Did I call it or did I call it? Tuesday, Apple’s holy day for releasing new products, has yielded another wondrous and long overdue surprise for long time Mac users and prospective consumers. After over 10 months of waiting, Apple has updated their Macbook Pros to something a bit more modern. Visually, the computers all look the same, there has been no modification to ports or screen size. Under the hood, however, it’s a different story. The 13-inch Macbook Pros, disappointingly, have not received the new 2010 Intel Core mobile chips but are instead using faster versions of the venerable, though aging Core 2 Duos – now at 2.4Ghz and 2.66Ghz. Standard hard drive sizes have increased to 250GB and 320GB, respectively; along with optional SSDs ranging from 128 to 512GB (shockingly, the 512GB SSD costs more than the entire computer). 4GB of RAM has become standard on both models. The really interesting news is Apple’s adoption of a new graphics core on the 13-inch Pro: the GeForce 320M. While Nvidia sells a mobile GPU called the GT320M, this is not the same chip but rather an Apple-specific integrated GPU, much like the 9400M from their previous configuration. While not as powerful as the discrete GPU with which it shares its model number, it is (according to Apple) 80% more powerful than their last graphics solution while being more energy-efficient. All of this adds up to a reported 10 hour battery life in the 13-inch model (I’ll believe it when I see it).
Things get far more interesting in the 15 and 17 inch models, which have adopted Intel’s Core i5 and i7 chips. Starting at $1799 ($100 more than the previous configuration), the 15 inch Macbook Pro comes with a Core i5 at either 2.4Ghz, 2.53Ghz, or a Core i7 at 2.66Ghz. While the clockspeeds don’t seem any better than the Core 2 Duos, remember that these are Nehalem-based chips which utilize new features like integrated memory controllers, hyperthreading, and turbo boost which can lead to up to 50% better performance over previous generation CPUs, according to early benchmarks. Missing from this list is an optional mobile quad-core chip, which I figured was a sure choice as a BTO option for the 17-inch model. All of these chips also come with an integrated graphics core called Intel HD Graphics. It’s not very powerful, but it is energy-efficient. For when major graphics horsepower is needed, Apple has equipped the notebooks with the Nvidia GT330M, a discrete GPU with either 256MB or 512MB dedicated memory, and 30% better performance than their last graphics solution, while using less power. Apple has also implemented an advanced graphics switching sub-routine that will intelligently change between the Intel and Nvidia graphics based on demand. It sounds a lot like Nvidia’s Optimus technology, but Apple swears it’s actually their own solution that yields the same result (more on that as info becomes available). Apple believes that through this advanced power optimization, they can get between 8-9 hours of life on one battery. Again, I’ll believe it when I see it. Pricing changes to cost more at the low-end but less at the high-end. In all, it levels out. Especially since you get a discrete GPU once absent from the low-end 15 inch Pro.
All in all, it’s exactly what we were expecting months ago. Personally, I’m disappointed that Apple skimmed on the 13 inchers and stuck with Core 2 Duo. However, many other OEMs still offer Core 2 laptops and they are by no means slouch in performance. The speed bumps and better graphics should help beat their predecessors. On the other hand, Nvidia building a custom successor to the Core 2-only 9400M indicates to me that Apple will be sticking with these processors for a bit longer. Why not use one of Intel’s slower i5s like the 430M at 2.26Ghz or use an i3 like many others? Well, Apple has a tendency to only use the highest end chips. No Celerons or Pentiums here. i3 is a low end chip from Intel that lacks turbo boost and has slower graphics. i3 may show up in the Macbook later this year, but maybe this is an indication to Intel that they need to release more variations on the i5 and i7 chips?
UPDATE: ArsTechnica has gotten the skinny on how Apple’s graphics switching system works. Unlike Nvidia’s Optimus system, which simply checks for when an application listed on their servers as one needing discrete power fires up, Apple’s system is completely controlled in the OS environment, not by external drivers. OSX detects when one of their APIs like OpenCL, OpenGL or Core Image is being requested and then activates the discrete GPU while shutting down the integrated graphics. Optimus doesn’t deactivate the integrated solution, and this gives Apple better battery life over Nvidia. Well, it looks like Apple has actually leveraged the advantages of their closed platform on this one. Since they know exactly what OS will run on the machines, they could fine tune the power optimization to specific APIs.
UPDATE #2: Again ArsTechnica has shed more light on the Macbook Pro situation, this time about why the 13-inch Macbook Pro didn’t receive an i3 or i5 processor. The old Macbook Pro was a 2-chip solution: the processor and the 9400M, which combines the GPU and chipset in one. Intel’s new solution requires at least two chips: the dual die package that makes up the i5 processor + the integrated graphics and memory controller, and the HM55 which acts as the I/O hub. In order for Apple to maintain the same level of graphics quality seen on the previous Macbook Pro, they would have had to add a third chip with the discrete GPU. Plainly, the motherboard on the 13-inch model doesn’t have room for 3 chips, at least not without cutting a serious amount of the battery which would have cut run time while increasing heat. Instead, Apple went for a modest speed boost and contacted Nvidia to take their GT218 core that makes the base G310M GPU, triple the stream processors from 16 to 48, and tack that on to the I/O system from the 9400M. Again, it was a pretty ingenious solution that has lead to a massive graphics boost while using a smaller fabrication for less power usage. In light of this, Apple probably made the right move.