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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  • ImSpartacus - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Apple doesn't do something unless they can do it 100%.

    They won't default to SSDs until they are on the logic board like the MBA. We'll probably see the disk drive go at the same time.

    Maybe Apple will continue to use hard drives for storage? That might be the reason we are still seeing 5400rpm drives. Apple doesn't want to upgrade everyone to 7200rpm drives only to have 5400rpm drives the next year, even only for storage.

    But who knows?
    Reply
  • Tros - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I imagine they'd go for the MBA-SSD and the larger platter-based storage, and just partition. But to do that smoothly, they need a better partitioning system (to keep it user friendly); ZFS. Reply
  • Nentor - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Apple doesn't do something unless they can do it grand (or make it seem grand).

    Why put in SSD standard if they are still a luxury? As long as the average pc user is not fully aware of what SSD are and what are the great benefits you can still demand premium for them as an upgrade for people that do want one.

    Just watch, when SSD are becoming the standard Apple will put put them in and market the hell out of it and make it fit the whole Apple image.
    Reply
  • dsumanik - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Dude, if your hdd is integrated into your mobo... Not only do have the disadvantage of not being able to upgrade to faster/larger capacity drives...

    If the disk fails you need to replace the whole board - $$$
    If something on the board fails, you lose all your data - facepalm
    Apple dictates the price of of the hdd, even when it's a yer old - $$$

    A simple, 2 screw user replaceable hdd is the elegant solution and always will be.

    Wake up peeps...

    They aren't supporting other drives because they want to sell you outdated technology at a higher price.... End of story.
    Reply
  • JasperJanssen - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    Dude, do you even have a vague clue what you are talking about?

    The MBA doesn't have an SSD soldered onto the mainboard, it has it on a standardised daughter card. And by standardised I don't mean standardised by Apple, although to be fair Apple is the main supplier of machines using it at the moment. It's a card not unlike minipci(e), and entirely swappable from one machine to a replacement. Also, Apple isn't the only one supplying these drives.

    It's entirely possible that other thing&light manufacturers will start using them, as it's a very useful form factor.
    Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    There is no dedicated GPU in the 13" MBP because there isn't room for it. Look at other notebooks in the same size and price class such as the Lenovo x220. Same situation, integrated GPU only. An dedicated GPU means bigger motherboard, which defeats the purpose of notebooks that are so small. Reply
  • Wieland - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Sandy Bridge laptops haven't been on the market very long. It's way too early to make a conclusion about what is and isn't possible in terms of size. That said, the Sony Vaio S is basically the exact same size, lower weight, lower price, and offers almost as much battery life, and it is configurable with two different versions of AMD Radeon Graphics (6470M, 6630M). The new Vaio Z will probably be even more impressive in this regard. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    The 13" MacBook Pro is a constant 0.95" thickness. The Vaio S ranges from 1.08" - 1.24" thick, a 14% to 31% difference. So the 13" MacBook Pro has significantly decreased internal volume which will definitely constrain how you lay out internal components and the thermal room on the machine impacting whether it's worthwhile to put in a discrete GPU. Reply
  • claytontullos - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Have you dealt with HP's tech support? It's like pulling teeth to get anything done.

    My ram in my Dv4 was bad, it would randomly cause windows to crash both in Vista and Windows 7. My ram failed memtest86 with over 4 million errors after a few minutes of testing... however my ram would pass HP's 5 second ram test with flying colors.

    HP's support first insisted I revert my laptop back to Vista and in any event would not service my laptop because the ram passed their "test."

    I will never buy another HP product.
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I won't judge a race based on the actions of few. At the same time, I won't judge a company just because one of their products didn't work that well for me. That's like saying I bought a 4 pack of Duracells and one of the batteries weren't working so now I buy Energizer.

    And to be fair, it isn't like HP made the RAM. If you were getting random crashes, you obviously didn't do anything and are clearly under warranty. Simply say "I turned it on and it keeps crashing" and they'll say "Okay here send it back" and 9/10 they will pay for shipping (depending on where you got it from).

    Now I'm not an HP fanboy (far from it, I own a Lenovo), but prior to that I owned a zd8000 for about 5 years with no problems. Does that mean that HP is utterly flawless and no one makes a product like them? No. But I know quality when I see one and I stand by what I said: The Envy 14 is probably one of the best laptops you can get. Hell, it's only $999 and it blows the MBP out of the park.
    Reply

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