Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Late 2011) review

TechRadar rating

4/5

For

  • Faster processor
  • Bigger hard drive
  • Excellent Sandy Bridge CPU
  • Marvellous battery life
  • Backlit keyboard

Against

  • Same old DVD drive
  • Thunderbolt peripherals thin on the ground
  • Limited online upgrade options
  • No matt screen option
  • Only a small update

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Late 2011) review

A minor update to the MacBook Pro line

By Ian OsborneNovember 23rd 2011

3 comments

Page 1 of 4Overview

The late 2011 MacBook Pro refresh is the laptop line’s second update this year, but a far smaller revision than the one we got in February.

While the early 2011 MacBook Pro refresh of the 13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch laptops brought us new Sandy Bridge second-generation Core i-series processors and a Thunderbolt port, the late 2011 update is more incremental, with only minor upgrades to the processing speed and bigger hard drives.

The entry-level 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro late 2011 retains its dual core Intel Core i5 processor, but has gone from a 2.3GHz to a 2.4GHz chip. The more expensive model, which we reviewed, moves from a 2.7GHz to a 2.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor.

Hard drive capacities have been increased, with the entry-level model going from 320GB to 500GB, and the higher-end version from 500GB to 750GB. Hard drive speeds remain unchanged, at 5,400 rpm.

Aside from these two relatively minor changes, everything else about the late 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro remains the same. Its logic board is too small to support a discrete graphics chip, and a legal dispute prevents the integration of an Nvidia chipset into the new Core-i processors, so graphics are once again left to the Sandy Bridge chips’ in-built Intel HD Graphics 3000.

The screen is still a glossy 13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with support for millions of colours and a 1280 x 800 native resolution.

The internal, non-user-changeable battery still lasts for up to seven hours of wireless web browsing, and keeps running for around three times as long as a standard battery before wearing out. Connectivity options are still two USB 2.0 ports, a single FireWire 800 port and a new, high-speed Thunderbolt port.

One more thing that hasn’t changed is the price. It’s still £999 for the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, and £1,299 for the more expensive version

 

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Late 2011) review: Specification

A minor update to the MacBook Pro line

 

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

The processor upgrade offered by the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro late 2011 refresh is very small compared to the early 2011 version, with each model getting a 0.1GHz increase on its existing chip.

But it must be remembered that it’s only been eight months since the last MacBook Pro refresh. In that refresh they took a massive leap forwards from 2.4GHz and 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors to a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 in the cheaper version and a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7 in the high-end 13-inch notebook.

Although the late 2011 increase to 2.4GHz and 2.8GHz versions is nothing to write home about, coming so soon after the mammoth move from the ageing Core 2 Duo to the second generation of Core-i chips, it’s still pretty impressive.

The new Sandy Bridge chips are the second generation of Core-i processors (the 13-inch MacBook Pros skipped the first). The latest Intel Core architecture integrates the processor, cache, memory controller and graphics engine onto a single chip, meaning data doesn’t have far to travel and performance is improved.

Available ports haven’t changed since the early 2011 refresh. Once again you get two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire 800 port for data transfer, with a Thunderbolt port doubling as a video out and data port.

A MagSafe power port means your power cable pulls free if yanked – it won’t drag your MacBook Pro off your desk. A 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet port gives cabled internet access, although most users will stick with its integrated Wi-Fi b/g/n. There’s also an SDXC slot and a combined headphone/line-in 3.5mm socket.

Although the 13-inch model is the smallest in Apple’s MacBook Pro laptop range, there’s nothing small about the glass trackpad used as a controller. Eschewing the two-button input used by most PCs, here the entire trackpad is a single button, with right-clicks achieved by holding the Control key or pressing with both fingers.

Built for multi-touch input, the trackpad gives you a range of gestures used to interact with your Mac and its Lion operating system. For example, three-fingered horizontal swipes flit between virtual desktops and your dashboard. Use two fingers and you can move forward and backward through your browsing history in Safari.

Three fingers upward give Mission Control, an excellent feature of the OS X 10.7 Lion operating system that gives an overview of everything that’s running on your MacBook Pro. There are many more, and they soon become so instinctive you’ll wonder how you ever managed without them.

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

One of the MacBook Pro range’s best features is its backlit keyboard. When the ambient light drops, the keyboard lights up so you can still see what you’re typing. You can set how dark it has to be and the brightness of the keyboard’s backlight, and you can switch it off altogether if (for example) you want to watch a movie without the distraction.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro late 2011 also has a quality built-in webcam, now known as the FaceTime HD Camera. You can make 720p HD FaceTime calls to other Macs with a FaceTime HD camera, and standard definition calls to iOS devices and older Macs. Low light performance is improved too.

