Friday, October 24, 2008, 07:45 am PT (10:45 am ET)
Apple's unibody MacBook Pro: an in-depth review with video
Both GPUs support NVIDIA's PureVideo HD, for hardware H.264 and MPEG-2 acceleration. The primary purpose for NVIDIA including this on the GPU is to support Blu-ray, which the new notebooks do not support. However, Apple has now added a hardware support component to QuickTime to enable any application that uses QuickTime to play MPEG-2 (DVD Player) or MPEG-4 (iTunes) content to do so more efficiently. Farming video decoding off to the GPU rather than the CPU means better battery life and cooler operation.
The new notebooks ship with a new version of DVD Player: "5.02, framework 5.0.5" compared to the "5.01, framework 5.0.4" that ships for existing Macs. They also provide a new build of QuickTime and Quicktime Player: both are still listed as version 7.5.5 but the QuickTime build is 995.22.3 compared to 990.7, and the QuickTime Player build is 249.24 versus 249.13. As NVIDIA's new generation of controllers makes their way into other models, as is expected with the iMac next month, Apple's hardware optimization of QuickTime should provide a nice boost to a variety of applications that spend time on encoding, from iMovie to GarageBand.
Applications that don't take advantage of QuickTime to do their encoding, such as HandBrake, which uses open source libraries to rip DVDs and transcode MPEG-2 into H.264 for mobile playback, won't be able to automatically take advantage of the hardware until GPU support is added to those libraries by the open source community.
The improvement in QuickTime performance (and decreased load on the main CPU) has been attributed to "QuickTime X," a feature associated with the release of next year's Mac OS X Snow Leopard. This is not the case; QuickTime X is streamlined H.264 playback software that was created for the iPhone, and is announced for inclusion in Snow Leopard as an alternative to using the existing QuickTime architecture for simple video playback.
QuickTime has long supported the idea of adding hardware accelerated support components, but Apple simply hasn't taken full advantage of this because it has been moving between ATI, NVIDIA, and Intel graphics, making it difficult to standardize on built-in support for any specific technology. With what appears to be a standardization on NVIDIA GPUs from the low end embedded to the higher end dedicated GPUs across its systems, the cost-benefit ratio of building custom support for NVIDIA's H.264 technology has become more favorable. With its increase share of the notebook business, Apple also now has more leverage to ask for NVIDIA's help in bringing support for custom features to the Mac.
Another component of Snow Leopard, OpenCL, will help abstract the differences between different GPU architectures and make it easier for programmers to put more work on the GPU, which is quickly outpacing the CPU as the fastest engine in the computer. AMD (which now owns ATI) has already voiced support for the OpenCL standard, having dropped its own effort to introduce a general purpose GPU programing architecture like NVIDIA's CUDA. OpenCL may also be able to harness the power of both GPUs in the MacBook Pro to accelerate computationally intensive operations, but this potential has not yet been announced.
The MacBook Pro in Review
The new unibody MacBook Pro is much better built, more attractive, thinner, stronger and more rigid, with a nicer feel to the display lid and easier access to the disk and internals. It chooses a nice balance between weight and performance, using a smaller battery but compensating with greater overall efficiency to retain the same battery life as previous models.
The glossy screen will not appeal to some users, but the display itself looks great, and is a significant jump up in quality compared to the smaller MacBook. The new keyboard is great and the new trackpad offers some welcomed improvements, although it also presents some frustrating annoyances due to its differences. You'll have to get used to it.
This model doesn't offer a major jump in performance in either the CPU or GPUs, but does give Mac users the first taste of GPU choice in terms of efficiency or performance, boosts overall speed a bit with a faster RAM architecture, and seems to run cooler and quieter overall than the previous MacBook Pros.
If you're in the market for a replacement MacBook Pro, the new model makes a great, well rounded upgrade. If you've recently bought a new MacBook Pro, the new model certainly won't blow you away in terms of greater performance.
Compared to the 13" MacBook, the choice is pretty simple: a smaller and cheaper 13" unit (losing FireWire, ExpressCard, faster graphics, and a better screen), or a considerably more expensive, larger, but compromise-free 15" model.
Rating 4 out of 5
Greatly improved construction
Flexible graphics options
Bright, high quality screen
Easier to access internals
Limited increase in performance
New trackpad is not yet flaw-free
Glossy screen may be too much for some
Where to buy
Amazon.com: (1,994.00 to 2,494.00)
MacMall ($1,894.00 to $2,844.00)
Best Buy ($1,999.99 to $2,499.99)
Club Mac: ($2,044.00 to $2,844.00)
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