MacBook family

There’s a reason all these MacBooks have become a big hit with laptop musicians. Expect to see so many of them you get sick of seeing them. That’s why we strongly suggest customization, like making a new case out of mylar or something.

Apple has unveiled its revised MacBook Pros today, with some subtle but significant improvements. I spoke to Apple a few minutes ago to get some of the details on what’s new.

The new MacBook Pro includes new, faster CPUs and the Santa Rosa Intel architecture refresh to the Core 2 Duo, delivering 2.2GHz and 2.4GHz brains and 4MB L2 cache. That should translate to a marginal but very measurable performance improvement, without having to spend a penny today over what you did yesterday. Santa Rosa also allows memory expansion to 4GB, huge news for anyone working extensively with sample libraries. There are also improved displays with LED backlighting and the addition of the NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT GPU, basically a generation ahead the ATI X1600 in the original MBP (itself a very respectable card). We’ve got more on the visual side of the equation on Create Digital Motion, basically because I’m rapidly developing GPU lust.

What does this mean for music? Not the earth-shaking shift from G4 to Core Duo, but still some very good news. Think faster performance in audio apps, more memory for samples, and better displays and graphics. I know plenty of people on the fence on the MacBook Pro. Apple has the latest and greatest from Intel at roughly the same time as their PC-only competitors, so this should mean you can make an educated purchase decision today. And yeah, this might be my first choice even when I have to run Windows. (Come on, sometimes you need to make some beats in FL Studio or do your accounting.)

Improved CPU performance means faster music apps

Think 30% to nearly 60% performance gains in creative apps, thanks to incremental improvements in first the Core 2 Duo and now Santa Rosa.

I’ve been a big fan of the Intel Core Duo architecture since the beginning. This was what was missing from the PowerPC roadmap that was a big factor in making the switch to Intel in the first place. I had done extensive tests of the MacBook Pro for music for, using the first Core Duo. We noted back then that “In Apple’s tests, a 2.16GHz MacBook Pro running Logic 7.2 processes 135 PlatinumVerb reverb plug-ins, 4.5 times as many as a 1.67GHz PowerBook G4.”

Well, Apple has unearthed their PlatinumVerb reverb test again. Comparing their original 2.16 Core Duo MacBook Pro to the current 2.4GHz Santa Rosa Core 2 Duo, the latest machine demonstrates what Apple claims is a 55% improvement of the fastest machine today over the fastest machine when the MacBook Pro shipped. That’s pretty impressive for just over a year.

Now, Apple’s tests — loading an absurd number of reverbs — aren’t exactly real-world. But Macworld found that the performance gains were still impressive in real-world tests, particularly for audio, which is by its nature full of parallel processing. With apps like Logic and Live optimized to take advantage of multithreading on these processors, this is very good news.

I look forward to testing this myself. I also would love to put a new MacBook Pro up against my quad G5 tower. The original MBP was actually nipping at the heels of the Power Mac in processing performance. The new MacBook Pro should actually outrun the tower. Since the MacBook Pro has FireWire 800, you could even hook up a hard drive RAID, a 30″ display (which is bigger than most of us need, anyway), and replace your desktop.

I also think yet again audio is an excellent indication of the robustness of the CPU architecture in general. We’re one of the only markets that requires all of that performance in real-time, onstage even. With the last of the Intel-native music software finally making the jump, I think you’ll see even more MacBook Pros on tour than you do now.

What about PCs? Of course, in fairness, Apple isn’t the only company shipping Santa Rosa laptops. You should see similar performance gains on Windows running apps like SONAR, Live, and FL Studio, each of which have multi-processor optimizations of their own. Then again, you’ll also see performance gains on Windows XP and Vista on the MacBook Pro, which for me is pretty tough to resist. (Worth buying an optional, bigger hard drive add-on to run both OSes to me.)

New Displays

I’ll talk more on Create Digital Motion about the visual side, but suffice to say, you’re getting a better, more ecologically-friendly display on the new MacBook Pro than the old one. The LED backlighting looks better, delivers full brightness the moment you turn it on rather than taking a few minutes to warm up, doesn’t contain eco-unfriendly mercury, and uses less power. Apple claims they save 30 minutes of battery life in their wireless web test, and up to a full hour. That’s consistent with other numbers we’ve seen on the backlighting technology. (And frankly, as it is, I’ve been pretty happy flying New York to San Francisco with my MacBook. I mean, you need to take the occasional nap break, or put down the laptop long enough to eat stale chips.)

