Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2464

Setting Expectations

An old middle school friend of mine is obsessed with Apple these days. She’s always asking me Mac questions or trying to get an idea of what’s coming down the pipe (Steve: if you’re listening, she’d drop her Palm in a heartbeat if she could edit Word/Excel docs on the iPhone).

Lately she’s been asking me about the updated MacBook and MacBook Pros, mainly trying to figure out when they’d be shipping. I told her it’d be late February at the earliest, but more likely March. It seems as if Apple is a very good customer of Intel’s and thus a late-February launch of mobile Penryn was possible. Instead of being elated, she was disappointed by the new notebooks.

How on earth could you be disappointed? We’re talking 45nm Penryn inside the MacBook and MacBook Pro, this is a huge deal. But no, she was disappointed because the upgrades seemed, at least on the surface, as silly and minor. Larger hard drives and slightly faster processors? She wanted a new design, a backlit keyboard on the base MacBook, she hadn’t the faintest clue of what 45nm high-k + metal gate transistors could mean for the new models.

And thus I find myself starting another Apple notebook review with a conversation about expectations.

For the past couple of years Intel has been on this tick-tock model of CPU releases. Every “tock”, which happens once every two years, Intel introduces a brand new CPU architecture, in this case that’d be the 65nm Conroe/Merom based Core 2 Duo CPUs. The "ticks" happen the alternate year (when no "tock" is going on), where performance enhancements are minor but the transistor feature size goes down. Penryn is a “tick”, it’s a 45nm derivative of the Conroe/Merom architecture.

The new MacBook and MacBook Pro can be looked at as “tick” notebooks, as they are both based on Intel’s 45nm Penryn core. The CPU product name is still Core 2 Duo, but the core itself is smaller and runs cooler.

Because Penryn is built on a smaller manufacturing process (45nm vs. 65nm), Intel can cram in more transistors into the same space. Penryn is thus left with some architectural enhancements, although most of them fairly minor when it comes to real world performance (the full list can be found here). Penryn does add support for SSE4 instructions, however as we’ve seen on the PC side it’s going to take a while for developers to start using the new instructions and thus it can’t be counted as much of a performance-boosting feature today.

The two chips in the center are 65nm Merom (left) and 45nm Penryn (right) - note how much smaller the Penryn die is. 

Penryn power consumption does go down considerably compared to its 65nm predecessor thanks to the 45nm manufacturing process. However the CPU is only a percentage of a notebook’s power budget, so it’s tough to say what improvement this will have on battery life (although you can guarantee that it will be positive).

As a “tick” in Intel’s cadence, Penryn is designed to at first slot into current motherboards. So with minimal effort, Apple was able to use Penryn in its existing Santa Rosa designs (Santa Rosa refers to the notebook “platform”, mainly the CPU/chipset combination).

The next tock won’t happen until the end of this year with Nehalem, also a 45nm chip but with many new features and markedly higher performance. Nehalem will require a brand new board design and thus you can expect to see larger changes in Apple’s Nehalem based MacBook/MacBook Pro updates.

One More Thing for 2008: Montevina based MacBook/Pro

Mobile Penryn will get another update towards the end of this year, with a brand new chipset - codenamed Montevina. Montevina will bring DDR3 support to notebooks, which can also help battery life thanks to DDR3’s lower operating voltage (1.5V vs. 1.8V). Montevina will also use a faster integrated graphics core (helping the MacBook) and a lower power chipset.

The Mobile GM45/47 chipsets are an integral part of Montevina and will feature the new GMA X4500HD graphics core. The X4500HD will add full hardware H.264 decode acceleration, so Apple could begin shipping MacBook Pros with Blu-ray drives after the Montevina upgrade without them being a futile addition. With full hardware H.264 decode acceleration your CPU would be somewhere in the 0 - 10% range of utilization while watching a high definition movie, allowing you to watch a 1080p movie while on battery power. The new graphics core will also add integrated HDMI and DisplayPort support.

The 4-series chipset also enables 1066MHz FSB support, so you can expect Montevina based notebooks to come with slightly different clock speed CPUs (2.26GHz, 2.40GHz, 2.53GHz, 2.80GHz and 3.06GHz at the very high end). By the end of this year Montevina will also support a 45W TDP quad-core mobile processor running at 2.53GHz.

Montevina will also add native support for WiMAX, which could be interesting given that Apple’s iPhone partner isn’t backing the standard while Sprint is.

The special small form factor CPU package that Intel supplied Apple with for the MacBook Air will also become more mainstream with Montevina. While Intel currently only offers the 22 x 22mm small form factor CPUs at 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz frequencies, with Montevina it will go up to 2.26GHz and 2.40GHz. This could conceivably allow Apple to build an even thinner MacBook without sacrificing CPU speed.

Montevina will be yet another evolutionary step on the way to the Nehalem based notebooks, but it will require a board change so Apple could also be tempted to introduce larger changes in that refresh as well.

The timeline for all of this is pretty simple; you can expect Montevina before the end of 2008 (Intel lists it as June on its internal roadmaps, but you can expect to see it in notebooks anytime in Q3). Despite being officially released this year, Nehalem won’t be in notebooks until sometime next year so the big performance upgrade will be a 2009 thing.

