Last week's announcement of updates to the MacBook Pro was so low-key you might have missed it. And truth be told, it wasn't the flashiest update Apple has ever made to its portable lineup, with new processors and graphics highlighting the changes. While the improvements in the new MacBook Pros are modest when compared to the models they replace, there's plenty to like about the upgrades - especially if you're the owner of an older laptop and you're mulling an upgrade.

What's new

While MacBook Pro prices stayed the same as the models introduced earlier this year, the components inside received subtle - yet welcome - updates. The £999 entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro upgrades its 2.3GHz dual-core Core i5 processor to a faster 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 chip; its 320GB hard drive has been swapped out for a 500GB model. The £1,549 13-inch MacBook Pro now has a 2.8GHz dual-core Core i7 processor and a 750GB hard drive; it previously had a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7 processor and a 500GB hard drive. The 13-inch models continue to use the same Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics as the previous MacBook Pros.

The 15-inch models were updated with 2.2GHz (£1,549) and 2.4GHz (£1,849) quad-core Core i7 processors, up from 2.0GHz and 2.2GHz, respectively. Graphics in the 15-inch systems also saw an upgrade: The £1,549 model now has a 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6750M, while the £1,849 model has a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6770M. The storage capacity hasn't changed on the 15-inch models, with a 500GB hard drive in the £1,549 model, and a 750GB hard drive in the £1,849 model.

As with the previous generation of MacBook Pros, the 17-inch £2,099 model matches the £1,849 15-inch model in all specifications, aside from screen size and the addition of a ExpressCard/34 slot.

What hasn't changed

Externally, the new MacBook Pros are identical to the early 2011 models. The glossy LED backlit screens each measure 13.3-, 15.4-, and 17-inches diagonally, with 1280-by-800, 1440-by-900, and 1920-by-1200 pixel resolutions, respectively. All systems have a full-sized, backlit keyboard, as well as glass multi-touch trackpads with gesture support.

The FaceTime HD webcam, stereo speakers and built-in microphone remain the same, as do the number of ports on every model: one FireWire 800, one Gigabit Ethernet, a MagSafe power connector, and one audio in and one audio out port. The 13- and 15-inch models have two USB 2.0 ports and a SDXC card slot. The 17-inch model has three USB 2.0 ports and an ExpressCard/34 slot. All of the new MacBook Pros have a Thunderbolt port, which was introduced in the early 2011 models

Benchmarks: 13-inch MacBook Pros

In terms of performance, the differences between the latest MacBook Pros and their immediate predecessors are, for the most part, as subtle as the upgrade announcement. The new £999 13-inch 2.4GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro is just a little over 4 percent faster than the 2.3GHz system it replaces. The £1,299 13-inch 2.8GHz Core i7 model is about 9 percent faster than the system it replaces.

The most interesting results were in our Photoshop and Aperture tests, which are both faster on the older systems. According to Apple's website, the MacBook Pro may adjust processor speed to avoid running into thermal issues. That could be happening in these tests. It's also possible that the hard drives may be affecting the results.

Benchmarks: 15-inch MacBook Pros

The £1,549 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro is a little more than 12 percent faster than the 2GHz model it replaces, with graphics performance being the biggest change. With its Radeon HD 6750M graphics, the £1,549 model displays 85 percent more frames per second in Cinebench's Open GL test than last year's comparable model and its 256MB AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics processor. Our Portal 2 tests also shows great improvement, with the new £1,549 model displaying 160 frames per second, as compared to the 68.6 frames that last year's £1,549 model was able to display. The graphics in the new £1,549 model are identical to that found in last year's £1,849 model, and the Portal and Cinebench OpenGL test results of those two models are also practically identical.

The new graphics in the £1,849 15-inch 2.4GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro perform a little faster than the graphics in the previous $2199 model, a 15-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro. Overall, the new £1,849 model's graphics run about 7 percent faster overall than its predecessor. The new £1,849 model displayed nearly 12 percent more frames per second in the Cinebench OpenGL test, and 8 percent more frames per second in our Portal 2 tests.

The new 17-inch model is a little more than 4 percent faster overall than the early 2011 17-inch MacBook Pro.

Battery life also seems to be similar to the last set of MacBook Pros, getting between 5.5 and 6 hours of battery life in our fullscreen video playback test at full brightness.


OUR VERDICT

The new MacBook Pro lineup won't cause any buyer's remorse for those who purchased a member of the early 2011 family, or perhaps even for buyers of a 2010 MacBook Pro. If you have a laptop that's older, however, the late 2011 MacBook Pros feature faster processors, larger capacity hard drives in the 13-inch models, and improved graphics in the 15 and 17-inch models that combine to make already attractive systems an even greater value.