09 November 2006

MacBook Pro C2D First Impressions

As I mentioned last week, my partner's tired old Titanium Powerbook G4 was stolen on about the same day the new Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros (MBP) were announced - perhaps the only silver lining to that event.

We eventually placed her order on the Apple Education store last Wednesday, and received the machine yesterday - under a week, and all the way from Shanghai. The machine is a 2.33Ghz, 2GB RAM model with 160GB hard drive.

I was interested to do a quick comparison with my last-generation Powerbook G4 Hi-res that I got about a year ago to see how much things have changed. My, what a difference!

To look at, there's very little that's obvious, though the new model is noticeably thinner (and a tad wider). Due to the addition of a Firewire800 port on the new MBP model, it actually looks closer to the Powerbook than the first MBP model. Because of the thinness, the DVD slot is quite low - which looks a little odd. With the PB, the slot and screen-release button are aligned neatly, something which I'm sure makes Jonathan Ive happy. But only a true geek would be able to instantly identify a MBP over a last-gen PBG4 from a glance.

Inside, of course is a different story. I was interested in the hard drive model used. There has been a bit of criticism of Apple's failure to provide a 7200rpm option in the new model. But I had guessed that the 160GB option at 5400rpm would use perpendicular technology. By closer packing of the bits, this actually means the 25% slower rotation is essentially negated by the being able to read more bits. While I don't have the data to prove it, I would imagine a 5400rpm 160GB drive would perform not far off a 100GB 7200rpm drive for most situations.

Well, I'm pleased to report that the drive in this model is a Hitachi perpendicular device, and it's XBench disk scores were considerably better than my 1 year old Seagate 120GB 5400 rpm disk (which itself was well-reviewed). While some of the difference is undoubtedly down to my disk being much fuller than the MBP, I'm sure the Hitachi performs admirably indeed. Sure, if someone made a 7200rpm 160GB disk, that would be great. But right now, I don't think they do. So, with the 160GB I think most people will be happy, and it would make sense for Apple not to offer a lower capacity 7200rpm drive. (Not sure about the 200GB 4200rpm drive though).

The new MBP screen (we went for the matte one), is just wonderful, and seems quite a bit brighter than my hi-res Powerbook (which itself was supposedly much brighter than the previous PB). It does lack 60 pixels in height (due to inclusion of the iSight I guess), but that gives it a slightly better fit to wide-screen movies.

Airport reception seems much improved. I've never been able to see other networks from our home with our powerbooks or mac mini. But I saw 3 others with the MBP. It's a pity the Apple Airport Monitor application does not seem to work on Intel macs (well it works, but it doesn't graph). So I can't see it's real throughput.

But of course, the key differences are not about the hard drive, screen or airport, it's about performance and there is no question this machine is massively faster. Xbench scores were nearly all around 2x better, with many between 3x and 4x improved. The user interface test gave a 10x improvement. While my Powerbook has slightly less RAM (1.5GB) and had a couple of apps running, with an 80% full hard disk, I don't think this would have accounted for too much of the difference (and I'm not about to do a clean install to find out).

But I'm not interested in benchmarks like this per se. Real world use is what's important, and the new MBP flies. Web pages are rendered incredibly quickly. Perhaps that will slow down as caches etc fill up (at least that's my past experience), but it is really near-instantaneous now. I converted an MP3 file at 168kbps VBR to a 160kbps AAC to see how quickly it would do it. All done in 8 seconds. The exact same operation took 25 seconds on the PB. The whole user interface felt very responsive indeed including using Dashboard.

I'm quite critical of a lot of the performance tests run on by many publications. For instance, I've seen a lot of stuff written that multi-core computers don't help much if the application isn't properly multi-threaded. But that completely ignores the fact that most people these days are doing several things on their computer at once. My ideal Mac would be something that converts video/music quickly while letting me surf and work as fast as usual. I'd like a Mac that can record off EyeTV while letting me do my usual work without penalty. Mixing usage like that slows my current PB down significantly, and I have avoided doing much video work. Right now I have 10 applications open and some of those are doing simultaneous work. So, a note to testers out there - create some real-life performance tests with mixed usage, please!

I'll be doing a few H.264 conversions over the next few days and seeing how those stack up. I think there will be a huge improvement there.

But right now, I'd say this machine is an incredible leap forward - by both Intel and Apple. For a quite a bit less than I paid just 12 months ago (helped by a great education price admittedly), there's a machine with 2-3x real-world performance improvements, 40GB extra storage, 0.5GB extra RAM, built-in iSight and Magsafe. I don't think it's just about the PowerPC G4 being long-in-the-tooth - I suspect similar performance gains would be seen against last year's single-core Pentium M models.

I made my own decision last year (failing to anticipate that the MBP's would come along so quickly!), and so will stick with my existing PB until next year. Then we should have the Intel "Santa Rosa" platform inside bumping bus speeds to 800Mhz, adding flash storage for performance/battery life gains, as well as 802.11n, WiMax and other wireless technology support. Perhaps with Leopard supporting resolution independence, we'll also see some full HD models too? I'm looking at around Easter for all of this excitement, assuming I can wait!

If there's anything you'd like to know, do post a comment here and I'll see if I can "borrow" the machine again for a bit of "investigative" blogging!

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Anonymous said...

Hi Ian, Thank you for the very helpfull review! I'm just curious to hear how the notebook tested has held up, i.e. the battery life, and the hard drive reliability and speed of the 5400 rpm 160GB? Thanks!

Ian Hobson said...

Hi t6sprockingcat,

I guess it's been almost 4 months now, and this particular MBP has been great. You'll see all sorts of reports on Mac sites about this and that, but I guess you can't get paranoid - if they sell a million laptops a quarter, there'll be some problem ones!

We haven't used it on battery much yet, but there've been no problems in that regard - it survived a weekend when we forgot the charger, and must have run for 4 hours or so with wi-fi on.

The hard disk is fine and quiet.

Incidentally, I did do some follow up tests on H.264 conversion and found it to be a full 4x faster than my Powerbook (last generation). The Powerbook had slightly less RAM (1.5GB instead of 2GB) and has a fuller disk (but of same 5400rpm). I was very impressed by that.

We've had one bizarre problem which is that after a period of time, some pdf's are downloaded corrupted (I've proved it's not just display by saving them and looking at another computer, and also downloading them cleanly on my PB). I don't think the problem goes away when you restart Safari either - a reboot is needed, and then the same pdf's download fine. I've reported this on apple discussions without resolution.

Hardware wise everything seems fine - airport reception has been rock solid with just a few instances of needing to switch airport off and back on.

This is a great computer IMHO, and I have been sorely tempted to eBay this PB and move up. But I can't quite justify that yet, and am hoping for something even better in a few months (as always!).