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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  • joe_dude - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    But the thing's essentially a 3-year old PC. Why the heck would I want to pay more to downgrade?

    Of course Macs hold their resell value... it's not for gaming, so even a 5 year old Mac seem pretty fast using regular apps.

    Even if it can be used as just a monitor, who the heck wants the extra dead weight? All-in-ones will always be a compromise. The point of having a desktop PC is *not* to compromise. Otherwise, a laptop can do the job.
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    Good luck finding a Sandy Bridge CPU and AMD 6000-series graphics in a 3-year-old PC.

    A LOT fits between regular apps and gaming. Photo, music and video editing are the first that come to my mind. For some people, Macs are the preferred option due to Logic and Final Cut. When you don't have the $ for Mac Pro, iMac is your best option. In the end, iMac is far more powerful than MBPs or other laptops.

    Sure, AIO form factor has its downsides but it's pretty clear that Apple has never been interested on enthusiasts. For an Average Joe, iMac is a brilliant machine, which explains why it sells so well too.
  • joe_dude - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    Don't be hoodwinked. Any 3-year old SLI rig would beat the pants off this thing. Remember, it's a _mobile_ CPU with a _mobile_ GPU; a laptop pretending to be a desktop.

    Any middle-of-the-road SFF/ITX machine with a Radeon 6850 would beat the pants off this thing. This thing is all about form over function. Save the money and get a 30" Dell monitor instead.
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    I would like to know where you can find a 3.4GHz quad core mobile CPU. The CPUs are standard desktop parts and i7-2600 is actually one of the fastest CPUs that is available today.

    Your 3-year-old SLI rig beat or come close in GPU performance but the iMac would run circles around it in CPU bound tests. If you talk about performance, then you must include every area, not just gaming and graphics tests. Or then specify that you are only talking about gaming performance.

    iMac's value isn't that bad when you consider the value of the screen. 30" monitor will cost you at least 1000$ so that leaves you another 1000$ for the actual computer. Sure, that is more than enough to get the similar components but the iMac won't end up being more than ~200$ more expensive (which is pretty good when talking about Apple).

    Nobody is forcing you to buy an iMac so that is why I don't get why you are complaining. Clearly, there are people who want one, even if it is a compromise. You can stick with your PC if that is what you prefer.
  • joe_dude - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    Ah yes, you're right on the CPU. For some reason I thought the dual channel 1155 socket meant it was a mobile CPU.

    The Dell version of the 27" can be had ~$800. Of course, retail price is ~$1000, and Apple wouldn't charge less, of course.

    The 3.4 GHz i7 option costs extra (is it really $500???), so we're talking a ~$1700 PC (sans monitor). We're talking a full out i7 SLI rig vs. a weaksauce iMac for that price.

    I'm a gamer, but not crazy enough to spend that on an all-in-one!
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    I think you should really check your facts before you post. The i7 option in iMac is 200$, not 500$. Sure, it is still overpriced but BTOs in general are. The iMac can also be had for less when you look at resellers like MacMall so IMO, the only fair comparison is to look at retail prices.

    For 1200$, you can build a nice PC but definitely not an SLI system (unless you go with lower-end GPUs, though that kills the idea of SLI IMO).

    If we wanted to be fair, we should compare the iMac to an OEM PC, not self-built one. Why? Because you are paying for the labor and service in the iMac as well. That is why OEM PCs cost more than the ones you build on your own. I know the joy of building your own computer is unbeatable and I love it too but when comparing things, you have to understand where the costs come from. It's a whole new question whether it is worth it for you to pay the extra for service etc.

    I'm not trying to sell you an iMac but to make you understand where the costs come from and in the end, why the iMac isn't that bad value. For gamers, the iMac is and will always be a very compromised system.
  • donnyg - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    As SmithJ mentioned, a i7 computer with PCIe 16x/4x is only around $750 USD and that's including a GPU.

    You can easily get 2x HD6950x/6970s which do much better in that resolution anyway because of the VRAM requirements.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    Throw in the same 2560x1440 IPS display and you're adding at least another $1000 to the whole package. Then there's operating system and the bundled software, and the fact that all-in-ones from any PC builder costs more than a standard ATX based PC.

    Given everything involved, the iMacs are actually a pretty good deal. Really fast, amazing display, tiny footprint, and silent. I still build my own PCs and I'll never give that up, but I love having it plugged into my iMac as a display and using both.
  • smithj - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    My shop runs iMacs because they're just so good with size and noise - we're really damned pleased that we've ditched the old noisy workstations and they're fast enough for what we want to do!

    But he's kind of right. For a consumer, iMacs aren't the best of value. A small mATX computer with an i7 2600 (what 99% of people going to do with an i7 I don't know) and an AMD HD 5850 only costs around $700, and this isn't even looking around. Throw in a 27" Ultrasharp or ACD and your whole computer is going to cost only $1500-1700.

    They're popular because they're:
    - Small
    - Amazing looking
    - Perform well enough
    - Quiet
    - Covered by the best consumer warranty in the market
    - Good out of the box, no extra work required

    Its got nothing to go with specs, most people who buy them frankly don't care about the specs. $500-700 extra to pay for a generally weaker computer is a bit annoying but I'm getting old and frankly the warranty service, ease of use, and lack of noise is loved by all.
  • smithj - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    We can't edit post. The point I'm making is that in a price/spec game, the iMacs are nowhere near as good as DIY PCs but there are some things that can't be directly put in a small HTML table.

    Apple to this day seems to be one of the few companies, if not the only, who understands this important factor.

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