The new "Thunderbolt" MacBook Pro: how does it compare to MacBook Air?

By danwarne, February 25 2011
The new

Apple's new MacBook Pro notebooks are here, and as usual they introduce some solid improvements over the previous models. But what do they have to offer business travellers -- and how does the popular 13 inch MacBook Pro compare to the ultra-thin MacBook Air?

"Thunderbolt" — a new, super-fast connector

Apple is selling the first notebooks in the world with Intel's new 'Thunderbolt' connector — a new technology designed to eventually supercede USB, although of course the MacBook Pro still has two USB ports and a Firewire port.

Think of Thunderbolt as future-proofing your notebook. This is a super-fast connector that can use fibre-optic cables for data transfer (although Apple is using conventional copper cables), making it fast enough to carry multiple high definition TV signals at once.

Although the new connector has little practical impact for now, as there are few Thunderbolt accessories available to plug into it, it does have some useful aspects that will become useful to business travellers over time.

Thunderbolt provides a lot more power to external devices than USB does — 10 watts, which is enough to fast-charge an iPad so that you'll no longer need to carry a separate AC charger, for example (standard USB ports provide about 6 watts, so while this will also recharge your iPad it will take a lot longer).

It also allows daisy-chaining, meaning multiple devices can be plugged in to a single port (by linking off each other) rather than the one-port-per-device design of USB.

Thunderbolt is the new name for a technology Intel had previously discussed under its codename of "Light Peak". The port is the same shape as Apple's existing Mini DisplayPort connector. In fact, Mini DisplayPort accessories will continue to work through it.

Intel's fastest processors

The other significant tech change inside the new MacBook Pro family is the move to Intel's very latest Core i5 and Core i7 processors. This is in fact the second generation of these chips, which were launched by Intel just last month and are dramatically faster than the original 2010 Core processors. (You may also have heard the new chips mentioned under their former codename of "Sandy Bridge".)

Intel has three Core processors –- the  i3, i5 and i7 -– which it positions as a good-better-best line-up. Apple has skipped the entry-level Core i3 and gone straight to the Core i5 as an all-rounder offering that's sufficient for day to day uses, with the option of the Core i7 for very heavy-duty work.

If you already have a 13 inch MacBook Pro -- even the most recent model from 2010 -- you'll notice an immediate and dramatic boost in performance because Apple previously used Intel's ageing Core 2 Duo chips (the Core i5 and Core i7 were available only on the 15 inch and 17 inch notebooks).


The $1,399 MacBook Pro 13 comes with a 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, while $1,698 gets you the faster 2.7GHz Core i7 chip. Both are incredibly affordable prospects, especially when compared to other high-spec compact notebooks aimed at business travellers.

In addition to the standard hard drives, which begin at a sufficient 320GB, the new MacBook Pro can be outfitted with a solid state drive (SSD). This uses electronic 'flash memory' similar but superior to what's found in a common USB thumb drive.

Solid state drives are phenomenally faster than mechanical hard disks, especially when it comes to starting up and shutting down the laptop. They're also much quieter and can eke out some extra battery life because they have no moving parts.

The downsides are cost and capacity. Apple charges an extra $320 for fitting your 13 inch MacBook Pro with the smallest capacity SSD, which is 128GB. That's almost one-third the size of the standard 320GB hard drive, and you don't get to have both the original hard drive and SSD in the notebook -- so you're paying $320 more for a smaller (but amazingly faster) drive.

If you want the advantages of a solid state drive but can't do with so little  space you'll be looking at an extra $820 for a 256GB SSD or a whopping $1,670 for a 512GB drive. Yes, that's almost as much as the 13 inch Core i7 MacBook Pro costs to begin with...

A smaller change is the inclusion of a high-definition webcam, although it remains to be seen whether variable internet speeds between two parties on video calls will make this very useful.

The 13 inch MacBook Pro also adopts Intel's own graphics technology in place of the previous NVIDIA graphics chip for speeding up tasks like photo editing and modest gaming. The 15 inch and 17 inch models offer an optional AMD Radeon graphics chip for higher-end work such as video editing and cutting-edge games.


How the MacBook Pro compares to the MacBook Air

Many business travellers contemplating their next laptop purchase have been considering the ultra-thin and light MacBook Air range, especially since Apple dropped its prices so much.

The MacBook Pro 13 and MacBook Air 13 both have that near-perfect 13 inch screen size which is large enough for day to day use but sufficiently compact to slip into your carry-on luggage, fit onto airline tray tables and can more easily be used on a plane even when the person in front fully reclines their seat.

But screen size apart, there are many factors between the MacBook Pro or the MacBook Air.

Size and weight: Air's still the winner

The 13" MacBook Air has a clear weight advantage over the 13" MacBook Pro, at a mere 1.06 kg, compared to 2.04 kg.

The MacBook Air is also a lot thinner — 1.7cm at its thickest part, whereas the Pro is 2.41cm.

The MacBook Air makes it weight and size savings by getting rid of the spinning mechanical hard drive of the MacBook Pro in favour of flash memory. The upside of flash memory is that it is ultra-fast compared to traditional hard drives.

Storage capacity: it's your call.

The downside is that because it is much more expensive, it provides smaller storage space. The MacBook Air comes with a maximum 256GB of SSD flash memory storage, whereas the Pro comes with up to a 750GB hard drive.

So, obviously, a key differentiator between the Pro and the Air is how much storage you need on the road. If you have a main computer at home or at work and plan to travel with a reduced set of files, the Air will be adequate. If you're the kind of person that prefers to have everything with them at all times, the Pro is a better bet.

Speed: Pro has the advantage, but is it necessary?

The other key difference between the two models for business travellers is processing speed. The Core i5 and Core i7 chips available in the Pro are multiple times faster than the old Core 2 Duo chip being included in the Air.

That being said, in Australian Business Traveller's testing of the MacBook Air on the road, we found the speed was more than adequate for the types of things we needed to do — Office apps, web browsing, photo editing and video/music playback.

How much is that DVD drive worth to you?

Finally, the Pro comes with a DVD drive built-in, whereas that's an optional extra cost external USB DVD drive for the Air. However, in Australian Business Traveller's view, this difference is of negligible importance nowadays.

For most people, DVD drives lie dormant except for occasional software reinstalls, or loading the occasional presentation or document provided by a company on a CD. With the world having moved on to USB memory keys, internet-based cloud storage and movie downloads, DVD drives are much less important than they once were.

Thunderbolt? Interesting but non-essential.

The inclusion of the Intel Thunderbolt connector in the MacBook Pro (but not the MacBook Air) is interesting, but, on a practical level, irrelevant for now, as there are no Thunderbolt devices that can be used with it yet.

One other major factor that is worth bearing in mind with the MacBook Pro (and this is very much not Apple-endorsed) is that you can get a technician to remove the DVD drive and put a second hard drive in its place, using a third party product like the MCE Optibay. This can make it possible to fit 1.5TB of storage into a MacBook Pro — ideal for people who like to travel with large iTunes TV and movie libraries.

Verdict: The MacBook Air is still a more attractive package for most business travellers, despite the added oomph in the MacBook Pro. However, its appeal is limited to people who can fit their files into the relatively compact 256GB storage space.

We'd like to see Apple redesign the MacBook Pro more fully to be a more powerful notebook than the Air, but without the heft of the optical drive, and the mechanical hard drive.

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