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Review: Apple's early 2010 MacBook Pros

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Apple's revised 13, 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pros deliver new NVIDIA GeForce 320M/330M dedicated graphics performance and CPU options that include Intel's new Arrandale Core i5 and i7, while inheriting the long battery life, the strong, minimalist unibody construction, and the environmentally friendly design of last year's models.

Position in the MacBook family

The MacBook Pros gain an stronger edge in both processing and graphics performance over the entry level white MacBook and compact MacBook Air, thanks largely to the NVIDIA GeForce 320M in the 13 inch MacBook Pro and the NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M in the 15 and 17 inch models.

The 15 and 17 inch versions also incorporate Intel's new Arrandale Core i5 and i7 CPUs, which are the mobile version of its desktop CPU Nehalem microarchitecture (which Apple uses in the Mac Pro and offers as options on the 27 inch iMac).

Like the desktop Core i5 and i7, the new Arrandale mobile versions in the MacBook Pros include an integrated memory controller, a feature that was formerly handled by the CPU's accompanying external chipset.

Apple's NVIDIA chipset plans thwarted by Intel

In previous Core 2 Duo machines, including all of Apple's previous MacBook models, the company had been pairing Intel's CPU with NVIDIA's 9400M, which served as the machine's basic chipset (handling RAM and I/O ports) as well as its integrated graphics. However, with the move to Nehalem and Arrandale, Intel essentially killed off NVIDIA's ability to compete as a chipset vendor, spoiling Apple's general strategy of standardizing on NVIDIA's full service chip in the process.

Arrandale takes CPU and chipset integration a step further, bundling Intel's "HD Graphics" integrated GPU into the new mobile CPU package itself. This is supposed to result in a dual chip CPU that is paired with a single chip Intel chipset. However, Intel's graphics technology isn't really that advanced, so Apple is again augmenting Intel's package with a helper chip from NVIDIA.

Before Apple began using NVIDIA's 9400M (which serves as both the chipset and the graphics chip), it had to either use Intel's simple integrated graphics as part of Intel's chipset, or provide its own GPU. On lower end Mac models, Apple made do with Intel's limited graphics features (such as it did with the Intel GMA GPUs in the low end iMac from 2006 and the Mac mini and entry level MacBook from 2006 through 2009). Most other Mac models included a separate, dedicated graphics processor from NVIDIA or ATI.

Intel HD plus dedicated graphics

After having its NVIDIA 9400M plans thwarted, Apple is now back to the position of having an Intel GPU on board with Intel's own chipset and another dedicated GPU chip to act as a helper, at least on the 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pros. (The 13 inch model continues to use the previous Core 2 Duo paired with an improved successor to NVIDIA's 9400M chipset with graphics: the NVIDIA 320M.)

To make lemonade of this Intel lemon of a situation, Apple has developed automatic switching technology that allows the higher end MacBook Pros to coast along using the integrated Intel HD Graphics GPU, and then switch to using the dedicated new NVIDIA GT 330M with its own graphics RAM whenever advanced graphics are needed. This is triggered whenever an external display is plugged in, and whenever software calls OpenGL, OpenCL, Quartz Composer, Core Animation or Core Graphics functions.

This is handled automatically by Mac OS X, so it doesn't work if you boot the new MacBook Pros into Windows. In that scenario, the machines run with the NVIDIA GPU on all the time, which provides the best graphics performance without leveraging the increased efficiency of the simpler integrated Intel HD Graphics chip. When idle, the Intel HD graphics chip consumes about 11.5 Watts, while the GeForce GT 330M demands 15.1 Watts. Unless you're plugged into a power adapter, that extra bit of power is another hit on the battery.

While Intel isn't as good at graphics as NVIDIA, it appears Intel's SATA controller performance is better than that of NVIDIA's 9400M, so the fact that the new 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pros now use Intel's chipsets again means that disk performance is slightly better, particularly when using a Solid State Drive. Random read performance is nearly twice as fast as the previous Core 2 Duo models, and sequential write performance is up about 20%, according to tests performed by Anandtech.

On page 2 of 3: Unibody design and other details largely unchanged, unique features among the three MacBook Pro model sizes.