Mac Musings

MacBook Pro Value Equation Revisited

Daniel Knight - 2006.02.15

Steve Jobs unveiled the MacBook Pro at the Macworld Expo on January 11, and the newest 'Book has begun shipping. And for the first time in Apple history, a brand new Mac is shipping with a faster CPU than promised.

Originally announced at 1.67 and 1.83 GHz, the MacBook Pro (MBP) is shipping in 1.83, 2.0, and 2.16 GHz configurations. The last is a build-to-order option at a US$300 premium price.

We took our first look at what the MBP had to offer on January 12, and we're revisiting that in light of the new speeds and things we've learned about the Macintel migration since the Expo.

Imagine a PowerBook with four times the processing power, and you have a good idea how much power the new MacBook Pro promises. Between a dual-core CPU, Intel's improved architecture, a faster CPU (1.83-2.16 vs. 1.67 GHz), and a faster system bus, Apple is claiming the MBP can deliver "up to four times the speed of the PowerBook G4".

And that's just the start. The MacBook Pro has a 667 MHz bus, Radeon X1600 graphics, and an ExpressCard/34 slot, the PCI Express replacement for the old PC Card slot. AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 are built-in, and the new graphics chip supports dual-link DVI, which means the MacBook Pro supports Apple's humongous 30" Cinema Display.

15" MacBook ProLike the new iMac, the MacBook Pro has an internal iSight webcam and an infrared receive for use with Apple's remote control. This is Apple's first notebook to ship with Front Row.

The built-in display is 67% brighter than found in the PowerBook - as bright as the Cinema Display, and there's one more innovation, MagSafe. MagSafe uses a magnet to hold the power cord in place, coming free without damaging a socket or pulling the 'Book to the floor when someone trips over the power cord. Brilliant!

With all of those improvements, there are three places where the MacBook Pro is a bit less than the 15" PowerBook G4: There is no FireWire 800 port (although you can probably add one with an ExpressCard), the display in 900 pixels high vs. 960 pixels, and the MBP is thinner than any PowerBook.

The weight of the aluminum MacBook Pro matches that of the PowerBook G4, and the footprint is slightly larger, necessitated by the 15.4" display.

Performance per Watt

While unveiling the MacBook Pro, Steve Jobs indicated that the G4 has a 0.27 "performance per Watt" rating, while the more powerful, less efficient G5 has a lower 0.23 rating. This may have been the biggest reason we never saw a PowerBook G5.

By comparison, the Intel Core Duo has a 1.05 rating - 4x to 4.5x better than the PowerPC. While there was a time when PowerPC architecture offered better PPW (performance per Watt) and performance per MHz than Intel, that's no longer the case.

The October 2005 15" PowerBook battery was rated at 5.5 hours. Apple has stated that the now lithium-polymer battery in the MacBook Pro should at least equal that.

What Do We Think of It?

My opinion of the MacBook Pro in one word: Wow! Yes, it's a bit bulkier and can't run Classic, but other than that this is one totally lustworthy notebook. Or, more precisely, trio of notebooks.

The 2.0 and 2.16 GHz models are the first 'Books ever to ship with 1 GB of memory, and the screen matches the 1440 x 900 resolution of the 17" iMac, which runs at the same 1.83 GHz speed as the slowest MacBook Pro.

If I needed to buy a notebook within the next few months and didn't depend on one Classic app, the 1.83 GHz MacBook Pro would top my list. Better yet, wait until it's been out 2-3 months, read the field reports (please, Apple, no screen problems or other teething pains this time), and watch the Special Deals page at Apple's online store for the first refurbs.

I don't expect to need a new(er) laptop until much later in the year - but definitely before next January's Macworld Expo. If someone can provide good Classic for Macintel or someone creates a worthy successor to Claris HomePage for quick and easy WYSIWYG HTML editing, I'll be looking long and hard at the MacBooks.