That leaves us with what we have today: a CPU update to Apple’s notebook lineup. Obviously CPUs aren’t the only things that get an update as Apple does include larger hard drives and some other minor tweaks in the new models, but the star of the show is Penryn and the problem is that Apple doesn’t usually draw attention to things like that.

Much of the engineering prowess behind the MacBook Air was in Intel’s small form factor Merom CPU packaging, yet Apple’s focus was on what was made possible by the CPU: an ultra-thin notebook. With Penryn, the improvements are far less clear. Performance is greater, but only really in SSE4 optimized applications (of which very few exist, especially under OS X). Battery life should be improved but Apple managed to change its methods of reporting battery life alongside the updated MacBook introduction, so it’s tough to make a direct comparison based on Apple’s information alone (luckily we’ve got a way around that called benchmarking). Needless to say, there are improvements under the hood of these new Macs, it’s just a matter of quantifying them.

With a company like Apple where improvements are normally accompanied by visible changes, if they aren’t it’s very easy to assume that nothing has changed. Today we’re going to try and find out whether or not that’s true.

What’s New?

1) Mobile Penryn: The MacBook and MacBook Pro now both use 45nm Penryn based Core 2 Duo CPUs. The chipset and rest of the platform remain identical. We’ll be measuring the impacts of this on performance battery life.

2) Multi-touch Track Pads: The MacBook Pro now gets the same multi-touch functionality as the MacBook Air.

3) More Video Memory on the MacBook Pro: The GeForce 8600M GT Apple uses in the MacBook Pro now comes with either 256MB or 512MB of GDDR3 memory, up from 128MB - 256MB in the previous MacBook Pro. The base MacBook continues to use Intel’s X3100 integrated graphics and uses system memory (up to 144MB) for its frame buffer.

4) Bigger Hard Drives: Both the MacBook and MacBook Pro now come with larger 2.5” HDDs standard. Reasonable sized SSDs are still too expensive to realistically offer. I’ve got a 128GB SSD back at the office, I’ll be taking a look at its impact on battery life after CeBIT.

5) Slightly Updated Keyboards: The function key layout has been updated a bit and is now identical to the desktop and MacBook Air keyboards. The base MacBook does not get a backlit keyboard unfortunately.

The improvements to the MacBook and MacBook Pro lines are largely evolutionary, but they do come at no additional cost so it’s tough to complain about that.

  New Penryn MacBook Pro 15" Old Merom MacBook Pro 15" New Penryn MacBook Old Merom MacBook MacBook Air
Dimensions H: 1.0"
W: 14.1"
D: 9.6"
H: 1.0"
W: 14.1"
D: 9.6"
H: 1.08"
W: 12.78"
D: 8.92"
H: 1.08"
W: 12.78"
D: 8.92"
H: 0.16-076"
W: 12.8"
D: 8.94"
Weight 5.4 lbs 5.4 lbs 5.0 lbs 5.0 lbs 3.0 lbs
Screen Size/Resolution 15.4" / 1440 x 900 15.4" / 1440 x 900 13.3" / 1280 x 800 13.3" / 1280 x 800 13.3" / 1280 x 800
CPU Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz - 2.6GHz (45nm Penryn) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz - 2.6GHz (65nm Merom) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.1 - 2.4GHz (45nm Penryn) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 - 2.2GHz (65nm Merom) Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6 - 1.8GHz (65nm Merom)
GPU NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT (256MB - 512MB) NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT (128MB - 256MB) Intel GMA X3100
(144MB UMA)
Intel GMA X3100
(144MB UMA)
Intel GMA X3100 (144MB UMA)
Memory 2GB - 4GB DDR2-667 2GB - 4GB DDR2-667 1GB - 4GB DDR2-667 1GB - 4GB DDR2-667 2GB DDR2-667 (fixed)
HDD 200 - 250GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA
200GB 7200RPM SATA
120 - 250GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA
200GB 7200RPM SATA
120 - 250GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA HDD 80 - 160GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA HDD 80GB 1.8" HDD
or 64GB 1.8" SSD
Optical Drive Integrated SuperDrive Integrated SuperDrive Integrated Combo drive or SuperDrive Integrated Combo drive or SuperDrive Optional External USB SuperDrive
Networking 802.11a/b/g/n
10/100/1000 Ethernet
10/100/1000 Ethernet
10/100/1000 Ethernet
10/100/1000 Ethernet
Built in iSight Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Inputs 2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x FireWire 800
1 x ExpressCard/34
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x FireWire 800
1 x ExpressCard/34
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
1 x USB 2.0
1 x Integrated mic
Outputs 1 x Audio
1 x dual-link DVI
1 x Audio
1 x dual-link DVI
1 x Audio
1 x mini-DVI
1 x Audio
1 x mini-DVI
1 x Audio
1 x Micro-DVI
Battery 60WHr 60WHr 55WHr 55WHr 37WHr
Price $1999 $1999 $1099 $1099 $1799


Much Ado about L2

When Apple announced its Penryn upgrade clock speeds went up but in some cases L2 cache sizes went down. If you exclusively follow Apple hardware releases then changes in L2 cache size may be difficult to quantify in terms of performance impact, luckily we tend to be a little obsessed with CPUs at AnandTech so we can help clarify and, later, quantify.

