by Ilya Gavrichenkov
02/25/2008 | 08:20 AM
We, at X-bit labs, are trying to keep in touch with everything computer-related, yet some things are still left unnoticed by us. Today, I’m going to discuss one such trend we have neglected before.
The long-time adversaries, the PC and the Mac, have been moving closer towards each other for the last two years. In early 2006 there appeared first computers from Apple whose architecture was similar to the classic PC and whose processors were Intel’s CPUs. Intel’s highly successful Core Duo and, later, Core 2 Duo series must have been one of the reasons for such changes. Today, Apple’s range of products with the x86 architecture is so extensive that it just cannot be unnoticed especially as Mac OS, the last stronghold of Apple who is proposing it as an alternative to the Wintel platform, feels all right in the x86 infrastructure and develops successfully notwithstanding the tough competition. In October 2007 Apple introduced its new Mac OS called Leopard. This OS has become a bestseller among all the flavors of Mac OS X.
Well, in this article I won’t focus on the advantages provided by Mac OS X. Instead, I’m going to discuss the possibility of using the environment you may be more familiar with on the new computers from Apple. Soon after the transition of the hardware to Intel’s platform, Apple officially allowed to run operating systems of the Windows family on Apple’s computers. You can use a special tool called Boot Camp for that. This program can create a second partition on the hard disk and install Microsoft’s OS into it. After that you can select the OS you want to boot during the start-up procedure. By the way, virtual machine software such as VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop provide another opportunity to use both Mac OS X and Windows on the same computer. In this case you can enjoy the exciting ability to work in two different OSes in parallel.
But all these tricks are only useful if the user has the desire to enter the “alternative” Mac world. With all the good points of Mac OS X – it’s got an army of followers because of them – there are not so many people who are willing to give Windows up in favor of Mac OS. They’ve got the habit of using Windows, that’s all. Such users won’t even consider an Apple as their next desktop PC or notebook, fearing that they would have to work in the strange interface of Mac OS X. In fact, Windows can be installed on new Apple computers quite easily, and the design of the case with the Apple logo will remain the only thing to betray the origin of the alternative platform.
So, that’s what this review is about. I’m going to check out the opportunity of running Windows Vista on an Apple computer. I won’t use Boot Camp to install Windows together with Mac OS Leopard. I’m going to install Windows all alone, without any alternatives. Most people from the Mac camp will surely call this idea stupid but there is a real interest to it on the PC user’s side.
This experiment will be performed with a new notebook from Apple: a MacBook Pro revision C with a 15” display. Based on the Intel Santa Rosa platform that features a number of innovations, it is not just a notebook from Apple. It is one of the most advanced and high-performance mobile computers of today. It is certainly competitive against top models of notebooks with the software and hardware that most of us consider classic.
So, besides checking out the specifics of operation of Apple computers in Microsoft’s OS, we’ll see how the MacBook Pro compares with other top-end notebooks based on Intel’s new mobile platform called Santa Rosa. In the second part of this review I will test the MacBook Pro in comparison with an ASUS Lamborghini VX2S, which is one of the most expensive and advanced notebooks offered currently by ASUS.
I’ve got a modern revision of the MacBook Pro with a 15” display. Exterior design is a strongest point of Apple’s products, and this notebook is not an exception. It can charm you with its stern and original appearance.
The MacBook Pro is rather slim with a thickness of 1 inch (25.4 millimeters) only when closed. There is a minimum of connectors, slots and vent grids on the side panels, which makes its exterior look even more ascetic. The case has rounded-off corners and is made from anodized aluminum.
There are a few interesting facts about the MacBook Pro’s exterior. It is not only slimmer than most of 15” notebooks, but also smaller. Particularly, its depth is about 1 centimeter shorter in comparison with typical notebooks from the same category. It is also rather light at 2.45 kilos.
