Not Arrandale, but Better Graphics

Apple is up to something. For the past 1.5 years every single Mac has shipped with some form of NVIDIA graphics, standard, regardless of price. These are all G9x based GPUs with full support for OpenCL. From the looks of it, Apple is trying to broaden its install base of OpenCL compliant machines. In preparation for what I'm not really sure, but something is coming.

The unwillingness to ship a Mac without real GPGPU support leads us to the current problem with the 13-inch MacBook Pro. There's not enough motherboard real estate to include an Arrandale Core i3/i5 CPU plus an NVIDIA discrete GPU like Apple does in the new 15 and 17-inch models. Rather than sacrifice the GPU, Apple sacrificed CPU speed.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro starts with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor based on the three year old Penryn core. It's an upgrade from the 2.26GHz model that shipped with last year's model, but no where near as fast as the Core i5 you get with the 15-inch MBP.


Click to Enlarge

Apple justifies the mild CPU upgrade by including a much more potent GPU: the GeForce 320M. The 320M has 48 cores up from the 16 that were in last year's GeForce 9400M. Like the 9400M, the 320M has a full fledged chipset to go along with it. A single chip for the CPU and one for the chipset/GPU, that's how Apple is able to keep its current motherboard/chassis design with the upgrade. Something Apple didn't want to sacrifice by going to the Core i5.

Looking at Intel's roadmaps, there are no package shrinks planned for Arrandale throughout 2010. If Apple wants to move the 13-inch platform to a Core i3/i5/i7 it needs to redesign its system to somehow make it fit or pray for a NVIDIA Arrandale chipset.

Is the upgraded NVIDIA GPU worth it? To find out I ran a handful of gaming benchmarks, both under Windows 7/Boot Camp and OS X (thank you Valve). We'll start with World of Warcraft running at 800 x 600:

World of Warcraft Performance - Windows 7

Performance is much better than last year's GeForce 9400M, you're looking at more than double the frame rate. Our WoW test actually went from choppy to playably smooth on the new 13-inch MacBook Pro compared to last year's 15-inch with a 9400M. The GeForce 320M also offers around 80% of the performance of the GT 330M in the 15-inch. The benefit? You don't have to worry about switching between GPUs, there's only one to deal with in this system.

Next up is Left 4 Dead under Windows 7:

Up the resolution to 1440 x 900 (we had to resort to an external display to get it this high on the 13-inch) and the performance improvement over last year's 9400M remains consistent. The new 13-inch MacBook Pro has roughly twice the gaming performance of the GeForce 9400M found in last year's. At higher resolutions the gap between the 320M and GT 330M widens however. The 320M now offers less than 70% of the performance of the GT 330M. For its native panel resolution, the 13-inch's 320M is sufficient however. Apple usually does a good job of hardware selection.

While Source engine performance under OS X isn't all that great, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is at least playable in even the most GPU intense games Valve offers:

Half Life 2 Episode 2 - OS X

The performance improvement over the 9400M here isn't as great, but still noticeable. The 320M offers 78% of the performance of the GT 330M. Overall I would call the GPU upgrade the 13-inch MacBook Pro received significant, but it's only something you'll notice if you're a gamer. If you aren't playing 3D games on your notebook, the upgrade is mostly meaningless today.

Looking forward, I suspect that Apple may stick with its GPU strategy for at least one more cycle. While Sandy Bridge (due out in 2011) will have much improved graphics performance, I don't believe it will have much of a compute focus. We may not see that from Intel until Ivy Bridge in 2012 or Haswell in 2013. Apple has been talking to AMD about Llano so that's another potential solution for small form factor Mac notebooks moved forward.

The Portability Balance General Performance: A Mild Improvement
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  • Setsunayaki - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    While I am not a fan of Apple by any means in any sector, I like their consistency within battery life. They offer laptops that at least wont discharge rapidly. I don't like the 1280x800 resolution simply because I do more things, and if the resolution was so low...

    then I rather opt for something much cooler...

    Rather than spend money on this and everything needed to get started, I prefer spending that money to build my own desktop PC to have at home and buy a netbook as well. The combination of the two would be far more valuable for the money, considering in my own usage..

    I don't play many 3D games on the road, or do many heavy things on a laptop...unless I am working off-site with a team of course.
    Reply
  • intelpatriot - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    Is there that meaningful a difference between a core 2 and an i5 (even an i7), anyway?