Clock-for-clock, Penryn is between 0 - 10% faster than Merom across a variety of applications. On average Penryn is closer to 2 - 3% faster than Merom, at the same clock speed and that’s with a larger L2 cache. With the Penryn update, Apple bumped the clock speeds of all of its notebooks but in some cases reduced L2 cache size.

Intel offers two mobile Penryn cores: one with a 3MB L2 and one with a 6MB L2. Today’s applications, at least on the PC side, tend to fit very well within Merom’s 4MB L2 cache so you shouldn’t expect a significant performance increase, if any at all, from the larger L2 cache.

Back when Intel offered Core 2 CPUs with a 2MB L2 cache, we generally saw an 4 - 10% difference between them and the 4MB parts, averaging closer to 4%. Assuming performance scales linearly with cache size, the 3MB L2 chips should be marginally slower than the 4MB counterparts they replace. However, Apple didn’t just reduce L2 cache size, it also increased CPU clock speed at the same time. At the low end of the spectrum with the MacBook, the base configuration went from 2.0GHz to 2.1GHz, an increase of 5%. The 2.2GHz MacBook is now a 2.4GHz MacBook, an increase of 9%.

The MacBook Pro's base configuration also went from 2.2GHz to 2.4GHz (9% increase in CPU speed). By and large the increase in CPU clock speed should be able to erase any loss in performance from the smaller L2 cache, so we’d expect that at the same price point, the new MacBook and MacBook Pro CPUs won’t be any faster, but not any slower either.

Keyboard Updates

With the MacBook Air Apple introduced a revised keyboard with different function key mappings across the top. Historically, F9, F10 and F11 have been the Exposé keys; F9 Exposé-d across all windows, F10 did it to all windows in a single application and F11 moved all windows away revealing your desktop. OS X 10.4, Tiger, introduced the Dashboard, a great innovation that helped reduce window clutter by allowing for a separate desktop overlay with useful widgets. Apple mapped Dashboard to the F12 key.

The problem with using function keys on a notebook is that they are generally double-mapped. Hold down the fn key and they perform one task, otherwise they perform another.

It used to be that if you wanted access to the brightness, backlight and audio control buttons on the keyboard you had to disable the function-lock. Unfortunately if you did this, then you had to hold down the fn key whenever you wanted to access Exposé or the Dashboard. F3 and F4 are now dedicated Exposé and Dashboard keys, the point being that you can get the best of both worlds.

F3 is the Exposé key and F4 is the Dashboard key

Same on the MacBook Pro keyboard

Without fn-lock enabled, you can now use all of the keyboard hotkeys while also being able to Exposé all windows and view your Dashboard. Unfortunately the world isn’t perfect and I still like to be able to Exposé only a single application’s windows or just reveal my desktop, both of which still require the use of the fn-key (or enabling fn-lock). Unfortunately Apple has run out of fn keys at the top of the keyboard so it’s impossible to add these two additional Exposé functions without reducing functionality elsewhere.

I’m not sure what the solution to my problem is, but that’s for Apple to figure out, at best I can just complain about it.

Oh Hashmir, Multitouch Me Down There

Normally I don’t like reusing borderline comedic material from other reviews I’ve written but it’s late and I couldn’t type the word multitouch without giggling.

The MacBook Pro gets the same multi-touch technology from the MacBook Air’s trackpad. The multi-touch surface itself isn’t quite as large as it is on the Air, but the functionality is the same.

Two fingers on the trackpad will let you scroll up and down or left and right. Three fingers and you can swipe back and forth to traverse your web or folder history (as well as pages in Preview).

You get scroll, right click and zoom functionality with the base MacBook's touchpad but no ability to rotate or swipe-to-navigate

You can even rotate images by making little rotate motions with your fingers when in Preview or iPhoto.

I'm rotating this image entirely using my fingers on the touchpad

As I mentioned in the MacBook Air review, while I definitely appreciate the multi-touch features of the new notebooks (much more so than I expected actually) Apple is in dire need of better OS integration for the multi-touch gestures.

The latest example of this is the three finger swipe-to-navigate gesture. If you’ve got a Finder window open in column view and want to go forward in the directory structure, you can’t unless you’ve previously been there. The swipe gesture only controls the forward/back buttons in Finder, it doesn’t actually control traversal of folders.

Using three fingers to swipe works for going back, but you can't swipe forward here (see the greyed out forward arrow button in the top left of the Finder window)

Obviously this is something Apple is working on, as other OEMs are focusing many resources on touch-enabled interfaces for PCs. The Apple advantage is that it controls the software stack, so our expectations are higher - we want a version of OS X designed around touch, not one with some added touch UI functionality.

Think iPhone meets OS X, now make it happen Steveo.

The New MacBook

On the outside, the new MacBook is no different from its predecessor but this was my first time really using a MacBook while I'd lived with a Pro for a couple of years now, so I paid it extra attention.

As with all Apple notebooks, physical build quality is a strong point. While neither the MacBook or MacBook Pro feel quite as carved-out-of-stone as the Air due to the greater complexity of their physical design, they are both very well made.

