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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  • robco - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I made the mistake of buying a 15" MBP eighteen months ago and am stuck with a machine that has mediocre graphics and overheats constantly. Don't buy the MBP if you actually use it on your lap. That being said, the only reason I bought it over the MacBook was the dedicated graphics. With the awful performance of the Intel integrated chip, I hope Apple releases a 15" MacBook with the option of dedicated graphics for consumers. I'm not shelling out $2199 just to get something with a decent video card. I wouldn't recommend the 13" at all, as there are several alternatives in the 13-14" range that offer dedicated cards.

    I fell victim to the hype and now I have a fairly recent machine that can barely handle SC2 and an iPhone that can't make phone calls. Don't make the same mistake. Most of the tasks you can do on a Mac you can do on a Windows PC. Unless you are actually a pro and need a pro-grade machine, don't waste your money. For those who can justify the expense, they are nice machines, but if you actually put them to work, be ready to set them on a cool surface or get a cooling pad. They run awfully hot.
    Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    My MBP from last year plays SC2 perfectly, above 60fps most of the time which is great. Same with Source games. People on Youtube have already uploaded video playing the Crysis 2 demo on the new MBPs and it looks great.

    Your machine is almost two years old. Be logical when complaining about performance. Just because your machine is slow doesn't mean that the new ones aren't screaming fast: http://www.pcmag.com/image_popup/0,1740,iid=287468...

    The 13" MBP is also decent with the SB IGP. I've seen clips on YT of people playing games even on the slower Macbook Air and it looks good. IGPs have come a long way from where they were in 2009.
    Reply
  • robco - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    I'm a little miffed that a machine that was so expensive has become outdated rather quickly. I paid a lot just to get dedicated graphics. I could have and should have paid less to get a Windows notebook. I won't make the same mistake again. If you're a consumer and don't need a pro-grade machine but still want good graphics, the MBP is a poor value.

    The MBA actually handles games better than the new 13" MBP because it still uses the C2D and the NV integrated chipset. Once it switches to Sandy Bridge, performance will drop as it has with the MBP. The only area the MBA is slower than the MBP is raw processing power, graphics and disk access are much faster.

    With Apple you can get a notebook that performs well, you just have to shell out $2199 to get it. I did that once, I won't do it again. it just isn't worth it unless you're a pro user who will recoup that cost in a short time. For consumers, it's a waste of money.
    Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    If you only needed the graphics muscle, you should've gotten a Windows laptop.

    Macbooks are for more mobile-minded users. They are thin, strong and have excellent battery life.

    If you just need a solid mobile workstation that isn't going to be moved a lot, Windows laptops are a much better value.
    Reply
  • SimKill - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    ODM manufacturers like Clevo and Compal fit your bill perfectly. I got my system in 2009 August and even today I can play most of the games (ofcourse except godforsaken Crysis) at high settings at 1680x1050 (yep, 16:10) It cost me around $1400 but I'm very happy about it so far. Reply
  • SimKill - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Dam, they don't have an edit button. The hardware internals are pretty good with copper heatsinks and heatpipes and what not too... Reply
  • erple2 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Hrm. Mac's are more of a semi-pro-grade machine. They still lack some of the important pro-grade features of an actual pro-grade machine. Like a Docking Station. Or a spill-resistant keyboard. Or a thumbprint reader. Or a smart card slot. Or a high-gamut monitor.

    While they are well constructed, they still don't have some of the critical features required for a good business laptop - they lack the all important OpenGL performance GPUs for wireframe models (among other things). See some of the high end Elitebooks or Thinkpads (which also cost a bit more than these MacBook Pros).
    Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Ah, I just had a dumb, nevermind me. Reply
  • IntelUser2000 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4205/the-macbook-pro...

    "This is a weird one, since the same GPU gave us significantly better performance in the SNB test system."

    Oh gee, I wonder why. The SNB test system used quad core and the Core i5 2410M is a dual core. Quad vs. Dual does have some impact.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    It does have some impact, but not in this case. The HD 3000 is actually GPU bound in those tests - not to mention that most games aren't quite so well threaded that 2 v 4 cores should matter.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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