$800 for 3 Letters
Is the “Pro” in MacBook Pro Really Worth the Price?

John Nemo kicks off the conversation:
Apple is promoting its MacBook for consumers, which makes sense due to the modest size and price relative to its set of features. A basic MacBook sells for $700 less in U.S. dollars than the least expensive MacBook Pro, or $800 less when you factor in an AppleCare three-year warranty (which MyMac.com strongly recommends).

For buyers over the age of 40, that extra expense can be a bargain. As we age our eyes and brains prefer a larger screen area. Keys that illuminate in low or dark ambient room lighting are a bonus. Typing keys are engineered to a higher standard, with more tactile response. Trackpad and mouse are larger, and palm rest areas are more spacious. Audio playback is better, with larger on-board speakers. A second FireWire port, with faster FW800, is very useful. Weight and size are only marginally larger on a 15″ MacBook Pro than on a 13″ MacBook.

Mobile professionals and road warriors consider MacBook Pro to be a no-brainer decision, but what about consumers and students? And, flip side, when is a MacBook just right for business computing?

Eight hundred dollars is a lot of money. You can almost buy a second Mac for that quantity of dough. Is MacBook Pro a premium (meaning overpriced) product for a premium price, or an essential computing tool that is worth every penny?

For me, MacBook Pro is a better deal. I use the FW800 port and illuminated keys every day (and night). Extra screen size is a huge asset. Typing keys and palm areas feel just right for my hands. Processor speed and video muscle are bonuses that come in handy when teaching or using Adobe Photoshop or Elements. DVD burner and extra RAM are essential enhancements.

I need to work nearly an entire week to earn $800, friends, and for me it’s worth it. How about you, David?

David Cohen disagrees, after much personal deliberation:
I actually have owned both. I bought a 15″ MacBook Pro 1.83Ghz not long after they became available – my first ever Mac laptop. I upgraded the RAM to 2gb, and I was very happy with it.

However, in my job I travel a lot. I found that the 15″ form factor could occasionally seem a drag, and with the aluminum finish I was constantly worried about scratching it.

However, it is a lot of machine. Handled everything I threw at it with aplomb.

A couple of months after the MacBook launched, I happened across one being sold on eBay – it was new, boxed, listed at around £80 ($160) below retail and only had a couple of hours until auction finish. I set up a snipe on it and ended up winning it! I figured I could put some freeware software on it and turn it around for a quick profit.

The machine was the base MacBook – 1.83Ghz white with a combo drive. When I got hold of it I was really pleasantly surprised with the size – it seemed a lot more totable, and the plastic is a lot more hardwearing. In terms of performance, for the majority of tasks with 2Gb of RAM there is not much in it between the smaller machine and the Pro. Of course, the video performance for games or hardcore apps like Aperture really tells the story. I didn’t really notice the lower resolution screen, due to the sharpness, brightness and glossy coating.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the MacBook was 80-90% of the MacBook Pro for 50% of the money, so I sold the Pro and pocketed the difference. My early production MacBook suffered from overheating, but Apple replaced it under warranty for a new machine that, while not a revved Core 2, still runs much cooler than the original laptop.

Now, looking at what I gave up, let’s consider each spec difference in detail:

1) Video Performance – With 2Gb of RAM, I don’t notice what the onboard video steals from the system. Performance is fine for video playback and anything in OS X. Yes, it is not great for games, but even that is OK if you can live with the lower resolutions.

2) System performance – Not really noticed a difference. You would expect that, as it is the same processor and broadly the same graphics board.

3) DVD Burner – I gave this up by going to a base MacBook from the Pro. I don’t miss it, as I have a superdrive on my home machine. If I want to work on DVD on the laptop, I make images for burning later.

4) Robustness – It seems a whole lot more solid than a Pro. But that could just be me. I like that I don’t worry about scratching the wrist area with my watch.

5) Size – While weight is not much different, the smaller machine is easier to move around. The power supply unit is smaller too, and that makes a surprising difference for me.

6) Screen – As I said, only really noticed the different resolution side-by-side. I use Virtue Desktops, so that mitigates any potential real estate shortage by letting me have multiple workspaces.

7) Lighted keyboard – Never really got on with that anyway.

8) Performance – Apart from the video, really very little in it that you can notice. Universal Binary coding improvements help here too with time. Aperture 1.5 runs quite well on the MacBook now, whereas the older versions weren’t so good. As regular podcast listeners know, I am a heavy Parallels user, and that works VERY well on the little guy.

9) Flexibility – You can self upgrade the hard drives in MacBooks, and I like that. I stuck a 100Gb drive in mine for far less than Apple’s pricing. Only upgrade downside is that MacBooks always have both RAM slots filled, so you have to toss the old RAM on upgrade. It doesn’t sell well on eBay, either. I have kept both my original RAM chips and hard drive in case I need to send the machine back to Apple in the future for warranty work.

For me, the cost differential between the Pro and the MacBook is not justified by the extras you get, especially now that they are both Core 2 Duo. The sales figures back this up – MacBook outsells the Pro models substantially. I would only recommend a Pro if you want a big true power machine (say as a desktop replacement).

Sweet spot on the Core 2 Duo line-up for MacBook is the middle machine now (2Ghz white), as a $200 price differential buys you a slightly faster processor, 512Mb more RAM, 20Gb more hard drive and a superdrive.

If you want to save some money, Apple has been issuing refurb Core Duo MacBooks at some terrific prices in the US refurb store, though it looks like they are all gone now. They have refurb Core 2 Duo MacBooks in at around 15% discount, or if you want big iron they have some 17″ Core Duo Pros at 15″ prices.

Everyone has different needs and requirements, as our differing viewpoints testify. But the long and the short of it is don’t discount one line over the other – consider the benefits of both!


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