As I mentioned in my previous article, I decided to buy the 13″ Core i5 (base model) MacBook Pro. It meets my needs as a travel workstation, but how does it perform? I decided to benchmark it against my other Macs to see how it stands up.
The following benchmarks were performed using Xbench and Geekbench, running on a freshly-booted machine. Xbench is outdated but solid and universally-accepted as the standard Mac benchmark. Plus, I had historical data from all of my machines. Geekbench is a great cross-platform CPU test, but it doesn’t measure as wide a variety of system parameters as Xbench.
Each Xbench test was normalized against the new MacBook Pro, which always shows as “100%” in these charts. This should help get a feel for how much slower or faster it is than the other machines.
The test subjects are as follows:
|MacBookPro8,1||13″ MacBook Pro||early-2011||Dual-core 2.3 GHz “Sandy Bridge” Core i5||4 GB||The base-model configuration, with 4 GB of RAM and the 320 GB Hitachi hard disk drive.|
|iMac11,1||27″ iMac||late-2009||Quad-core 2.66 GHz “Nehalem” Core i5||8 GB||Still has the original 3.5″ Seagate 1 TB hard disk drive.|
|Macmini3,1||Mac Mini||early-2009||Dual-core 2.0 GHz “Penryn” Core 2 Duo||2 GB||Disk tests reflect the original (terrible) 120 GB Hitachi hard disk drive.|
|MacBookPro3,1||15″ MacBook Pro||mid-2007||Dual-core 2.2 GHz “Merom” Core 2 Duo||4 GB||“Santa Rosa” update.|
|P8H67-M PRO||Home-built desktop||2011||Quad-core 3.1 GHz “Sandy Bridge” Core i5-2400||8 GB||My home-built lab system.|
This probably seems like an odd and motley assortment, but they all have one thing in common: I own them. Although everyone’s performance baseline will be different, I was interested in how the new MacBook Pro compares to my other machines, and my 15″ machine in particular. So there you have it!
The CPU, graphics, and memory tests were performed running the latest version of Mac OS X “Snow Leopard”, version 10.6.6.
The disk tests, however, were run under either 10.6.6 (in the case of the 13″ MacBook Pro and iMac) or the version of Mac OS X that came with the machine originally (in the case of the 15″ Santa Rosa MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini). Since I am a storage guy, I have long-since upgraded the hard disk drives in both machines, and felt it was unfair to compare the OEM drive in the new MacBook Pro to these upgraded drives. So I used the original Xbench tests I performed when the machines were new.
As others have reported, overall performance is solid. Even though it is the absolute base model in the line, the new MacBook Pro matches or bests my old machine in every respect. It clobbers the Santa Rosa MacBook pro in CPU, Thread, Memory, Quartz, UI, and disk tests, and ties in OpenGL performance. It even matches the high-end desktop in most tests, only falling behind when it comes to Disk, Thread and OpenGL graphics performance.
The fact that it achieves all this with a base price $600 less than my old MacBook Pro and runs for almost 7 hours on a charge is simply amazing. Moore’s law ought to allow new machines to outperform old ones, but one is still surprised to see it so flamboyantly displayed.
Now let’s dig a little deeper into these performance numbers!
CPU Performance Details
The base-model 13″ MacBook Pro uses a 2.3 GHz dual-core CPU, which hardly sounds better than the 2.2 GHz Core 2 Duo chip used in my old MacBook Pro. And it shouldn’t hold a candle to the mighty 2.66 GHz quad-core “Nehalem” Core i5 in my iMac.
The detailed CPU tests tell a different tale, however. The architectural improvements made between Merom/Penryn and Sandy Bridge are evident, with the new chip almost doubling the old in floating point math and (thanks to hyperthreading) solidly throttling it in thread tests.