    I'm guessing it's going to be nothing like the performance gain stepping up a GPU price bracket/generation.
    Reply
  • Calin - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    The performance gain for stepping up a GPU price bracket and/or generation might be zero if you don't even use Aero and the most difficult graphic activity on your laptop are sliding menus.
    Games are a totally different thing, and some people don't use games (or other applications) that benefit from high performance graphics.
    As for Core2Duo (E6550) versus Core i7 920:
    http://www.anandtech.com/bench/Product/47?vs=61
    Over 10% faster in worst case (Fallout 3 1680x1050 medium quality), and triple the speed in a couple of benchmarks (Sorenson Squeeze pro5, Cinebench R10 multithreaded). The E6550 is similar (slightly better) to one of the first "high performance" Core2Duo that appeared, and I think the price at launch was somewhat similar.
    Reply
  • Howierr - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    Has anyone tried using a X-25M G2 (80gb or 160gb) in the early 2010 MacBook Pro 13", and installing Windows 7 through Bootcamp? I tried this with 2 different brand new X-25M SSDs, and the MacBook has a hard time detecting the SSD consistently on boot up. When installing Windows 7, sometimes no disks are detected, and it takes many reboots to get the SSD to be detected. But after a successful installation, whenever I reboot the MacBook Pro, there is a very good chance that the question mark icon shows up, meaning that it cannot detect any bootable devices.

    I installed one of the X-25M into a mid-2009 MacBook Pro 13", bootcamp Winodws 7 and it works flawlessly reboot after reboot.

    Could this be an isolated incident, or do all early-2010 MacBook Pro 13s dislike the Intel X-25M G2?
    Reply
  • Zok - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    Not quite to your question, but I installed a 160 GB G2 into my 2010 i5 15" MBP and have had no issues whatsoever. There have been reports that the NVIDIA chipset's SATA implementation is somewhat subpar compared to Intel's, as is in the new 2010 15" MBPs. Reply
  • Jamor - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    Would it be possible to get WoW results in OSX at similar settings?
    That'd give something to compare Portal/Half Life results to.

    My gut feeling is, the OSX/Win performance difference is more in the drivers and the way OS handles 3D, less in the porting.
    Reply
  • Meaker10 - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    How can a 2 chip platform (core i series) not fit when a 3 chip platform (core 2) already does? Reply
  • BlendMe - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    Well the Core i platform in itself is a 2 chip solution, but only if you stick with Intel's graphics. If you want something more powerfull you have to go with a discrete GPU which makes it a 3 chip solution (like on the 2010 15" & 17").

    The C2D platform in the 13" is a 2 chip solution, because you have the CPU and a Nvidia chipset with integrated GPU, which is much more powerfull than Intel's on-chip graphics.

    I am disappointed about the missing Core i in the 13", but then I kinda understand Apple's decision.
    Reply
  • gcor - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    Last June I reluctantly bought a 13" MacBook Pro for university as it seemed the only 8+ hr machine with big enough screen and performance to get me through the day.

    Having been a Windows person since 3.11 (I used to be a sys admin & software engineer), I was not looking forward to the learning curve of OS-X and becoming savvy enough to fix problems.

    I got to say though, the laptop has meet all my needs admirably, with a tiny learning curve. Also, maybe I was just unlucky with the ~15 PC's I had beforehand, but the machine seems rock solid stable in comparison. It's definitely saved me a ton of time in terms of; no BSOD's, no driver compatibility issues, no anti-virus machine hogging, no bloatware, no OS patches killing the machine, etc.

    Basically, when I want to use it, I just lift the lid and I'm away. I never turn it off & have re-booted no more than a handful of times in a year.

    About the only trouble I've had is the occasional Office crashes (I wonder if the manufacturer has done this intentionally?)

    Anyway, after a one year experiment, I feel the additional price has been well worth it. It's an absolute work horse that is always ready to let me get the job done. Other than games, there is nothing I miss from Windows that would convince me to swap back.

    To all the die hard Windows folks out there (like I was), if you want a machine to get your job done without needing to mess about with the machine itself, I strongly recommend giving one a go. Keep a PC around for gaming and you'll be fine.
    Reply
  • killerclick - Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - link

    I've been trying to convince all my moron friends who can't handle Windows to give Mac a try. "It's so simple, an idiot could use it!" I keep saying but to no avail, most of them insist on struggling with an operating system which is clearly too taxing on their mental abilities. I wish we could simply force all Windows users to use a Mac for a day, that would do the trick! Reply

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