I have to wonder what Apple's going to do with the iBook, especially since Jobs made a big point of having "Mac" in each product's name. Maybe the consumer line will just be the MacBook, although some have opined that "MacBook Home" would better parallel Microsoft's Home and Pro versions of Windows. (What are they going to call the Power Mac if they're dropping "Power" - Macintosh Pro?)

I suspect we'll see a 13" widescreen MacBook Pro later in the year, along with a 17" one. Personally, the more I lug my 15" PowerBook G4 around, the more I'd be tempted by a 13" widescreen 'Book. We'll see what happens.

My Mac To Go

After acquiring my PowerBook G4/400 in January 2001, I used it as my primary computer until the summer of 2003, when I picked up a refurbished 700 MHz eMac. (My last three new Macs have all been refurbs. I think that's the best way to buy a new Mac.)

If I were to buy a MacBook Pro, it could absolutely serve as my primary computer once there's a solid replacement for Claris HomePage or a good way to run the Classic app on an Intel-based Mac. The MBP has gobs of power compared with my 1 GHz dual Power Mac G4 and 1.25 GHz eMac, to say nothing of the old reliable 400 MHz PowerBook I had at the Expo. It would put every Mac I've ever owned to shame when running universal binary apps.

Update: Rosetta and PowerPC Apps

Since the Expo, we've learned a lot about Rosetta, the translation program that lets you run PowerPC OS X apps on the Macintel models. First of all, it wants a lot of RAM, so if you need to use Rosetta, putting 1 GB or more in your Macintel is a good idea. And it's not as fast as running the same software on a G5 or G4.

The consensus seems to be that Rosetta lets you run PowerPC programs about 50-70% as fast on the Intel Core Duo as these programs would run on a single-core G5. In rough terms, that means even the 2.16 GHz MacBook Pro will be slower than a 1.6 GHz G5, and the G4 is less powerful than the G5.

I'd estimate that a 1.33 GHz PowerBook will offer about the same performance on PowerPC apps as the 1.83 GHz MBP. If your PowerBook is slower than that, Rosetta may well run your existing apps more quickly than your old Mac. If your PowerBook is faster than that, it may provide faster performance with PowerPC software.

The other wrench in the works: The PowerBook lets you run Classic, while the MBP can take advantage of the Intel Core Duo with universal binary software.

If you're dependent on Classic, as we are with Claris HomePage (and we also prefer the speed of Photoshop 5.5 vs. Photoshop Elements 3.0), you'll need to stick with PowerPC hardware for now. If you're 100% OS X, you'll have to weight your decision based on how many non-universal programs you use, and that number should decrease in time as more and more software is recompiled for both Intel and PowerPC.

MacBook or iMac?

Of course, the same could be said for the iMac, which is significantly less expensive, has more hard drive space, and is a lot less portable. US$1,299 for a 1.83 GHz 17" iMac or U$1,699 for a 2.0 GHz 20" iMac vs. $1,999 for a 1.83 GHz MacBook Pro shows where the core value is - but what's the value of portability?

When I sat through the keynote, that was a real question for me. I could definitely see buying a 17" iMac and being able to start playing with iWeb. For all it offers, $1,299 is a very fair price, and I'll be spending $79 on iLife '06 otherwise. (In fact, I bought the $99 iLife '06 family pack, and I'm disappointed at iWeb's limitations for writers.)

Fortunately I like to ruminate on such decisions for a while, because I got a call while I was at the Expo: My oldest son totaled the 1994 Taurus the boys drive (he's fine, but the car is a loss). We ended up replacing it with a 1996 Olds Silhouette, which Steve loves and which also tapped out my cash reserves.

So much for picking up an iMac or MacBook Pro in the near future.

Of course, that just gives me more time to reflect on how much of this is technolust and how much Mac I really need. (How much Mac do you need?) And it gives Apple more time to introduce new models.

You know the value equation always improves, so waiting isn't such a bad thing.