The GPU Comparison

If you had asked me last year I would've told you that Apple clearly values GPU performance more than CPU performance—and I wouldn't be far off the mark. Apple went to great lengths to use the best of the entry level GPUs and paid no mind to the fact that the 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac mini and MacBook Air all used much older Core 2 Duo CPUs while the competition was busy shipping Core i3/5/7s.

This year is the year of the CPU however. The entire MacBook Pro lineup gets Sandy Bridge CPUs and as a result they all get Intel's new HD Graphics 3000. Here's a die shot of Sandy Bridge:

Note that the GPU core is integrated on-die. There are actually two versions of Intel's HD Graphics available on Sandy Bridge, but all current mobile versions of SNB come with the 3000 model. What does the 3000 offer you? Twelve scalar execution units (EUs) running at a base clock speed of 650MHz. The GPU can also turbo up depending on available TDP. The max frequency is somewhere between 1.2—1.3GHz depending on the processor SKU.

Being basically desktop replacements, the 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros also include a discrete GPU. This round they both use AMD hardware and the options are below:

Discrete GPU Options
  AMD Radeon HD 6490M AMD Radeon HD 6750M
Manufacturing Process 40nm 40nm
SPs 160 480
Texture Units 8 24
ROPs 4 8
Core Clock 800MHz 600MHz
Memory Bus Width 64-bit 128-bit
Memory Clock 800MHz 900MHz
Frame Buffer 256MB GDDR5 1024MB GDDR5

The entry level 15 uses a Radeon HD 6490M while the upgraded 15 and the 17 both use a Radeon HD 6750M. The difference between the two GPUs amounts to compute horsepower, memory bandwidth and available frame buffer. With only a 256MB frame buffer the 6490M is insufficient for high performance at larger resolutions (courtesy of an external display). The 6750M is paired with 1GB of GDDR5 and thus has no problems smoothly driving a 27-inch 2560 x 1440 panel. The new GPUs now only use a x8 connection to the SNB CPU compared to the x16 from last year's models. Remember Sandy Bridge has a x16 PCIe controller on-die. The controller can be split into two x8s or 1 x8 and 2 x4. In this case one of the x4 ports is used for Thunderbolt, leaving 4 unused lanes and a x8 for the GPU. I don't expect this move will have a noticeable impact on GPU performance.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has absolutely no GPU options, all you get is the on-die Intel HD Graphics 3000. Based on what we saw in our original mobile Sandy Bridge review this should mean that GPU performance between the two stays the same. Intel's HD Graphics 3000 is about the performance of a GeForce 320M, the latter is what was used in last year's 13-inch MBP.

Half Life 2: Episode 2 (Mac OS X)

For Starcraft II performance we brought over our two benchmarks from our PC CPU and GPU reviews. We don't have FRAPS availalble under OS X so we resort to measuring lowest instantaneous frame rate at a couple of points.

The two tests focus on different aspects of SC2 gameplay. The GPU test looks at general unit management performance, which tends to be less CPU bound and more GPU bound. The CPU test looks at performance during a very large battle which, as you might guess, is largely influenced by CPU performance. 

Starcraft II—AT GPU Bench (Mac OS X)

Starcraft II—AT CPU Bench (Mac OS X)

Under OS X, the new HD Graphics 3000 GPU is actually about the same performance or even faster than the 2010 13-inch's GeForce 320M. Remember that Apple does a lot of its own driver writing under OS X and the SNB GPU received some TLC from Apple in the form of very well optimized drivers.

World of Warcraft (Windows 7)

Left 4 Dead (Windows 7)

Under Windows running WoW the situation is quite different and I'm not entirely sure why. Either Apple is very aggressive with driver optimizations under OS X or there's some other funniness happening under Windows (more on this later).

I did notice some bouts of instability with the 13-inch MacBook Pro as well as minor graphical corruption on the screen. Early on whenever I'd boot the system up I'd get a copy of the mouse cursor in the upper left of the screen.

15-inch MacBook Pro GPU Performance

Next up is the 15-inch MBP gaming performance comparison.

For 15-inch users the Radeon HD 6490M is pretty much the same speed as last year's GeForce GT 330M (if not marginally faster). The Radeon HD 6750M however is a lot faster. In fact, the performance improvement and increase in frame buffer you get with the 6750M is well worth the upgrade. If you're buying a 15-inch MacBook Pro and plan on gaming or using a high-res external display, get the 6750M.

