Hands-on: The new multitouch MacBook Pro

If you like the iPhone's touch screen, you'll like this laptop's trackpad

You're going to want to swipe this MacBook Pro. And pinch it. And twirl it, too.

Actually it's not so much the 15-inch MacBook Pro you're going to be swiping -- it's the new multitouch trackpad it features. The trackpad, which represents the biggest change from earlier MacBook Pro models, borrows some of the same hands-on -- maybe I should say fingers-on -- user interface touches that premiered in the iPhone. The change to a multitouch trackpad means you can use the trackpad to perform a number of functions that heretofore required key combos or trackpad taps and clicks.

Late last month, Apple unveiled an incremental update to its popular aluminum-clad MacBook Pro line and its entry-level MacBooks. Apple's professional-level laptops now sport 45-nanometer Penryn processors from Intel, the latest versions of the Core 2 Duo chips that have been in use since 2006.

Other improvements include a switch to an LED screen in the 17-inch model instead of the fluorescent LCDs used until now; 200GB or 250GB hard drives (depending on model); up to 512MB of video RAM; and the multitouch trackpad. (And no, according to Apple officials, the new trackpad functions won't be ported back to earlier models; they can't be, since the multitouch trackpad requires a combination of software and new hardware.)

Nice features -- but not cheap

If you're jonesing for multitouch, head out to the Apple store and plan on coughing up some money. The 15-inch model starts at US$1,999, which nets you the 2.4-GHz processor, a 200GB hard drive spinning at 5,400 rpm and an NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 256MB of video RAM. For US$500 more, Apple gives you a 2.5-GHz processor, a 250GB hard drive and 512MB of video RAM. If you want to upgrade to an optional 2.6-GHz chip, that is a built-to-order option that will cost you an extra US$250.

That same hardware, including the 2.5-GHz processor, underpins the basic US$2,799 17-inch model -- with the added benefit of the larger display. The 2.6-GHz processor is available for an additional US$200 -- US$50 less than it costs to order that same processor in the 15-inch model. (Bias alert: A 17-inch model with the high-resolution screen is my personal fav and the one I have at home.)

While both the 15-inch and 17-inch models can be upgraded to the faster 2.6-GHz processor, stop before you buy. Is 0.1 GHz of clock speed really worth US$200 or US$250? For most people, the difference in real-world, day-to-day use between the three Core 2 Duo processors is negligible -- I would save my money and invest in more RAM or opt for the speedier 7,200-rpm hard drive Apple offers. Either is almost certainly a better investment (though you'll want to get the RAM from a third-party reseller, not Apple, which charges too much).

The 15-inch model reviewed for this article was totally tricked out with the faster 200GB hard drive, 2.6-GHz processor, 4GB of RAM and 512MB of video RAM. If you're going for the 15-inch model and want the ultimate, this is it. With the stock 2GB of RAM, this model would cost you US$2,799. With the 4GB of RAM Apple installed in our review unit, you d pay a whopping US$3,199. That s why you should buy extra RAM elsewhere.

If the price tag scares you, don't worry -- the basic US$1,999 model offers just about everything you need. If you want to splurge, get the faster hard drive and you're out the door for US$2,099 plus tax.

Here, however, is the main point: If you bought the last-generation model in January and are wondering whether you should upgrade, you need answer only one question: Do you absolutely, positively need the new multitouch trackpad? If not, there's no need to spend more money now. But if it's been a couple of years since you last bought, and your first-generation Core Duo-based 15-inch model is getting a little long in the tooth, keep reading.

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Ken Mingis

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