Percussa micro super signal processor

Apple today refreshed its MacBook Pro line in a long-awaited update, moving the Apple laptops in line with recent advancements in Intel CPUs and NVIDIA GPUs. There are some caveats when you pull apart the line, however – the 13″ models miss out on the new CPUs in this lineup, at least – and you’ll pay to get some of the better improvements. Of course, a Mac is a Mac; for many readers, it’s the reliability of the combination with the Mac OS that is likely to be the deciding factor.

The best news is, the 15″ and 17″ models are getting new Core i5 and i7 processors, which boast significant performance boosts and improved battery life. That’s a plus both for number-crunching audio production power and for keeping your battery going while you’re running Ableton on the trans-continental coach flight. These aren’t huge changes, though – and, at the risk of igniting some flame wars, there are competitive PCs that use the same technologies. But if you were waiting for this refresh to get a new Mac (or pick up an almost-new Mac at a discount), today’s your lucky day.

You can read the full specs from Apple, and Engadget has even done an unboxing of the top-of-the-line i7 model, but here’s a quick overview of how the models compare.

13″
$1199-1499
Core 2 Duo (2.4-2.66) – not the newer Core i3/i5/i7 (yet)
Integrated graphics (NVIDIA 320M, similar to the 310M – think a new generation of the previous 9400M)
1280 by 800 graphics
Up to 10 hours battery life
Two USB 2.0, one FireWire 800, one SD card slot

15″
$1799-2199
Core i5/i7 (2.4-2.66) CPU
NVIDIA 330M discrete GPU switches with integrated graphics for better battery life
1440 by 900 graphics
9 hours battery life
Two USB 2.0, one FireWire 800, one SD card slot

17″
$2299-2499
2.53G Core i5 ($200 more gets you the 2.66 i7 as a custom option, not listed in the specs)
Three USB 2.0, one FireWire 800, ExpressCard/34 slot

The good news: As always, Apple’s machines have some lovely standard features. All of the models have standard backlit keyboards – ideal for seeing your machine onstage. They all have MagSafe power ports, multi-touch trackpads, great-looking screens, 8x SuperDrives (for burning and reading), iSight cameras, and lovely aluminum bodies.

Sweet spots: the $1199 machine, if you can live without the fastest processor or GPU, is a pretty solid compromise, especially as a satellite to a desktop. (13″ in coach class and on buses is also a big, big win.) I also like the 15″ models, and as readers noted, you can upgrade to a high-density 1680-by-1050, and choose antiglare. Doing that on the cheaper 15″ could be a good way to go.

If you have the money, the 17″ is the one model that offers the biggest display (antiglare is available, though not listed on the “compare” specs page), and it’s the one with ExpressCard. It remains the best “pro” machine for people who want every option. Why would you want that ExpressCard slot? I expect it’ll appeal for those who want one main product, the UAD-2 from Universal Audio, for fantastic-sounding DSP effects. (The slot is also a way to add e-SATA support for more storage flexibility.)

Note that the standard drive is a stock 5400 rpm drive, but you can upgrade to a 7200 rpm model. RPM isn’t the only measure of disk performance, so I’d have to know more to give solid advice there. (I’m also very curious how the SSD option stacks up. Some – but not all – SSD drives are delivering great performance for audio.)

Hi, I’m a PC. There’s no question that you pay a price premium for Apple. Consider, for instance, that the ASUS U30 reviewed by Engadget today costs just $900, has a newer Core i3 CPU and more ports, and a form-factor and battery life that are competitive with a pricier 13″ MacBook. Or for a more luxurious price, you can get something like the Rain Recording laptops – one tested specifically with a range of audio apps – for the same price as a higher-end Mac, with more amenities in storage and I/O. I don’t expect that is going to sway anyone to switch from Mac to PC, but it means those who do like PC software – including exclusives like FL Studio, SONAR, and video editing app Vegas, or booting Linux – still have a good option.

The issues that I think may be more relevant to Mac users:

The bad news: The only machine that allows you to add an ExpressCard slot is the 17″ model. I/O remains limited: you get 2 USB ports on all but the 17″ model and 3 USB ports on that device. FireWire 800 can be used with FireWire 400 devices, but 800 is all you get, which I know still bothers some Mac customers. And there’s no eSATA port, a useful connection now commonly found on PCs.

Snap judgments: So, what do readers think? Already, a few gems from our Twitter friends:

[asked about PC options and cost] “skulpture: nope wud never swap back to Win. I’d rather buy an old MacBook pro.” Fair enough. And, of course, the very-nice previous-year MacBooks are about to get cheaper – look for open box or refurb models, especially. The same user, on FireWire: “well apple have not brought back fw400 so as far as I’m concerned they have shot themselves in the foot- again!” (You can use FW400-to-800 adapter cables. I have heard some users complain about compatibility problems, though I haven’t been able to verify them – anyone?)

“autoy: I think the pixel density for the 15” optional HD display and battery life are the killer features.”

“chaircrusher: new MBPs — faster than the old ones, and expensive.”

That’s not Apple.com’s headline, but I think it’s fair.

The biggest remaining question to me is really the details on the disks – if there’s an 8MB or 16MB cache, for instance, and how the SSDs perform. More on that soon.

Far be it from me to start a platform war, but I’m curious – is anyone considering a PC laptop? Are you committed to one platform or the other, or do you compare? How many people are running Windows in Boot Camp for music production, or Linux on the Mac? After all, at the end of the day, it’s all music. (Some of the feedback I’ve gotten again and again is that choosing a PC – given wildly variable quality and complex options – can be challenging for audio. I hope CDM would be informative whatever platform you choose, so I’m working on good ways of gathering more info on this. Stay tuned. And likewise, if there’s more you want to know about the new Macs, just ask.)

Updated: An early version of Apple’s comparison specs I believe listed the entry-level 13″ computer without an iSight. I don’t have a screenshot, so I can’t verify whether that was an Apple mistake or my mistake, but the current specs verify that the iSight is standard, which makes more sense.