Also interesting: not only does the 17″ display now have a 1920px option, but it has improved low-frequency response in its speakers, for when you’re watching Daily Show in bed and don’t want to futz with headphones.

Which Machine to Buy?

Apple definitely lacks a low-cost 15″ laptop option, so it may cause a little sticker shock having to start at US$2000 for a 15″ display. On the other hand, try configuring a PC laptop with a higher-quality 15″ display, higher-quality case, built-in webcam, extras like the sudden motion sensor and disk protection, FireWire 400 and 800, ExpressCard, and high-end dedicated graphics card. What I think you’ll find is not that Apple charges a hefty price premium, but that the MacBook Pro is competitive with premium PCs. Apple just doesn’t let you strip down the configuration or choose a lower-end model. If that’s important to you, and you don’t need to run Mac software or don’t care about the Mac OS, then the PCs are still a competitive choice. I think it’s tougher to say the PCs are competitive at the premium level, though, because you wind up paying the same (or more, strangely enough) for one OS instead of two, and arguably with an inferior product design.

I’m also rapidly becoming a believer in running Windows on Apple hardware. I’ve been testing a quad Mac Pro, and it’s been hands-down the best Windows Vista experience I’ve seen on any hardware. Yeah, you heard that right. Apple is just using very reliable, tried-and-true hardware configurations, and they’ve done a good enough job with the Boot Camp beta that you can consider a Mac a PC. Add in the fact that we haven’t seen the final Boot Camp yet, Leopard is around the corner, and Parallels is developing at a ridiculous rate allowing you to run both OSes side by side from the Boot Camp partition, and … well, darn it, I don’t mean to sound like an Apple fanboy. But there’s a lot of Mac- and Windows-exclusive software I like to run. With Boot Camp, I no longer have to commit to one or the other. And I really am running both — FL Studio and z3ta+ are worth booting into Windows for, just as Logic and VDMX5 for visuals are on Mac.

Now, sure, you could buy a MacBook and a dirt-cheap PC and still get two OSes; 15″ laptops starting at US$1999 isn’t cheap (and I believe the situation is actually worse for some of you in other parts of the world). But having one machine do both is at least worth considering.

The MacBook remains a great machine if you’re on a budget. I love its pint-sized form factor on the road, more than the MacBook Pro. And for audio, raw CPU performance is very, very good on the US$1100 MacBook — certainly beyond what I need live. Via HD for Indies, you’ll see Macworld likes the MacBook (non-pro) changes.

It comes down to this:

The MacBook Pro is worth getting if you need FireWire 800, a larger display, a real GPU, or ExpressCard. (And all of them together are a pretty big deal. Not to mention, the keyboard backlighting is pretty handy for live use.)

The Mac Pro is still worth getting for expandability, internal RAID, support for dual displays, and if you don’t mind having a machine tied to your desk.

But as I type this, coincidentally, booted into Vista on a Mac Pro, I really do think Apple does deliver a fantastic Windows PC. Any hardware that ends silly OS vs. OS wars and lets you use whatever you want is okay by me.

And this looks to me like the mature MacBook Pro a lot of us have been waiting for.

Now you just have to think of a creative way to cover up that glowing Apple logo so you don’t look like everyone else. Knitting a cover could be a good way to go. Black electrical tape looks ghetto. Don’t do it.


Macworld Verdict: MacBook Pro Blazes Through Logic

Ableton Live + Logic 7.2.1 + ReWire + Intel Mac Hands-On: It Works, It Rocks, More Ableton Forum Speed Tests

Ableton Live Benchmarks: PCs, Macs, and Intel Macs

MacBook Gets Core 2 Duo; Live Laptop Config; What’s Your Laptop Pick?

  • "That’s why we strongly suggest customization, like making a new case out of mylar or something."

    Haha … totally. I think that I'm going to get one of those cool plastic black shells for mine. I can't remember the companies name or website … but when I do I'll post it back here. There's even a company that sells many different vinyl skins for the Macbook/Macbook Pro line. I'll post a link for that as well ….

    About this new update : (I bought mine 2 months ago, argh)

    Now they come with a 160GB Serial ATA Drive @ 7200 rpm option?! WTF?! Why couldn't I have had that before? ARGH. I know that I can still put one of them in my current model, but it voids the warranty, which I think is pretty important to have. I really need that damn 7200rpm drive for my music apps & DAWS. That really sucks that they now give the option to the lower Macbook Pro, where as before it was only available in the 17-inch model. Crap. What to do …

    And the fact that they can have up to 4 GB of memory now … DAMN!! I'm nerfed at 3GB, but only running 2GB at the moment. I've heard that running with 3GB yields slightly worse results … but I haven't seen any real confirmation on that. If running 3GB is okay … then I'd like to upgrade a.s.a.p.