This noble and stylish appearance with the apple emblem, highlighted white at work, is up to the notebook’s purpose. The MacBook is positioned as a high-performance solution for professionals, especially those who work much with multimedia content. This targeting at the elite audience is reflected in the price: the base MacBook Pro package costs around $2000, while the particular model that we have tested this time is priced at $2500.
The high price comes as the result of exquisite design and high-quality materials as well as of modern technologies. I don’t even mean the Santa Rosa platform. The MacBook Pro features a number of advantages that show up in small details.
Let’s take the display as the example. The modification I’m dealing with is equipped with a 15.4” LCD display with a native resolution of 1440x900 pixels (an aspect ratio of 16:10). One of the first manufacturers of notebooks to do so, Apple employs a LED-based backlight of the matrix. As a result, the notebook’s display is among the best in the industry. It delivers natural colors and features low power consumption for a longer battery life. Apple offers versions of the display with a matte or glossy flare-free coating so you can choose the one to your taste.
Above the screen there is an iSight web-camera, an indispensable tool for businessmen. It has a rather low resolution, 640x480, though. The camera is accompanied with a microphone.
The keyboard doesn’t occupy much space. There is not only a microphone port and a Power button, but also speakers on both sides of it, but the keys are rather large. It is because there are only 79 keys here. Some control buttons you can find on ordinary keyboards are missing and their functions are assigned to key combinations involving the Fn button.
The keyboard is made from fiberglass plastic painted silver. A special feature of this keyboard is its internal highlight that is turned on automatically when there is not enough ambient light. I have no complaints about the ergonomic or mechanic properties of this keyboard.
Below the keyboard is a huge touchpad. Its area corresponds to the area of the 1400x900 screen, though. What is indeed surprising, the touchpad has only one, rather than two, buttons. Apple is traditional in this respect: desktop Mac computers come with single-button mice. But while it’s easy to replace the mouse with a two-button one, you cannot do the same with the touchpad!
The notebook lacks any additional buttons to control its operation modes except for the Power button located to the right of the keyboard. Another sign of the minimalistic concept is the lack of any indicators. There is no HDD activity indicator even. The only dull white indicator lights up in the display lock when the notebook enters the power-saving sleep mode.
The notebook’s few connectors are placed on its right and left panels: two USB 2.0 ports, two FireWire ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, a dual-link DVI output for an external monitor, microphone and headphones sockets combined with optical SPDIF output, and an ExpressCard/34 slot. It’s nice to have a digital DVI interface (the engineers had no choice actually because all modern monitors from Apple come with a DVI interface only). What I don’t like is that the notebook has only two USB ports, doesn’t have a card-reader but offers a rather unpopular ExpressCard/34 slot. Of course, more ports might have affected the notebook’s stern exterior but I don’t think that a good exterior design should be achieved at the expense of functionality.
On the wireless side, the MacBook Pro offers Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n). The Wi-Fi interface is based on an Atheros AR5008X chip rather than on Intel’s controller incorporated into the Santa Rosa platform.
The optical drive is located at the front. It is an 8x slot-loaded DVD-burner. The eject button can be found in the top right corner of the main keyboard.
Also on the front panel there is an infrared sensor for the remote control included with the notebook.
The notebook’s audio subsystem is based on a HD codec from Realtek. There are rather large speakers on both sides of the keyboard that deliver a good sound across all the frequency range (except for the bass, of course). External speakers you can connect via the analog interface won’t sound good, unfortunately, because the interface itself is rather noisy. You should use the digital interface only if you want to have a really good sound.
The cooling system is interesting, too. The vent holes are hidden well: the bottom panel is absolutely blank.
You can find the vent holes below the display, in the hinge. It is virtually impossible to block the intake of air for the cooling system but I should note that the aluminum case of the notebook gets very hot at work. The components are not cool, either. The CPU and GPU can be as hot as 80-90°C under load. As for the noise factor, the notebook is absolutely silent most of the time, its fan turned off. The fan is enabled on rare occasions, and it is quite audible then.
