Prelude: Two Months with a MacBook Pro

A year ago I tried the notebook as a desktop experiment. The first Arrandale MacBook Pros hit the market and I thought, why not give two cores and four threads a try. I gave it a try for less than a day before having to switch back to the Mac Pro.

Try number two came earlier this year, with the Sandy Bridge MacBook Pro. Twice as many cores and much faster ones at that seemed to be a better recipe for success. Indeed they were. I switched from an 8-core Mac Pro to a 4-core Sandy Bridge MacBook Pro and have stuck with it for two months now.

By the end of this month alone I will have been in the air for 90 hours. Normally I'd have to frantically copy articles, benchmarks, notes and other important documents between machines before I left home for my next flight. Being able to pull an all-nighter testing, grab my notebook and head to the airport without worrying whether or not I forgot to copy something over is pretty sweet.

Regrets? I do have a few.

First, this thing isn't quiet. While my Mac Pro had beefy heatsinks and fans that spun so slowly you could count their fins, the MacBook Pro is a thermally constrained platform. Correction, it's a thermally constrained platform that's always running way too hot. It doesn't matter if the display lid is open or closed, my fans are always annoyingly audible. A lot of this has to do with my workload, I just always have things open that keep the CPU just busy enough that the fans need to work harder. It's frustrating.

Next is GPU performance. I was an early adopter of a multi-monitor setup, but ever since 30-inch displays hit the market I went back to a single display. I never really used the second display enough to justify its existence, it just made me less productive given my workload (I'm more efficient if everything I need is on a single physical screen vs. darting my eyes between two displays). The only complaints I had about 30-inch displays were unimpressive pixel density and a large desktop footprint. The new 27-inch panels started to address those concerns for me so I made the switch last year.

Despite having the upgraded AMD Radeon HD 6750M with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5, the 15-inch MacBook Pro just isn't fast enough to drive the 2560 x 1440 external display when playing most modern games. Even Portal 2 slows down a bit if I'm looking through a portal. Not to mention that the discrete GPU running full tilt causes temperatures to hit their highest and the fans to really spin. I have other machines for gaming and my work computer is mostly for work so this isn't a deal breaker, but it's definitely annoying.

Third, and this is more an issue with Apple's software and not the MacBook Pro hardware, there's still no Quick Sync support in iMovie. As a result all of my video encoding is done on four Sandy Bridge cores instead of eight Nehalem cores in my old Mac Pro. Hmph.

I have other complaints like the sad state of full disk encryption under OS X today since I'm more paranoid about physically losing my data with a notebook. Apple still doesn't offer any support for SSDs with real time hardware encryption so I'm left physically segmenting my data and waiting for Lion. Oh and there aren't enough USB ports. Despite my issues and other than gaming/video encoding, performance isn't an issue. Sandy Bridge is quick and my overall experience is generally quicker than the Mac Pro. Other than video encoding I don't run any heavily threaded applications so a quad-core CPU is the sweet spot for my workload.

Does the added portability make up for the downsides? When I'm traveling a lot - absolutely. It's just so much more convenient. In between trips? Well, that's when it's a lot easier to tempt me back to a desktop.

A couple of weeks ago, this arrived:

It's the new 2011 upgraded 27-inch iMac. More or less it's the 2011 MacBook Pro mated to a 27-inch LED backlit Cinema Display. It's basically my setup but in an all-in-one desktop.

I never liked the iMac. I understood the appeal, but it wasn't for me. The CPUs and GPUs weren't fast enough, there weren't enough drive bays and the display was always worse than what I already had on my desk. However the same series of events that allowed me to dump the Mac Pro and use a Sandy Bridge MacBook Pro have made the iMac that much more interesting.

Moore's Law (or more specifically, hundreds of super smart process and chip engineers) have more or less solved the performance problem in these integrated machines. We've been on the longest run I can remember of software being outpaced by hardware and as a result machines like the iMac look a whole lot more powerful than they did just a few years ago.

SSDs and very high capacity mechanical drives fixed the storage problem, while the advent of 27-inch high resolution LCD panels fixed the display problem. The new iMac can easily be a real workstation for users today, when in the past it was more of a machine you'd give to your parents. To be honest, after using it for a while, I actually like the new iMac.