Opening and closing the Macbook reveals its solid build quality. Apple has paid tremendous attention to the tactile experience of its notebooks and it shows.

Everyone harped on the MacBook Air for its lack of expansion options, the base MacBook does also have one complaint in that regard: it lacks an ExpressCard slot. While the Pro has an ExpressCard/34 slot, the MacBook relies on USB or FireWire for all of its peripherals. It’s not a huge deal but it does prevent the use of ExpressCard cellular modems, which would be my biggest use for the expansion slot.

That's all you get with the MacBook, no ExpressCard slot here

I really do love the style of the base MacBook, it’s honestly the best looking laptop you can get for $1100. It’s also got an advantage over the all-aluminum MacBook Pro in that the exterior casing is made out of plastic: it doesn’t shock me after walking through airline security.

Unfortunately, as is the case with virtually all Apple products, it takes a lot of effort to keep it looking good. The glossy white exterior does scratch/scuff easily like the aluminum exterior of the Air and Pro models. It’s much like owning a car in that you dread the first scratch, but once you get a few swirls in the paint you stop worrying so much and just try and keep it looking as good as possible.

Even the LED and remote IR receiver are stylishly integrated into the design

Flipping open the lid reveals an equally scary surface - it’s all white. The keys are white, the wrist rests are white, the whole thing is white. The problem isn’t the color, it’s that our bodies tend to secrete oil and leave dead skin around, which will ultimately end up on your wonderfully white MacBook. It’s a lot like owning white furniture, it can look great but it’s also a pain to maintain. Obviously a slightly discolored MacBook isn’t going to reduce its functionality any, but with greater style comes greater responsibility - keep that in mind.

It's so pretty

You can get it in black, but that'll cost you...

One solution is to get it in black, but unfortunately you need to opt for the $1499 version of the MacBook if you want that. The sweet spot for the MacBook is definitely the $1299 version as you get a fast enough processor (giving you virtual performance parity with the MacBook Pro as you'll soon see) and an appropriate amount of memory, as 1GB can be borderline for multitaskers like yours truly.

The MacBook (right) lacks the blacklit keyboard of the MacBook Pro (left)

There’s no backlit keyboard, which I hadn’t thought about until actually purchasing and owning a MacBook. It’s a feature that the rest of the industry has taken far too long to copy and there’s no excuse, even if it’s one of cost, to not include it in the base MacBook. If Apple wants to fight off claims of putting form over function it needs to include highly useful features like the Air/Pro’s backlit keyboard in all of its notebooks.

Despite the lack of a backlight, the MacBook's keyboard is excellent. I fell in love with it on the MacBook Air and it's truly a joy to type on. It's amazing how bad most notebook keyboards are, but the MacBook's is just very well done.

For some reason the MacBook and MacBook Pro ship with different builds of OS X 10.5.2:

The MacBook's OS X 10.5.2 build (9C2015)

The MacBook Pro's OS X 10.5.2 build (9C2018)

While my experience with the MacBook Pro was flawless, I did encounter two crashes with the base MacBook. Neither was repeatable but one was a kernel panic:

It only happened once and I couldn't get it to happen again, but it was strange given that both systems were configured and used identically. There's always new kinks to work out and I know OS X 10.5.1 was horribly unstable for me on my Mac Pro, so this could be an isolated software issue but I felt compelled to at least report it.

I’d never owned or even extensively used a MacBook before, so when I first met its screen I was shocked. This thing was terrible, no where near as good as what was on the Air or the Pro models. The problem wasn’t brightness, color reproduction or response time, it was the display’s poor off-angle viewing.

The MacBook (left) vs. MacBook Pro (right), at the right angle the two displays are identical

Start moving away from the perfect angle and the MacBook's display stats to look really washed out

And here's what you get in airplane mode, where you can't necessarily tilt the display as far back as you'd like. This setup may seem unnatural but the MacBook's display is clearly inferior.

The MacBook screen is terrible for off-angle viewing. Case in point, I’m writing this while on a plane on the MacBook. The seat in front of me is reclined too far back for me to tilt the screen back far enough to achieve a proper viewing angle. Instead, I’m looking at the screen off-axis and it’s unbelievably washed out.

The same isn’t true on the MacBook Pro, indicating that Apple is most likely using a TN panel on the standard MacBook and an IPS on the Pro.

With Penryn, thermals have improved on both of Apple's notebooks which translates into a cooler lap experience. The plastic enclosure of the MacBook doesn’t conduct heat as well as the aluminum MacBook Pro, meaning that it also feels better on your lap. Penryn doesn't produce as much heat as Merom so while the MacBook got warm, it never got hot during extended usage on my lap.

At 2.4GHz, the MacBook can offer some very respectable performance coupled with great battery life. It gets the job done as an entry-level Mac notebook, but the display really left me with a bad taste. Give me a better display and an ExpressCard slot and I don’t need the Pro, but then again I guess that’s Apple’s plan from the get-go.

The New MacBook Pro

Externally, the new MacBook Pro is no different from its predecessor so I'll refrain from going into great detail about it. Instead I will focus this section mostly on how the Pro differs from its cheaper alternative: the base MacBook. Be sure to check out our teardown of the new MacBook Pro and a closer look at its internals here.

