Mac Musings

The 17" MacBook Pro Value Equation

Daniel Knight - 2006.04.25

Apple unveiled the 17" MacBook Pro yesterday, and it's the best value Apple has ever offered in a 'Book. At US$2,799 with a 120 GB hard drive, the 2.16 GHz MacBook Pro (MBP) sells for the same price as the equally fast 15" MBP with a 100 GB hard drive.

The Intel Core Duo CPU inside the 17" MBP offers up to five times the horsepower of the 1.67 GHz G4 used in last generation PowerBooks. Up to being operative - sometimes it won't be 5x as fast.

Like the 15" MBP, the 17" model 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 graphics chip supports dual-link DVI, which means the MBP supports Apple's 30" Cinema Display.

The MacBook Pro also has an internal iSight webcam and an infrared receive for use with Apple's remote control. And it's got a better SuperDrive - 8x with dual-layer support.

The built-in display is 36% brighter than the one found in the PowerBook - as bright as the Cinema Display.

17" MacBook ProThe 17" MBP uses the same AC adapter with MagSafe that was introduced with the 15" MBP. 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.

The 17" MacBook Pro is a bit larger than the 17" PowerBook G4 it replaces at 10.4" deep vs. 10.2" for the PB. It's also a bit lighter at 6.8 lb. vs. 6.9 lb. for the 17" PowerBook.

Apple has stated that the lithium-polymer battery in the MacBook Pro should offer comparable power to the one used in the PowerBook.

The Value Equation

The 17" MBP retails for US$300 more than the PowerBook it replaces. For the higher cost, you get that fastest CPU Apple has ever put in a notebook as the default - and it's dual-core to boot. You also get 1 GB of RAM (vs. 512 MB) and a 120 GB hard drive (vs. 100 GB).

The 17" MBP is the first MacBook with FireWire 800, and Apple has also added one more USB 2.0 port, bringing the total to three.

I have a feeling this is going to deep-six sales of the build-to-order 2.16 GHz 15" MBP, since the 17" MBP sells for the same price, had a larger screen, displays 1680 x 1050 pixels (vs. 1440 x 900), and adds both FireWire 800 and an extra USB 2.0 port.

The only drawback is one shared with all of Apple's Intel-based Macs - no support for Classic mode. While Rosetta allows the Macintel models to perform decently most with PowerPC programs written for OS X, there's no support at all for pre-OS X software.

If you can live without Classic (at present, I am dependent on it), the 17" MacBook Pro is a great value.

What About Refurbs?

The true value comparison pits the 17" MBP against refurbished 17" PowerBook G4s. Apple currently has the hi-res version available for US$1,999 - $800 less than the 17" MBP.

Since the first Macintel models were released, we've learned a lot about Rosetta, the translation program that lets you run PowerPC OS X apps on Apple's Intel-based Macs. It wants a lot of RAM, so if you need to use Rosetta, the MBP's 1 GB is a good starting point. 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 a 2.16 GHz MacBook Pro will be slower than a 1.67 GHz G4 with PowerPC software.

I'd estimate that a 1.5 GHz PowerBook will offer about the same performance on PowerPC apps as the 2.16 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 factor: 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 at Low End Mac with Claris HomePage and Photoshop 5.5 (which I find a lot faster than Photoshop Elements 3.0), stick with PowerPC hardware for now and pick up a PowerBook. 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 decreases daily as more and more software is recompiled for both Intel and PowerPC (we probably won't see Photoshop for Macintel until 2007).

Looking Ahead

Expect the 15" MBP to drop in price, as the 17" MBP definitely offers the better value. Further, Intel is scheduled to reduce Core Duo prices on May 28, so that reduction may be a month off.

The Inquirer reports that Intel's price for the 2.16 GHz Core Duo will drop from $637 to $423, 2.0 GHz from $423 to $294, and 1.83 GHz from $294 to $240. Considering Apple's product markup, we might see a $100-200 drop on the 1.83 GHz MBP, $200-400 on the 2.0 GHz MBP, and $300-500 on the 15" 2.16 GHz MBP.

I anticipate a 13.3" widescreen MacBook Pro later this year, perhaps with a 1280 x 800 display (a common resolution for widescreen Windows notebooks). Looking at Apple's track record, I would expect it to have a 1.83 GHz Core Duo, a 60-80 GB hard drive, 1 GB of RAM, and lesser graphics than the 15" and 17" models that won't support dual-link DVI. And no internal modem.

It will probably have the same ports as the current 12" PowerBook G4 - FireWire 400, USB 2.0, no PCI Express slot, no FireWire 800 - and use the MagSafe connector.

Sheer speculation, but unless there's a big education conference before May 28 (the date Intel reduced the Core Duo price), I don't anticipate Apple shipping the unit until after the price drop.

I also suspect we'll see a revision to the 15" MBP after the Intel price cut, since the 2.16 GHz Duo Core will drop to the current price of the 2.0 GHz chip, and the 2.0 GHz one will have the same price as today's 1.83 GHz CPU. This would also be a good time to add the dual-layer 8x SuperDrive found in the 17" MBP.

Here's my guess for Apple's post 5/28 MBP line:

We'll see what happens.