On the hardware side, the MacBook Pro features a modern and high-performance set of components. Like every other implementation of the Santa Rosa platform, it is based on the Intel PM965 chipset. Our sample with a 15” screen is equipped with a Core 2 Duo T7700 processor (a clock rate of 2.4GHz, an 800MHz FSB, and a 4MB L2 cache).
The MacBook Pro offers a generous 2GB of system memory (it is dual-channel DDR2-667 SDRAM) and supports up to 4GB, so you can replace the default 1GB DDR2 SO-DIMMs with 2GB ones.
The graphics subsystem of the MacBook Pro consists of a PCI Express x16 solution based on the GeForce 8600M GT chip with 256 megabytes of dedicated GDDR3 memory. This chip incorporates 32 streamed processors and has a clock rate of 500MHz (the shader domain is clocked at 1000MHz). The graphics memory is clocked at 1200MHz. With such characteristics the notebook feels at ease even in modern 3D games.
Besides everything else, the GeForce 8600M GT supports hardware decoding of H.264 video for viewing movies in HD formats easily and economically.
Note that despite its pricing and positioning the MacBook Pro is based on the Centrino rather than Centrino Pro platform. The notebook doesn’t have a Trusted Platform Module and does not support the remote administration technology Intel AMT. It’s all right because Mac OS X doesn’t support these technologies. That’s also the reason why the notebook doesn’t have an Intel Turbo Memory module.
The notebook’s battery has a capacity of 60W/h that ensures a long battery life. The MacBook Pro lasted for three hours under Windows Vista in my tests but Apple claims it can last as long as 5 hours and more under Mac OS X.
And finally I’d want to show you the power adapter included with the MacBook Pro. It is interesting for its white color as well as original design.
Note the peculiar design of the connector that is plugged into the notebook. It uses a safe magnetic fastening mechanism that cannot damage the connector if you accidentally pull at the power cord.
By the way, if your MacBook Pro falls from a desk accidentally, it should survive just fine. The notebook’s case is robust, and the hard disk is equipped with an acceleration sensor that parks the heads in case of danger.
It is clear that the MacBook Pro is no different from any other notebook based on the Santa Rosa platform in its hardware. So you may suppose that Windows Vista is going to run on it without serious problems. Alas, this is not exactly so in practice.
The first problem is the installation. Yes, it is simple to install Windows Vista on the second partition organized by means of the Boot Camp tool. This process goes smoothly indeed thanks to Apple’s programmers, but my goal was different: I wanted to get rid of Mac OS X altogether and replace it with Windows Vista.
You cannot just start up Windows’ installer from the boot disc because the installer refuses to select the partition formatted for Mac OS X as a location to install Windows into.
You can solve the problem by pre-formatting the HDD with the DOS tools or with the Windows XP installer that turns to be able to cope with Apple’s OS and its HFS+ file system easily. Fortunately, even though the MacBook Pro lacks a traditional BIOS and uses Extensible Firmware Interface instead it, you can select the boot device by holding down the alt/option key during start-up. This allows booting from CD/DVD discs with alternative operating systems.
Well, I solved the installation problem in a simple and barbaric way. I just replaced the HDD in the MacBook Pro for the time of my tests. But I wouldn’t recommend this method to inexperienced users. This operation requires some skill and also makes your warranty void. As opposed to many notebook makers, Apple only provides easy access to the memory slots. The other components are all hidden deep in the notebook’s case.
The second problem you have to face right after you install Windows Vista on your MacBook Pro is the lack of necessary drivers. People who install Vista using Boot Camp avoid this problem because everything necessary for the installation is already integrated into the Boot Camp tool. But as I was installing the OS from scratch, I found out that Vista couldn’t identify the iSight web-camera, the integrated Bluetooth 2.0 adapter, and the network controllers. It also couldn’t utilize all the features provided by the keyboard, touchpad and remote control. Some of the required drivers can be downloaded from the website of the manufacturers of the chips, but it doesn’t solve all the problems.
There is one way, though. The Boot Comp disc included with the MacBook Pro contains all the software you need, and this disc can be accessed after you install your Vista.
