First take: New MacBook Pro 'one cool customer'

The fastest laptop Apple has yet offered

Apple Computer's newest MacBook Pro is one cool customer.

Literally.

Sure it's got the new Core 2 Duo processor, which offers a speed bump from 2.16GHz to 2.33GHz. (The first-generation MacBook Pros topped out at 2.16GHz and used Intel's Core Duo chip.) But what a difference that "2" in the processor name makes.

For speed demons, this is the fastest laptop Apple has yet offered. Aside from the fact that it's about 8 percent faster in terms of clock speed, underlying changes to the processor design -- especially a doubling of the Level 2 cache memory from 2MB to 4MB -- mean the uptick in speed is noticeable.

The 15-in. versions of the new MacBook Pro -- unveiled just last week -- are already getting into buyers' waiting hands, and the 17-in. versions are set to ship next week. (I certainly hope so. I have one on order myself, so if you're repeatedly clicking on the "order status" button at the Apple Store site, hoping to find your 17-in. MacBook Pro has finally shipped -- well, let's just say I feel your pain.)

Until then, the only hardware on hand to compare with the earlier models is the 15-in. version. Apple loaned one out for review purposes and it arrived on Wednesday. Although I haven't had time to put it through all its paces, I wanted to offer at quick first look at how this iteration stacks up to its older laptop brethren for those eyeing them in stores.

Unlike most incremental upgrades between models, I'd say the shift from the Core Duo to the Core 2 Duo -- in tandem with some strategic moves by Apple to make the new laptops even more of a value -- is a bigger deal than usual. In the not-so-distant past, a laptop "update" usually meant a slightly faster processor, a slightly larger hard drive, maybe some more video RAM and -- well, that was sometimes about all there was.

This time, would-be buyers get a better and faster processor with a number of under-the-hood changes that keep heat and power use under control; a substantial upgrade in hard drive options that includes a 200GB drive for mobile users who really need storage space as well as a 160GB drive that uses new perpendicular technology; and an across-the-board doubling of RAM to either 1GB or 2GB depending on which MacBook Pro you're talking about. Prices remain the same.

The stock 15-in. MacBook Pro starts at US$1,999, but the model tricked out by Apple for this review is the US$2,499 version. In addition to an upgrade from the dual-core 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo to the 2.33GHz chip, the model in front of me has 2GB of RAM; the 160GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive; an ATI X1600 graphics card with 256MB of video RAM (the stock card offers 128MB of VRAM); and a dual-layer SuperDrive and a FireWire 800 -- both of which were offered on the 17-in. model before and are new to the smaller MacBook Pro). There's also the usual wireless networking capabilities, a built-in iSight Web cam that has a newly hidden indicator light, the now-standard backlit keyboard and other carryovers from previous models.

In terms of speed, I used the benchmarking application Xbench, which measures a number of parameters -- CPU, RAM, graphics and hard disk -- to arrive at an overall score. For comparison purposes, Xbench reported a score of 90 for the first-generation Core Duo version of Apple's 17-in. MacBook Pro. Note: That model had the slower 2.16GHz chip, but a faster 7,200-rpm 100GB hard drive.

So how does this one compare? Running Xbench on the new MacBook yielded a score of 108 -- a 20 percent gain for a chip that, as Apple Product Manager for Portables Todd Benjamin notes is "less than 10 percent faster" than the Core Duo processor. Part of the 20 percent jump -- Apple found even faster gains in its own tests of professional apps such as Final cut Pro -- comes from changes in the architecture of the chip itself.

"The big change is that the chip has more cache, 4MB of Level 2 cache," Benjamin said in an interview. And because the Core 2 Duo is a 64-bit processor, "it's processing 128 bits of data per cycle, which is double what the Core Duo did," he said.

On top of that, Apple continues to tweak Mac OS X so that it can better take advantage of the newer processor, Benjamin said. "We always take the time to optimize Mac OS X. You don't just pop [new hardware] in and use it for free. We always like to take advantage to add enhancements where possible."

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