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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  • dagamer34 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    It's a desktop CPU, but a laptop GPU, and it really shows on page 4 when comparing the 6970M against desktop card. When you've spent $2000 on a machine with the same graphical performance as a $160 video card, that's when you REALLY know that Macs are NOT meant for gaming.

    That's why instead of buying an 27" iMac for gaming, I bought a 27" ACD and built a gaming PC. Same price, but PC parts (especially GPU) are upgradable, and since the computer isn't attached to the monitor, it retains it's value a LOT more.
  • Penti - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    I would prefer the Dell U2711 here, as it's about 450 dollars less here in Sweden with Apples fucked up pricing tied to old exchange rate. Neither is it too fun with a 1650 dollar screen with just mini-displayport input. (Of which 25% VAT is included).
  • Kristian Vättö - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Not a big deal but I thought I would add them anyway. On first page, you say 15" MBP has AMD 6770M while it really has 6750M. Scroll down to the HD part of the first page and it says the base 21.5" comes with 512GB HD, while it is a 500GB.

    For anyone who says I'm nitpicking, I'm not. I have written articles myself and I have made typos too. Look at the Ivy Bridge/Panther Point article's comments if you don't believe (I typoed that IB IGP will have OpenCL 10.1 :D). Like I said, it isn't a big deal but personally, I appreciate if someone points out my typos in a friendly matter.

    BTW, Anand, you look like the mafia boss of SSDs in the FaceTime pic :D SSDs for every finger.
  • tipoo - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Also on the GPU page, "The entry level 21.5-inch MacBook Pro "...Now that would be an interesting product, lol.
  • awaken688 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    "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."

    That is the key statement. You have a nice $1000 monitor, but you have to sell it to upgrade (yeah, you can use it again, but you have a whole computer in the back). So you take depreciation on your hardware and depreciation on your monitor. Then you get another iMac and repeat. In the PC world of desktops, you get a nice monitor and only take depreciation one time on the monitor. Over 3 upgrade cycles, that can be $500-$1000 in savings over the iMac solution depending on the quality of the monitors. That is a big deal. MacBook Pros make perfect sense to me, but Apple just does not offer a desktop model that fits my needs. Mini is too slow and Mac Pro has Xeon cores which I refuse to pay for as I don't need them. I won't hold my breath for Apple to fill in my needs.
  • Kristian Vättö - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Mac Pros just have an extremely fat profit margin, nothing else. Xeon 3000-series CPUs cost as much as their Core iX counterparts. For example the W3530 used in base Mac Pro costs 294$, which is the same as what i7-930 costs. Dell sells a similarly equipped workstation for around 1500$, and yes, that includes Xeons, ECC RAM, workstation GPU (something that MP doesn't have) etc.

    It's obvious that iMac is Apple's flagship in consumer desktop market. They have shown zero interest towards a mid-tower though why would they? iMac is selling brilliantly.
  • dagamer34 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    At this point, Mac Pros are pretty much in dire need for a price adjustment. Even if you really do need all that power, I think buying it makes you feel silly compared to what is available in the MacBook Pros and iMacs of today. And with Thunderbolt, the biggest reason to buy a Mac Pro has disappeared (high speed i/o cards).
  • Penti - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Well when they still where new, the dual processor models where priced competitively against real HP and Dell workstations which often even did cost a bit more. The problem here are two things, the single processor model is just rubbish and priced about 1000 dollars too much (a year ago or even two years ago) and that Apple never adjusts the price of a model but instead replaced them with a new one. With a new price.

    A single socket Mac pro shouldn't be more then a C i7 2600K for like 1200 dollars now, a extreme edition SNB would cost some additional 700 dollars, dual processor model should use something like Westmere-EX by now. 10-core (6-10C) two socket support and quad-channel memory. Why mess around with LGA2011 or LGA1366 today? They pretty much have no choice but to go real high-end or use normal desktop parts with the Mac Pro update. There are no Sandy-Bridge workstation class processors. And dual 8C Westmere-EX would end up costing something like 6000 dollars for the machine though. There's just no good workstation hardware competitively priced there to begin with right now. Right now it doesn't get better then dual Westmere 2.93GHz as the Mac Pro uses. AMD HD6970, two 8-core Westmere-EX is pretty much as far they could go today/this year and that would end up costing at least above 5000 dollars. Just leaving iMac comfortably under that as workstation. But they probably won't upgrade that until sometime after Lion any way.
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    The thing is that depreciation on the iMac is much much slower than it is with PC parts. I sell my iMac and my gaming PC components at roughly the same time, and what I make back selling the old iMac is significantly higher than what I sell my PC parts for.

    Getting a high resale return on my old 24" iMac and using the proceeds to get a new 27" iMac with that gorgeous display was a great deal, and it actually sold me (I was skeptical too) on the idea of upgrading all-in-ones by selling the whole thing on ebay. Getting a similar return on my PC is just not possible.
  • tipoo - Friday, May 27, 2011 - link

    Does anyone know if the GPU switching is enabled in the iMac's? They didn't mention the HD graphics on the spec page unlike the MBP's, so maybe they didn't bother with it since there is no battery. Also most of them use the HD2000 which is half as powerful as the HD3000, so maybe it didn't meet their requirements even for basic desktop work.

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