The disc contains drivers for 32-bit versions of Windows Vista, so you won’t be able to install its 64-bit versions on the MacBook Pro even though the notebook’s processor supports EM64T technology.
Besides the drivers, the Boot Comp disc contains the namesake program that runs under Windows and allows controlling some of the notebook’s features. Particularly, it allows to change the brightness of the display, enable/disable the remote control, and define the operation mode of the functional keys.
Now that the OS and drivers are installed, there is a minimum of compatibility issues between Windows Vista and the MacBook Pro. In fact, you can only have some inconveniences that come from the notebook’s overall orientation at Mac OS X.
For example, the MacBook Pro has only one touchpad button while it is problematic to work in Windows without a right mouse button especially as Microsoft’s OS doesn’t offer any way to solve this problem. That’s why you need an external mouse to work in Windows on a MacBook Pro. There is a less handy option: the Apple Mouse program can emulate “right button clicks” if you press the touchpad’s only button together with the Control button on the keyboard.
The keyboard may also seem inconvenient to a Wintel user with its unusual layout and lack of certain buttons. For example, Apple recommends using Backspace instead of Delete (and the Delete button on the MacBook Pro actually performs the function of the Backspace key of ordinary PC keyboards). But after you install the keyboard driver, the Ctrl-Alt-Backspace combination works as Ctrl+Alt+Del on the MacBook Pro, so the keyboard shouldn’t be a great trouble for a Windows user after all.
Some problems concern the power-saving technologies. Windows Vista proved to be unable to change the brightness of the display’s backlight. This parameter can only be changed manually through the Boot Camp Control Panel, and this has a negative effect on the notebook’s battery life.
I’ve actually named all the troubles you may have, but overall, Windows Vista runs perfectly on the MacBook Pro. It doesn’t provoke serious problems if you prefer this OS to the preinstalled Mac OS X. In other words, Apple’s hardware and Microsoft’s software are absolutely compatible.
MacBook Pro with a 15-inch display and Core 2 Duo T7700 processor sells for almost $2500. You think it is an expensive notebook, don’t you? No way, you haven’t yet seen expensive. However, if you throw in another few hundred dollars you will be able to buy an ASUS Lamborghini VX2S with similar specifications. This is the notebook we selected as the main competitor to our today’s Apple hero. However, let’s first find out what makes this ASUS solution so expensive.
It is absolutely clear that the features of ASUS Lamborghini VX2S are not the only thing determining its price. High-performance notebooks with 15-inch matrix with pretty similar capacities, even the same MacBook, for instance, are sold at a much lower price today. So, it should be designer work and the manufacturer’s desire to position its solution in the elite market segment. However, the price of ASUS Lamborghini VX2S still seems to be too high compared with what MacBook Pro is priced at. We believe that ASUS and Lamborghini trade marks may be just a little cooler than Apple especially for those users who are not very sophisticated in the computer environment.
ASUS’ marketing people emphasize two strong points of the Lamborghini VX2S, namely highest performance and exquisite style. You’ll see how fast this notebook is shortly but now let’s try to appreciate the exterior design developed under the guidance of the designers of the leading Italian car firm. The Lamborghini VX2S comes in two versions, with a yellow or black lid. I’ve got the black modification. Its lid is made from 5-layer coal plastic that is resistant to bending as well as scratches. The glossy cellular texture of the lid shimmers under light.
Unusual materials are employed inside the notebook as well. Its keyboard is surrounded with black leather pieces seamed with a yellow thread. The Lamborghini VX2S is meant to resemble the interior of the real Lamborghini I suppose.
You can find a few hints at the car roots of the notebook on its bottom panel, too. The fan grid looks like a wheel.
