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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  • iwod - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    My problem is with Apple's Memory upgrade. They have 2x 2GB fitted which means if you want 8GB you either have to pay sily amount to apple, or buy 4GB x2 yourself and sell your original to someone else.

    As soon as the hardware encoder inside Intel can be accessed through Mac OSX, i believe 4 Core 8 thread will be enough for 99.9% of my task. Next year iMac GPU upgrade should be much more important then CPU IvyBridge.

    And only if Apple actually make Z68 Intel SRT to work. We need SSD, in cache or main drive.
  • setzer - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Actually these iMacs have 4 so-dimm slots, so you should be able to get 8gb's fairly easily and cheap, though if I was changing the memory I would also change the hdd in one go, opening that can is hard work..
  • FATCamaro - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Yeah I bought the 27" with the SSD upgrade and bought memory separately. SSD isn't that much more than retail and the imac is a pain to open. The memory is a bit of a ripoff though.
  • Zandros - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Isn't the memory accessible through removing a single screw at the bottom of the iMac, though? No need to go in through the display just for that.
  • archer75 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Actually it's 3 screws ;)

    But there are 4 ram slots. I just bought 16gb from newegg and plugged it in. Cost less than what apple would charge for 8gb.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Anand - First off, great review as always.

    The conclusions you reached regarding the iMac's performance "finally" getting to an acceptable point is something that I came to with the release of the mid-2007 24" iMacs. Prior to that I had a PowerMac workstation for Final Cut Studio. The Core 2 Duo used in the 2007 iMac convinced me that an all-in-one would finally be a suitable replacement instead of a Mac Pro, and it was. It cost me much less than a Mac Pro while still giving me good performance and it had a 24" IPS display built in, which at the time ran $1000 by itself from NEC or Apple.

    The 27" iMac released in late 2009 was a similar deal: a powerful i7-860 machine combined with a $1000 27" IPS display. iMacs make upgrading simple too, you just pack the whole thing in the original box and ship it off. The only thing you have to mental your way past is letting go of the display, and that isn't hard for me based on the fact that the 27" display in the current iMac is spectacular. It was a more than worthwhile upgrade from my prior 24" iMac, and it didn't cost me too much given that I sold the old one for about 60% of what I paid.

    The 27" iMac display also functions as the primary display for my gaming PC. Unlike the iMac, my PC has SLI video cards so it can tear through that 2560x1440 res with no problem. Unlike the iMac, my PC isn't for work, it is for play. :)

    This brings about my main issue with the 2011 iMacs, and it isn't something that was addressed in this review. I'm talking about the new requirements for Target Display Mode (using the iMac as a monitor for an external source) now that the mini-DP port was replaced with a Thunderbolt port. The only sources that you can use on the new iMacs are those equipped with Thunderbolt ports. For the time being this limits you to 2011 Macs, that's it. No old Macs, and no PCs until next year at the soonest.

    Coming from someone that uses an iMac as an external display every day, that is pretty disappointing. Perhaps an active adapter or something will come out, but for the time being it really limits that aspect of the new iMacs.

    Thanks again!
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Sidetrack - I suggest testing Starcraft 2 with ultra textures and medium settings. My PC has plenty of juice to run with everything cranked, but unless you take a still frame and examine it, the difference in visual quality between medium and ultra settings is not noticeable. The difference in framerate is VERY noticeable though, which is why I run at medium settings with ultra textures. Nice and fast while still looking pretty.

    I'm very curious to see how the new iMacs would run with those settings. In my own experience you're looking at nearly a doubling in framerate, but that is also with an SLI setup that may not have the same performance delta as the single GPU in the iMac. I also saw a huge difference with my laptop, but I didn't examine the framerate as closely with it so I can't say for sure if it is "nearly double" in that case.
  • jonwd7 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    The price comparison chart on the first page is wrong. I haven't made it through your review far enough to tell, but either you did not receive the high-end iMac, and you're quoting the wrong price ($1999) for the stats you've listed, or you did receive the high-end iMac, the price is right, but the stats are wrong.

    The stats you have listed are for the $1699 model.
  • krazyderek - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    i noticed this as well, specifically this means,

    the $1999 model currently features the 6970 1gb, and 3.1ghz quad core i5

    the $1699 model currently features the 6770 512mb not the 5xxx

    in fairness the $1499 model should really be used along with the $1199 to compare to those other price points.

    The $1999 model is in a completely different class and should be compared to it's appropriate competitors
  • psonice - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I'd say this isn't really much of an issue. When most people upgrade, they sell their old box - and the mac holds its value incredibly well. So what actually happens is in a couple of years you sell the old box for a large chunk of cash, and spend a smaller-than-expected sum on the new one.

    Basically, macs are surprisingly cheap when you factor in the resale value. You either keep them long term (and they pay for themselves then anyway), or you sell after a few years and get half your money back. This is assuming it doesn't break down - if that happens, they're very expensive ;)

    Example: My 2007 24" imac was ~£1200. Resale value for similar spec on ebay today: ~£650-700. That means it's cost me around £500-£550 over 4 years, roughly the cost of a low-end desktop with an OK screen.

    Oh, and I did upgrade mine to SSD (I've ignored that when looking at the prices). Yeah, it's a "fun" upgrade, and I ditched the HDD completely so I missed out on the 'removing the motherboard' stuff. Suction cups aren't actually required - you can get by with a pair of car windscreen mounts for GPS.

    An easier way to access the HDD would be very welcome - especially as the new ones come with a special SATA connector so you'd need to buy an apple-specific drive too! (Not sure if this was covered in the article, I skipped a lot of it, but it's a pretty major downside for us technical types - the average punter probably wouldn't care less).

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