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What are the differences between the "Early 2011" 13-Inch, 15-Inch, and 17-Inch MacBook Pro models? Which is best for my needs?
Please note that all MacBook Pro models mentioned in this Q&A have been discontinued. However, this Q&A is up-to-date and quite useful for anyone considering one of these notebooks on the used market.
If one just takes a quick glance at the "Early 2011" 13-Inch, 15-Inch, and 17-Inch MacBook Pro models one would be unlikely to notice major differences apart from the obvious variation in size and weight.
Naturally, the 13-Inch models -- the MacBook Pro "Core i5" 2.3 13-Inch and "Core i7" 2.7 13-Inch -- are smaller and lighter than the 15-Inch models -- the MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.0 15-Inch and "Core i7" 2.2 15-Inch -- which in turn are smaller and lighter than the MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.2 17-Inch.
Photo Credit: Apple, Inc.
All of these models use a black and silver "Unibody" case -- milled from a single block of aluminum -- and all have a backlit keyboard, a "no button" glass multi-touch trackpad with support for "inertial scrolling" and have LED-backlit displays. Each model has a high-resolution "FaceTime HD" webcam as well.
By default, each display has a glossy finish. However, the 15-Inch models also are offered with a high-resolution 1680x1050 display in either a glossy or anti-glare finish for an additional US$100 or US$150, respectively, and the 17-Inch model is available with an anti-glare display at the same 1920x1200 resolution as a US$50 upgrade. As a minor point of differentiation, the anti-glare configurations have a silver "frame" around the display rather than a black one.
All have a built-in non-swappable battery design, and this battery is not designed to be removed or serviced by end users, just like the battery in the earlier "Mid-2009" and "Mid-2010" MacBook Pro lines. Although, unlike these earlier models, iFixit discovered that it is possible to disconnect the battery in the "Early 2011" line without having to remove it from the notebook, which makes internal repairs easier. Apple estimates that all of the "Early 2011" models provide seven hours of battery life based on an Apple "wireless web" test.
Connectivity between the 13-Inch, 15-Inch, and 17-Inch systems is a major point of product differentiation. All of these models include AirPort Extreme (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, Gigabit Ethernet, a single Firewire "800" port, and a new "Thunderbolt" port that supports an external display at 2560x1600 as well as other peripherals that support the Thunderbolt standard. Thunderbolt provides a maximum theoretical throughput of 10 Gbps in both directions and supports as many as six devices "daisy-chained" together. Unfortunately, Thunderbolt as implemented on the MacBook Pro only can support a single display, but it is backwards compatible with Mini DisplayPort-equipped monitors and works with DVI, VGA, dual-link DVI and HDMI adapters as well.
Other connectivity is different. The 15-Inch and 17-Inch models have an independent audio line in minijack (digital/analog) and an independent audio line out/headphone minijack (digital/analog). The 13-Inch models instead have a single "audio in/out" port. The 13-Inch and 15-Inch models have an SD card slot, whereas the 17-Inch has an ExpressCard/34 expansion slot instead. The 17-Inch model also has three USB 2.0 ports and the 13-Inch and 15-Inch models only have two.
Externally, the "Early 2011" line unfortunately uses the same model numbers as several earlier MacBook Pro models and EMC numbers are not listed externally at all, so they only can be externally differentiated by the serial number courtesy of EveryMac.com's Ultimate Mac Lookup feature.
In software, the 13-Inch, 15-Inch and 17-Inch models can be identified by the model identifiers MacBookPro8,1, MacBookPro8,2 and MacBookPro8,3, respectively. When model identifiers are combined with processor speed, it is possible to pinpoint the exact model (but these identifiers are not available if the system will not boot).
Internally, there are significant differences between the "Early 2011" systems, particularly between the entry-level 13-Inch models and the higher-end 15-Inch and 17-Inch models. All officially support the same 8 GB of 1333 MHz PC3-10600 DDR3 SDRAM (although site sponsor OWC has confirmed that they actually can support up to 16 GB), support 6 Gb/s Serial ATA hard drives, and have an 8X DL "SuperDrive".
Otherwise, these models are internally quite different. The 13-Inch models use dual core processors -- either a Core i5 or Core i7 -- whereas the 15-Inch and 17-Inch models use considerably faster quad core Core i7 processors with larger level 3 caches. However, all of these models do support "Turbo Boost 2.0" -- which "automatically increases the speed of the active cores" to improve performance when needed -- and "Hyper Threading" -- which allows each system to recognize twice as many "virtual cores" or "threads" as there are actual cores.
Additionally, the 13-Inch models have a slower "integrated" graphics processor -- the Intel HD Graphics 3000 -- which shares 384 MB of memory with the system. The 15-Inch and 17-Inch models, on the other hand, have dual graphics systems -- the same Intel HD Graphics 3000 and an AMD Radeon HD with dedicated GDD5 memory. The 15-Inch and 17-Inch models also automatically switch between graphics processors depending on need (when applications use OpenGL, Core Graphics or other graphically demanding technologies, the system will use the dedicated graphics card, otherwise it will use Intel HD Graphics to conserve battery life).
