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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  • smithj - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    People not within the European Union do not pay the VAT tax. If you live outside of the European Union, you pay £369.00 which is around $570 USD/AUD so he's completely correct.

    Even if you live in the European Union, you're going to be saving a similar amount since I imagine Apple products get the VAT tax slapped onto them as well. Doesn't change anything.

    On the Hazro website:
    "If you are ordering from outside the UK and EU, you will not be charged VAT."

    There are extremely good reasons for getting a iMac but from a parts point of view its terrible value. You can't measure the benefits of the iMac however with just plain figures and specs.
  • Kristian Vättö - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    Ahh, that explains it then. I didn't look any further so didn't know about the international price. Customs may be added to the price though (not sure about the US policy as you don't VAT. If I buy something from the US, I will have to pay the Finnish 23% VAT before I can receive it).

    The Hazro looks very good though, thanks for linking it. Something to keep in mind when this oldish iMac needs to go. 500€ for a 27" 1440p display doesn't sound that bad, could get two of them for the price of one 27" ACD
  • repoman27 - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    I took issue with OWC's blog posts about the HDD upgrade issues in the 2011 iMac, and was hoping to find a better clarification here than the one in this review. OWC insisted on using the terms "standard", "leads" and "pins" in odd ways, and some of that seems to be echoed here.

    The HDD power cable in the iMac (Mid 2011) has 7 conductors, a standard 15-pin SATA power connector on one end, and a small 7-socket connector on the other which attaches to a header on the logic board. This assembly, while proprietary, is not necessarily any more so than the ones that ship with modular PSUs. It is more common to see SATA power cables with only 4 conductors (GND, 5 V, GND, 12 V) or 5 conductors if 3.3 V is also supplied. Several pins are then ganged together in the 15-pin connector to support the specified current requirements. As noted in the article, Apple is using relatively small conductors, and thus 2 are used in tandem for 12 V, they also elected to use the reserved pin 11 of the 15-pin SATA power connector for temperature monitoring. Pins 10 and 12 must both be connected to ground, although most of the time one conductor is used and pins 10-12 are all ganged together. Apple couldn't do this, so instead their 7 conductors are for GND, 5 V, GND, Temp, GND, 12 V, 12 V.

    It is not common behavior for HDDs to output a temperature signal on pin 11 of the SATA power connector. While the model numbers and controller boards of the drives that ship in the 2011 iMacs look to be no different from retail ones, there would appear to be differences in the firmware that allow for this functionality. I would imagine that patching the firmware of a retail drive is possible.

    If you ground pin 11 of the 15-pin SATA power connector, SMC will act as if there is no 3.5" drive installed. This means that the speed of the HDD fan will not increase above a certain baseline, and if you really do have a 3.5" drive in that bay, it will not properly dissipate the heat generated by it. If you use this trick to swap out the stock drive for an after-market one, you should also use S.M.A.R.T. based fan control software.

    There are separate, clearly labeled power headers for HDD, ODD and SSD on the iMac's logic board. It is probably a better idea to use the dedicated SSD power header than a Y-splitter if you add a 2.5" drive to an iMac that didn't ship with one installed. The HDD cable was more than likely not designed to support two devices, and most Y-splitters for SATA power cables gang pins 10-12, thus grounding pin 11 and preventing the SMC from receiving HDD temperature data. The SSD power header on the 27-inch models is a standard 6-pin slimline SATA power connector, but on the 21-inch it is just a small 4-pin header.

    The design of the iMac in general deters the casual from servicing their own hardware, and while some are discouraged by this, it's a ridiculous stance to take. Most people who purchase a new Mercedes S-Class don't worry about the fact that they probably won't be able to service it themselves (even if they are a fairly competent mechanic), or that it contains proprietary cable assemblies. If you don't feel comfortable servicing or modding your gear yourself, just take it to someone who does.
  • MadMinstrel - Sunday, May 29, 2011 - link