    I can't wait to see the benchmark specs between the GeForce 8600 and the ATI 1600.

  • Here's the place for the custom hard cases for your Macbook & Macbook Pro …

    And here's a cool place to get skins to cover the lid of your Macbook & Macbook Pro …

  • bliss

    dead_red_eyes, you can always ebay your laptop. Right now would be an excellent time to do so. You could price it right in the middle of the Macbooks and the Macbook Pros. Someone out there, at least one person is looking for an offer like that. All you need is $500-$600 of your own towards the latest model. That's not too bad,it at least covers the value lost since the older model was released.

  • Nah … it's not that big of an upgrade to warrant me selling it off.

    Only thing I want is that 1GB more capacity, and the 160GB 7,200rpm hard drive option …

    I'm going to call the Apple store today to talk about upgrading the hard drive in laptop. And I guess that I'll buy a 2BG stick of RAM from Crucial … we'll see.

  • nothing better than an ableton sticker over the apple… it glows live! =)

  • also, Highlife and Discovery are both windows-booting-worthy (RIP)

  • @tricil: Yeah, totally. There are probably fewer reasons to boot to Mac in terms of sheer numbers, honestly, though Logic looms pretty large, and there's the simple fact that, for live performance, Mac OS seems to be a source of far fewer headaches. (Ableton on Mac vs. Ableton on PC winds up being no contest, for me, at least!) But in the privacy of my studio, I'm more likely to put up with Windows while I focus on soundmaking for a while.

    We should actually put together some "reasons to boot Windows", "reasons to boot Mac" exclusives — especially now that that doesn't necessarily mean buying separate machines.

    I also feel, inescapably, that there are far fewer reasons to boot Linux, I'm sorry to say. Respect for the OS aside, for those of us in love with sonic toys, exclusives and killer apps matter. And even as someone who does my own patching much of the time, it's great to touch someone else's work, and try to understand it, and warp it.

  • appleuberalles

    it's a nice upgrade, but the previous line up wasn't so bad, either. i would guess that is why the base system in apple's benchmarks is a core duo rather than a core 2 duo. i don't get longing for 4 gb when you only have 2, talk to me when you up to 3 gb…the drive is nice, but the 160gb 5400s were pmr drives which are quite zippy, too.

    i have a c2d 17 and it is my desktop replacement. when i use it with a project on the fw800 drive, it readily outperforms my 2.3 g5 running logic (not so much running off the internal). i kept the old monitor before ebaying the g5 and now i have the laptop and it side by side. i'm doing quite nicely, thank you. well enought to skip this upgrade, anyway. (talk to me next year.)

  • No, the previous lineup isn't bad at all, so the shrewd buyer here will look for a refurb at the $1500 price point. That said, I think the combination of features here is a big deal. Also, I think it's fair to put together Santa Rosa with the first Core 2 Duo to show how far we've come by increment. Santa Rosa is what allows the 4GB of RAM as well as additional performance improvements (maybe even more over Core 2 Duo than Core 2 Duo provided over Core Duo).

    The GPU, aside from raw horsepower, is something that could yield additional advantages over time, as software starts to take advantage of its more unique capabilities. It's something you'll see less in Core Image, but might see in games or can get at via custom programming — of interest to very few, but nice to see Apple at the leading edge again.

  • Peter – I don't think I've seen any benchmarks with Santa Rosa showing anything near the improvement from Core Duo to Core 2 Duo. It's just a memory controller upgrade from a performance standpoint, the CPU is identical.

  • Andrew, I have to disagree, though I should clarify — I'm assuming we're taking in all the changes in the MacBook Pro lineup from the models that were built on Core 2 Duo, which would incorporate greater clock speeds. But even Santa Rosa alone is more than a memory controller upgrade.

    It's got a faster front side bus, which could have an impact on audio apps, as they're bus-intensive. The current models have a faster clock-speed, as well, which is going to have some translation, and that's worth counting since the prices of each model aren't changing.

    Some of the other processor changes are much subtler, and I agree they're similar to Core 2 Duo, but "identical" is inaccurate. For one thing, Santa Rosa should theoretically accelerated single-threaded tasks — though whether that would translate to real world audio performance, I don't know. (My guess in that case would be that it would not; the dynamic threading feature requires the other core to be effectively inactive, so it might not turn on at all.)

