Apple updates MacBook Pros with Sandy Bridge CPUs, Thunderbolt ports

Just as we expected, Apple this morning announced the latest refresh of its Macbook Pro laptop family. Among the changes are the inclusion of Intel’s new Sandy Bridge Core i5 and i7 processors, high-speed Thunderbolt ports, and FaceTime HD cameras.

The updates once again cement the MacBook Pros as titans in the laptop arena. Unfortunately for those looking for a new look, there aren’t any major design changes to be seen. Instead, we get the same handsome all-metal unibody design that Apple has been married to for the past few years.

All of the Macbook Pros will also feature high-speed Thunderbolt ports (Thunderbolt is Intel’s new moniker for its Light Peak technology). The technology will allow for speeds of 10 gigabits a second, and it will support devices like HDMI and DVI displays, as well as hard drive RAID arrays. It will compete with USB 3.0 and is also technically capable of running USB and FireWire devices.

The obvious benefit of Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs is that they’ll be more powerful than any previous chips. But they’re also intelligent about power management, and Intel has worked hard to make sure they draw less power than earlier chips, which is why it’s now possible to put a quad-core CPU in a MacBook Pro without killing battery life.

The FaceTime HD cameras will offer higher resolution video chat than ever possible on a Mac laptop. They will allow for video calls between Mac computers, the iPhone 4 and the iPod Touch. Apple is finally bringing its FaceTime HD software out of beta testing today — it’s currently available on the Mac App Store for $0.99.

This time around, Apple didn’t skimp on making the 13.3-inch MacBook Pros more powerful. They’re available with Core i5 and Core i7 processors, and will be priced at $1,199 (with a 2.4 gigahertz dual core Core i5 CPU and 320 gigabyte hard drive) and $1,499 (with a 2.7Ghz dual core Core i7 CPU and 500GB hard drive). Those are significant hardware bumps for the most portable entries in the Macbook Pro family. Unfortunately, the 13.3-inch models will still rely on slower integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics.

The 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros are now packing quad-core i7 processors exclusively, and have also moved away from Nvidia graphics cards to dedicated cards from the AMD Radeon HD 6000M family. In plain English, the hardware updates mean that these laptops will be among the most powerful on the market.

The 15-inch model starts at $1,799 and will come with a 2.0Ghz quad-core CPU, 500GB hard drive and Radeon HD6490M graphics card. The $1,799 15-inch entry features a 2.2Ghz CPU, 750GB hard drive, and a Radeon 6750M graphics card. Apple’s lone 17-inch MacBook Pro sports the same hardware as the highest end 15-inch model, and will retail for $2,499.

All of the new MacBook Pros are now available on Apple’s online store.