Review: Apple MacBook Pro 15.4"
Posted Jun 28, 2006

Event videography is a demanding profession that requires both preparation and the ability to innovate on the fly. Successful event videographers know that they must have a robust set of tools to rely on as they capture and deliver once-in-a-lifetime events. One of the tools I rely on heavily is a good laptop. Because I'm constantly traveling, my laptop is one of my key tools, as it is both my mobile office and a communications device that links me back to family, customers, and suppliers. When it's not functioning to peak capacity, as happened a few weeks ago on a trip to Europe, the result is a significant lapse in effectiveness.

One area that a laptop has not been able to function as an effective tool, in my experience, has been in the capacity of a mobile editor. Most of my work is now shot and edited in native HDV, so when my aging Powerbook finally bit the dust in Europe just before NAB, I took the opportunity to purchase one of the new MacBook Pro 15.4" models. I had heard that the machine would handle native 1080i HDV as well as playing back H.264 1080i HD content, neither of which my previous G4 Powerbook or single-processor desktop had been able to handle.

What's In a Name? Apple has abandoned the two previous names for its laptops, the professional Powerbook and the consumer iBook, opting instead for the same name—MacBook—for both consumer and professional lines. The professional line adds the word "Pro" to the name, which is now proving a bit tricky as many MacBook Pro owners I've talked to refer to their machines as a MacBook, or even a Powerbook (old habits being hard to break).

Since all models in the MacBook and MacBook Pro line are now only available in widescreen, the easiest way to differentiate between the product lines is screen size. The Pro models are available in 17" and 15" sizes (the latter is actually 15.4" of viewable screen space) while the consumer version is currently only available in a 13.3" version.

Under the Hood
The new MacBook Pro 15" models have a very similar form factor to their G4 predecessors, with the new MacBook Pro being slightly thinner but slightly longer, due to the added 0.4" of screen space.

Outer appearance is where the similarity stops, however. All new Apple products in 2006 have Intel processors, as Apple chose to abandon the PowerPC RISC architecture for Intel's new processor line. These new Intel chips actually house two processors (or "cores") in the form factor of a traditional single-processor machine.

In my testing, I used both the 20" iMac, which runs on a 2.0GHz Core Duo (Apple's name for Intel's dual-core processor), and a MacBook Pro 15", which runs on a 2.16GHz Core Duo, the fastest processor Apple currently offers. The short version of the equivalency testing is that the MacBook Pro was able to keep pace with the iMac, something I'd not seen with previous Apple desktop/laptop comparisons. One reason for this, besides the equivalent processor speeds, is the fact that the L2 cache now runs at a 1:1 ratio to the processor.

Graphics on the new MacBook Pro 15" and 17" are the same, provided you choose the 2.16GHz version of the MacBook Pro 15". Both use the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics chipset, which provides dual-link DVI support, allowing the MacBook to drive an external display at up to 2560x1600 pixels while simultaneously maintaining full native resolution on the laptop's internal screen. This is especially useful for high-definition work, as even the upper-end MacBook Pro is not capable of pixel-by-pixel viewing of native 1080i HD images on its internal screen (native resolution is 1440x900). VGA output is also available via an included DVI-to-VGA adapter.

The speed comes at a price, however, and that price is battery life. The limited battery life in professional G4 Apple laptops continues to be a problem with the MacBook Pro line, and the 2.16GHz runs quite a bit hotter than G4 machines when performing complex computational tasks, so plan to do significant computational work (such as Motion, After Effects, or 3D programs) on a surface other than your lap.

To extend battery life, especially during "office mode" or "travel mode," software is available to toggle on/off one of the cores, effectively reducing the MacBook Pro to a single-processor machine. Don't forget to return the machine to dual-core mode, though, before launching any editing or motion graphics tools.

The MacBook Pro line sports one FireWire 400 port and multiple USB 2.0 ports (two on the 15" and three on the 17"). The 17" also has a FireWire 800 port, which is lacking on the 15" models due to size limitations.

All MacBook Pro models have the new PCMCIA alternative, called ExpressCard. ExpressCard comes in two sizes, 54 mm and 34 mm. Apple uses the latter, which is about 2/3 the size of the PCMCIA slots on the G4 Powerbook. While there are not yet many cards on the market in the ExpressCard 34 form factor, I was able to purchase an 11-in-1 card reader that reads all popular flash memory card formats, with the exception of the CompactFlash form factor, as CompactFlash is larger than the ExpressCard 34 form factor.

ExpressCard readers insert and release via a spring-loaded mechanism, eliminating the need for the release button that PCMCIA cards use, but this can prove tricky to use on some cards. On the particular card reader I used, the flash memory cards also released via a spring-loaded mechanism, which often resulted in releasing the flash memory instead of both the flash memory and the card.

i Can See Clearly Now
Apple first launched the iSight FireWire-based videoconferencing camera a few years ago. The first version was a sleek tubular design that housed both the camera and an echo-cancelling microphone. Even with its sleek design, the iSight still required mobile users to disconnect and reconnect the camera each time they wanted to use it, as the Powerbook models could not be closed with the iSight attached.

In the new MacBook Pro line, as well as in the MacBook and iMac lines, Apple has integrated the camera directly into the bezel, directly above the screen. Quality is surprisingly good for a camera that has shrunk almost 90% in size, although the placement lower in the user's field of view may account for a few more double-chin shots.

An external iSight will still be needed to do video walkthroughs, which many Powerbook users had done, especially realtors and event coordinators who were trying to show distant clients the layout of a particular space for planning purposes. The convenience of the integrated iSight and the bundled tools, including the ability to record local and remote audio and video interviews—the latter with the bundled iChat AV instant-messenging client—far outweigh any inconveniences.

Doing Windows
Even for diehard Mac fans, there is an occasional need for access to the Windows world. While most network connectivity tasks can be handled by the Mac's robust networking capabilities, accessing Windows programs via emulation software has been a laborious process.

Apple acknowledges that their well-built hardware and new Intel chips draw envious glances from Windows users who would like to run Windows XP on the new MacBook or MacBook Pro lines. For those users, Apple has released a beta of a product called BootCamp. This product allows users to dual-boot an Apple laptop, choosing between Windows XP SP2 (Home or Pro editions) or Apple's OS X Tiger at startup. BootCamp will be a standard feature of Apple's upcoming OS X Leopard.

For those who want to run Windows XP (or Windows 98/Me/2000) at the same time as they're running OS X, a new software product called Parallels workstation is in release-candidate stage. I've been able to run Windows XP on both an iMac Intel and a MacBook Pro with surprisingly fast results, primarily because Parallels accesses the Intel chip natively. The only downside is that Parallels lacks drag-and-drop capabilities that have been present in VirtualPC for several years, making movement of files back and forth between OS X and Windows a three-step process. Also, plan on setting aside at least 512MB of RAM for Parallels, which means that anyone working on video editing while using Parallels should plan to have 2GB of memory in their MacBook Pro.

The first-generation MacBook Pro meets expectations for a mobile editing platform, although truly mobile battery-powered editing sessions still require at least one additional battery, given the MacBook Pro Core Duo's power consumption requirements. All in all, especially when using the new Final Cut Studio 5.1 Universal edition and working with HDV footage, event videographers will be pleasantly surprised with the MacBook Pro's performance as a solid desktop replacement.