Two Models

Apple offers two iMacs: a 21.5-inch and a 27-inch model. Just like Apple's notebook strategy, the iMacs are fairly similar in terms of components but primarily differ in screen size/resolution. Of course the larger the screen the higher the likelihood that you'll be doing more with your iMac and thus Apple offers some faster component options in the 27-inch models.

At each screen size Apple has two pre-configured versions: a base and an upgraded model. The upgraded models typically have more upgrades available to them (faster CPUs, faster GPUs, etc...) while the base models are more fixed in their configuration (memory and storage are mostly configurable regardless of system).

Apple sent us the high end 27-inch iMac, which other than its larger display looks like a 21.5-inch iMac with one extra Thunderbolt port. Both systems have four USB 2.0 ports (no USB 3.0 until the Ivy Bridge iMac next summer), audio line in/out, one FireWire 800 port and a Gigabit Ethernet port. There's also integrated WiFi (802.11n) and Bluetooth.

As always, Apple's PC competitors typically win the spec game - particularly when it comes to memory and storage:

All-in-One Comparison
  Apple iMac 21.5-inch Dell Inspiron 2305 HP TouchSmart 610xt Apple iMac 27-inch
CPU Intel Core i5-2400S (2.5GHz quad-core) AMD Athlon II X4 610e (2.3GHz quad-core) Intel Core i5-2400 (3.1GHz, quad-core) Intel Core i5-2500S (2.7GHz quad-core)
GPU AMD Radeon HD 6750M (512MB) ATI Radeon HD 5470 (1GB) AMD Radeon HD 5570 (1GB) AMD Radeon HD 6770M (512MB)
RAM 4GB DDR3-1333 8GB DDR3-1333 6GB DDR3-1066 4GB DDR3-1333
Storage 500GB 7200RPM HDD 1TB 7200RPM HDD 1TB 7200RPM HDD 1TB 7200RPM HDD
Optical Drive 8x SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW) Blu-ray Combo Drive (BD-R, DVD±RW) Blu-ray player & SuperMulti DVD burner 8x SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
Display 21.5-inch 1920 x 1080 23-inch 1920 x 1080 23-inch touch enabled 1920 x 1080 27-inch 2560 x 1440
Price $1199 $1149 $1219 $1699

With the exception of the entry level 21.5-inch iMac, Apple always gives you 4GB of RAM (2 x 2GB DDR3-1333) SO-DIMMs and a 1TB HDD. The entry level iMac keeps the 4GB of memory but drops you down to a 500GB HDD.

Dell is significantly slower on the CPU and GPU side, while HP gives you a faster CPU and somewhat slower GPU. Both Dell and HP give you 50 - 100% more memory and twice the HDD capacity for roughly the same cost as Apple's 21.5-inch iMac. The big advantage however is that HP offers even cheaper machines, the TouchSmart line starts at $629.99.

Apple has never been a value player and the fact that the entry level iMac is at least within the same range as a comparable HP or Dell is pretty impressive. The 27-inch iMac is tempting as the display alone is worth $999. For the base 27-inch iMac that means you get a Sandy Bridge Mac integrated for only an additional $699. That's downright Dell pricing.

The big issue with all-in-ones of course is the lack of upgradability. It's arguably even more of an issue when your all-in-one has a pretty sweet 27-inch 2560 x 1440 panel. I've always kept displays through several upgrades, but you can't really do that with an iMac. I'm not really sure how to come to terms with that aspect of what Apple is offering here.

The smartphone and tablet revolution has finally kicked the display makers into high gear. I'm hoping it's a trend and not a fad and that we will see aggressive roadmaps for larger panels as well. So if replacing your 27-inch panel in a couple of years isn't a big deal then the iMac upgrade path isn't quite as painful. Either way, whoever gets your hand-me-downs will get a pretty sweet display.

