Mac Musings

The Early 2011 15" and 17" 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 13" MacBook Pro only uses the integrated HD 3000 graphics, the 15" and 17" models also have Radeon HD GPUs.

Intel and Nvidia have been at odds, which has prevented Nvidia from developing graphics processors (GPUs) for Intel's newest Core i CPUs, but AMD - Intel's most significant rival in the CPU field - has been developing its Radeon processors to work with them. Apple has adopted the AMD Radeon HD 6490M and 6750M GPUs in conjunction with the built-in Intel HD 3000 graphics, using automatic switching as in previous models.

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.

Macworld benchmarks show the 6750M is a big step forward (30%) over the GeForce graphics used last year, while the 6490M does not fare as well with about a 19% drop in frame rate when running Call of Duty 4.

Apple is reporting 7 hours of wireless productivity for the new models, down from 8-9 hours claimed for last year's models, but that may be due to Apple being more realistic in its testing - i.e., not turning screen brightness down to 25% and only using the integrated GPU to stretch battery life. 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 Early 2011 MacBook Pro

Apple has gone with quad-core i7 CPUs across the board for 15" and 17" MBPs, which means 8 virtual cores thanks to HyperThreading.

The additional cores mean that the 2011 models can run at lower clock speeds while offering more performance, as is borne out by Geekbench scores. The 15" 2.0 GHz 4-core i7 scores 81% higher than last year's 2.4 GHz entry-level 15" MacBook Pro and 49% higher than the 2.8 GHz build-to-order dual-core i7 option. The 2.2 GHz 17" MacBook Pro more than doubles raw computing power compared with last year's 2.53 GHz model and bests the 2.8 GHz build-to-order machine by 72%.

In terms of sheer computing power, the 2010 models can't hold a candle to the quad-core 2011 MBPs.

The original Turbo Boost let the CPU overclock individual cores by up to 25%. Turbo Boost 2.0 allows the new CPUs to top out a single core at up to 50% above rated CPU speed:

And here are Geekbench scores for this year's 15" and 17" MBPs - and some of last year's:

In terms of raw processing power, thanks to four cores instead of two and Turbo Boost 2.0, even the pedestrian sounding 2.0 GHz model outperforms last year's top-end 2.8 GHz model by nearly 50%. You would expect a 10% improvement at 2.2 GHz, but the Geekbench score is 3.9% higher, thanks to an even higher Turbo Boost ratio.

The disappointment is the 2.3 GHz quad-core Mobile i7, which is a bit under 1.4% faster than the 2.2 GHz one. Considering it's a $250 option that you'd expect a 4-5% boost from, that's underwhelming. I can't imagine anyone seeing that as a cost effective upgrade. For optimal performance, you'd be better off putting in maximum RAM and perhaps a solid-state drive (SSD) - not cheap, but proven to significantly improve overall system performance far more than the 1.4% gain you'll see with the 2.3 GHz chip.

Macworld Labs takes a different approach to benchmarking and uses real world apps and processes to measure performance. Speedmark 6.5 scores:

Macworld had not yet tested the 2.3 GHz build-to-order option, which we don't consider a good value anyway. The 2.0 GHz quad-core beats last year's 2.66 GHz dual-core by almost 16%, while the 2.2 GHz models have 38% more productivity power.

The 2.0 GHz 15-incher is the only model to use Radeon HD 6490M graphics, and those who want the best frame rate for gaming are going to want to avoid that machine and move up to the 2.2 GHz model with its Radeon HD 6750M GPU - frame rates under Call of Duty 4 are 30% higher than with last year's GeForce GT 330M and an even more impressive 59% better than the Radeon HD 6490M used in the new entry-level 15" MBP.

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 15" models retail at $1,799 (2.0 GHz) and $2,199 (2.2 GHz) and are available for as little as $1,700 and $2,060. The 2010 models are being closed out at:

Further, Apple has refurbished 2010 units at $1,269, $1,439, $1,599, and $1,779 for the 2.4, 2.53, 2.66, and 2.8 GHz versions respectively.

The new 17" MacBook Pro retails for $2,499 and is available for as little as $2,350. Close-out pricing brings last year's 2.53 GHz dual-core i5 model to $1,950 and the 2.66 GHz dual-core i7 to $2,199. Apple has the 2.8 GHz version available refurbished for $2,119.

Question 1: Is the 2.2 GHz 15-incher model worth $300 (22%) more than the 2.0 GHz model? And what about the 2.3 GHz option?

In terms of raw performance, no. Geekbench shows it benchmarks 12.3% higher, so at a 22% price premium, it's not as good a value. As for the $250 extra cost for the 2.3 GHz upgrade, you can't justify it based on performance.

Looking at Speedmark numbers, the 2.2 GHz model scores 19.4% better than the 2.0 GHz machine. Factor in the superior graphics processor and higher capacity hard drive, and you may find it worthwhile. The 2.0 GHz represents a slightly better value, but the 2.2 GHz one is close.

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

There's less than a 23% difference in price between the 2.4 GHz and 2.66 GHz dual-core 2010 15-inchers. Here's a quick breakdown of price vs. Geekbench score:

Based on these numbers, the 2.4 GHz model is the hands-down value champion.

Let's do the same thing for the 2010 17-incher:

The 2.53 GHz 17" 2010 MBP barely edges out the 2.66 GHz version, but the numbers are close enough that I'll call it a draw.

Question 3: And what about Apple Certified Refurbs?

The best value is always going to be buying a refurbished machine, as it carries the same factory warranty and AppleCare eligibility as a new-in-box machine. Here's the 15" breakdown:

Once again, the 2.4 GHz model is the value champion. If you want more power than that, the 2.66 GHz 15-incher provides the next best value at current prices.

At present, the only refurbished 17-incher is the 2.8 GHz model, selling for $2,119. That's $80 less than the best current close-out price for the 2.66 GHz 2010 edition, making it a great value.

Question 4: How do the new models compare to the old ones in terms of value?

Let's ignore the $250 2.3 GHz build-to-order upgrade as a poor value, which gives us just three new models to compare with last year's. In comparing machines based on different CPUs - such as going from dual-core to quad-core - I think where we're better off comparing overall performance as determined by Macworld's Speedmark 6.5 tests, as that factors in the whole computer, not just the CPU and memory.

This time we'll use the best available prices, including 2010 refurbs (unfortunately for this comparison, Macworld never tested the 2.8 GHz i7 models):

Among the 15" 2010 models, the 2.4 GHz is the clear winner, and at $1,269 this is a steal for a 15" MacBook Pro. Based only on Speedmark score vs. price, it even beats the quad-core 2011 models, which cluster in the 0.101 to 0.103 range.

If you want a 17-incher, the new model blows the doors off last year's 2.53 GHz model - mostly because Apple doesn't have refurbs of that model.

If you're a gamer, the Nvidia graphics in the close-out 2.4 GHz 2010 model gives you a leg up over the 2.0 GHz quad-core 2011 machine, but the faster quad-core models with their superior Radeon HD 6750M GPUs give them the edge for gaming.

For everyone else, the refurbished 15" 2.4 GHz 2010 MacBook Pro represents a great value and an incredibly low cost of entry to the 15" size. Other than that, I'd look at the new quad-core models, possibly making an exception for the refurbished 17" 2.8 GHz 2010 model.

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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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