The major differences between the 13-Inch, 15-Inch, and 17-Inch "Early 2011" MacBook Pro models -- size, display, battery life, connectivity, processor type and speed, and graphics -- as well as configuration, useful identifiers, and price -- are summarized below:
|2.3 Dual 13"||2.7 Dual 13"||2.0 Quad 15"||2.2 Quad 15"||2.2 Quad 17"|
|Speed:||2.3 GHz||2.7 GHz||2.0 GHz||2.2 GHz*||2.2 GHz*|
|L3 Cache:||3 MB||4 MB||6 MB||6 MB*||6 MB*|
|Drive:||320 GB||500 GB||500 GB||750 GB||750 GB|
|Optical:||8X DL||8X DL||8X DL||8X DL||8X DL|
|Std RAM:||4 GB||4 GB||4 GB||4 GB||4 GB|
|GDDR5:||No||No||256 MB**||1 GB**||1 GB**|
|Batt Life:||7 Hours||7 Hours||7 Hours||7 Hours||7 Hours|
|Weight:||4.5 lbs||4.5 lbs||5.5 lbs||5.5 lbs||6.6 lbs|
* These models also can be custom configured with a 2.3 GHz Core i7 (I7-2820QM) processor for an additional US$250. This custom processor has an 8 MB level 3 cache and supports "Turbo Boost 2.0" up to 3.4 GHz as well as "Hyper Threading" with eight virtual cores or "threads."
** The MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.0 15-Inch has a AMD Radeon HD 6490M with 256 MB of dedicated GDDR5 memory and the MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.2 15-Inch and MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.2 17-Inch have an AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1 GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory. All of these models also have integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 384 MB of memory shared with the system.
† The 13-Inch models have a single "audio in/out" port rather than an independent audio line in minijack (digital/analog) and an independent audio line out/headphone minijack (digital/analog) like the 15-Inch and 17-Inch models.
†† The 15-Inch models also are offered with a high-resolution 1680x1050 display in either a glossy or anti-glare finish for an additional US$100 or US$150, respectively, and the 17-Inch model is available with an anti-glare display at the same 1920x1200 resolution as a US$50 upgrade.
§ Dimensions provided in inches, while each system is in the "closed" position.
Which "Early 2011" MacBook Pro is best for my needs?
To determine which MacBook Pro is best for your needs, it is necessary to first decide what aspect of the purchase is most important to you. If price is most important, buy the least expensive MacBook Pro "Core i5" 2.3 13-Inch model (or consider an even less expensive MacBook or a used MacBook Pro model). If performance is most important, and price is not critical and you still need a notebook rather than a desktop Mac, purchase the MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.2 15-Inch or "Core i7" 2.2 17-Inch upgraded with a 2.3 GHz Core i7 (I7-2820QM) processor. If performance and price are important, the mid-level MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.0 15-Inch is perhaps the best option as it offers quad core performance -- better than the 13-Inch models -- but nevertheless trades a significant degree of processor and graphics power for a US$400 savings compared to its higher-end 15-Inch brother.
If compact size is most important, the MacBook Pro "Core i5" 2.3 13-Inch and "Core i7" 2.7 13-Inch models are the ones to consider, with the entry-level MacBook Pro "Core i5" 2.3 13-Inch trading a roughly 10%-15% decrease in performance (and a smaller hard drive) for a US$300 lower price tag (a 20% savings). You also may wish to consider a "thin and light" MacBook Air model if size and weight are your highest priority. If compact size and performance are priorities, then you will have to make the difficult decision between the smaller MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.7 13-Inch, perhaps configured with more RAM and a faster hard drive or SSD after purchase, and the larger, but considerably higher performing MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.0 15-Inch.
If you want the largest screen available, the most connectivity and/or the only model with an ExpressCard/34 slot, then the MacBook Pro "Core i7" 2.2 17-Inch is your only choice. If the ExpressCard/34 slot isn't critical, and you want something more compact, you also could consider a 15-Inch model custom configured with a high-resolution 1680x1050 display for US$100 over the standard price. If optical audio in or a display with a matte finish is important, the 15-Inch and 17-Inch models are the options available to you. Likewise, if an SD card slot is important -- or at least more important than an ExpressCard/34 slot -- the 13-Inch and 15-Inch models are the models to consider.
Ultimately, only you can decide which "Early 2011" MacBook Pro is best for your needs, but by evaluating what aspect of the purchase is most important to you and the options available you can make an excellent choice.
Please refer to EveryMac.com's Ultimate Mac Comparison feature to dynamically compare any MacBook or MacBook Pro model to any other G3 or later Mac.