Improved WiFi Performance

One of the more notable changes in the 2011 MacBook Pro lineup is a completely different WiFi chipset and subsequent RF design. The previous 2010 MacBook Pro included 802.11a/b/g/n support using a BCM4322 which included full 2x2 MIMO support, meaning two spatial streams were supported. Bluetooth 3.0 was provided by a BCM2070, and the whole solution was simply a BCM954224HMB reference design.


2011 MacBook Pro WiFi+BT Module—Courtesy iFixit

Back when the new Airport Extreme (Simultaneous Dual-Band II) launched, it included one little-hyped feature. One of the most notable improvements over the previous design was inclusion of a full 3x3 radio—again 3 spatial stream support. At the time, there were no Apple products that could actually use 3 spatial streams, and as a result many assumed the feature was completely locked down.


My wall-mounted Airport Extreme (Simultaneous Dual-Band II)

The Airport Extreme has had 3 spatial stream support for a long time to little fanfare. The Airport Extreme still only allows 20 MHz channels on 2.4 GHz spectrum. Other WiFi AP vendors ship firmware which will automaticaly selects 40 MHz channels on 2.4 GHz spectrum per WiFi Alliance rules, but Apple uniformly uses 20 MHz channels on 2.4 GHz. It's a design choice Apple made a while ago which still exists to this day – for two reasons. The first is that it prevents you from being, well, less than courteous and eating up to over 80% of spectrum on the already crowded 2.4 GHz ISM band with one AP. Apple's rationale for disabling 40 MHz channel support on the 2.4 GHz spectrum (for both clients and APs) is that Bluetooth needs lots of bandwidth to hop around on, and already a wide variety of Apple desktop and notebook products come by default with Bluetooth peripherals. Maintaining a good A2DP stereo stream for example requires considerable 2.4 GHz bandwidth. Instead, if you really want 40 MHz channels Apple recommends using 5 GHz, which Apple clients and Apple APs both allow to work with 40 MHz channels.


2011 MacBook Pro WiFi+BT Module—Courtesy iFixit

The 2011 MacBook Pro refresh is the first line of Apple products to bring 3x3 radios that can finally enable faster transfer rates and better performance at the edge of WiFi range. 3x3 MIMO support is starting to become relatively common in the PC notebook space, but this is the first for Apple. Inside the 2011 MacBook Pro is a BCM4331 and three clearly U.FL antenna connectors (on the left) for WiFi, as opposed to two in the previous design.

The fourth on the right is for Bluetooth, which remains 3.0 and provided by the same BCM2070 as previous models. Interestingly enough, though the Bluetooth controller is the same, the 2011 MacBook Pro includes newer firmware (37 vs 20), and software (2.4.3f1 vs 2.3.8f7). Hopefully at some point the older design will see a firmware update and bring whatever changes and improvements were made. Though the software versions are different, we couldn't detect any notable differences between the two in practice.


Left: 2010 MBP Bluetooth Hardware, Right: 2011 MBP Bluetooth

However, there's a dramatic improvement in both WiFi range and performance between the 2010 and 2011 refresh. With 400 ns guard intervals 40 MHz channels, 64-QAM modulation, each spatial stream adds n*150 Mbps. With 20 MHz channels, it's 72.2*n Mbps. For example, 1 spatial stream has a data rate of 150 Mbps, 2 has 300 Mbps, 3 has 450 Mbps, and so forth all the way up to 4 spatial streams and 600 Mbps as defined in the 802.11n specification. The reality of the matter is that what physical layer rate you'll see depends on the modulation and coding scheme and how many streams are going. You can look those up at any time by holding option and clicking the WiFi indicator, and looking them up in a table.