    A 512MB <i>framebuffer</i>? Really? So that's all you think GPU memory is useful for? That might have been the case in the good old S3 ViRGE days, but right now it <i>really</i> doesn't work that way and I would expect someone writing for AnandTech to know that. In fact, GPU memory holds at least two framebuffers and sometimes as many as 6. More if you count all the intermediate rendering steps such as depth buffers, accumulation buffers, G-buffers, albedo buffers, etc, as used in modern deferred rendering engines. Textures, geometry, physics data, and sometimes even some of the game logic also go into GPU memory. Maybe I'm just being pedantic about this but I guess it really annoyed me because I actually <i>care</i> about Anand being accurate.
  • Sunburn74 - Monday, May 30, 2011 - link

    Not for me thanks. Too pricey and lousy specs. I also don't care about TN vs IPS panels. Most people don't care. Some enthusiasts do, but you can't really argue that iMacs are targeted for the average joe who don't know a ton about pcs and just wants it to work whilst arguing that the average joe can appreciate a 500 dollar difference between an IPS panel and TN panel. The truth is most people don't even know there are 2 types of panels floating about.

    I consider myself an enthusiast. I've spent a couple months working on a last gen 27inc iMac in the past as a reference point, with a lot of adobe studio stuff. Long story short, I wasn't impressed. I found the machine to be slow to average in terms of performance (compared to the HP tower workstations we had down the hall for "real work" haha). Throw out the nicer display (who's value is questionable depending on who you talk to. Again I've read in the comments how imacs are great for your dad and mom and your granny.Your granny is not noticing a difference between a 27inch HP tn panel and a 27inch mac IPS panel) and I don't really see what the iMac brings to the table that all the other all in ones don't have. I just don't really see a good target audience outside of mac enthusiasts who just gotta have it.

    Its not great for people who need a pc that just works without hassle but are limited by budget (your mom, your dad, your granny, your girlfriend in college)

    Its not great for the power users like myself who render and process in different ways thousands of high def images a day for scientific purposes. The HP workstation crushed the mac with its superior specs and apparently less aesthetic screen (a high end HP 30 inch TN panel).

    Its not great for the true computer enthusiasts who likes to know whats in his pc and enjoys servicing his own box.

    the iMac is truly like the mercedes benz and not in a good way. Mercedes make nice cars, but no one can disagree that those cars (just like the iMac) are
    1)For the rich for whom cost is not truly an issue
    2)for those who don't have an interest in servicing and maintaining their own cars and will have the dealer do it all,
    3) For those who don't use their cars for actual work where the performance of the car actually matters (otherwise they'd go with the mac workstation or any othre workstation or build their own).

    The imac just puzzles me and yet it sells so well apparently.
  • JFA - Tuesday, July 26, 2011 - link

    It would be great to see comparison with previous generation of iMacs. Nowadays one can find quite a discounts on previous gen.
  • javaporter - Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - link

    I didn't read all 14 pages of comments, someone probably mentioned this, but you might want to look at dropbox. I have the 50GB option. It's enough for core project folders, my 1Password keychain, and various things I want to always have access to.

    I had the same issue as the author when deciding to leave a Mac Pro for a Macbook Pro. I did and worked that way for a while, however, recently I went back from a MBPro to an iMac and a Macbook Air.

    With dropbox, I don't really have to worry about moving files anymore. It's still not perfect; I still have to worry about 2 machines to update software on and my photos won't fit on my MBAir of course (nor will iTunes), but for me, it's still worth it to have a desktop. I liked my MBPro, but it just never seemed to be as fast or easy as the desktop or as portable as the Air (I had the 17" — pretty unusable when flying coach).
  • timmillea - Monday, December 19, 2016 - link

    So, five years later and this is still a very attractive machine. It is the last in the line of iMacs that do not need a 'pizza cutter' and replacing double-sided tape to obtain access to upgrade. Also the last with an optical drive which is still handy for ripping movies, music and sharing the same with people who are not riding the Apple wave. A 3.4 GHz quad-core i7 with a (ideally) 2GB GPU is still a very serious amount of computing power. Upgrade to 2 x SSDs with guides freely available on the net and configure them as Raid 0 and you have Mac-Pro challanging performance with a superb display in the size of the display alone available on the Bay for a third of the original price.
  • Rendell001 - Sunday, July 29, 2018 - link

    Thats very reassuring to know timmillea, I have the same model too which I picked up on eBay back in 2014 for £900. I love it for the same reasons you do though I've not tinkered with the insides yet. Needed to know if it would still hold up even now in 2018.

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