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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  • mga318 - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Apple just recently released an update for windows and bootcamp that said would provide a performance increase. I'm wondering whether that might of had an effect on Windows gaming since the initial review. Reply
  • macboy123 - Sunday, July 24, 2011 - link

    I have macbook pro mid 2010 with NVIDIA GT 330M and its crashes randomly & frequently (black screen of death).  NVIDIA card on MacBook pro is really CRAP & USELESS!!!!. Reply
  • gradyboy - Monday, August 15, 2011 - link

    I was checking in wikipedia about AES-NI and there was a link to intel site that now revises the info that the i7-2635QM has AES-NI support.

    I think the review should be updated to reflect that.

    link below:
    http://ark.intel.com/products/53463/Intel-Core-i7-...
    Reply
  • edgecrusherr160 - Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - link

    Not sure what the reviewer is talking about with the hinge. I've had a 13 Macbook Pro since Jun 10th 2009 that's seen HEAVY use. It opens and closes beautifully. I appreciate it even more when I use other types of laptops (even older Apples).

    I do agree on the gloss screens, and hate them. I love the fact that there's glass over the screes, really makes them feel solid and protected compared to other laptops. From my experience, no one comes close to the quality of an Apple laptop. I used to work at a computer store too. I wish they made the glass matte though. I have a matte screen protector on mine that distorts the color a little, but I've gotten used to it over the years. Still a shame I have to even use it though.
    Reply
  • abbylegg - Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - link

    Hi,
    Great review really helped out. I'm looking for a macbook pro but everywhere and shop is too expensive.. so i'm trying out freebiejeebies.co.uk which has been proven by The Gadget show, NBC News, BBC news and a couple more big channels and stations. If you would like to help me out on my task trying to get a macbook pro please sign up and fill out a offer for free on this link h t t p : / / g i f t s . f r e e b i e j e e b i e s . c o . u k / 3 8 5 0 2 9 (without spaces just incase this website banes the link) and i promise ill come back and review so you can do the same thing and receive a macbook pro!

    thankyou for your time

    Abby.
    Reply
  • Funkyfreshh8 - Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - link

    Did anyone else notice that in that first picture with the three MBP's stacked on top of each other, the caption says that the 2011 MBP is I the middle, but in the picture it's on the bottom. The one in the middle has a mini-display port, and the bottom one has a Thunderbolt logo instead. Reply
  • MiddletonBanks - Thursday, April 19, 2012 - link

    If you want to transfer big files quickly, have faster boot up and be able to open apps quickly then go for the top of the 15” macbook pro range with the 750GB drive. You can buy it here http://www.middletonbanks.com/acatalog/Apple_MacBo... for only £1,480 including VAT and delivery. Reply

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