for under $40, which will squeeze the most out of the old workhorse.
I haven't yet made the switch to Intel, although I hope to do that in coming months. (My old reliable workhorses are dual 1.6 and 1.0 GHz G4 Power Macs, the newest introduced in 2002.) A niece picked up a used 15" 2.16 GHz Core Duo MBP last year, and I set it up for her. I have to say that I was very impressed. I suspect that I would be very happy with one, although the geek in me is more likely to hold out for a Core 2 Duo CPU so I can diddle with 64-bit operation.
Still, you can easily save 20-25% by choosing a 1.83 GHz Core Duo model over the newer Core 2 Duo ones, which is an excellent value in my book.
Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
Recent articles by Dan Knight
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