Virtually all Apple notebooks now ship with 2GB of memory standard. Nice.

The MacBook Pro continues to be an all-aluminum chassis with ports on both sides and a slot loading optical drive out front. Unlike the MacBook and MacBook Air, the Pro's display latches to the base and isn't held down using a magnet.

The MacBook Pro (top) vs. the MacBook (bottom)

The larger footprint of the MacBook Pro is noticeable and while it's comfortable to carry around, it's far better suited for sitting on your desk than being constantly carried around and unfolded. It's not quite desktop replacement size (unless you opt for the 17" model) but there's no question that the base MacBook feels more portable, not to mention the Air.

The display on the MacBook Pro is beautiful and is a significant improvement over what’s used in the base model thanks to Apple's use of an IPS panel instead of a TN panel. The result is much better off-angle viewing. I can't stress enough how big of a difference the display makes with the MacBook Pro and is honestly the main reason I would pick it over the regular MacBook as a work machine.

The higher resolution display is a nice advantage of the Pro over the base MacBook (1440 x 900 vs. 1280 x 800). While OS X does an excellent job of window management on cramped laptop displays, there's never a replacement for more pixels and you can simply be more productive on the Pro's display than on the base MacBook's.

The 13" MacBook's 1280 x 800 resolution

The 15" MacBook Pro's 1440 x 900 resolution

The MacBook Pro is cooled by two fans, just like its predecessor. In fact, the entire cooling solution remains unchanged from the previous Pro. Thankfully, due to Penryn’s lower thermal output, the fans shouldn’t have to work as hard as they did in the Merom based MacBook Pros.

My first MacBook Pro was based on the 65nm Yonah design, Intel’s first dual-core mobile chip. That MacBook Pro got far too hot to use on my lap without borderline burning my skin or ruining the potential of having any little Anands running around in the future (scary). The 65nm Merom based Pros improved things considerably, but they were still uncomfortably warm after any real usage. How does the 45nm Pernyn based MacBook Pro stack up?

Honestly, the new MacBook Pro isn’t bad at all when it comes to heat. The base of the system can get warm, but not what I’d consider hot. Penryn’s impact here is definitely a positive one.

Despite not having the unique separated-key keyboard of the base MacBook and the Air, the MacBook Pro’s keyboard is arguably just as good, if not better. The keyboard feels a bit more expensive but I can’t stress enough how both keyboards are definitely among the best I’ve used.

The biggest difference between the MacBook keyboards is the Pro's use of a fiber optic backlit keyboard. Light sensors are hidden beneath the speaker grills on the left and right of the keyboard, in low ambient light the keyboard's backlight will illuminate and help you locate keys. If you use the MacBook Pro as a second system only on the road and aren't necessarily intimately familiar with its keyboard layout, the backlight helps a lot in dark situations like on a plane without being intrusive or waking up neighboring passengers. The Pro's display will also dim/brighten itself based on ambient light, something the base MacBook won't do as it lacks the appropriate light sensors.

The Pro really makes the base MacBook look entry-level, and yes that's my hotel room in the background

The improvement in Exposé and Dashboard performance is very noticeable on the Pro vs. the base MacBook thanks to the Pro's GeForce 8600M GT and larger, dedicated frame buffer.

Even with only five windows on the screen, a full Exposé across all of them is much smoother on the Pro than on the base MacBook with its X3100 integrated graphics. The solution here isn't to demand discrete NVIDIA GPUs on all of Apple's notebooks, but to demand better integrated graphics from Intel. Montevina will bring about a faster graphics core, which may be enough to make Exposé smoother on the MacBook - but if frame buffer access is too slow then no integrated graphics core will really help.

It turns out that Apple really did an excellent job of naming with the MacBook Pro. If you were to ask me which I’d recommend to you, it’d really depend on whether or not you were using the notebook for work. The MacBook Pro really completes the package in a way that the base MacBook doesn’t, and the improved screen is so key if you’re planning on doing any sort of work while seated in a somewhat unusual position (ooo kinky).

Glossy or Not?

With the exception of the MacBook Pro, all of Apple’s notebooks are available exclusively with a glossy display. The benefit of a glossy display is an improved contrast ratio but the downside is it reflects more ambient light, particularly when you have an unusually strong light source (e.g. sitting in front of a window or being outside with the Sun).

With the MacBook Pro you have the option of either a glossy or anti-glare display, the question that remains is: which should you choose?

As you’d expect, the decision really falls upon your intended use for the notebook. Indoors, the glossy display was much nicer in my opinion. Blacks appeared blacker and the screen was much more pleasant to look at:

Matte screen (left) vs. Glossy (right)

Matte screen (left) vs. Glossy (right)

Unfortunately the glossy screen can get pretty annoying when there's glare on it:

Glossy, see the window reflection on the left?

The matte anti-reflective screen just gets a little washed out but doesn't reflect its environment when presented with glare:

I still end up preferring the glossy screen but I don't use these things outside that often. If I were still using them outside on campus I might have to opt for the matte screen instead.

