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Originally published May 19, 2010 at 7:34 PM | Page modified May 21, 2010 at 6:49 PM

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MacBook Pro makes another jump into the future

Learning the new MacBook Pro's secret as to which processor is powering which program adds to an already improved battery life for this workhorse laptop.

Special to The Seattle Times

I recently bought Apple's new 15-inch MacBook Pro to replace my workhorse of the same name from 2006. Four years has been my typical life cycle for laptops, which is not only somewhat forgiving on my wallet, but also gives me a new machine with significantly better specifications than the one it replaces. And this newest MacBook Pro is impressive on all fronts.

But I'm compelled to share a tech secret: For most of what I do on a computer, better processors and enhanced graphics cards don't necessarily feel as fast as they are. A lot of a computer's time is spent waiting for the operator to do something. But in my experience, when I do take action — especially things that require horsepower — the speed can feel startling.

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro shares the same unibody aluminum design as its previous model, which really does give the machine a solidity I've never known in a laptop. It has the same array of ports: two USB 2.0, one FireWire 800, gigabit Ethernet, audio in and out ports, an integrated SD memory card slot, Apple's Mini DisplayPort video output, and built-in 802.11n wireless networking.

I bought the top-end 15-inch model, priced at $2,199, which includes a 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 4 GB of memory (expandable up to 8 GB), and a 500 GB hard disk. I paid $150 extra to get the high-resolution (1680 by 1050 pixels) screen with a matte, not standard glossy, finish. (I should note that in years past, this tier of the laptop scale cost anywhere between $2,500 and $3,000.)

Improved graphics switching: Some of the improved performance of this MacBook Pro comes from the Core i7 processor, which runs two real cores and two virtual cores. An automatic Turbo Boost feature can kick the performance up to 3.33 GHz in one or both cores for processor-intensive tasks.

But a lot of the credit goes to the graphics processors, a combination of Intel HD graphics and an Nvidia GeForce GT330M discrete graphics processor. Switching between the two is now automatic, which is so much better than the cumbersome requirement to log out of an account and then back in to make the switch. The Nvidia processor provides the big calculating iron, while the Intel HD is better for extending battery life.

The handoff happens invisibly, triggered by processor-intensive routines called by programs, like launching Aperture or iMovie. However, applications that you wouldn't expect to require a lot of graphical oomph, like the Twitter client Tweetie, kicked the Nvidia chip into gear.

There's a preference to disable the automatic graphics switching, but doing so makes the MacBook Pro ignore the Intel HD entirely and use the Nvidia, thereby burning up battery life quicker.

I found a great utility called gfxCardStatus (codykrieger.com/gfxCardStatus/) to view which graphics are being used; clicking the program's menu bar icon, which displays the card in use, reveals which applications are forcing the Nvidia graphics to be used. When I'm working on the couch or at a coffee shop, I can prolong battery life by quitting those dependent programs.

Better battery: Apple claims the MacBook Pro can get eight to nine hours of use per charge, which sounds amazing compared with earlier and other full-sized laptops. In a briefing with the company, I asked if that number was based on ideal circumstances. Apple's representatives shared that the numbers were based on real-world performance tests. The "maximum" test, which keeps a DVD spinning constantly, decoding its video content, and with the screen brightness set to its upper limit, yielded a battery-life average of four to five hours.

I haven't done rigorous battery testing, but in my real-world use, which is pretty demanding, the battery life blew away my older MacBook Pro and allowed me to not obsessively check the battery indicator over several hours of use.

Inertial scrolling: One of the neat new features is inertial scrolling: drag the trackpad with two fingers to scroll, and when you lift your hand the item you're scrolling continues to move until it glides to a stop. It's a feature I actually forgot about, first because I usually work with the MacBook Pro connected to an external display and extended keyboard, and second because the motion is such a natural extension of what I've become accustomed to with the iPhone and iPad. It just makes comfortable sense. To be honest, I had already planned to buy a new MacBook Pro if Apple updated the line this year. It's the computer I use to get everything done. But I'm pleased that I have once again made what feels like a jump into the future. That would make me stop and ponder what this machine's replacement will offer in 2014 — if I wasn't already focused on what I need to do right now.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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