Hands-on: The 17-in. MacBook Pro gets the Core 2 Duo treatment

An already solid laptop just got better -- and faster

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In case you've missed the latest specs on these portable workstations, the MacBook Pro -- both 15-in. and 17-in. models -- sport Core 2 Duo processors from Intel Corp. that are marginally faster in terms of clock speed but noticeably faster in real-world use. One factor behind that speed increase is the 4MB of dynamically allocated Level 2 cache RAM used by the new chip -- twice what the Core Duo offered. It's not a huge jump in processing power, nor would you expect it to be when moving from Rev. A to Rev. B hardware. But it's more of an increase than Apple used to provide back in the not-so-halcyon PowerPC days.

"With the Core 2 duo, obviously it has a faster clock speed and it has double the L2 cache over the previous generation Core Duo," said Gail Nishimura, senior product manager at Apple. "The L2 cache is right there on the chip, so what's great about that is it can be dynamic allocated between the two (processor) cores. It's larger.... That's a really big difference."

Let's give this laptop an acronym right now: MacBook Pro=MBP; Core 2 Duo=C2D. That makes my MBP a C2D, and I couldn't be happier. The clock speed on my MBP is 2.33 GHz, up from the 2.16-GHz Core Duo processor in the first version. Minor upgrade in speed, major changes under the hood for the processor. Although clock speed is up 167 MHz, or 8%, the real-world speed boost is noticeable in daily use.

Xbench is one of the most commonly used benchmarking tools for Macintosh fans, measuring CPU, graphics, hard drive and RAM to offer a performance score for Apple computers. I focus less on the absolute number and more on the difference between machines or revisions. Back in May, my first-generation MBP turned in a respectable Xbench score of 90. My new machine blew past that to 112, slightly faster even than the 15-in. MBP C2D I tested a few weeks back that had essentially the same hardware.

That's about 24% faster for a stylish, well-designed laptop that costs the same -- $2,799 -- has twice the amount of RAM and a larger hard drive.

Tech specs and configurations

The 17-in. MBP C2D comes with a stock 160GB hard drive that uses perpendicular recording technology, spins at 5,400 rpm and seems to offer a little speed boost of its own. (My first MBP has the optional 7,200-rpm 100GB drive.) Don't care as much about speed as storage? Apple now offers an optional 200GB hard drive that spins at 4,200 rpm. For 40GB more storage, you pay $100. Or you can lose some disk space, snag the 7,200-rpm hard drive and save $100. The 160GB drive seems to hit the sweet spot, offering a good amount of storage with relatively little speed penalty.

The other main option is additional RAM. Although the MBP has two RAM slots that will take 2GB chips, only 3GB of that RAM can be used by the laptop because of the way the Intel architecture works. "We don't know of any Core 2 Duo computer that can address the (full) 4GB (of RAM)," Nishimura said. "The limitation is due to the Intel chip set. We feel like it's less confusing to customers" to advertise the 3GB RAM maximum.

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