Cases, we need Cases

I can’t stress how important it is for Apple to start building good cases for its notebooks. Apple has done a tremendous job on styling its notebooks yet they are confined to the same cases that even the most generically designed PC notebooks are destined for. Many of Apple’s notebook peripherals are also not of standard shapes or sizes (e.g. the power brick), paving the way for even more synergy through a well designed custom case.

The MacBook Air needs a custom case to avoid losing the point of one of its biggest features. Who cares if you can stick the Air in a manilla folder if you have to carry it around in a standard laptop bag?

The MacBook and MacBook Pro are no different, although not as extreme of examples as the Air. These notebooks feature a very well proportioned shape and are as attractive as you can get in a computer (I’ll refrain from using the word sexy since, well, they don’t incite any sexual desire despite being well styled computers), yet they are carried in ugly, not well designed bags.

Apple seems to have the design sense to tackle such a thing, although I’m not sure if it really wants to get into the notebook case business. I figure that it spends so much time and effort on making sure its packaging is among the most stylish on the planet, why not create some packaging that you can actually take with you?

Are They Any Faster?

We ran the same performance test suite on the new Penryn based notebooks that we did in our MacBook Air review. The system configurations were as follows:

  CPU Clock Speed L2 Cache Memory HDD Graphics
System 1: MacBook Pro 2.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (65nm Merom) 2.6GHz 4MB 2GB DDR2-667 200GB 7200RPM 2.5" NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT 256MB
System 2: MacBook Pro 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (45nm Penryn) 2.5GHz 6MB 2GB DDR2-667 250GB 5400RPM 2.5" NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT 512MB
System 3: MacBook Pro 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (65nm Merom) 2.2GHz 4MB 2GB DDR2-667 120GB 5400RPM 2.5" NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT 128MB
System 4: MacBook Pro 2.0GHz Intel Core Duo (65nm Yonah) 2.0GHz 2MB 2GB DDR2-667 120GB 5400RPM 2.5" ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 128MB
System 5: MacBook 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (45nm Penryn) 2.4GHz 3MB 2GB DDR2-667 160GB 5400RPM 2.5" Intel GMA X3100 (144MB UMA)
System 6: MacBook Air Intel Core 2 Duo (65nm Merom) 1.8GHz 4MB 2GB DDR2-667 80GB 4200RPM 1.8" Intel GMA X3100 (144MB UMA)


iPhoto Performance

We ran two iPhoto tests, one of which we've used in the past several Apple reviews. We simply time the import of 379 images into an empty iPhoto album. This test is both processor and disk intensive.

iPhoto Picture Import

In our iPhoto Import test, the new Penryn based MacBook and MacBook Pro both come within 10% of the Merom based 2.6GHz MacBook Pro. Keep in mind that our 2.6GHz numbers were taken with a 7200RPM hard drive, so the comparison isn't ideal.

Our next test takes the pictures we just imported and exports them to a multi-page website, once again we're measuring completion time in seconds:

iPhoto Web Page Export

Despite the faster hard drive however, both Penryn based notebooks manage to outperform the faster 2.6GHz Merom notebook in the iPhoto Export to Web test. It's tough to say exactly why they're faster here, other than remembering that Penryn included some updates that made integer divides faster and improved its SSE shuffle engine. Here the 2.4GHz Penryn proves to be faster than the 2.6GHz Merom.

iWork '08 Performance

What do iWork users often find themselves doing? Exporting their wonderful documents to formats that can be used by Microsoft Office users. Thus our Pages and Keynote benchmarks involve exporting to Word and PowerPoint respectively:

Pages - Export to Word Doc

Our Pages test also shows a Penryn performance advantage of close to 10%, some of that is going to be due to normal variation in test runs but even if we dismiss half of the performance gains we're still looking at a 2.5GHz Penryn system being at least as fast as a 2.6GHz Merom system.

Keynote - Export to PowerPoint Presentation

The pendulum swings back into Merom's court in our Keynote test, here the clock speed advantage (and possibly the faster HDD) give the 2.6GHz Merom the edge.

Microsoft Office 2008 Performance

Our Word 2008 test comes from Intel and times how long it takes to compare two different versions of the Count of Monte Cristo using Word's built in document compare function:

Microsoft Word 2008 - Compare Documents

Our Word comparison test also favors the Merom system, however in this case we suspect that it is at least partially due to the Merom system's faster hard drive as the 4% increase in performance is identical to the clock speed difference - and Word doesn't scale nearly that well with clock speed.

Our multitasking Office 2008 is another Intel-supplied benchmark; this one has us running the document compare test from above, while printing a PowerPoint presentation to PDF. Note that the original MacBook Pro took so long to complete this test that we had to just give it a DNF score and leave it out of the chart:

Microsoft Word 2008 + PowerPoint Multitask

Throwing a PowerPoint print-to-PDF into the mix and Penryn pulls ahead, outclassing the faster-disk equipped Merom system.

File Decompression, Photoshop and Quicktime Performance

Using MacPAR Deluxe we took an 800MB archive and deleted 5% of it, forcing MacPAR to read the archive, calculate and write the missing bits, then extract the whole archive:

File Decompression

Once more the slightly lower clocked Penryn MacBook Pro manages close to a 5% lead over the 2.6GHz Merom system.

