The new Core i7 Apple Macbook Pro is a very strong performer for productivity and general purpose computing tasks, but it's no surprise that you can buy a cheaper Windows-based notebook that's more powerful.

Design and features

The latest Macbook Pro from Apple is looks identical to its predecessor. We lined up a 15in Macbook Pro from late 2010 alongside the latest model, and couldn't tell the differences while looking straight on. The only differences externally between the two models are in the new Macbook Pro's 'FaceTime HD' camera, which adds 720p high definition recording, and the Thunderbolt port.

Thunderbolt is the official release name for Intel's Light Peak technology, and it's effectively exclusive to Apple until 2012. Thunderbolt is an input/output port like USB, but much faster. It's twice the speed of USB 3.0, 20 times faster than USB 2.0, and about 12 times faster than FireWire 800. It employ the connector Apple has been using for Mini DisplayPort since late 2008, a plug that looks similar to mini-USB but is slightly chunkier.

Thunderbolt is, theoretically, an excellent connection standard. It's very fast at up to 10Gbps transmission, supports bus power at up to 10W (on par with USB but only a quarter of what FireWire can handle), and has plenty of future potential, the standard supports optical data transmission not unlike optical digital audio, allowing cable runs of hundreds of metres. The specification allows for up to seven devices to be daisy-chained, think of six Full HD monitors and a very high-speed storage device linked in series, operating as fast as the computer's internal PCI-Express bus will allow.

The problem is that we can't really tell you anything about the real world applications of Thunderbolt, because we don't have anything that can use it yet. Lacie, Western Digital and plenty of other companies are keen on the standard, we're expecting plenty of high speed portable hard drives, DAS devices (a la Drobo) and external audio/video boxes, but when they will hit the market is another question altogether.

If it's any consolation, we hooked up a 24in Dell U2410 monitor to the Thunderbolt port via a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter, and the monitor detected the Mac and connected perfectly just the same as our older, non-Thunderbolt Macbook Pro did, all your old peripherals should be just fine.

The only other external difference is the new FaceTime HD camera, taking over from iSight. We compared pictures taken in Photo Booth with the 'old' and 'new' cameras and saw no difference, but then again, Photo Booth spits out images at 640x480 resolution, which both cameras can easily achieve. We also had an impromptu FaceTime chat between two Macbook Pros, which revealed a slight quality boost for the newer camera.

Specs and performance

Our test unit was a top spec 15in Macbook Pro, boasting a quad-core Intel Core i7-2720QM Sandy Bridge-based CPU running at 2.2GHz. It's got a zippy 7200rpm, 500GB hard drive. You can also spec up the system with a 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD, although the top option costs as much as the rest of the laptop itself. The graphics chipset automatically switches between the power-efficient integrated Intel GMA HD 3000 and the discrete Radeon HD 6750M.

We compared the latest Macbook Pro to our 15in model from the middle of 2010, which runs a dual-core Intel Core i5-520M at 2.4GHz as well as 8GB of 1066MHz DDR3 and a 320GB 5400rpm hard drive. Our old reliable base model MBP scored an overall 32-bit GeekBench rank of 4967, with a score of 3828 for processor integer performance, 7359 for floating point performance, 3735 for memory performance and 3051 for memory bandwidth performance.

Unsurprisingly, it was soundly whipped by the new Macbook Pro. The shiny new system pulled together an overall GeekBench rank of 8488, with a processor integer performance score of 7144, floating point performance of 12944, memory performance of 4927 and memory bandwidth performance of 4726. The new notebook averages out to be about 62 per cent faster than the previous base model configuration.

We ran a couple of benchmarks in Half Life 2, using time demos that we recorded and ran at the 15in Macbook Pro's native resolution of 1440x900 pixels with all graphics set to maximum. The new Macbook Pro recorded an average frame rate of 125.18fps, while the older GeForce GT 330M–based 2010 Macbook Pro managed an average of 65.28fps.

We also put the new Macbook Pro through its paces with a test 3D render using Blender. Our Blender render contender gave a performance to remember, using all its four cores and eight processing threads to render a scene in a flat 20 seconds. The older dual-core Macbook Pro's Intel Core i5 took a comparatively glacial 51 seconds.

Our final test was stressing the new Macbook Pro's CPU to encode 53min of WAV files into Apple Lossless and 192KBps MP3 formats. The quad-core Core i7 blitzed the task, taking only 24 seconds for the Apple Lossless conversion and 30 seconds to create the MP3s. This is noticeably faster than the 32 second and 41 second results of its mid-2010 Core i5 predecessor.

Battery life is effectively unchanged on the new model. Sure, Apple only quotes seven hours of battery life for the updated Macbook Pro, but this testing is using an updated procedure that means the figure isn't directly comparable to the old models' eight to nine hour claim.

In our DVD rundown test, where we turn on Wi-Fi and lock screen brightness to maximum, the older model achieved 3 hours and 12 minutes before turning off. The newest incarnation's extra processing efficiency works wonders, with the newest Macbook Pro hitting just over four hours before powering down. This test satisfied us that there is no appreciable hit in battery life as a result of moving to a new CPU and graphics chipset.

OUR VERDICT

The one thing that holds the Macbook Pro back from being an easy recommendation is its price. It's notably more expensive than a comparable Windows laptop like Dell's latest XPS 15 (L501x) or Latitude E5520, or even a specced-up version of the Sony VAIO SB series. If you're prepared to fork out the extra dollars, you won't be disappointed with its performance. We don't see a compelling reason for owners of recent Macbook Pro models to upgrade, though.