The CPU Selection
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  • tipoo - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Nevermind me, it was answered in the article.
  • tipoo - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I heard that unlike previous iMacs, the new ones can only use another mac with Thunderbolt to use the iMac as a targeted display. Is that true? I wouldn't feel so bad about discarding such a system when the GPU and CPU feel too old in two or three years like Anand mentioned if I could use it as an external display, but I think the new ones are limited to only being used by other Macs. And that's also assuming Mac's in 3 years will use compatible Thunderbolt ports.
  • TegiriNenashi - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    What is wrong with this display? Just one number: 16:9.
  • QuietOC - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I have used a 20" white iMac and 24" aluminum iMac. The later has a big persistent image problem. Evidently IPS pixels don't work well in a hot environment. The low noise level of the iMac is nice to mostly not hear, but the visual noise might be worse.

    Also the cheap 320GB WD Caviar failed by randomly disappearing which may have be heat related, and the USB ports have also started randomly disconnecting. The mouse and keyboard just stop working during the day and I have to unplug them and plug them back in. So, no, I would not recommend getting a $1000 monitor with a computer mounted inside it.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I've owned both the 24" iMac you talk about and a 27" from late 2009. Image persistence became a problem with the 24" models, as well as the CCFL losing some of its brightness by the two year mark.

    The new 27" models do not have either issue. Image persistence has been fixed, and I don't expect there to be any fading since LED backlights don't suffer from the same degredation issues that CCFL backlit displays do over time. On a related note, I have a NEC 2490WUXi as my secondary display. That monitor uses the same 24" H-IPS panel that the old 24" iMac did. It has minor image retention issues, but not to the same degree as the iMac had. Whatever LG did with their new 27" panels seems to have addressed that problem.
  • zhill - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    First off, nice article Anand. Well presented and I think your perspective is a common one in this case. I agree that the lack of upgrade options and rather mediocre gpu performance are certainly off-putting for a machine in this price range, but I also think that your observation that if you are willing to spend $1800 for a laptop with a reasonably short lifecycle then the iMac is not much different. I think you've really hit the point there--the iMac's target customer.

    I would argue that most iMac users are not highly technical, power users. They are people that want a big screen and don't need the portability of a laptop. These people, like my parents, value the simplicity and ease of use of the iMac and the fact that their workspace is often small and would rather it not be covered in cords and cables. In that case not only does the iMac make sense but it's lifespan is substantially longer and all the GPU they need is enough to drive the system and maybe do some video editing. Gaming prowess has never been an apple concern and I doubt it will be until Steve Jobs decides to buy Activision or EA. I do like the iMac from a compute appliance perspective, just plug it in and compute--no fuss. Also, trying to make a reasonable gaming rig with a 2560x1440 display is a fairly daunting task even with today's cards. You would have to be near the top-end and that's a whole lot of power and heat to dissipate in a reasonably small enclosure (considering the size of a 6970 or 580 card by itself).

    I also have to say that Intel's recent willingness to keep switching chip sockets has made upgrades far more painful than they should be (yes, I have a core i7-920 with socket 1366 that is now essentially orphaned).
  • Alberts - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Securedoc for Mac from a company called Winmagic supports SSD's with encryption hardware as long they adhire to the opal specification from the trusted computing group
  • JimmiG - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    You can't upgrade the hardware and you can't separate the computer from the display so you can keep using the display long after the hardware has become obsolete.

    That's pretty much the oposite of "green".
  • Spazweasel - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    This may be old news (I'm not going to wade through 6 pages of Apple-hating trolls to see), but you CAN use your 27" iMac as a monitor:

    It's called "Target Display Mode".
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Note that it is only talking about the 2009 and 2010 models with mini-DP ports. Those can take an external source so you can use the 27" iMac as a monitor. I use it every day as the primary monitor for my gaming PC.

    The new 2011 iMacs have different requirements since they switched to Thunderbolt ports. Until an adapter or something comes out, the only sources that can output a video signal to the 2011 iMacs are Thunderbolt equipped computers. For the time being this only limits them to 2011 Macbook Pros and other iMacs (which would be a weird application).

    I love the iMacs, but as someone who uses Target Display Mode every day, the new requirements bother me. It won't be a problem in a year or so when Thunderbolt becomes more common, but for the time being it is pretty limiting.

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