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Mac Planet: New MacBook Pro, anyone?

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Photo / Sean Craig
Photo / Sean Craig

Macs were once actually made in California, although I think the first one I ever bought, in 1989, was assembled in Ireland, where Apple used to have a factory. The next one was, I think, assembled in Malaysia.

Now, of course, Apple computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods are assembled in China. 'Assembled' being the operative word. Josh Fruhlinger on Macworld decided to try to track down the origins of the major components in his mid-2010 13-inch MacBook Pro.

It's quite a fascinating story - and at least a few parts are made in the USA. For example, his two-year-old laptop has a Core 2 Duo CPU, from Intel's Penryn family, so was probably manufactured at Intel's facility in Chandler, Arizona. Intel has other factories in the American Southwest, in California - and in Ireland and Israel.

Fruhlinger's article goes through the other components, including the case (Apple may have had to inspire the tech to make the one-piece aluminium case, but they're manufactured by a number of companies).

Since Intel just launched the 22nm Ivy Bridge processors, with more power for lower energy consumption, Apple is in the queue for those and the MacBook Pro is due for renewal, although it's nowhere near the 'begging an upgrade' level of the Mac Pro, Apple's tower of, formerly anyway, power. That thing's positively creaking, and some even predict its demise.

There have been rumours of new Macs for months, not the Pro, strangely (hence rumours of its forthcoming demise) but lots for the MacBook Pro and many for new iMacs. But there always are. However, Apple's annual World Wide Developers' Conference is coming up. Apple is always expected to release something important at WWDC.

The rumours all pretty much agree we'll get a MacBook Pro with a screen 15 inches (38cm) diagonally but with an entirely new, slimmer case due to the dropping of the optical drive.

Some think it will have USB 3.0, although Apple's reaction to it has been decidedly lukewarm while it champions Thunderbolt. Apple jumped the gun when it introduced USB on all Macs, well before almost all other PC vendors, on the original iMac, but nowadays Thunderbolt devices are still thin on the ground even a year later, so I guess USB3 is a possibility.

Some expect, or at least hope for, a Retina Display, but I honestly can't see the point and it would add to the cost: I'd rather a new MacBook Pro was slimmer and had a so-called Solid State Drive instead of a display with a resolution I don't see the point (hah hah) of.

As for the rumours: no, I don't have any insider information. If only! And Apple, of course, never lets out details before a release.

SSD is, roughly speaking, like the flash memory of iPhones, iPads etc but SSDs are big enough for significant storage. SSD is a chip, with no a spinning platter. So it's slimmer, more robust (no moving parts) and requires less power and much less cooling. This, and the lack of an optical (CD/DVD) drive make for a much slimmer Mac, as evidenced in the MacBook Air.

And that's where the real excitement comes in: SSD is really fast compared to even the fastest of traditional hard drives. Meanwhile, speed increases from Intel's chip revisions and more RAM are increasingly minimal but this becomes less relevant with SSD: benchmark an Air and you'll be shocked at its overall response times despite its anaemic CPU.

A sure way to speed up your Mac is to swap a drive for an SSD, with companies like Other World Computing offering kits for just this.

It's not cheap, but upgrading a Mac never was. Once upon a time we used to be able to buy Sonnet upgrades for faster CPUs and these were also dear, but this was in the days of Motorola/IBM components. That said, SSDs aren't just expensive for Apple users - they're just expensive.

A friend of mine recently did just that. Sean Craig is a self-employed pro photographer who works mostly in New Zealand but also travels. He has just installed a SanDisk SDSSDX240GG25, meaning he had to strip his internal drive down to essentials from his 500GB internal to fit onto the new 240GB SSD.

"While on a photo shoot the client showed me his MacBook Pro; he had replaced the optical drive with a second hard drive, then set it up as RAID 0. I was very impressed with the speed."

Sean wanted speed for video editing while remaining as portable as possible. "Speed led me in the direction of SSD, but with the constant read-write of video editing I was informed that SSD wasn't the best choice, long term. And of course there was the limiting size factor." SSDs are small, compared to HDs.

His solution was to replace his current hard drive with SSD and remove the optical drive to fit a larger standard hard drive to save the files to.

Sean reckons he spent about NZ$600 all up, installed it himself and has a tip. "The instruction videos OWC have are awesome - much better than the description that comes with the kit.

Sean now has all his programs on the SSD and keeps the large video or photo files on the new 750GB drive. "I don't have to carry around an external hard drive when traveling. As a side note, Apple's Time Machine automatically backs up both drives."

I asked Sean to run Xbench over his MacBook Pro after installing the SSD, as our MacBooks are very similar models. His runs Mac OS X 10.7.3, mine 10.7.4; they are both 15-inch Early 2010 MacBook Pros with Intel Core i7-620M @ 2.66GHz.

An Xbench test shows the performance gains pretty clearly. When I bought my MacBook, I specified a faster 7200rpm internal hard drive over the stock 5400rpm drive. My overall Xbench score for the drive part of the test is 39.36 - Sean's is now a rather staggering 399.82 (higher is faster).

On Sean's MacBook Pro, Final Cut Pro X loads now in under three seconds. On my own very well-specced pre-Thunderbolt 15-inch MacBook Pro of the same era, it loads in 10.2s.

Sean's MacBook Pro doesn't actually compute faster; it opens files and applications faster. But since Mac OS is also running at these new disc access speeds, Sean's overall Xbench score is now 229 compared to my 137.88! Jealous ...

So, will we have a new MacBook with SSD? A new MacBook soon, yes, but whether it has a more expensive, but much faster SSD as a standard internal drive is the real question - for me anyway. It may just be an option, as it is already with many current Macs, since high-capacity, traditional hard drives are so cheap these days and SSD prices are still high.

Actually, someone using pre-release Apple hardware has managed to upload details of the new machine to Geekbench's database, but Geekbench's results don't really measure drive and file-access speeds.

On that, the mysterious MacBook packs a quad-core Core i7-3820QM clocked at 2.7GHz coupled with 8GB RAM. But there are also figures for an unknown iMac.

The overall figures are, respectively, 12,252 and 12,183 - most Macs in these two ranges now are Quad-core and mine and Sean's are dual-core - my own overall Geekbench figure is 5733. The new chips are faster, and more cores means more processing in the same clock cycle.

One way or another, we should end up with faster, slimmer MacBooks soon. And if only they have SSD too!

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