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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  • utlragear - Monday, June 11, 2012 - link

    And here's the thing. It shouldn't cost any more than the difference for the monitors. But iPeople usually can't comprehend that.
  • khimera2000 - Monday, May 30, 2011 - link

    No 2000$ is not a big deal, and those people that are complaining are the ones that actually want the most out of there money.

    Sorry man hard as it is for me to brake it to you, especially since you have to hear it hear... but nerds know how to shop for computer parts, and they know whats it worth.

    If you want to buy a 2000$ rig only to throw it away two years later and buy another 2000 rig go ahead.

    I will take that same cash, keep the moniter and have 2000$ to spend on my next computer. where as you will have 1000$

    i dont know about you, but I baught a really good moniter when i rebuilt my computer last, and am looking forward to spending that 1k that you will have to spend on a moniter on other cool tech :D

    O ya im also looking forward to the following...

    Upgrading my CPU, GPU, HDD, all me RAM, My Motherboard, and if a deal comes around adding two more moniters :)

    Then again where all broken nerds right? and the above dosent really matter in your world.

    You are right on them not targeting us though. We care about how long the life of our PC will be, what softwear goes into it, and the quality of the componants, where as a mac can be baought off the shelf by any shmuck off the streat.

    Don't beleave me? then you are what Mac is targeting. For everyone else they understand what im talking about. Especialy the part where we research every peace that goes into our rig.
  • rubaiyat - Wednesday, September 7, 2011 - link

    I've seen plenty of PC users blow much more than $2000 on their computers, WITHOUT a display. They tend to do it in bits and pieces and never add up the total cost because maths (and spelling) are not their strong points.

    They also have big trouble with equivalency. Perpetually claiming something quite inferior is equal to something distinctly superior, either through ignorance (never seen better) or price-tag fixation.

    I bought my iMac 27" for about $1540. I didn't dumbly pay retail for it any more than you claim you do on your PC parts. No wasting massive amounts of time hunting down parts in magazines, dodgy PC fairs, eBay etc. hastling to fix the eternal problems, then sweating out the repairs because they have essentially no support.

    My time can be better spent getting work done (not hanging out in rank dark rooms wasting the days away playing games). The iMac is beautifully svelte, fast, quiet and works out of the box. Not just a brilliant workstation but also a fantastic media station for after work.

    You can't say I haven't shopped around. I did it for the iMac and got a very fast great deal in an afternoon. I know I got a bargain soon as I negotiated it and took. I had spent vastly more unproductive time going through the PC parts sites and shops, looking for the 'bargains' I could never find.

    Just how do the higher prices you pay in these places, for sometimes cheaply made components, work out to be a "deal"?
  • utlragear - Monday, June 11, 2012 - link

    mostly from broke nerds"? Is that why I have a 5500 square foot home paid for along with over 700k in savings? Keep in mind that some people don't buy apple because they were actually smart enough to understand it's mostly over rated, over priced, slow and outdated hardware out of the box. i7 based PC's came out a YEAR before apple even released them.

    Some people simply don't throw their money like water down a sewer as some college students do while trying to look hip, cool and pretend they are "rich" while they occupy an apartment. Another clue for you, people with lots of money that stay that way, usually aren't iSuckers. Do you know how many times I've heard that dumb, "People don't buy apple because they are broke bs?" Too many times. If you want to buy apple because the marketing is effective on apples credulous marketing demographic, then fine. But don't try to act like it's a great value because it isn't.

    I'd rather buy my family 2 or 3 superior PC's with windows 7. And you are right. For MANY people $2000 isn't a big deal. But again, I don't believe that because that is true I should burn money to apple's delight. If I'm going to drop some cash it might be $15,000 for recording studio gear. Or a new car. Something you can't usually get a break on. .
  • Tros - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    "Keeping your old monitor that is still good to save money makes sense but not on an all in one unit."

