The dGPU: Killing Battery Life

The 15 and 17-inch MacBook Pros have a discrete GPU that only turns on if you fire up an application that really needs it—at least that's how it is supposed to work. In practice, the discrete GPU takes over control if your application uses any one of a number of frameworks—and some of the time, the dGPU simply isn't necessary.

Case in point, launching Chrome won't trigger a dGPU switch but the moment it encounters Flash the discrete GPU will take over. The bad news is that even if you close all Chrome windows, the dGPU won't power down until you quit chrome entirely. The same is true for Photoshop. Launch the application and you're still on the iGPU. Actually open up an image and the dGPU takes over. Even if you close all open images and just leave the Photoshop application open, the dGPU won't relinquish control. FaceTime and anything using the integrated camera also require the dGPU, despite it being totally unnecessary.

If you connect any external display to the 15 or 17-inch MacBook Pro that also forces the dGPU on, at which point both the integrated panel and external display are driven by the dGPU. There is no funny frame buffer copying going on, both the integrated and discrete GPUs have their own connection to the display.

Apple also fails to provide a way of turning off the dGPU by default—the best you can do is shut off the iGPU and just use the dGPU entirely. Thankfully Cody Krieger's gfxCardStatus tool gives us exactly what OS X does not. Version 2.0.1 adds support for the 2011 MacBook Pros.

I'm going on and on about the dGPU because it's state can seriously impact battery life. The numbers below should help put that in perspective for you:

Impact of Discrete GPU on Battery Life
15-inch 2011 MacBook Pro Light Web Browsing Flash Web Browsing
Integrated GPU (Intel HD 3000) 8.85 hours 7.03 hours
Discrete GPU (AMD Radeon HD 6750M) 5.67 hours 2.97 hours

Even just browsing the web, the dGPU being on drops battery life by 35—60%. Under full CPU load I suspect the percentage difference would be smaller, but still significant. The worst part of this all is that without gfxCardStatus you can negatively impact battery life by doing something completely innocent like accidentally leaving an application open. Given how much OS X is tailored to simply closing windows when you're done with them and not quitting applications, an overly aggressive dGPU can really be an issue.

Thankfully we do have gfxCardStatus but there's honestly no reason Apple shouldn't include this functionality with OS X from the start.

The GPU Comparison Display Quality
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  • jb510 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    It would seem to me their is one currently shipping Thunderbolt periphral... A 2011 MBP in target disk mode. Maybe you could drop an SSD in one and do some preliminary testing? Reply
  • jb510 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    damn... wish i could edit that comment originally typed on my iphone... but their doesn't appear to be any way... (misspelling repeated for comedic effect) Reply
  • deadshort - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the genuinely informative review. Running both low-load and high-load battery tests is especially helpful to developers, etc.

    One question. You chose the 2.3Ghz/8MB cache system. Was that just 'cuz you swing that way, or do you expect significant performance benefits for some workload you care about? For these machines is it a 10% price goldplate, or a reasonable increment to keep these CPUs fed? I am seriously interested....
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    I can speak for myself at least, but part of the reason for the 2.3/8 MB system choice was that it's the only preconfigured (Apple Store available) configuration that comes with the anti-glare display.

    Essentially, if you're a customer walking into the apple store and don't want the glossy/glare display, you're immediately forced into buying the highest-specced (and most expensive) MacBook Pro. It's frustrating because the only way to get lower specced systems is BTO online.

    Obviously we got these systems on launch date to immediately start working, and that was the reason for the 2.3 choice.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • synaesthetic - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    You know, I don't get this thin crap. I really don't.

    I mean, I can understand it. From a purely aesthetic point of view. Sort of, anyway.

    I'm sick of "thin" gadgets with weak performance and fragile builds. Thick gadgets means more tech fits inside. My HTC Glacier is quite thin, and you know what? I wish it was thicker. It'd be easier to hold onto, and HTC could have put a bigger battery in it!

    Stop making things so stupidly thin. Instead of driving the miniaturization of components on "thin," why not take that same miniaturization power and make things a bit thicker... with more power/cooling/battery inside?

    Thin may be sexy, but powerful is even sexier!

    Then again, Apple's never really cared to broadcast the specs of their devices, hoping instead to gloss over it to such a degree that nobody questions paying ridiculously inflated prices...
    Reply
  • Marc B - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    I am finally buying my first MacBook this year, and I am 70/30 leaning toward the 15" MBP. The 17" version has the high res screen and express port, but the 15" MBP is lighter/smaller and has the SDXC reader. Will the Thunderbolt port will provide enough throughput to allow simultaneous in/out?

    I am using this to log HD video on location, and was wondering if the express port is no longer necessary to use with a small ESATA array now that you can have high speed storage in and out using the Thunderbolt port.
    Reply
  • Belard - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    If Apple is pushing their notebooks to be more and more Desktop replacements...

    Where is a docking bay to handle all the connectors? How hard for a single connector to handle everything?

    Lenovo sells about 3 different Docking units $130~300 for their regular Thinkpad line (ie: NOT Edge or L/SL series).

    We have a few users who use them. Comes to the office, drop the notebook into the dock and turn it on, not a single cable to be attached. They include 4 USB ports (or more), PS/2 ports, HDMI and DVI ports, Ethernet and of course charge up the battery.

    So one user would have to plug in 7 cables everyday if he didn't have a dock... like his keyboard, wireless desktop mouse, 21" display, various printers and devices, etc.
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    " I still haven't figured out how to actually grab SINR out on here, all I can see for the moment is just RSSI. "

    Apple's Airport Utility does give you part of what you want.
    If you open it, go to "Manual Setup", see the summary page, and click on where it says "Wireless Clients: 2" (or 3 or whatever) you will be given a page that, for each connection, shows their signal and noise levels (along with a graph).

    Of course this doesn't exactly have any bearing on what we are discussing, because the numbers that are presented are the intermediate term SINR values, relevant to shadowing but not to fading. The numbers that are relevant to fading (and thus to MIMO tricks) change on a millisecond time scale, and so what one really wants is an indication of their standard deviation, along with other info like the connection diversity. This is all way more geeky than Apple (or any other consumer company) is going to provide.
    Reply
  • humunculus - Friday, March 11, 2011 - link

    Any chance you could run a few of the tests on the 2.0 and 2.2 GHz models. I am interested in how much performance difference there is between the 2.2 and 2.3 GHz 15 inch Macbook Pro models. It is hard to assess if the 10% cost increase is warranted. Thanks Reply
  • Belard - Saturday, March 12, 2011 - link

    The $400 price difference is for the extra 200mhz (Apple values that at $250 - these are notebook CPUs, so pricing from intel is a factor)

    And then $150 to sometimes double the performance of the GPU for games.

    Oh, and an extra 250GB of HD space (which is about $5 in the real world).
    Reply

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