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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  • dqnet - Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - link

    I'm really considering splashing out on the 13" but I've read countless articles and all I hear is the glossy screen is either horrible or awful. I don’t want the 15", I need the portability and I don’t know what on earth to do!??????????

    Then comes the SSD issue, if I want this option I have to wait 6 weeks!
    I can always get this later down the line I guess?? Well from what the article suggests??

    Any help (opinions) would be great as right now I’m lost! :(
    Reply
  • Mac Ike - Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - link

    If a person bought a MacBook Pro in the last 18-24 months,I don't see the reason to upgrade unless you're on the Bleeding-edge of performance needs and Mac your living with your Mac. Many Apps and advanced Software aren't even optimized to take advantage of multiple Cores,or Hyper-Threading/Turbo Boost. I don't care as much for Auto Switching Graphics,since I have total control of my Graphics with my March 2010 MacBook Pro 17"/Core 2 Duo/2.8 Ghz/4GB RAM/AG/500GB HD/512MB or 256(IG) VRAM-dual cards/express card. if I was buying new today,Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost schemes would be OK,but there's no way that I'd trade or sell my machine for these updates! To me,speed hasn't been an issue in 2 or 3 years! My 2006 20" iMac was at 2.0 Ghz,and the newest Macs are 2.0-3.0Ghz or so. I know that Sandy Bridge is faster than a Merom Core Duo,but most improvements seem to have come from adding more Cores and RAM,so that more tasks can be done simultaneously! I don't care for gimmicks,Turbo-Boosting,Hyper-Threading,and poorer graphics to convince me to upgrade my Macs. Unless you are a Digital Video Content Creator,or other high-powered user,or your Mac is 3 yrs. Old or so,you should Max-out your RAM,get a faster HDD or an SSD,rather than buying a Whole New Mac! If you have the money to spend,good for you,but a combination of Power,Battery-Life,and Portability,are the REAL issues! I wish people would stop telling others that they're Idiots for paying Mac prices,since it's our Money,and only YOU can determine what's good value for the Performance,elegance,and Stability of Apple Hardware! Reply
  • rredge - Thursday, March 17, 2011 - link

    Today, the local Apple store acknowledged that my 15" MacBook Pro is not functioning properly and refunded the purchase price despite the fact that I was just past the 14 day return period.

    The problem is that the computer ceased to respond to the trackpad even when rebooted with the power button.

    In the course of trying to figure out what the problem was, I discovered that there are reports of people experiencing similar problems for all three models (13", 15", 17") on Apple's support forum, where one thread alone now runs 19 pages, as well as elsewhere on the internet.

    The Apple store personnel told me that Apple has not acknowledged that there is a problem with this line of computers, although they acknowledged in less than two minutes that my computer has a problem sufficiently serious to warrant a refund out of the return period. I declined a replacement because they expressed ignorance of the issue, indeed said that Apple did not acknowledge an issue, and were unable to give me any assurance that a replacement would perform any better.

    The questions at this point are how widespread this freezing problem is and whether Apple is going to acknowledge it and fix it.
    Reply
  • rredge - Thursday, March 17, 2011 - link

    The second paragraph should have said that the computer ceased to respond to both the trackpad and keyboard. Reply
  • nitrousninja - Thursday, March 17, 2011 - link

    I saw the benches but I dont know if that translates into a big real world difference in SSDs. I'm mostly doing stuff in Word/Excel, some light video editing/converting, and occasionally some WoW. This would be in the base model 13"

    Should i go with the stock 3GB 128GB SSD or the OCZ 6GB I can get at Microcenter and install it mysel?. I've never done that on a Mac.

    Thanks for the help!

    Matt
    Reply
  • tno - Wednesday, May 04, 2011 - link

    Doubt you're still wondering but, if you want to have any space left after installing an OS and still want an SSD then you should splash for the 128GB SSD or wait till a reliable larger SSD is available. I wouldn't go less than 120GB.

    As to whether you should get an SSD, just ask yourself this question:

    Have you ever sat, even for a moment, and wondered why an otherwise well specced (but magnetically driven) computer seemed slow?

    If yes, then you'll likely be able to set that question aside by putting in an SSD.
    Reply
  • tranksen76 - Friday, March 18, 2011 - link

    Hello Rredge,

    how frustrating your experience sounds!
    2011 was the year I was finally supposed to buy myself my 1st ever MBP after 18 years in the Windows environment.

    It took me long enough to choose between a 13-inch or 15-inch one but then I started reading about these freeze issues a lot of users have been facing. being French i only heard about this problem within French forums and i was hoping this would have to be a specific problem for a batch of units delivered in France but now I have to admit this really is a larger scope problem.

    For what it's worth there were comments on the forums I went through about I-Stats being a cause for these problems as it installs by default with a settings that take over the fans control.
    Did you have that app on your computer?

    Best regards
    Tranksen
    Reply
  • rredge - Friday, March 18, 2011 - link

    Bonjour Tranksen,

    The fan on my computer was acting normally when this happened and I do not have that widget installed. I was running Terminal, TextEdit and Safari and the processor was under extremely light load.

    You will find a good deal of discussion about this problem on the Apple U.S. support forum at http://discussions.apple.com/category.jspa?categor...

    This is not an imaginary issue. Apple agreed to the return of my computer for full refund despite it being outside the 14 return period.

    I would consider repurchasing one of these computers, but not until Apple clarifies what the problem is and fixes it.
    Reply
  • tipoo - Saturday, March 19, 2011 - link

    You said that noise was an issue with the larger MPB, but I'd like that to be quantified in decibels and compared to other laptops in a table, in future reviews. Reply
  • Omid.M - Monday, March 21, 2011 - link

    Can the AT team comment on this please:

    http://apple.slashdot.org/submission/1504006/2011-...

    Click on "Link to Original Source"

    Can you guys duplicate this issue? Is it just simple overheating and poor design on Apple's part? I really want to know...

    Also tweeted to the three of you. Thanks for your thoroughness, gang.
    Reply

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