Half Life 2: Episode 2 (Mac OS X)

Half Life 2: Episode 2 (Mac OS X)

Half Life 2: Episode 2 (Mac OS X)

Starcraft II—AT GPU Bench (Mac OS X)

Starcraft II—AT GPU Bench (Mac OS X)

Starcraft II—AT CPU Bench (Mac OS X)

Starcraft II—AT CPU Bench (Mac OS X)

6Gbps Performance & SSD Recommendations The dGPU: Killing Battery Life
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  • brettski - Thursday, November 10, 2011 - link

    Total NYC sales tax is 8.875%.
    NY state tax is only 4.5%
    Reply
  • brettski - Thursday, November 10, 2011 - link

    i'm sorry... state is 4%, city is 4.5%, plus Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District surcharge of 0.375%= 8.875% sorry... mixed up the city and state rates. Reply
  • gstrickler - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    What are you talking about? Most of us non-gamers don't even need a dedicated GPU, much less 256MB of graphics memory. I'm currently running on a late 2007, 15" MBP which has an 8600M GPU with 128MB of graphics RAM, and I only use it because there is no IGP on this machine. Once you get to the level of the Nvidia 9400M, IGP is plenty for a non-gamer, and even 32MB allocated to graphics RAM is more than adequate. The exception is if you need OpenCL support, since Intel's IGPs don't support OpenCL.

    I wish Apple offered a 13" MPB with a higher resolution (1440x900) matte display or a 15" with AES-NI and without a dGPU. I could use the faster CPU and HT, but I don't really need quad-core (but it's nice to have it available when on AC power), and battery life is far more important to me than a GPU or maximum CPU speed.

    In fact, what I would really like is a 15" with matte display, no dGPU, Core i7-2720QM (for AES-NI support) with the ability to disable 2 cores/4 threads when on battery power. The 2011 15" lets me get close, if I use gfxcardstatus to disable the dGPU. If I can get software to disable 2 cores when on battery, it'll give me everything I'm asking for, but at a fairly hefty premium ($+150 for the matte display, $+400 for the Core i7-2720QM and Radeon 6750M + 1GB that I'll never use). Of course, what that means is that I'll either get the entry level 15" without AES-NI support and use gfcardstatus to disable the dGPU, or I'll wait for the next update and see if the options are any better.

    Notes to Apple:
    1. Make a matte screen an option on all machines, for no more than a $50 premium (no forced upgrade to a higher resolution)
    2. Offer a 15" without a dGPU (e.g. make the dGPU a separate plug-in module)
    3. Offer a 1440x900 screen for the 13" MPB.

    I doubt I'll see any of those, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    "Most of us non-gamers don't even need a dedicated GPU"

    Most people don't need a truck, that doesn't mean no one does. This is branded as a pro machine, and at nearly 2 grand the GPU doesn't fit the bill.
    Reply
  • alent1234 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    MAcbooks are thin, long battery life, nice screen and good build quality first. specs second. until sandy bridge came out laptops with long battery life cost just as much as a macbook or more.

    a lot of the people that buy these are mobile pro's who need to use a laptop for hours while away from a power source
    Reply
  • sync216 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    256MB is fine for the 64xxM series GPUs. The performance improvement going to GDDR5 and a faster GPU is much higher than the improvement from 256 to 512 would have given. For customers who really need the additional graphics performance (and corresponding graphics memory) apple is offering the very fast 6750M with 1GB. Reply
  • Demon-Xanth - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    ...Apple is more like Sony than Acer? Their core buisness is no longer computers, but gadgets. Reply
  • michael2k - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Um, this was evident in 2001 when the Titanium PowerBook was first unveiled, then the iPod later that year, then the music store in 2004, etc.

    Also, you have it backwards, their core business is computers, they just happen to know how to turn computers into gadgets. They treat the iPod like a computer (firmware updates on a regular basis), which means they aren't disposable. Contrast that to the average phone OEM with Android who won't see updates for longer than 6 months, where Apple pushes updates to their iPhone for over 29 months.
    Reply
  • jameskatt - Friday, May 06, 2011 - link

    Nearly all of Apple's products are computers:

    Mac Pro = desktop expandable computer running OS X
    iMac = all-in-one desktop computer running OS X
    Mac Mini = non-expandable desktop computer running OS X
    MacBook Pro = high end laptop computer running OS X
    MacBook Air = high end netbook computer running OS X
    MacBook = basic laptop computer running OS X
    iPad = tablet computer running OS X
    iPhone = handheld tablet computer with phone running OS X
    iPod Touch = handheld tablet computer running OS X
    AppleTV = multimedia appliance computer running OS X

    OS X has two variations - Mac OS X and iOS. The core operating system is the same for both.

    Apps for both are written using Apple's XCode Development System.
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I'm surprised SSD isn't standard to begin with. $1199 for a 13" laptop and you don't even get dedicated graphics? Seriously? The HDDs aren't even 7200rpm. This is insulting to the nth degree.

    If you want a solidly built, well-spec'd, thin and fairly priced system, get the Envy 14. You get 7200rpm HDD, dedicated graphics, an HD webcam with TWO microphones (necessary for sound cancelling), a backlit keyboard and even Photoshop and Premiere.

    Until Apple drops their prices to a realistic and reasonable level, avoid it completely.
    Reply

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