Our CS3 benchmark is the standard Retouch Artists test that we use in our CPU reviews. We're just timing how long it takes to complete a handful of operations on an image in Photoshop:

Adobe Photoshop CS3 Retouch Artists Benchmark

Photoshop performance is nearly identical between the 2.5GHz Penryn and 2.6GHz Merom systems.

Finally we have our Quicktime H.264 encode test. All we're doing here is taking a 500MB MPEG-2 avi file and encoding it using Apple's H.264 codec and Quicktime's default settings:

Quicktime H.264 Encode

It looks like Quicktime isn't optimized for SSE4 yet as Penryn offers no advantage over Merom.

Overall, the performance differential ends up being a wash - there are some cases where Penryn is faster at lower clock speeds, while others where Merom manages a win - much as we expected.

6MB L2 vs. 3MB L2

Apple offers two CPU options for the MacBook and three for the MacBook Pro. The MacBook comes with a 2.1GHz Core 2 Duo with a 3MB L2 cache shared between both cores, or a 2.4GHz model also with a 3MB L2. The MacBook Pro comes with the same 2.4GHz/3MB part or a 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo with a 6MB L2 cache. The question is: how much benefit does the extra 3MB L2 cache give you?

Unfortunately Intel doesn't offer the same clock speed CPU in both 3MB and 6MB flavors, so we're left comparing two differently clocked CPUs. In this case we took a 2.4GHz/3MB Core 2 and stacked it up against a 2.5GHz/6MB part, the chart below shows the performance improvement of the 2.5GHz/6MB core over the 2.4GHz/3MB part:

The performance increase due to the clock speed and cache size increase varies from 0% all the way up to 11.7%, with a maximum of around 4% of that being due to the clock speed increase alone - the added L2 cache does have a benefit.

How much does Apple charge for the average 5% improvement in performance? Unfortunately you can't just purchase the CPU upgrade, you have to buy the $2499 model instead of the $1999 model. You get another 50GB of hard disk space (250GB vs. 200GB) and 512MB of video memory along with the CPU upgrade but you're paying an extra $500. Note that Intel only charges Apple an additional $75 for the faster CPU ($316 vs. $241), but since the CPU is soldered onto the motherboard you can't swap chips yourself.

If all you care about is the larger cache, the $500 upgrade cost is a tough pill to swallow. Even the increase in drive space isn't all that attractive for the money. The increase in video memory is nice but 256MB should be all you need for smooth Exposé performance on the 15" 1440 x 900 display.

Our recommendation? If you're going to upgrade your notebook in another 1.5 - 2 years anyways, pocket the $500 and don't bother with the added cache. It's not going to do much for you today.

This performance comparison also means that the base MacBook can offer very similar performance to the MacBook Pro, just as you'd expect. The only reasons to buy the Pro are, as we mentioned, mostly feature-based.

What About Battery Life?

What we found in our initial mobile Penryn investigation was that performance was relatively unchanged, but the impact on battery life could be significant. Depending on the test we saw anywhere from a 5% - 20% increase in battery life over an identically configured Merom system. Unfortunately today we don’t have any identically configured Merom based Apple notebooks, all of our configurations vary in one shape or another, eliminating the possibility of a scientifically sound apples-to-apples comparison. But we can come pretty damn close.

We compared six Apple notebooks using the same battery life tests we introduced in our MacBook Air review, the summary of those tests is below:

The wireless web browsing test uses the 802.11n connection to browse a series of 20 web pages varying in size, spending 20 seconds on each page (I timed how long it takes me to read a page on Digg and came up with 36 seconds; I standardized on 20 seconds for the test to make things a little more stressful). The test continues to loop all while playing MP3s in iTunes.

The DVD playback test is simple: I play Blood Diamond in a loop from an image on the hard drive until the battery runs out.

The final test is the multitasking workload. For this benchmark I'm downloading 10GB worth of files from the net (constant writes to the drive), browsing the web (same test as the first one) and watching the first two episodes of Firefly encoded in a 480p XviD format (Quicktime is set to loop the content until the system dies).

The system was set to never shut off the display and never go to sleep, although the hard drive was allowed to spin down when possible. The display brightness was set at 9 blocks (just over 50%), which I felt was comfortable for both day and night viewing.

The MacBook Air was included as a reference, as was the original MacBook Pro based on Intel's Core Duo processor.

We had two Merom based Santa Rosa MacBook Pros in the mix: one configured with a 2.2GHz CPU and a 5400RPM HDD, and another configured with a 2.6GHz CPU and a 7200RPM HDD.

Finally we had the two Penryn based notebooks: the 2.4GHz MacBook and the 2.5GHz MacBook Pro, both with their standard 5400RPM HDDs.

In our wireless web browsing test the higher clock speed systems actually fared better, possibly because they were able to render pages quicker and thus enter deeper sleep states faster. Early on in Intel's mobile CPU designing history it realized that the trick to attaining good battery life is to make sure CPUs could complete their tasks as quickly as possible so that they could enter a deep sleep state sooner rather than later. We may be seeing evidence of that in this test.

