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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  • zappb - Saturday, March 12, 2011 - link

    Give me a mac book pro with windows 7 as a base install, and id be all over it.

    Mac OS sucks ass, don't know how anyone can make any money using it. Windows or ill stick to lenovo, would rather send my hard earned dollars to apple but as it stands, not a chance.
    Reply
  • bymi - Saturday, March 12, 2011 - link

    Hi,

    thanks for the great review of the new MacBooks!
    I googled a lot, but was not able to find a working copy of the MSR Tools used in his article.
    Sorry if this hat been discussed before, but i didn't find anything using the search funtionality here.

    So where can i get these MSR Tools?

    Thank you everybody for a link.

    Best

    bymi
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - link

    http://www.insanelymac.com/forum/index.php?showtop...

    Note that it only works with Snow Leopard booted up in to 32bit mode, as the driver needed to read the MSRs is 32bit.
    Reply
  • philipus - Saturday, March 12, 2011 - link

    Does anyone know the approximate battery life when using Photoshop (I have CS5) with the dGPU enabled vs disabled?

    What is the approximate performance drop in Photoshop when not using the dGPU?

    These are my main questions before deciding to get the 15" MBP.

    Thanks for any insight.
    /p

    http://philipus.com
    Reply
  • fcarnival - Sunday, March 13, 2011 - link

    Hello Anandtech, thanks for the Apple's revenue breakdown. Could you also post the profit breakdown of Apple's products? I would like to know which device brings the most profit to Apple. Thanks! Reply
  • macfanpro - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    I am very curious about this as well - with the tablet market supposedly tripling this year, I want to know what the ramifications are for earnings.

    Apple has a very nice page with related data (http://www.apple.com/investor/), but alas, I don't think they provide earnings breakdown by product (it's not in their detailed 70+ page annual report)...
    Reply
  • amanrai - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    could you confirm, definitively, whether or not the thunderbolt port will be able to support a discrete pci e based graphics card with or without a HDMI combination?

    thank you for all of your reviews. they are incredibly detailed and very helpful.
    Reply
  • macfanpro - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    Thanks so much for such an insightful review! I'm trying to rationalize buying a MBP, and I have two questions:

    Question about power draw) The MBP comes with a 85W adapter, but its maximum power draw is 93.2W. Could this lead to throttling/maximum performance not being achieved even when one is on the adapter?

    Question about turbo boost) Some people have reported the turbo boost (for the i7 MBP 13) not working in Boot Camp. (Link: http://www.pcpro.co.uk/blogs/2011/03/10/apple-macb... Do you have any more news on this front?
    Reply
  • anaboo - Monday, March 14, 2011 - link

    Strong article - appreciate the in depth of benchmarks and insight.

    I'm hoping you guys can run the same set of in-depth Windows gaming benchmarks on the 15-inch MBP (particularly for the radeon gfx card). Curious to whether there is sub-optimal performance against a similar set of comparables (2010 MBPs, the Mac versions of these games, etc.).

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • davidglennbailey - Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - link

    Best article on the internet on the new Macbook Pros. I'm ordering a 17" Macbook Pro on Friday. Here are my issues.

    1. Just take the cheap SATA hard drive now and upgrade to a fast SSD in the future when the prices fall a little farther? I will probably void a warranty? How difficult is the process to change one of those out and my chances of screwing something up? How do they even connect inside the machine and how reliable is it?

    2. I can understand increased functionality spread out over the life of a product, but even at 3+ years is the .1ghz for 250$ ever worth it? Maybe for the increased cache or any other features?

    3. Upgrading the memory was a breeze last time and shouldn't be an issue. Would there be any point or would it be even possible to go above 1333mhz or 8 gigs?

    Just to add my 2 cents into the debate. I've had this Macbook Pro for about 5 years. I've put it through hell and back. Sometimes, you just wind up getting what you pay for. Great time to buy if you've been waiting for the quad cores for a while.
    Reply

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