    I think that a faster GPU, faster clock speeds, and faster FSB speeds should be enough to consider this a significant release, even without things like the new 15" LED screen and 17" 1920px option.

    NOT worth chucking your current MacBook Pro, no — but, again, if you've been delaying a purchase, interesting.

  • EJ

    I'm kind of tempted to make the leap, since I'm in the market for a laptop. It really doesn't seem like you pay a premium to run Apple software any more – those configs look extremely competitive for the money with any Dell/Sony/Toshiba box out there (finally, an Apple lineup that doesn't beg you to factor a RAM upgrade into the price!).

    2 questions-

    1. If I buy now and Jaguar and/or iLife 07' are released in the next three months, can I expect any kind of free upgrade or discount? iLife is looking especially long in the tooth (contrary to the ads, with iTunes, Google Calendars, Picasa and Reaper, Windows users don't have much to be jealous about in the lifestyle app department), so I wonder if something new is just around the corner.

    2. In general, is it easier getting gap-free multitrack audio out of a Mac, or is there just as much disabling services/video options/etc. required as there is on a PC? I was fairly impressed by the lack of glitches I experienced playing around with Garageband on a friend's G4 Powerbook (with all the Aqua tricks apparantly enabled), so I wonder if it holds up that nicely under heavy use.

  • Marc

    <blockquote cite="dead_red_eyes">I really need that damn 7200rpm drive for my music apps & DAWS <code>

    Are you sure a 7200rpm drive is required to record audio? How many tracks do you need to record simultaneously?

    Have you thought about the noise generated by a 7200rpm drive? I put a 7200rom drive in my work dell laptop and it is much more noisy than before.

  • EJ …

    1. I'm pretty sure October was the release time for Jaguar, so I think that might be too far out for the upgrade, but don't quote me on that. I think that iLife is way better than Google Calendars, Picasa, and Reaper. Reaper doesn't even come close to Garageband. I'm pretty sure with Jaguar, there will be an iLife update … but not too bit a one. Why would you want to fix something that works in the first place?

    2. You don't have to disable all sorts of crap like you do on the PC. I just fire up my DAW, and get right to work … anytime I want. The first of the line Macbook (Core Duo) beats the crap out of a G4 Powerbook … so the sky would be the limit for you with the current Macbooks (which are Core 2 Duo). The increase in performance (over the Core Duo) is about 35-40% with the new Core 2 Duo line. So believe me, you'd have LOTS of power.

  • EJ:

    1. We should know more about Leopard ship dates next week at WWDC. It's easily worth waiting until then to find out the details. I doubt you'd get an upgrade voucher, though. If you can somehow qualify for a student/faculty price, though, that makes the cost of both iLife and OS upgrade virtually non-existent.

    2. Yes. You can get multitrack, glitch-free audio performance out of the box on a Mac without doing *anything*. I turn off some of the Aqua effects, but only because they're annoying. I haven't seen any need to do any "hacks" to Mac OS — just maintain the OS, keep a clean system, etc. I have occasionally seen driver-related audio problems with third-party audio interfaces, just as on any OS; that's the driver's fault.

    Lots of differences between the OS are complex or a matter of taste, but Core Audio is simply superior to the audio system on Windows, across the board.

    I will admit, by the way, that I really don't touch iLife any more. It's Google Calendar + Plaxo + Flickr for me, with Lightroom for images and Final Cut for video. (Aperture also looks nice on the photo side; I just happen to favor Lightroom.) For free, I'm getting really interested in the open-source, cross-platform Jahshaka video editor; enough so that I might use it alongside commercial apps.

    Mac users should soon see a stable build of Reaper, too, and unlike Windows users, they have access to Ardour now.

  • EJ

    Thanks, DRE. The irony is that the more I get into digital audio, the less power I'm inclined to use (my musical ideas seem to get bogged down the more I increase the tracks and plugins) – the core stability and screenspace, especially with a second monitor, are what are tempting to me at the moment. Heck, maybe that makes me an ideal candidate for the discounted old models…

  • I realize I should add a couple of disclaimers to #2:

    You can get excellent performance out of Windows, as I suspect you know. Using WaveRT and Vista, with supported hardware and software (though that's just narrowed the field immensely), you can get really low-latency.

