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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  • KoolAidMan1 - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    iMacs don't use mobile CPUs. My gaming PC and my 2009 iMac have the exact same CPU, a Core i7-860
  • boop - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    anand, i used to have the same dilemma you face regarding the syncing of files across multiple machines. i even did the same thing as you and tried to use an macbook pro as a desktop replacement. it didn't work out so well. a notebook that's powerful enough to be a desktop replacement isn't portable enough -- and a notebook that's particularly portable just isn't powerful enough to be a desktop replacement.

    The solution I found was to use google docs and other related online services to store all my work files. as you know you can access the files on any machine, and even be logged in on multiple machines simultaneously; documents can be shared with others for collaborative work; and it also solves the problem of data back ups and laptop theft since nothing is locally stored. my current Mac setup is a 13" macbook pro and the 2011 21.5" base model imac and with all my work stored in the cloud i've finally found an optimal solution to my workflow woes. hope this helps!
  • ananduser - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    Apple packages tech real well. Good display, reasonable PC, all'n'all a good looking AIO that especially does not compromise on the display side of things. Glad I am not in need for the OS or the hardware flexibility of the laptop combined with the mobility of the desktop.
    Even if Apple gets so much marketing coverage everywhere I am still glad that I see my own kind keeping criticism alive.
  • Hrel - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    That display is worth 400 bucks tops; it's insane to me that anyone would pay a grand for a display barely above 1080p. I can get a good ISP 27" 1080p display for 300, so that thing is worth 400 tops; which makes that whole system 300 dollars too expensive to even consider. Then there's all the laptop parts and non-upgradeability and Appleness to ruin the experience.
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    Find a similar display for 400$ then. It's ridiculous to argue that the display can't be worth more than 400$ when similar displays cost 1000$. If you don't think it is worth it, then that is your thing. It doesn't change the fact that the display is worth ~1000$.

    I also doubt that you can find a good 27" IPS display for less than 300$. Most of the good ones are either ~22" at that price range or you have to pay more.
  • donnyg - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    You can get a Hazro, which is literally the same panel as the current Apple CInema Displays minus the aluminum casing, for around $500 USD.

    Shipping will make it cost considerably more however.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    There is a massive different in pixel density between a 27" display at 2560x1440 and 1920x1080, HUGE. Then there's the fact that your display is using a crap TN panel instead of an IPS, isn't LED backlit, etc etc.

    A good 24" IPS display from HP or Dell is going to cost $400-$500, and a 27" with the same panel from Dell or NEC is going to cost $1100-$1400.

    For a site with a "techie" readership, it is amazing how little some people know about tech, or how much they are willing to excuse purely based on price. Yeah you can save money on a cheaper display, but it is going to be totally inferior in every way except for price. You get what you pay for.
  • MadMacMan - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    That's exactly right. DO YOUR RESEARCH, people. There is NO equivalent in the 27" category of HIGH-END displays and by that I mean not part but ALL of the following:

    LED back lighting (No CCFL bulb, thank you), in-plane switching (IPS); not your average (READ: average, as in mid-range, as in lame, as in cheap, as in what a lot of you might buy and post BS about how you're not getting ripped off by Apple because you're so much smarter; you know who you are). Finally, and perhaps even more problematic to find is its high RESOLUTION! 2560x1440. That's 78% more real estate than you get on a standard 1920x1080 display.

    I dare anybody to Google me up a 26"-29" monitor with the aforementioned specs, but ALL of them, not one or two. Now go to Best Buy and buy yourself a cheap HP or order up an Acer and make sure you don't forget to rub it in. ;-)
  • donnyg - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    IPS monitor: Check
    2560x1440 resolution: Check
    LED backlighting: Check
    Price: 569 AUD for the the one with extra inputs/scalar,
  • Kristian Vättö - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    I don't know where you got your 500$ as 443£ is equal to 731$. That seems to be without shipping. Cheaper? Sure, but not that much.

    You can always save a few bucks if you do some shopping and build it yourself. The iMac, or any Apple product, has never tried to be the cheapest option or best bang per performance on the market. I would still say the new iMac is great value. I already mentioned why an OEM PC and a homebuilt one are not always comparable, especially when we get into an Average Joe level. Hardcore gamers will never be satisfied with Apple's offerings but to be honest, I don't get it why they complain then. Nobody is trying to sell them an iMac.

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