MacBook Pros: How much better can they get?

October 30, 2013: 12:13 PM ET

Apple's high-end notebook line keeps last year's thinner, lighter industrial design, but sports several tweaks under the hood.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 10.08.10 PM

FORTUNE -- Another year brings another set of updated MacBook Pros.

Last year, Apple (AAPL) revamped its line-up when it introduced thinner, lighter versions of its premium notebook line with sharper Retina displays. The changes were welcome. Back then, I called the new 15-inch MacBook Pro "one of the best options around" for its extremely brisk performance and excellent screen — this, despite a wallet-busting $2,199 sticker price. As for the 13-incher?  Its own lighter form factor, something I thought lent itself better for travel, was hobbled by Intel's (INTC) chips. The lack of a discrete graphics card, found in the 15-inch version, meant even everyday websites like Facebook stuttered when I scrolled. The initial steep $1,699 starting price also was a head-scratcher. Overall, it was too expensive for many mainstream consumers to justify and too lethargic for most pro users to take seriously.

But this year, the sharper MacBook Pros are more up to the task, even if they appear almost identical. (In the case of the 13-inch, it's actually ever-so-slightly lighter and thinner than last year's model.) Which is to say, they resemble the traditional MacBook Pros of yore if they were subjected to several months of a calorie-blasting boot camp. At .71 inches, they're actually just slightly thicker overall than the MacBook Air, but lack the lighter notebook's tapering for a more svelte effect. As a result, they feel more robust in hand.

MORE: Apple's iPad Air: The reviews

The biggest changes to the MacBook Pros are sight unseen. For reviewing purposes, Apple loaned me the $1,499 configuration of the 13-inch with a 2.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM 1600MHz memory and 256GB flash storage and a $1,999 configuration of the 15-inch with 2.0GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 8 gigabytes RAM, and 256GB flash storage. (Both models now sell for $200 less than last year, starting at $1,299 and $1,999, respectively.)

One of the biggest improvements, Apple says, is battery life: 9 hours of use in-between charges on the 13-inch and 8 hours with the more powerful 15-inch. My typical everyday usage sometimes has tens of windows going at any given time — a half-hour Netflix video stream, Safari, Mail, Word, Spotify, and iPhoto to name a few — so I tested both laptops accordingly. With screen brightness around 75%, the 13-inch MacBook Pro lasted between 6.5 and 7.5 hours on average; the 15-inch lasted between 6 and 7 hours. Obviously, neither figures match Apple's own, but I consider my tests more strenuous, though far from hardcore. (Apple's battery life figures are based on two factors: screen display at 75% and solely Safari browsing of the web's most-trafficked sites.) Users who say, merely browse the web and answer email should experience even better battery life.

MORE: The best and worst Apple analysts, Q4 2013 edition

Intel's latest chips are more than enough muscle to power through everyday tasks. Indeed, website stuttering is no longer an issue for the 13-inch. And the 15-inch unit, which includes Intel's new integrated Iris Pro graphics solution but no discrete graphics card, slogged through Bioshock Infinite with aplomb so long as I didn't crank up the graphics settings to maximum. (The game was playable on the 13-incher, too, albeit not as smooth.)

As I've said in past reviews, it's worth thinking about what you need a notebook for. This year's MacBook Air remain lighter and more well-rounded, with seriously stellar battery life. (I'm getting 10 hours of juice at a time on the 11-inch version now that I've upgraded to OS X Mavericks.) And starting at $999, they're also cheaper. Of course, they don't have the data-crunching brawn of the MacBook Pros, nor the sharper display, and for some Mac users, those features make all the difference. Thankfully, however, it's easier now to advocate buying the new MacBook Pros: a solid price drop, improved battery life and noticeably better performance, particularly on the 13-inch model, ensure it's a "win" no matter what users buy.

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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