Well, it is a very subjective thing to evaluate all these design solutions. As for objective factors, the comparison in not in favor of the Lamborghini VX2S: it is bigger, thicker and heavier than the MacBook Pro that has the same configuration and the same size of the screen. The trimming of the Lamborghini VX2S with its mix of expensive and exciting materials with ordinary plastic of various colors and textures betrays an Asiatic, not European, origin of this mobile computer. I don’t think that people who own a Lamborghini Murciélago would want to buy the Lamborghini VX2S too.
The notebook’s 15.4” display has an unusually high native resolution of 1680x1050 pixels. That’s not always good because the screen is small physically, and objects may look too small on it at such a high resolution. The matrix has a glassy coating that ensures lush and vivid colors but produces flares.
There is a 1.3-megapixel camera above the screen. It can be turned around vertically and even oriented back towards the notebook’s lid.
The notebook’s keyboard is framed into a metallic bezel. It is made from light-reflecting plastic and doesn’t need additional highlighting. The keys are good in terms of size and mechanical properties. The keyboard layout is handy, too. There is a block of additional buttons above the main keyboard. They serve to disable the wireless controllers and touchpad, to control the power management modes, and to launch multimedia applications. There is a Power button nearby.
The touchpad is not so good, unfortunately. Its buttons are too stiff and creak unpleasantly. The engineers also built a fingerprint scanner right into it, reducing the useful area of the buttons greatly.
Generally speaking, the Lamborghini VX2S seems to have a lot of various features that do not merge organically into a single picture. For example, it is equipped with a Trusted Platform Module and supports the remote administration technology Intel AMT, so it can be viewed as a Centrino Pro solution. However, it is just impossible to imagine the Lamborghini VX2S as a work tool of a businessman, and the mentioned technologies look superfluous.
One more drawback, all the indicators of this automobile notebook are based on super-bright white LEDs which just blind the user.
The slots and connectors are placed on the left and right panels. There are a lot of them here especially in comparison with the MacBook Pro: a Gigabit Ethernet port, three USB 2.0 ports, FireWire port, eSATA port combined with USB, one ExpressCard slot, one D-Sub port for an external monitor, an S-Video output, a HDMI port (you can connect an external monitor to it by means of a HDMI-DVI adapter), a microphone input, a headphones output combined with SPDIF, and a modem port. The left panel offers an optical drive that can read and burn CDs and DVDs and also read HD DVDs. An 8-format card-reader can be found on the right panel.
The notebook supports wireless interfaces: infrared, Bluetooth 2.0, and Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n).
As for the audio subsystem, it sounds loud but not deep. Well, you couldn’t expect anything better from the small speakers placed on the sides of the keyboard. The integrated microphone is located above the screen, near the web-camera.
The cooling system takes cool air in through the two holes in the notebook’s bottom and exhausts the hot air rightwards, which may be somewhat annoying for users who connect an external mouse. The noise level is average.
On the hardware side, the Lamborghini VX2S is a typical solution based on the last-generation Santa Rosa platform. The notebook uses a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo T7700 processor, an Intel PM965 chipset, and a 1GB Intel Turbo Memory module.
The notebook has 2 gigabytes of DDR2-667 SDRAM.
The graphics subsystem consists of a PCI Express x16 solution based on the DirectX 10 compliant GeForce 8600M GT processor from Nvidia with 512 megabytes of dedicated DDR2 memory. The graphics core is clocked at 500MHz, the graphics memory is clocked at 800MHz. This graphics solution makes the notebook strong in modern 3D games as well as at reproducing HD video.
The Lamborghini VX2S comes with a 77W/h battery.
There are quite a lot of accessories you can find in the notebook’s box, particularly a stylish bag with a Lamborghini logo, a Bluetooth mouse with a leather pad, and an additional docking station that transforms the notebook into a full-featured alternative to a desktop PC.
All the tests were run in Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate x86.
Now we’ve got to the point of this review. I’m about to benchmark the performance of the Apple MacBook Pro in Windows Vista. To remind you once again, this notebook has almost the same hardware configuration as the Lamborghini VX2S. The only differences that can affect performance are the availability of an Intel Turbo Memory module in the ASUS notebook, the different amount and type of graphics memory, and different hard disks installed in the notebooks.