The most impressive feat is its performance relative to the quad-core Nehalem Core i5 in the iMac, however. Looking past the thread tests, which are greatly helped by two more full cores, we see nearly equal performance between laptop and desktop. This suggests that the Sandy Bridge architecture does a solid job of reducing electrical demands without sacrificing performance. The quad-core desktop CPUs in this family are shockingly strong, as we will see in a moment!
Since it is a cross-platform benchmark, I was able to add a ringer to the Geekbench test: My new lab workstation. Built around a Sandy Bridge Core i5-2400, Asus P8H67-M PRO motherboard, and speedy OCZ memory, this is a seriously-fast desktop for very little money. All in, we’re talking about under $500 for this guy!
The two Sandy Bridge Core i5 CPUs are neck and neck in most of the tests, which is really shocking given that the desktop has two more cores, can ramp to 95 Watts, and runs at 3.1 GHz. It is also impressive that the older Nehalem Core i5-750 can keep up in Geekbench tests. Unsurprisingly, the old Core 2 Duo machines aren’t in the same league, not managing even half the performance of these three.
I previously talked about the performance-per-dollar ratio of the various MacBook Pro machines, noting that the base models were much more attractive by this metric. Although it’s definitely not an apples-to-apples comparison (for starters, my desktop is harder to use on a plane…) I will admit that one can get roughly three times the Geekbench score by building a Sandy Bridge system at home. With a score of 7350, my desktop delivers almost 15 Geekbench points per dollar, compared to 3.5 to 5 points from the new MacBook Pro line.
Memory Performance Details
Both the MacBook pros sport 4 GB of RAM, while the Mini still has just 2 GB and the iMac has been upgraded with 8 GB. The old MacBook Pro uses 667 MHz PC-5300 RAM, while the Mac Mini and iMac use 1066 MHz PC-8500 SODIMMs. The new machine steps up to 1333 MHz PC-10600 memory.
The Nehalem series integrated the memory controller with the CPU, and this is continued in Sandy Bridge. This allows really amazing memory performance across the board – the old CPUs are stuck with 30% to 40% of the new machine’s memory access capabilities.
The new chipset even manages to beat the iMac in many tests, with only the thread-sensitive System Copy test showing a real loss.
Graphics Performance Details
Graphics performance is the one area I was most concerned about. All three older machines use discrete graphics controllers of various sorts, from the wimpy Nvidia GeForce 9400M in the Mac Mini to the Nvidia 8600M GT in the Santa Rosa MacBook Pro to the more-impressive ATI Radeon HD 4850 in the iMac.
As expected, the discrete graphics cards are much more competitive with the new HD 3000 engine integrated into the Sandy Bridge Core i5. Yet once again, the new machine is able to match or beat the old machines in nearly every test.
OpenGL performance seems to be an issue for Intel’s new chip. Perhaps a driver update might improve the situation? But it’s still solid – matching the older machines and only throttled by the big desktop. Most of the Quartz graphics tests show the iMac and new MacBook Pro tied with the old machines trailing far behind. Perhaps they are CPU-bound?
Hard Disk Performance Details
Finally we turn our attention to the question of storage. Hard disk drive performance depends on many factors, and Apple’s machines have historically varied quite a bit. Every one of the new MacBook Pros come standard with a mundane 5400 rpm Hitachi hard disk drive, so one cannot expect it to match the performance of the full-size 7200 rpm desktop drive in the iMac.
Density improvements should give the new MacBook Pro a leg up on the old Mini and ‘Pro and, our tests bear this out. None of the disks are really all that impressive (sequential reads and writes in the 65 MB/s range aren’t impressive) but it’s not bad.
The Sandy Bridge MacBook pro really shines in terms of performance. It soundly beats my old laptop in nearly every test, and even gives the desktop a run in some tests. In all, I’d say the hard disk drive ought to be the first thing to get an upgrade. Throw in a speedy SSD and we’ll be looking at some really earth-shattering performance and battery life. And yet, we’d still be looking at a sub-$2000 machine!