    Did you know that the 27-inch iMac works as a driven monitor? This is a new feature that I've yet to see on any other all-in-ones, esp. laptops, tablets, smartphones. The screens I could have saved on laptops, if they were able to be driven by a hardware solution.
  • Penti - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    It's certainly useful when using it together with a MacBook Pro so you can connect it to your screen (iMac) at home or your workstation at work, and still use the built in workstation for other work. But it doesn't have use outside of that. It's not compatible with much else sadly (don't expect it to play nice with your video game console and so on). Neither is it independent from the on board motherboard.

    Neither is it a solution to save the screen. Which you can just get a new one three years later or so with your new iMac any way as Apple doesn't seem to be interested in release a Mac Medium stationary workstation with fast desktop parts. Sure a good external screen will last pretty well for 4-5 years and still be pretty high-end (if it doesn't break). But if your replacing your computer with a new iMac it's pretty pointless argument. If you run a MBP as workstation, a Mac Pro or a PC then you could argument for your external displays though, and the iMacs video in solution wouldn't be worth any thing just as a screen in those setups any way. Not when you can't tear out the motherboard.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Mac Pros are too expensive for the vast majority of people, given the performance you're getting. I switched from PowerMacs to iMacs for my Final Cut Studio machine a few years ago and I'm never looking back. Cheaper, nearly as fast, and with a $1000 display built in.

    If a new model comes out, resale value is insanely high so you just ship off the old one and get a new iMac with faster components and an even better display. The move from the 24" iMac to the 27" iMac was one of the most economical upgrades I've ever made. I wish my PC upgrades were as simple and returned as much money.

    Other plus is that it also works as a monitor for my gaming PC. Sadly that isn't an option anymore unless your computer has a Thunderbolt port, but that is my only real criticism of the 2011 models. If you don't intend on using it as a monitor as well as a Mac like I do, then it is really great.
  • Penti - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    And just to clarify the 2011 iMac only works as a target display with 2011 MacBook Pro's, and prior to that you were limited to the mini-displayport input and what the monitor could do with that input. You could with the previous model connect a Mac Pro, MBP, MB, Mac Mini, PC or gaming PC with displayport and possibly consoles with an adaptor but not native. It's preferable if you can feed it with a 2560x1440 TDMS signal. (Computers can be connected with Dual-link DVI-to-DisplayPort adapter for like $200 USD too)

    So it's pretty useless today for use as input if you don't plan on a dual mac configuration with iMac 2011 and MBP 2011. No expensive adaptors that work with the Thunderbolt Mac yet too. Certainly not a great convenient solution for use of your screen with all your favorite electronics at least. That said, I wouldn't use the external 27" Cinema Display with Blu-ray players and consoles either. The previous solution with 2009 late and 2010 mid iMac 27" models wasn't good with gaming consoles and BD-players either it had to use and pass-through the 720p signal to your screen and didn't support 1080i or 1080p. The monitor/iMac didn't accept 1080p signals at all. Which meant you needed a separate $299 USD scalerbox for that. Or get by with 720p. Which basically meant you needed $500 US Dollars worth of hardware with the old model in order to connect a none DP PC/Mac Pro high-res and a BD-player and or console scaled to native res. They could do it better. But that would mean a separate driver/controller board for the monitor/panel.
  • headbox - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    unlike your Alienware/PC hardware, you'll be able to sell the iMac for close to what you paid for it years later. I bought a Macbook Pro for $1800 and sold it TWO years later for $1500, and 50 people people called wanting to buy it. Try putting a 2 year old Dell online for sale- you won't get 50%, if at all.
  • The0ne - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    The fact is people buying Macs are NOT your conventional user, in the least. They will love it because it's sleek, it's compact thus saving space, and as far as the people I know that like them money is not a concern even if it is. Apple consumers are a strange lot, you either accept it or not.

    The example given by headbox is a prime example. Why would anyone pay close to the original paid price for a 2 year old Mac? It's not logical at all in any sense except to own a Mac yet people do it all the time. I can understand if there were benefits to this but there really aren't. It's just "I have a Mac" thingy.

    But make no mistake though, if you are going to get one and keep it for a long time might as well get one with a nice big screen. I have 3 Dell 30"s that I saved up and bought and wouldn't go back to anything less. My eyes are grateful until I use my M17xR2. My eyes aren't that young anymore!

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