    There are key differences with Mac, though:

    1. Consistency: One driver model, consistent OS-level performance, under a lot of different conditions / wide mix of hardware — it just doesn't exist on PC.

    2. Less OS hacking: Windows is a constant battle against drivers and threads and services mucking up the audio system. This just doesn't happen to the same extent on Mac. You still need to do regular maintenance on the OS (check out the UNIX maintenance utilities in particular; it really is a UNIX animal), and it still makes sense to run your system clean with only what you need, as with any OS. But it is much, much simpler to maintain. Vista was supposed to make this better on Windows. I think it's early to call just how successful it was, but there are definitely still issues — I don't think it's "fixed."

    3. Features. Inter-app audio, inter-app MIDI, audio device integration, integrated interfaces for each, a unified system plug-in folder, plug-and-play USB MIDI and audio support that actually works … there's just stuff that Mac OS does that Windows doesn't. I'm really concerned about the future of MIDI-Yoke on Windows, for instant; it's currently the *only* way to route MIDI between apps on Windows and the whole thing is maintained by one guy. That should be supported at the OS level, or at the very least with the aid of an open source project (like JACK).

    Don't get me wrong, as we've discussed again and again on this site, there are lots of reasons to use Windows, and I love some of its software. But these are not arguable points, and they really weren't substantially addressed in Vista. So, they're even more evident to those of us who regularly switch between OSes, because Windows adds this extra effort.

  • Oh, yeah, I agree EJ:

    Core stability.

    Simple, elegant tools.

    Focusing on music. 🙂

    That goes well beyond the OS decision …

  • bliss

    dead_red_eyes, I wasn't thinking that it was terribly important for you to upgrade your computer, but you listed enough features that you would like to have that I thought to give the suggestion to eBay it. Anyway, how I arrived at the price point had largely to do with the GPU which, while not being terribly important for audio, does represent the $500-$600 difference in value of the current Macbook Pro lineup and the lineup your laptop represents. That GPU is sick! No question about that. And if you like fragging online from time to time like I do, upgrading suddenly makes more sense. It would be like shelling out $500-$600 for a top of the line gaming video card upgrade.

    Anyway, people placing their orders now for the new Apple laptops have bushels to be excited about! 😉

  • EJ

    Wow, thanks for the detail, Peter – and I thought the Mac/PC debate was slowly winding to a halt. I like PCs for a lot of things, but gapping and the resulting system hacking have become the bane of my digital existence – Core Audio IS a huge selling point for musicians.

  • i got a c2d 2.33ghz MBP in april out of necessity (my dell inspiron was literally stolen out of my house… bad day [we have a security system now])

    i've gotta say, as my first OSX machine, i'm sooooo pleased with the stability, ease of use, and processing power.

    cliche or not, i've gone mac and i'm not going back (if i need windows, i'll install it on here!)

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  • Got my MBP 15" yesterday.

    SO HAPPY with it !

    blasts other apple laptops i hang out with:

    my PB G4 1ghz (now i squint at its display)

    my friends's PB G4 1.67's display, as well as his MBP CD 2.16 ghz's.

    speed equals my PM dual 1.8 G5 4GB RAM.

    GO FOR IT !

    Now is the right time !

  • jens


    i just got the mbp 2,4 ghz but to be honest i am very disappointed.

    using the built in sound (cant plug my hammerfal dsp because of missing pcmcia slot) the number of voices i can get using very cpu intensive plugins did not increase dramaticaly to my former notebook (1,8 ghz pentium mobile) under live (minimonsta: 8 to 12 voices whereas someone on kvr told me that he got 64 voices out of his macbook 2,33 which has a different chipset and audiocontroller). could somebody here tell me about the performance of his mbp ?

  • jens,

    You may want to try some other tests… it depends on how multi-threaded the host and instruments are, whether they're able to take advantage of the two cores. In one-core performance, the Core 2 Duo is definitely better than Pentium M, but not as dramatically so.

    And yes, the PC Card thing I know is an issue. Expect more ExpressCard audio soon.

  • jens

    thanks for the answer.

    i also tested logic which performs much much better.

    there are still ome questions to the audioperformance of this laptop. it has the agere firewire controller which is officially said to be not compatible with firewire audiointerfaces from motu and rme (fortunately i have a multiface and the pciexpress is announced for december) and as i already said the performance in live.

    hmm hope these issues can be fixed with firm/driverupdates.

  • dean

    can i use macbook for creating music? i mean which one is the best, macbook or macbook pro? or can i just buy macbook but with another tools for making music?