 

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Late 2011) review: Performance

A minor update to the MacBook Pro line

 

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

As you’d expect given the very small increase in processor speed, the late 2011 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro puts in a performance that’s little different from its immediate predecessor. That’s not to say the refresh isn’t welcome, of course. The bigger hard drives are definitely worth having, and even a 0.1GHz processor speed increase is a move in the right direction.

Although the dual-core Intel Core i7 chip used in the 13-inch MacBook Pro late 2011 model reviewed here is 2.8GHz, its Turbo Boost 2.0 feature can take it beyond this clock speed at times of high need. By switching off idle cores and using the power to speed up active ones, Turbo Boost 2.0 can take the 2.8GHz Core i7 processor up to a maximum of 3.5GHz.

The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro’s 2.4GHz processor can be boosted to up to 3.0GHz.

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

Another useful processor feature is Hyper-Threading. This enables each of the CPU’s two cores to run two threads at once, giving it four virtual cores. This lets the processor spread tasks more evenly, improving performance when running more than one application at once or when using processor-intensive applications that can make use of more than one core.

TechRadar Labs

tech labs

Cinebench 10: 7297
Xbench: 136.98
Cinebench 10 Single core: 4819
Cinebench 10 Multi-core: 10356
iTunes encoding: 353 seconds
Movie encoding (iMovie): 179.6 seconds
Doom 3: 70.9fps
Call of Duty 4: 46fps

In our Cinebench 3D rendering test, the 2.8GHz 13-inch MacBook Pro’s scores were only marginally better than the early 2011 13-inch model. But compared to the mid-2010 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo notebook (its equivalent model in the previous generation), it was almost 60% quicker using one core, and close to 85% better using all available cores.

The high-end late 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro’s graphics are restricted to the CPU’s built-in Intel HD Graphics 3000, but thankfully, it’s far from shoddy. In our Doom 3 test it managed almost twice as many frames per second as the mid-2010 model.

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

Like its immediate predecessor, the late 2011 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro has a Thunderbolt port, an exciting new data and video transfer technology that can achieve transfer speeds of 10Gbps on two bidirectional channels. This is up to 20 times the speed of USB 2.0 and 12 times as fast as FireWire 800.

The Thunderbolt port can be used as a video-out port, as well as for data transfer. It carries a higher-than-HD video signal and eight-channel audio, and can support up to six daisy-chained peripherals in a single port. Thunderbolt provides native support for Mini DisplayPort screens, and you can connect a DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA monitor using existing adapters.

Unfortunately, compatible peripherals are slow in coming, although Apple has released the Thunderbolt Display and there are several Thunderbolt RAID drives here or coming soon.

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

Like all recent MacBook Pros, this 13-inch model uses an internal battery that can’t be removed or replaced by the user. Apple used the space saved on hatches and connectors to fit a bigger battery, giving this particular notebook a claimed seven hours of web surfing on a single charge.

We tested this by turning the brightness up to 50% and wirelessly streaming a live feed from the BBC iPlayer website. This is a harsher test than simple web surfing, yet it still lasted for four hours, 45 minutes.

 

 

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Late 2011) review

 

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Late 2011) review: Verdict

A minor update to the MacBook Pro line

 

Apple macbook pro late 2011 (13-inch) review

The late 2011 Apple MacBook Pro upgrade was a very light refresh, introduced with no fanfare or publicity. It doesn’t offer a great leap forward for the range or the 13-inch 2.8GHz model, but the 0.1GHz speed increase on the CPU and the higher-capacity hard drives are nonetheless welcome, especially as there’s been no price hike.

We liked

Although the upgrade from a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor to a 2.8GHz CPU in the model reviewed here is barely noticeable, the incredibly capable Sandy Bridge chip is streets ahead of the Core 2 Duo used in the 2010 13-inch MacBook Pros.

It’s great to see the 500GB hard drive from the early 2011 version now boosted to 750GB too. It seems churlish to complain that the update is only a slight one, considering it comes just eight months after a massive revamp earlier in the year, and the price remains the same.

The Thunderbolt port will prove its worth as compatible peripherals are released. The 13-inch MacBook Pro late 2011 as a whole is full of great touches, such as the multi-touch trackpad, excellent screen, backlit keyboard and HD webcam. These aren’t new for the late 2011 refresh, but they’re notable nonetheless.

We disliked

It really is time Apple gave us a better optical drive. Given the company’s attitude to the licensing terms, it seems unlikely we’ll ever see a Blu-ray drive in a MacBook Pro, but surely it could at least work on a faster DVD drive?

Also, while the larger MacBook Pros offer a matt option on the online Apple Store for those who don’t like glossy screens, the 13-inch model has none.

Indeed, custom upgrades as a whole are limited to more memory and a solid state drive, both of which the savvy purchaser buys from third parties rather than directly from Apple.

Verdict

The late 2011 update to the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro is a mild refresh, but definitely a welcome one. It comes soon after a massive upgrade at the beginning of 2011, and the prices haven’t changed, so we’ve no cause for complaint.

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