Battery Life: Wireless Web Browsing

Both the new Penryn notebooks are able to achieve at least 5 hours of battery life in this test. The previous king, our 2.6GHz Merom based MacBook Pro is bested by both models by at least 30 minutes. The Penryn advantage here amounts to 11 - 14%. If you look back at our first Penryn vs. Merom battery test we saw improvements in the 5 - 17% range, so these gains are in line with our expectations.

Battery Life: DVD Playback

Our DVD playback test shows smaller gains, 7.8% for the 2.5GHz MacBook Pro vs. the Merom based 2.6GHz model. Once again, we saw a 7% increase in battery life in our first Penryn vs. Merom comparison for the DVD playback test and the Apple results are in-line. The smaller display on the MacBook gave it an even longer battery life, lasting over 4 hours - more than enough for two back-to-back movies (and good ones at that).

The stress test left us with a 9% increase in battery life, once again falling within expectations:

Battery Life: Heavy Downloading + XviD + Web

It looks like Penryn is good for a 7 - 15% increase in battery life over similarly configured Merom systems. The improvement alone isn't enough to warrant an upgrade but it's a nice improvement over the previous systems given that you get it at no additional cost. Ah, the beauty of innovation.

The Air Update

Apple released the new Penryn notebooks on Tuesday and on Wednesday I was on a flight to Austin to visit AMD and Intel. Unfortunately, due to battery life testing, I couldn’t get all of my benchmarking done before the trip which meant either waiting until I got back Friday night to finish testing or taking a bunch of notebooks with me. Seeing as how I would be back home for a day before heading off to Germany for CeBIT, I had to take them with me.

In my carry on I had the new MacBook Pro, the new MacBook and my MacBook Air (which made for a fun trip through the security line at RDU). I needed the Air so I could have something to write on while the Pro and regular MacBook ran down their batteries in my hotel room Wednesday night, and it was the lightest thing I had available so it gave me an opportunity to really use Apple’s new ultra portable on the road.

The keyboard continues to be one of my favorite aspects of the Air, it’s so easy to write on and it does allow me to be productive on a very light notebook. I am eager to try out Lenovo’s X300 to see how it stacks up in this regard, as Lenovo and IBM before it are well known for having highly usable keyboards.

Using the MacBook and the Air back to back, the Air’s sluggish 4200RPM 1.8” HDD is very apparent. As I suggested in the MacBook Air review, it isn’t a MacBook replacement or even an upgrade. The MacBook Air is much like a horizontal promotion within a company, you’ve got the same level of responsibility and pay grade but you may be better suited for the job. The Air isn’t a clear upgrade from the regular MacBook despite its pricing, it’s simply better suited for some users thanks to its form factor.

So far I’m not missing the optical drive, but I am still getting used to having to bring the silly USB Ethernet dongle with me wherever I go just in case. For this trip I had three power bricks (one for each notebook), another for my camera and yet another for my iPhone. I had to bring along a compact flash reader and when I thought I was done with all of my cables, I forgot I needed to bring along the USB Ethernet dongle in case my hotel didn’t have wireless. It’s not a heavy item to bring along but a minor annoyance nonetheless.

Battery life is about where I expected it to be based on the tests I ran for the review. If you remember in the original review I managed 4.5 hours for light web browsing with MP3 playback, while my more intensive test drained the cells in about 2.5 hours. Writing this article on the Air left me with about a 3.5 hour battery life, largely due to my constant saving which prevents the hard drive from going to sleep. I’m also constantly typing and not giving the system much think time, which keeps the CPU from entering deeper sleep states. So the 2.5 - 4.5 hour average lifespan for the Air seems to work out in actual usage (which makes sense since the battery tests were derived from actual usage). My concern is what happens once the battery ages and no longer manages to hold a full charge. In my opinion 3.5 - 4.5 hours is reasonable although not perfect, start dropping closer to 2 - 2.5 hours and the system stops being as useful to me.

The SSD option would obviously help things, but I had to send my sample back so it’s back to the mechanical disk for me.

I’m also extremely glad Apple didn’t go with the same panel on the Air as it uses on the regular MacBook. If this thing is designed for people like me who write a lot on the go, a crappy display would just be unacceptable.

Final Words

The new MacBook and MacBook Pro, much like the MacBook Air before them, are much more functions of Intel's innovation rather than Apple's. In the case of the new MacBook and Pro models, the innovation is almost exclusively limited to what Intel has been able to do with mobile Penryn as Apple made no changes to the exterior of either system.

Regardless of where the innovation comes from, it is still an improvement in technology and mobile Penryn proves to be everything we expected it to be. The biggest improvement by far comes in the battery life department. Just as we had seen earlier, you can expect these new models to outlast their predecessors by a good 7 - 15%.

The performance side of things is more of a mixed bag. There are some situations where Penryn is clearly faster than Merom while others show the two with equal performance. It's for this reason that we say the biggest improvement lies in battery life, not performance.

Apple picked the right CPU partner in Intel, as it seems that every year we get good increases in either performance, battery life or both.

If you're holding out for something more revolutionary you may want to wait for Montevina later this year, or Nehalem sometime next year. Both platforms will give Apple ample opportunity to make more changes to the design and featureset of the MacBook and MacBook Pro, all while improving battery life and performance.


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