First of all I will run SYSmark 2007 that benchmarks system performance in various real-life applications. Besides the overall score, this test issues four scores for different load types.
As you can see, the Lamborghini VX2S is somewhat faster in ordinary applications than the Apple MacBook Pro, yet the difference is small, less than 4%.
This advantage is ensured by the HDD with a higher spindle rotation speed installed in the ASUS notebook. As for the Intel Turbo Memory technology available in the Lamborghini and missing in the MacBook, our earlier tests showed that it has no effect on performance.
Next I’ll perform a few tests in individual applications.
The MacBook Pro delivers good performance in Windows Vista. It is but slightly inferior to the ASUS Lamborghini VX2S according to my tests.
The two notebooks have rather advanced discrete graphics cores and can be used as gaming platforms. That’s why I’ll test them in 3D applications, too.
It’s the opposite to the previous tests: the MacBook Pro delivers higher 3D performance because its GeForce 8600M GT uses GDDR3 memory clocked at a higher frequency than the opponent’s DDR2. The gap between the notebooks is quite large, amounting to 35% in 3DMark06. The Lamborghini strikes back in Crysis that needs large amounts of memory (the ASUS has 512MB of graphics memory as opposed to the MacBook’s 256MB).
The battery life time is no less important for a notebook than its performance. I will measure it using MobileMark 2007. This test is performed at the maximum brightness of the screen and when the notebook cannot switch into Standby or Hibernate mode.
MobileMark 2007 can measure the notebook’s battery life under three types of load. The first load scenario emulates the user working in typical office applications. The second scenario is about video playback. To be specific, it measures the battery life when the notebook is playing a DVD movie in the InterVideo WinDVD player. The third scenario emulates a user reading text from the notebook’s screen (in Adobe Reader).
The battery life time is yet another strong point of the Apple notebook. It is as long as 3 hours in some operation scenarios. The ASUS Lamborghini VX2S, with a very similar configuration, can work only for slightly more than 2 hours when powered by its battery. This seems even more fantastic if you recall that the Lamborghini VX2S comes with a larger-capacity battery than the MacBook Pro, but the latter wins the test anyway. It is the LCD panel that is the main power consumer in modern notebooks, so Apple’s victory in this test is largely due to the LED-based backlight of the LCD panel.
Apple’s transition to Intel’s processors is a major event in the computer world. Having been an isolated realm for years, the Mac world is now open for new users. My practical check has shown that modern computers from Apple are perfectly compatible not only with Mac OS X but also with Microsoft Windows, which is the familiar OS for many of us. The MacBook Pro worked normally under Windows Vista, and I guess other Apple computers with Intel processors will behave in the same way.
The MacBook Pro is just as fast in Windows Vista as classic Wintel notebooks, making allowances for the nuances of configuration. Thus, it was somewhat slower than the ASUS Lamborghini VX2S, which is based on the same platform and CPU, due to the slower HDD, but beat it in 3D games thanks to the faster graphics memory. So I am quite sure that if the MacBook Pro were compared with a Wintel notebook of the same configuration exactly, their performance would be identical.
The MacBook Pro surprised me with its battery life. It can last much longer on its battery than the ASUS notebook although has a smaller capacity of the battery.
Besides the excellent technical properties it showed in my tests, the MacBook Pro features superb ergonomic qualities and an excellent design. Having a fashionable high-tech exterior it is also light and small. All of this makes it a very appealing choice even for Windows users who don’t want to have anything to do with Mac OS X. Specially for them, the MacBook Pro allows to replace the native OS with Windows Vista. Of course, there are a few problems if you have to face if you want to make such a replacement, but every problem is solvable.
As for the price factor, the MacBook Pro is expensive just because an Apple computer can’t be cheap. But if you compare it with the ASUS Lamborghini VX2S, the price seems justifiable. The MacBook Pro is better in almost every objective and subjective parameter, including design and the status of the brand.