We tested a 15" 2011 MacBook Pro alongside a 15" 2010 MacBook pro connected to an Airport Extreme (Simultaneous Dual-Band II) running latest firmware. I originally suspected that 3 spatial stream support wasn't enabled, and that Apple would push a firmware update out right after their first 3 spatial stream products started shipping. Interestingly enough, it's always been there, enabled, this is just the first client I've gotten my hands on that does it. I'm not a huge fan of the Airport Extreme (I use a WRT54G-TM with Tomato and a WRT-600N with DD-WRT), but it's the only thing on hand with 3x3 MIMO. I tested in four different locations in my house—in my office, living room, kitchen, and outdoor patio. The base station is in my office mounted on the wall close to the ceiling, and those locations are subjectively ordered from best to worst.

To test, I initiated a large transfer over SMB (from a Windows Server 2008 R2 install with a 5 TB RAID5 array connected over gigabit ethernet) on each client, continually pinged AT, and at each location checked the reported transmit rate and RSSI. What we're reporting here is again the physical layer link. I'll show in a second that real-world transfers also improved, this just gives some perspective for what raw link rates are being negotiated at each location.

WiFi Transfer Rate Differences—802.11n
  2011 MacBook Pro 2010 MacBook Pro
  RSSI Transfer Rate (Mbps) RSSI Transfer Rate (Mbps)
Location 1—Office -44 450 -42 300
Location 2—Living Room -61 130 -64 117
Location 3—Kitchen -69 117 -68 78
Location 4—Outdoor Patio -85 20 -84 13

In most cases, RSSI is within the margin of error. RSSI is generally not something you can compare, but since both wireless chipsets are Broadcom and the numbers are so close, it seems they're reported the same way and probably just dBm. Just know that generally it doesn't work that way unless you're lucky. What's important, however is that the negotiated link speed is noticeably better in essentially all locations on the new 2011 MBP. Even when the extra antenna isn't being used for a spatial stream of its own, it's actively improving link quality and helping the new MBP negotiate higher physical layer speeds.

So how much of a difference does 450 Mbps 3x3 make over 300 Mbps 2x2? With both in the exact same spot in my office, I saw throughput of 98.1 Mbps on the 2010 MBP compared to 113 Mbps on the 2011 MBP. The modest 15% improvement over the previous generation's wireless chipset isn't dramatic, instead the dramatically improved range is.

110.28 Megabits/s over WiFi. I later saw sustained 113 Megabits/s.

Subjectively, I found many more APs visible with the new MBP. I was able to cling onto my AP all the way out to the curb (just like smartphones) when connected on 2.4 GHz, something the old generation just couldn't do.

The only complaint I have about the new wireless chipset is that it seems to hunt around for what rate it wants negotiated. I saw a number of different MCS (modulation coding scheme) values with the 2011 MBP in the exact same place. Link rates from just below 300 Mbps all the way up to the expected 450. It seems to settle out at the expected 450 Mbps in the same room as the AP, it just takes a while, whereas other 2x2 stacks I've seen always lock onto 300 Mbps and stay there in the same room and position.

Display Quality Thunderbolt
POST A COMMENT

197 Comments

View All Comments

  • IntelUser2000 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    You don't know that, testing multiple systems over the years should have shown performance differences between manufacturers with identical hardware is minimal(<5%). Meaning its not Apple's fault. GPU bound doesn't mean rest of the systems woud have zero effect.

    It's not like the 2820QM is 50% faster, its 20-30% faster. The total of which could have been derived from:

    1. Quad core vs. Dual core
    2. HD3000 in the 2820QM has max clock of 1.3GHz, vs. 1.2GHz in the 2410M
    3. Clock speed of the 2820QM is quite higher in gaming scenarios
    4. LLC is shared between CPU and Graphics. 2410M has less than half the LLC of 2820QM
    5. Even at 20 fps, CPU has some impact, we're not talking 3-5 fps here

    It's quite reasonable to assume, in 3DMark03 and 05, which are explicitely single threaded, benefits from everything except #1, and frames should be high enough for CPU to affect it. Games with bigger gaps, quad core would explain to the difference, even as little as 5%.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    I should have another dual-core SNB setup shortly, with HD 3000, so we'll be able to see how that does.

