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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  • meorah - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    "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."

    its cost to you was 1200. it has depreciated around 500-550 over 4 years.

    If you were trying to lease an imac for 500-550 over 4 years, then it would have cost you 500-550 over 4 years, but you bought it so that's not right.
  • psonice - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    What difference does it make? At some point (probably soon) I'll sell it and buy a new box. At that point it'll have cost me 500-550, for 4 years of use.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Depreciation on PC parts is much worse. I sell my old PC components on roughly the same schedule as my Macs, every 2-3 years, and with my Mac sales it is more than enough to help pay for its replacement. With my old PC parts, not so much. :)
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    You nailed it. You aren't "losing a good monitor" when you sell your old iMac for a new one, you're getting a better monitor with the major revisions.

    The 24" iMac had a great H-IPS panel in it, but the upgrade from that to the 27" IPS panels in the new iMacs is well worth the upgrade. Combine that with high resale value on Macs and its a pretty good deal, ridiculously easy upgrade too (just pack the old one in the box it came in).
  • DarkShift - Saturday, May 28, 2011 - link

    "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."

    That's surpsrising considering that Mac's are mostly underpowered even as new. 650£ for 2007 iMac is way too much considering how slow it must be.

    I have noticed, that most people who happily buy macs really don't know anything about tech stuff. Many still think that there must be something in Apple hardware that's better than in PC's while they often share same components.

    For comparison, my self build PC workstation runs circles around these iMac's and it cost me less. And that is with Intel i7 2600K @ 4.6Ghz, 3 SSD drives,16GB ddr3 ram, Blue ray and USB 3.0 ports. And absolutely no blue screens after 5 months use. ;)

    Benchmarked results:
    Retouch artics Photoshop (with CS5): 9,5s
    Cinebench R10 Rendering single: 7690
    Cinebench R10 Rendering multi: 30536

    Performance is the most important thing for pro users at it tells how fast you get your job done. Other issues are mostly cosmetic as most pro software is found for both Mac and PC. You get paid for using the tools, not for using them on specific OS.
  • jonwd7 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Unless I am mistaken, your claim that the SSD in the 2011 iMac is the same old Toshiba one they've been using is pure speculation, but you don't treat it like so. If you attempt to order a new 2011 iMac with an SSD, the shipping date gets moved back significantly. There is some possibility that this is because they are switching to a newer, possibly Samsung-branded SSD. It being Samsung is just a rumor I believe, based on what they used in the newest MacBook Airs.
  • kevith - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I think it´s not a drawback, but quite the opposite, when a laptop or an all-in-one is fitted with too little RAM and/or too little HDD/SSD, since it´s the only things you can upgrade yourself.

    And that always cheaper than the price-premium the manufacturer will charge, certainly if the manufacturer is Apple...

    So for my part I always look for laptops without SSD and with as little memory as possible.
  • tech6 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Looks like a nice system that is held back by a design problem. Most laptops have easy access service panels for RAM and disk upgrades or replacements and the lack of this feature would rule this system out for me. That's a pity as it looks good and is reasonable value but if you have to remove the LCD and board just to get at the disk, that is just plain stupid industrial design.
  • Johnmcl7 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    It's worse than stupid, it's entirely intentional as you're not supposed to repair or upgrade your iMac you're supposed to buy a new one. I cannot stand Imacs for their appalling internal design and I'm surprised a tech site like this can still praise Imacs given that laptops a fraction of the size are a two second job to get the drive out so there's absolutely no reason for the Imac to be any different.

    Even putting the Imac's terrible design aside, I'm not a fan of all in one PCs as I struggle to see the point unless you're really, really tight on space. You're essentially getting the disadvantages of both a laptop and a desktop but none of the advantages as the system is neither portable nor flexible/upgradeable or offering topend performance. I have a Dell U2711 which thanks to having just about every input possible can currently hook up to a few different machines and I expect it to last far beyond the current desktop PC it's mainly hooked up to. This new Imac seems even worse for use beyond the builtin computer with a very limited video input.

  • wintermute000 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    The main issue is that its still laptop-esque price/performance for a desktop.

    The lack of an apple tower or upgradable box is quite astounding. They could just keep it single socket, 8Gb RAM or under, and consumer (not pro variant) gfx cards.

    2k USD can buy you a liquid cooled quad-core sandy bridge, mid-high GPU, SSD rig + a decent 24" IPS display with a spare 4 or so Tb of spinning platter storage. No contest except for OSX tax if your apps demand OSX. Back in the XP days the OS was worth the markup but no more IMO

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