Sandy Bridge MacBook Pro: Holy freaking wow

When Intel launched its line of Core i5 and Core i7 processors based on its “Sandy Bridge” spec earlier this year, a number of computer manufacturers were in attendance. They were there to show off the systems they were ready to start shipping based on the new chips. Some of them looked very impressive indeed. None of them were from Cupertino.

This wasn’t really anything new. Aside from the original MacBook Air, which featured a CPU specifically designed for Apple’s requirements, the Mac-maker has rarely been at the vanguard of builders shipping Intel CPUs. In a way, this is smart — it means that when Apple’s machines get released they’ve got the spotlight to themselves, rather than sharing it with AlienWare and whoever else, and it allows a bit of anticipation to build up in the market.

A few weeks ago Apple crossed the Sandy Bridge … erm … bridge, and released its first machines based on the new processors. My learned colleague Alex Kidman has written a full review here for your edification.

Alex’s review compared the machines, as most reviews have, with contemporaries — machines one might be tempted to buy nowadays. In Alex’s case he found the performance competitive with an iMac whose processor bore a faster clock speed. Not bad, in anyone's book.

For me, though — and probably for many others out there — the question isn’t really “how does this compare with a different machine I could buy now” so much as “will this really make enough of a difference to justify replacing the machine I’m already using”. Parting with money is never easy, and the present economic climate doesn’t make it easier. For most of the history of the personal computer, improvements in performance have been of the order of a few percentage points here and there — the computer you bought in 2007 isn’t that much slower than the one you could buy in 2010, so if it was still doing its job you may as well save your money.

My present computer is a late-2008 MacBook Pro. The first of the “Unibody” MacBook Pros with the larger multi-touch trackpads that debuted on the MacBook Air. Prior to that I had been getting by with a PowerBook G4 I bought in 2001. Up until the release of Leopard, it had been running quite satisfactorily for my needs, thanks, and the upgrades in between had been evolutionary rather than revolutionary — not enough to make me part with my hard-earned.

Seven years is a long time to get out of a computer. I didn’t expect to wait until 2015 before buying another. But I did expect that upgrades between now and then would be incremental.

At the Sandy Bridge launch, though, Intel claimed that performance on certain processes could be as much as three times faster than computers based on the old Core 2 Duo architecture. Three times. That’s huge. That’s maybe enough to spend money for.

Hey, you know what? My late-2008 MacBook Pro has a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor in it. Maybe I should test that claim.

So Apple loaned me a 2.0GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro to do just that.

First impressions. Externally, it is virtually indistinguishable from my ’08. It has the single-piece base rather than the split-base for removing the battery, and looks a tad less “lived in” but externally the changes are slight. The ’08 has an ExpressCard slot where the ’11 has an SD Card slot, and the ’11 swaps the Mini DisplayPort for Thunderbolt (not that you’d know just by looking). Basically, as far as looks are concerned, this is just as pretty as its predecessor.

I ran a bunch of tests, comparing the two, but I’m just going to tell you about one of them.

I took a 35MB TIFF image (a photo of my eldest daughter) and I applied a 100 percent radial blur at highest quality using Adobe Photoshop CS5. This isn’t the sort of thing you actually ever have to do unless you like turning pictures of your kids into modern art. But it’s a good test of performance because it’s extremely processor-intensive and always — always — takes time. Let’s face it, if the jump in speed from one machine to another can’t be tested with a stopwatch, it’s not that big a deal.

Back in the day the old radial-blur test could practically be measured with a calendar. Setting it going and heading out to make a sandwich was certainly an option, even if you’d run out of mustard and needed to head out to the shop and get some more and they didn’t keep it where they used to keep it so you had to look around a bit and maybe ask someone and they didn't have the brand you like so you had to pick another one and compare prices. You’d still get back in time to see the blur chug to its conclusion.

Nowadays, not so much.

The test on my ’08 was finished in 2:09. Two minutes and nine seconds. That’s swift. Not at all unimpressive. Surely Sandy Bridge wouldn’t beat that by much, especially given the sheer volume of data that needs to be shuffled about to apply such a filter?

Guess again. 25 seconds flat. OK, maybe not “flat” but I don’t want to worry about decimal points when the speed of my thumb is a factor. Then again, when I run this test on future machines, maybe I do have to worry about fractions of seconds. Long story short, holy freaking wow.

In case you haven’t finished the mental arithmetic in the time it took to read that paragraph, that’s a smidge over five times as fast as the ’08 on the same task. Well, I sure blew Intel’s “three times faster” claim out of the water, eh?

As well as actually being faster, though, the Sandy Bridge machine feels faster. That may sound odd, but I’m sure many of you would know the feeling of having handed over money for a new computer, only to get it home and find that it kind of feels about the same as the old one. Takes as long to start up, applications take as long to launch, windows don’t open all that much faster. The ’11 MacBook Pro doesn’t feel like that.

You know that “instant wake” thing that Apple’s been talking about since the PowerBook G4? Where you open your sleeping laptop and it only takes a few seconds, more or less, to get you back to where you’d left off? With this machine, that actually feels instant. Like, the time taken to open the lid is enough for it to wake completely and be ready to go.

A level head. I am, of course, not completely without criticisms of the beast. It’s heavy. It gets hot. It’s more expensive than I’d like. There’s diddly-squat you can plug into Thunderbolt, and won’t be anything for months. I really don’t care for the glossy screen (though the high-definition version of the screen is now available with an anti-glare option, so thumbs up). It’s also unclear how well, if at all, it exploits some of the niftier features of Sandy Bridge (keep an ear out for the imminent return of MacThePodcast, wherein I’ll be grilling an Intel bod about exactly that).

There’s also the iPad. My iPad has basically become my main mobile-computing device, and most of what I do with my MacBook Pro I do by VNCing to it using iTeleport. When I actually physically use my MacBook Pro I do so in my office, at my desk. it might as well be a desktop computer.

If I were in the market for a new MacBook Pro I would have no hesitation in buying the Core i7. If you’re in the market for a new MacBook Pro I have no hesitation in commending it to you. My question is: am I in the market for one? Has the iPad changed my computing ways to the point where I might contemplate, for the first time in over a decade, purchasing a desktop Mac?

I’m inclined to wait until there are Sandy Bridge-based iMacs before I make up my mind — which may, of course, indicate that I’ve already decided.

Discuss this post in MacTheForum!