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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  • Spazweasel - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the clarification.
  • Spazweasel - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    So here's a question. While the display is in Targeted Display Mode, can the computer itself be active? It would be nice to be able to have the computer available for computation tasks, acting as a server, etc. on its own while the display was being used by an external device. I wouldn't expect it to be so, but perhaps you as someone with first-hand knowledge would know if it's possible.

  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Yes, the computer portion of the iMac can still be cranking away when the video signal is switched to another source. I've had it encoding video as I play Starcraft 2 or whatever on my PC, using the iMac as its display.

    It is pretty nice.
  • archer75 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    So I bought one of these imacs right at launch. Upgraded the processor to the 3.4ghz i7 and got the 6970m 2gb. Later got 16gb of ram on sale at newegg.

    In terms of gaming I only play at native resolution 2560x1440 and must say this imac does slightly better than my i7 920, 460GTX 768mb PC does at 1920x1200.

    Crysis 2 on medium settings gives me frame rates in the 30-50 range which is perfectly fine for me. Medium doesn't look any different than high to me so i'm happy with that. Very smooth gameplay with Bad Company 2 and Portal 2. WoW on ultra settings is flawless. Civ5 plays well. Age of Conan at max is pretty smooth, not perfect but certainly better than my gaming PC. EQ2 runs very well at one step down from their super high ultra setting or whatever they call it. Running max settings with Dragon Age.

    I have 7 other PC's in the house, 4 running Win7, 1 running WHS 2011 and the 2 others running XP. I built most of them. And I had debated building another gaming system or getting the imac and decided to mix things up a bit and must say I really do like the imac.
  • Bob Forsberg - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Just about ready to purchase a new 27" iMac to replace my white 24" 2.16GHz iMac from 4 years ago.

    You made choices easy on processor types as well as providing answers to many of my questions. Thanks for the thorough analysis of this great machine.
  • CharonPDX - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    "I've always kept displays through several upgrades, but you can't really do that with an iMac."

    One thing Apple has implemented on their 27" iMacs since they added Mini DisplayPort is that you can use the iMac as a DisplayPort monitor.

    So when this iMac gets replaced, you can continue to use it as a 27" display on another computer with DisplayPort video. Be that another iMac (and have two displays), a Mac Pro, a Mac mini, or even a PC with DisplayPort (as most Dells have now.)

    I know a customer that has two last-gen iMacs side-by-side: One as his workstation and one as a secondary display and VM host. He interacts with the VMs remotely from the 'workstation' machine, and has two 27" high-res displays on his primary system. If he ever really needs to interact locally with the VM machine, he just plugs a keyboard and mouse directly (although he generally VNCs over.)
  • tipoo - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Actually these new ones will only work with Thunderbolt, not DP unfortunately. So for now, just the Macbook Pro's can use it. The last gen could work with any displayport connection so its a step back IMO.
  • tipoo - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I'd really like a decibel reading for a few computers in future reviews. ie, you say the MBP is loud, but how loud? I'd like to see it compared to other popular laptops at idle and under load.
  • Hubb1e - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    To understand an iMac usage model, you have to get over your idea that you upgrade your PC components. When you outgrow the GPU, you simply upgrade the whole Mac and sell the old one on the used market. The used market for these things is huge so you really aren't dropping much cash by ditching the old model for a new one. You aren't really ditching the monitor, you're simply making an upgrade for the GPU and a new screen comes with the upgrade. It's typically a sideways move in screen quality and you aren't losing any real value there by replacing it. You might drop $600 (accounting for taxes) when you drop the iMac after 1.5 years, but you get $400 worth of GPU and CPU upgrades. So, you do pay a bit for the Mac experience, but I think you can still keep the upgrade path going with a Mac.

    Keep the box and it's super simple to unload a used Mac.
  • dingetje - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    is there any chance of a review of some 16:10 screens? for instance ASUS PA246Q

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