Pushing those pixels are two Nvidia graphics processors. This is the same setup that debuted in October with the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The Nvidia 9400M is an integrated chip that uses up to 256MB of video RAM; this is the option to choose to save juice when on battery life. It's the same chip that powers the 13.3-inch screens in the MacBook Air and both MacBook models. The fact that it's powering more pixels on a larger screen doesn't seem to make any difference in this case. I detected no problems viewing videos, for instance.
This MacBook Pro also has a discrete Nvidia 9600M GT chip that offers a luscious 512MB of video RAM. I'm not a gamer, but if I were, this would make me a happy camper. If you're into games, or find yourself doing things like 3D modeling, character animation or anything that's going to tax the video subsystem, this is a welcome inclusion. (I expect to have a brief follow-up report later this month that focuses on gaming.)
The 9600M GT does use more power, so battery life will be reduced by about an hour, according to Apple. (You toggle between the two graphics chips using the Energy Saver system preference: Better Battery Life uses the integrated processor; Better Performance uses the 9600M GT. You have to log out and log back in when making the change.)
Given all this video firepower, it's unfortunate that the optical drive doesn't play Blu-ray DVDs -- nor is there an option to add a Blu-ray drive, even if you wanted one. I have to assume that Apple wants you to get your hi-def movies and TV shows through its own AppleTV or through iTunes. But I can say that 30 Rock in hi-def -- I bought the current season through iTunes -- looks phenomenal in full-screen mode. It's very film-like, with rich colors and no digital artifacts. In fact, it looks as good as hi-def video does on my 46-inch Sony Bravia LCD TV.
A built-in battery that really lasts
Perhaps the most controversial change to the 17-inch MacBook Pro is the new built-in battery. That's right: You won't be swapping batteries anymore if you're working on lengthy cross-country flights. Of course, if Apple's estimates are correct, you won't have to. That's because the 95-watt/hour lithium-ion polymer battery lasts up to eight hours -- seven, if you're using the more powerful Nvidia 9600M GT graphics chip.
Apple arrives at its estimates by turning the screen brightness down to half and leaving Wi-Fi on. With those parameters in place, I managed just under 6.5 hours on battery while surfing, doing text editing, playing iTunes at times and transferring a few files -- the longest I've ever gotten from one charge.
Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, depending on how you're using the laptop -- especially if you're hitting the processor hard. DVD playback at full brightness and in full-screen mode takes a toll, too. Apple says to expect about four hours and 15 minutes when watching movies. That's about twice what earlier models got.