Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need

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While Intel should get loud applause for its second-generation Core CPUs, Apple deserves the credit for bringing a 2X speedup (Core i7 quad-core compared to Core 2 Duo) to market with a seven-hour battery life across all three models. Absent a custom-tuned OS with scheduling and power management that are fully enlightened about second-generation Core i7 and Core i5 features, it's just slightly faster silicon. OS X makes these processors sing.

Incidentally, make sure you use the OS that ships with the new MacBook Pro systems. If you boot from an older Mac or image a new MacBook Pro from an old disk, you'll miss out on the drivers that unlock the architecture's potential.

Notes: Thunderbolt MacBook Pro configured with 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 RAM; Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro configured with 2.8GHz dual-core Core 2 Duo CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1067MHz DDR3 RAM; Nehalem Mac Pro configured with two 2.93GHz quad-core Intel Xeon CPUs, 8MB L3 cache, 12GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM. 

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: GPU performance All benchmarks are controversial. There's no such thing as a typical user, so it's almost pointless to try to create performance benchmarks that emulate user experience. Instead, it's often best to try to push what you're testing to its limits and count the number of operations the target hardware can accomplish in a period of time.

Most GPU tests are based on video games. These are enormous fun for reviewers, but they bring in so many variables that results are tough for others to reproduce. It's impossible to know how much of the load is being shouldered by the CPU and how much is off-loaded to the GPU. I prefer pure GPU tests, and OpenCL, one of Apple's many patentable innovations made open instead, enables these findings.

The open source Displacement benchmark tests OpenCL and OpenGL performance by animating an irregular refractive shape. Taking the screen shot lowers the frame rate by about 20 frames per second.

Notes: Thunderbolt MacBook Pro configured with AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete GPU, Intel HD 3000 integrated GPU, 1600 by 1000 pixel window; Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro configured with Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT discrete GPU, Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated GPU, 1440 by 900 pixel window; Nehalem Mac Pro configured with AMD Radeon HD 4870 discrete GPU. Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro results are not directly comparable to Intel and AMD GPUs because a different shape is used, but do reflect relative performance.

I use the open source LuxRender as a raytracing back end for Blender 3D projects. It's fast, and the results are fantastic. The LuxRender team packaged its raytracer into a convenient benchmark called LuxMark. It solves the CPU/GPU problem by letting you test these components separately, but since LuxMark is a throughput benchmark, it also does a great job of testing GPU and CPU together. This is how GPU computing is supposed to be done, so to my mind, the GPU/CPU results are the most relevant.

Testing the throughput of the GPUs alone revealed that for the LuxMark benchmark, the AMD Radeon HD 6750M in the 2.2GHz 17-inch MacBook Pro (the same GPU is in the 2.2GHz 15-inch model) is about 4.25 times faster than the Nvidia GeForce 9600M that's in the 15-inch Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. You can see the results in the accompanying table. No GPU is an island, though, so it's the combined CPU and GPU tests that better approximate real life and, it turns out, make for a more stunning multiplier than Apple marketing dishes out.

According to LuxMark, when the Intel CPU and AMD GPU in the new MacBook Pro join forces, they make a machine that's 7.5 times faster than Core 2 Duo. Not many commercial apps -- Final Cut Pro is one -- exploit this capability. Most apps, including Photoshop and other Adobe Creative Suite components, use OpenGL for drawing and the CPU for calculating. As GPU off-loading, a.k.a. GPGPU for general-purpose GPU, finds its way into software updates, mainstream apps as well as graphics apps will start knocking you out with multiples of the performance you're used to.

When Apple put Intel and AMD together, it created a monster. In the LuxMark raytracing test, 2.2GHz Thunderbolt MacBook Pro is 7.5 times faster than 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.

Notes: Thunderbolt MacBook Pro configured with 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 RAM, AMD Radeon HD 6750M discrete GPU; Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro configured with 2.8GHz dual-core Core 2 Duo CPU, 6MB L3 cache, 4GB 1067MHz DDR3 RAM, Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT discrete GPU; Nehalem Mac Pro configured with two 2.93GHz quad-core Intel Xeon CPUs, 8MB L3 cache, 12GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM, AMD Radeon HD 4870 discrete GPU.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: Thunderbolt The ports along the left side of the new MacBook Pro look familiar, but there have been some key changes. The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models have SD card slots, which are rated for SDXC. With capacities topping out at 128GB and transfer rates up to 30MBps, SDXC is inching closer to specs for solid-state storage devices. SD cards don't insert fully into the MacBook Pro, though, and you might knock the card out of place in midwrite. If you forget the SD card is sticking out and jam the notebook into a bag, you could easily damage the card or the port.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro trades the SD slot for ExpressCard/34, an expansion card standard that allows peripherals to tap the notebook's PCI Express bus. The port also provides USB 2.0 I/O, so many ExpressCard/34 cards are merely repackaged USB devices. Peripherals that actually leverage ExpressCard/34's high-speed bus link include gigabit Ethernet, solid-state storage, external SATA (eSATA) storage, video capture, and PCI bus card cages. But there will soon be a better way to connect such peripherals.

