Apple intros new MacBook Pros; models get LED screens

The laptops feature Intel's 'Santa Rosa' chip set, Nvidia graphics

Apple freshened its top-end MacBook Pro laptop line Tuesday with Intel's latest processors and chip set, a.k.a. Santa Rosa, boosted memory to 2GB across the board and launched its first notebooks with LED-backlit screens.

The release beat analyst expectations by about a week.

All three new MacBook Pro models -- two with 15-in. displays, one with a 17-in. screen -- run the Santa Rosa platform's Intel Core 2 Duo processors at 2.2GHz or 2.4GHz, with 4GB of shared L2 cache and an 800-MHz frontside bus. Also part of the package: 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless. Another side benefit to the new processors is that they allow Mac OS X to access all 4GB of RAM if that much has been installed in the new MacBook Pro; earlier models' only showed 3GB+ to the operating system and applications when 4GB.

Apple's 15-in. MacBook Pros are its first to sport LED-backlit displays, technology that eliminates the trace mercury found in traditional fluorescent backlighting and also reduces power consumption. In a letter touting the company's environmental and recycling record last month, CEO Steve Jobs said Macs with LED-backlit LCDs would appear this year.

By default, the fluorescent-backlit 17-in. MacBook Pro offers a resolution of 1680-by-1050 pixels, but a new US$100 optional 1920-by-1200 display is also available. Customers using MacBook Pros for professional photo and video editing wanted the higher resolution, said David Moody, an Apple vice president of marketing.

Now absent from the MacBook Pro are ATI graphics subsystems; they've been yanked in favor of Nvidia chip sets. That leaves only an overdue update to the iMac line with ATI video as standard. The change to Nvidia wasn't unexpected; almost immediately on Advanced Micro Devices's announcement that it would buy ATI Technologies, speculation surfaced that Apple, already an Intel-based reseller, would drop ATI because of the AMD connection.

Moody would not comment on why Apple switched to Nvidia, or even commit to saying that Nvidia's graphics are higher quality than what the ATI chips delivered in older MacBook Pros. "Nvidia is a great choice, and delivers the quality graphics our customers expect," he said. He also declined to confirm whether the iMac would soon shift to Nvidia as well.

Apple touted the new models' performance, claiming that the latest systems run high-end applications such as Final Cut Pro 6 50 percent faster, and PhotoShop 39 percent faster, than the Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros unveiled last October. And the combination of the LED backlighting and lower power consumption of the Santa Rosa chipset, said Moody, should result in an extra 30 to 60 minutes of battery time.

Mac users double-dipping into Microsoft's Windows operating system by using Apple's Boot Camp can expect an update to the dual-boot utility soon that adds Windows drivers for the MacBook Pro's new Nvidia graphics. Moody would not, however, divulge a specific release date for a Boot Camp beta upgrade.

"With Intel Core 2 Duo performance, more memory and state-of-the-art graphics, this MacBook Pro is a portable powerhouse for creative and professional users," Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of global product marketing, said in a statement.

Prices remain unchanged. The 15-in. 2.2-GHz MacBook Pro, with a 120GB drive running at 5,400 rpm, costs US$1,999, while the 15-in. 2.4-GHz machine, now with 160GB of storage -- up from 120GB -- is priced at US$2,499. The top-end 17-in. system, which runs a 2.4-GHz Duo 2 Core CPU and includes a 160GB drive, lists at US$2,799. All are available immediately on Apple's online store, and at its retail outlets and resellers. Both of the stock 160GB drives spin at 5,400 rpm. Apple also now offers 200GB and 250GB hard drives that run at 4,200 rpm as build-to-order options.

The MacBook Pro refresh came three weeks after a similar update to the lower-priced MacBook lineup, and about a week earlier than at least one financial analyst had predicted. Last month, Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst Gene Munster divined their debut at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, which begins Monday.

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