    Anyway, we're not really focusing on 3DMarks, because they're not games. Looking just at the games, there's a larger than expected gap in the performance. Remember: we've been largely GPU limited with something like the GeForce G 310M using Core i3-330UM ULV vs. Core i3-370. That's a doubling of clock speed on the CPU, and the result was: http://www.anandtech.com/bench/Product/236?vs=244 That's a 2 to 14% difference, with the exception of the heavily CPU dependent StarCraft II (which is 155% faster with the U35Jc).

    Or if you want a significantly faster GPU comparison (i.e. so the onus is on the CPU), look at the Alienware M11x R2 vs. the ASUS N82JV: http://www.anandtech.com/bench/Product/246?vs=257 Again, much faster GPU than the HD 3000 and we're only seeing 10 to 25% difference in performance for low detail gaming. At medium detail, the difference between the two platforms drops to just 0 to 15% (but it grows to 28% in BFBC2 for some reason).

    Compare that spread to the 15 to 33% difference between the i5-2415M and the i7-2820QM at low detail, and perhaps even more telling is the difference remains large at medium settings (16.7 to 44% for the i7-2820QM, except SC2 turns the tables and leads by 37%). The theoretical clock speed difference on the IGP is only 8.3%, and we're seeing two to four times that much -- the average is around 22% faster, give or take. StarCraft II is a prime example of the funkiness we're talking about: the 2820QM is 31% faster at low, but the 2415M is 37% faster at medium? That's not right....

    Whatever is going on, I can say this much: it's not just about the CPU performance potential. I'll wager than when I test the dual-core SNB Windows notebook (an ASUS model) that scores in gaming will be a lot closer than what the MBP13 managed. We'll see....
    Reply
  • IntelUser2000 - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    I forgot one more thing. The quad core Sandy Bridge mobile chips support DDR3-1600 and dual core ones only up to DDR3-1333. Reply
  • mczak - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    memory bus width of HD6490M and H6750M is listed as 128bit/256bit. That's quite wrong, should be 64bit/128bit.

    btw I'm wondering what's the impact on battery life for the HD6490M? It isn't THAT much faster than the HD3000, so I'm wondering if at least the power consumption isn't that much higher neither...
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the correction :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • gstrickler - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Anand, I would like to see heat and maximum power consumption of the 15" with the dGPU disabled using gfxCardStatus. For those of us who aren't gamers and don't need OpenCL, the dGPU is basically just a waste of power (and therefore, battery life) and a waste of money. Those should be fairly quick tests. Reply
  • Nickel020 - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    The 2010 Macbooks with the Nvidia GPUs and Optimus switch to the iGPU again even if you don't close the application, right? Is this a general ATI issue that's also like this on Windows notebooks or is it only like this on OS X? This seems like quite an unnecessary hassle, actually having to manage it yourself. Not as bad as having to log off like on my late 2008 Macbook Pro, but still inconvenient. Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, March 10, 2011 - link

    Huh? You don't have to manage it yourself. Reply
  • Nickel020 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Well if you don't want to use the dGPU when it's not necessary you kind of have to manage it yourself. If I don't want to have the dGPU power up while web browsing and make the Macbook hotter I have to manually switch to the iGPU with gfxCardStatus. I mean I can leave it set to iGPU, but then I will still manually have to switch to the dGPU when I need the dGPU. So I will have to manage it manually.

    I would really have liked to see more of a comparison with how the GPU switching works in the 2010 Macbook Pros. I mean I can look it up, but I can find most of the info in the review somewhere else too; the point of the review is kind of to have it all the info in one place, and not having to look stuff up.
    Reply
  • tajmahal42 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    I think switching behaviour should be exactly the same for the 2010 and 2011 MacBook Pros, as the switching is done by the Mac OS, not by the Hardware.

    Apparently, Chrome doesn't properly close done Flash when it doesn't need it anymore or something, so the OS thinks it should still be using the dGPU.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now