Mac Musings

The Early 2011 13" MacBook Pro Value Equation

Daniel Knight - 2011.03.03 -

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The new MacBook Pro (MBP) line has two new features across the board: Thunderbolt and Intel HD 3000 graphics. While the 15" and 17" models also have Radeon GPUs, the 13" MacBook Pro uses the integrated HD 3000 graphics exclusively.

For gamers, this is a real step backward in performance. The Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chip found in the 2010 model handily outperforms the graphics built into the new 2.3 GHz i5 and 2.7 GHz CPUs found in the new 13" MBP.

Rather than jump in with a value equation article right away, I wanted to see how things settled down in terms of benchmarks, especially because of the Intel HD 3000 graphics. And the wait has paid off. Yesterday I posted an overview of the first benchmarks of the Early 2011 MacBook Pro line.

As has been the case ever since the first 13.3" MacBook Pro was introduced in June 2009, the 13-incher has been a completely different machine from the 15" and 17" models, which share almost every feature except for screen size, so I'm writing separate value equation columns for the larger MBPs.

Apple is reporting 7 hours of wireless productivity for the new models, down from 10 hours claimed for last year's model, but that may be due to Apple being more realistic in its testing - i.e., not turning screen brightness down to 25%. In the real world, there's probably little difference between the time you'll get running either the 2010 or the 2011 models from battery.

The New 13" MacBook Pro

The 13" MBP finally made the move to Intel Mobile Core i5 and i7 CPUs, which the larger models did last April, and in terms of clock speed, it seems like a ho-hum change - last year's Core 2 Duo model ran at 2.4 and 2.66 GHz, while the new model has CPUs rated at 2.3 and 2.7 GHz. However, there's a big difference in what those numbers mean thanks to Intel's Turbo Boost 2.0 technology.

That 2.3 GHz i5 can run at up to 2.9 GHz, while the 2.7 GHz i7 can hit a smoking 3.4 GHz. Precisely how fast each core runs depends on how demanding software is of each core, but the rated speed is the minimum you'll see. Geekbench results show the 2.3 GHz i5 has 86% more processing power than the 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, and the 2.7 GHz i7 is also 86% more powerful than the 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo.

In addition, the 13" MacBook Pro now supports HyperThreading, which treats each core as two cores, making this a virtual four-core machine. Core 2 Duo chips don't support HyperThreading.

Macworld's Speedmark 6.5 results are weighted more toward general computing, and they show the new entry-level 13" MBP as 32% more productive than last year's, while the top-end i7 model comes in at just 13% better.

Part of that is due to the integrated Intel graphics. The 2010 13-inchers scored 33-34 frames per second (fps) with Call of Duty 4, but the 2011 models drop that by over 20% to the 26-27 fps range.

Looking forward, the most important change is probably Thunderbolt, which is an extremely high bandwidth data bus that can support a monitor, hard drives, networking, and more. Thunderbolt has twice the bandwidth of USB 3, which Apple has not yet adopted (and may not in light of Thunderbolt) and 12 times as fast as FireWire 800. Thunderbolt has sufficient bandwidth to handle everything short of very high resolution displays.

The Value Equation

Now it's time to look at performance vs. price. The new models retail at $1,199 and $1,499, while the 2010 versions are already discounted to $1,079 and $1,150. Further, Apple has refurbished 2010 units at $929 and $1,019.

Question 1: Is the 2.7 GHz i7 model worth $300 (25%) more than the 2.3 GHz model?

In terms of raw performance, no. Geekbench shows the 2.7 GHz i7 only benchmarks 15% better than the 2.3 GHz i5, which is less than you would expect from a 17.4% faster CPU. However, memory access speed is a factor here, and both models use the same memory bus.

If you run a lot of processor-intensive work, being able to get 15% more work done (maximum) could make the i7 model worth the premium price. For the rest of us, the i5 model represents the better value.

Question 2: How do the close-out 2010 models compare with each other?

There's less than a 10% difference in price between the 2.4 GHz and 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo models, which is very close to the difference in Geekbench score. All things considered, for the small difference in price (under $100), I'd pick the top-end model.

Question 3: How do the new models compare to the old ones in terms of value?

Here's where we're better off comparing overall performance as determined by Macworld's Speedmark 6.5 benchmark. The 2.3 GHz i5 has a slightly higher score than the 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo, and for the slight difference in price, I'd lean toward the new i5 model with Thunderbolt, which you can currently order for as little as $1,150.

If you're a gamer, the Nvidia graphics in the close-out 2010 models could be the most important factor, in which case the 2.66 GHz model is your best value. For anyone else, look to the 2.3 GHz i5 model for the best value.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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