The headliner in MacBook Pro ports is Thunderbolt, the aforementioned order of magnitude (and then some) leap in external I/O. Camouflaged behind a mild-mannered Mini DisplayPort connector, Thunderbolt bypasses all other portable I/O standards and bounds straight to 20Gbps (10 gigabits per data channel, two channels) of potential bandwidth. This is the sort of innovation that sets my mind reeling with possibilities. Anyone disappointed by the absence of USB 3.0 in MacBook Pro needs to appreciate that Thunderbolt, which even graces the 13-inch model, blows the doors off USB 3.0. Apple had a chance to be first to market with Intel's innovative bus, and it was a brilliant move.

Regardless of what you read elsewhere, Thunderbolt is flat-out amazing. The second-generation Intel Core CPUs, especially the quad-core Core i7, have the headroom to drive much faster I/O. Apple demonstrated Thunderbolt by showing Final Cut Pro, its high-end video and film editing software, working in real time with four simultaneous streams of HD content fed by a Thunderbolt storage array. Up to six Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained together, all through the tiny Mini DisplayPort connector.

Thunderbolt will see its first widespread use in IT shops with multiple MacBook Pros. Target Disk Mode has been extended to Thunderbolt, and indeed, the quickest way to see if your MacBook Pro has Thunderbolt may be to boot it with "T" held down. If you have Thunderbolt, you'll see the lightning and FireWire logos side by side. Although it wouldn't be the most cost-effective use of a Mac, it's interesting that this will effectively create a FireWire 800/Thunderbolt gateway. Apple said that Thunderbolt cables will emerge this spring.

Because Thunderbolt uses PCI Express signaling, anything you can plug into a PCI Express bus can be turned into a Thunderbolt peripheral. It's up to vendors, but with Apple's adoption of Thunderbolt, I expect to see the same kinds of peripherals offered for ExpressCard/34 (yes, including USB 3.0), and then some. For example, Thunderbolt makes Fibre Channel and 10-gigabit Ethernet practical, creating interesting possibilities for the next Mac Mini server. For the MacBook Pro, Thunderbolt will redefine desktop docking.

As you'd hope given the AMD graphics firepower that Apple built into most MacBook Pros, the Thunderbolt connector is still useful for driving an external monitor. Thunderbolt treats displays as part of the device chain and speaks to them in their native protocol. No special display is necessary, and Apple's standard Mini DisplayPort adapters (for conversion to DVI, dual-link DVI, or HDMI) still work. If you use the HDMI adapter, multichannel digital audio output accompanies video. All MacBook Pro models drive dual-link DVI displays at resolutions up to 2,560 by 1,600. Thunderbolt's there if you need it, but it doesn't get in the way if all you have is a monitor.

Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: A lone issue Wireless networking is well seen to by Broadcom components and well-placed antennas. The MacBook Pro's 802.11a/b/g/n radio is sensitive and power efficient, and Apple's drivers exploit its rapid multiband network scanning. Reconnecting after suspend is impressively quick. Bluetooth handles all worthwhile profiles, enabling tethering/modem, file transfer, serial port emulation, and high-fidelity stereo with remote control.

802.11 did present the single repeatable glitch encountered during my evaluation. Wireless ping tests between MacBook Pro and a Time Capsule base station revealed widely varying latency. In some cases, response packets lagged by more than 250ms -- latency that equates to forever in LAN terms. The lag was not present with an Ethernet connection or with a Hawking HWDN2 external USB Wi-Fi adapter.

I discovered that the problem disappears when the delay between packets is reduced to 200ms. I believe that OS X is aggressively powering down the wireless radio to extend battery life (radio is a major consumer of power), but that's opinion. Apple acknowledged my report and validated my tests, but a fix was neither deemed necessary nor made available by press time. Because the issue does not affect browsing, video or audio streaming, email, or other common network tasks, it may be purely academic, but I will continue to research it.

There's simply too much to say about the difference in user experience between the Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro and the new Thunderbolt Core i7 models. It's my job to transform subjective to objective through benchmarking and other tests, but in the end, what matters is how the machine feels, sounds, and drives.

After more than two weeks of carrying and living with the new 17-inch MacBook Pro, flipping over to the Core 2 Duo model periodically for testing, the difference is palpable. Every task and action starts and finishes markedly faster, making each return to the "old" MacBook Pro a frustrating experience. Two years is any Mac's prime.

Other differences, like the higher-quality built-in microphone, higher-resolution FaceTime HD Webcam, and support for the mic on an iPhone headset cord just made the experience that much more enjoyable. The only changes I'd make to the test machine are an increase in RAM to the 8GB maximum, and perhaps a trial of the 7,200-rpm hard drive. I expect that these tweaks would handily close the gap between the new MacBook Pro and a desktop. When Thunderbolt peripherals become more commonplace -- a given in light of Apple's brisk sales -- the Thunderbolt MacBook Pro won't just be the only notebook worth carrying. It may be the only computer a professional needs.

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This story, "Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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