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Apple's unibody MacBook Pro: an in-depth review with video

Performance overview: CPU and RAM

New MacBook models are usually identified by their slightly faster CPUs, RAM, and other components. This upgrade is all about the physical design, but also offers a minor CPU performance bump over the MacBook Pros released earlier in the year. The new 15" MacBook Pros use the 2.4GHz P8600 and 2.53GHz T9400 "Penryn" Intel Core 2 Duo and offers an upgrade option of a new 2.8GHz T9600 on the high end. Only the 2.4GHz MacBook Pro use Intel's more power efficient 25 watt P series Penryn CPUs announced this spring; the faster machine uses a 35 watt T-series CPU.

The 17" MacBook Pro, which has not yet adopted the new unibody construction, uses the same 2.5GHz T9300 and offers the same 2.6GHz T9500 option as the previous "early 2008" generation of MacBook Pros, although the old 2.4GHz T8300 "good" model is no longer offered on the currently selling 17" model.

Last year's "Merom" Core 2 Duo CPUs (which were the first 64-bit CPUs Apple put in its notebooks) ranged from 2.2 to 2.6GHz, and even the "Merom" CPUs from the late 2006 MacBook Pros ranged from 2.16 to 2.4GHz. There has certainly not been a massive increase in terms of clock speed over the last two years, but clock speed isn't everything; the last year of Penryn CPUs have also enabled additional CPU instructions including support for SSE4 multimedia acceleration.

Another advantage of the Penryn version of the Core 2 Duo CPU is its ability to talk to higher speed RAM over a faster Front Side Bus (FSB). Merom CPUs limited the MacBook Pro (and other Core 2 Duo Macs) to DDR2 667MHz "PC2-5300" RAM components. The new CPU in the MacBook Pro (as well as the new MacBook and Air) supports faster DDR3 1067MHz "PC3-8500" RAM.

The previous run of MacBook Pros using Penryn CPUs (described as "early 2008" models) continued to use slower DDR2 667MHz RAM and an 800MHz FSB because Intel's own controller chipset, part of the Santa Rosa platform, did not support the faster FSB of the Penryn CPU. The 17" MacBook Pro continues to have the same limitation because it also uses the same Intel controller chipset.

The new 15" MacBook Pro (along with the new 13" MacBook and revamped Air) pairs Intel's Penryn Core 2 Duo CPU with NVIDIA's MCP79MX controller with integrated GPU, which Apple calls by its marketing name: the 9400M. That chip also provides chipset controller functions (such as RAM, PCIe, SATA, and USB interfaces). This allows Apple to now use the faster DDR3 1067MHz "PC2-5300" RAM, as well as allowing the entire system a faster 1067MHz FSB for communications between the CPU, RAM, the integrated GPU, and the secondary high-performance NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT dedicated GPU.

MacBook Pro

For more information on how the NVIDIA chipset compares to previous architectures, see the article Inside the new MacBooks: FireWire, USB, and the NVIDIA Controller.

The performance numbers presented by Primate Lab's Geekbench (below) indicate that the new MacBook Pro is not that much dramatically faster than the model it replaces, although it does inch closer to the existing iMac, even beating it in some respects. The new laptop certainly can't compare with a the Mac Pro desktop however. Longer bars are better.

MacBook Pro

Performance overview: graphics

The new 15" MacBook Pro's graphics benefit from a faster dedicated GPU, faster access to both CPU and RAM from the faster Front Side Bus, and the option to swap between the higher performance dedicated GPU and the more efficient integrated GPU that is part of the controller chipset. The 13" MacBook and the MacBook Air have the same advantages, minus the dedicated GPU. The 17" MacBook Pro lacks all of these advantages because it continues to use the slower Intel chipset, although it too has a fast, dedicated NVIDIA GPU.

According to NotebookCheck.net the dedicated NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT GPU used in new 15" MacBook Pro runs the 3DMark benchmark 43% faster than the 8600M GT used in the previous "early 2008" MacBook Pro. Even running from the integrated NVIDIA 9400M GPU, Apple reports that the new machine's graphics are 80% of the speed of the previous model's dedicated GPU.

Unfortunately, the 15" MacBook Pro does not currently have the ability to switch between GPUs on the fly. NVIDIA's Hybrid SLI architecture is designed to allow notebooks to switch between processors, and additionally use what the company calls its "Hybrid SLI GeForce Boost" to team both GPUs together for greater speed.

Both features are available under Windows using NVIDIA's software. Mac OS X has never needed to swap between primary graphics interfaces on the fly before, nor has NVIDIA ever delivered the full graphics drivers for the Mac as it has for Windows. The software limitations on the new MacBook Pro are likely to change as Apple adopts NVIDIA controllers across its systems and as it becomes an important customer to NVIDIA with increasingly popular Mac notebooks.

Apple currently requires users to log out and back in again after selecting the "higher performance" graphics option that enables the switch to the dedicated GPU. Mac OS X can do this within a few seconds, but it requires users to quit all their applications and save any open files, which can be a pain. Oddly enough, the Energy Saver interface doesn't make it very obvious that this is how you enable the faster GPU (below top), although once you do, a sheet drops down to prompt you to log out and back in again (below bottom).

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

This logout is no doubt required because Mac OS X has to restart its window manager and run it against the other GPU hardware. Graphical applications can't continue running while the window manager dies and restarts. Whether allowing the system to transition to using a new GPU (or to team the two together) will be addressed in the release of Mac OS X Snow Leopard remains to be seen. When running under Windows, the system is always fixed to the dedicated NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT GPU, and there's no way to select between them, although it also appears the Windows is using both.

The second aspect of the semi-hidden GPU switch is that many users will likely never know to turn on the faster graphics potential of their system. Even those who do know of the difference will likely not switch between them frequently because of the extra step required, and instead either remain in the default, more efficient mode, or stay in higher performance mode and simply work mainly from their power adapter. Apple rates battery life at 20% less when using the faster GPU: 4 hours vs 5 when running from the default integrated graphics.

The difference between the two GPU options for normal desktop operations is unlikely to be visible. Users will notice the difference in playing games or when performing demanding graphics operations.

The NVIDIA GeForce 9400M G integrated GPU is shared across the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air. It's the fastest integrated GPU currently available for notebooks, scoring around 2000 3DMark06 points. It represents the lower end of graphics adapters for playing games; while modern games will run, most will require using limited detail and resolution settings. The new chip is far faster than Apple's previous use of Intel integrated graphics, but the MacBook Pro never used integrated graphics. Now it has the option to, giving it a better battery life option with little decrease in performance over the former GPUs.

The NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT dedicated GPU is only available on the MacBook Pro. It's a decently good mobile GPU, scoring around 5000 3DMark06 points. It represents the middle of graphics adapters for playing games; modern games should run with medium detail and resolution settings. The chip is a bit of an improvement over the previous MacBook Pro's dedicated GPU, but Apple isn't selling the MacBook Pro as a serious gaming machine comparable to the ridiculous $4000 game rigs some Windows PC makers sell.

MAXON's CiNEBENCH testing shows around a 10% boost in OpenGL performance when using the dedicated GPU rather than the default integrated graphics.

MacBook Pro

On page 6 of 6: Faster QuickTime; The MacBook Pro in Review; & Rating.