Let’s cut right to the chase on the “speed bump” revision of the MacBook Pro line today:

  • The 13″ model still gets the short end of the stick as far as graphics; it’s actually a small step backward in raw pipeline performance from the previous model. The payoff is in overall system performance, however, which is improved by a larger margin.
  • 15″ and 17″ models are back with AMD (nee ATI) in place of NVIDIA. Apple promises a 3x speed boost.
  • FW800 isn’t going away, even with the addition of a new-fangled LightPeak port – now Thunderbolt in Apple/Intel terminology. It’s basically otherwise the same port configuration as before. Even ExpressCard remains on the 17″ model. So no step backward in compatibility – phew.
  • While Apple’s Thunderbort port replaces the mini DisplayPort connection, Apple’s still selling the same graphics adapters for DVI and VGA. That means we don’t need yet another kind of display adapter. Collective sigh of relief.

For video and motion, Thunderbolt could be the big news. Via Twitter, mobile DMX developer SyntheFX points us to this article from Intel, saying “Sounds very promising. Note AJA, Blackmagic, Avid, Apogee, UA”:
Thunderbolt Technology

Now it’s our turn – I’d love to get a conversation going about what this means for live visual artists pushing laptops to the edge as far as performance.

I’m curious to hear from live visual developers. Obviously, yet again you have to shell out for the 15″ or 17″ – starting at US$1799 – to get the machine with a good price-performance ratio for doing any GPU work. That’s too bad, I think, as the 13″ form factor is terrific on the go, and it’d certainly be possible to do otherwise, as evidenced by the sub-$1000, compact Alienware M11. On the other hand, could the 13″ model still do what you need graphically? It’s on the edge, but possibly.

The Intel HD Graphics 3000 is an integrated Intel chip; notebookcheck.net compares it to an NVIDIA 310M, but it falls somewhere around 20% behind the previous-generation NVIDIA 320M. Video performance may be improved (I couldn’t find any numbers on that), and I don’t think the marginal loss on the Intel graphics chip can really take away from the larger performance gain on Sandy Bridge. It’d just be nice if Intel figured out a way to get more performance out of integrated architectures, as they keep promising they’ll do. I’m also unclear on what the Intel chip means for OpenCL; Intel has instead recently touted doing OpenCL calculation on the CPU, so we know where their heart lies.

LightPeak, now Thunderbolt, is a promising next-generation optical connection format. It could mean very, very, very fast storage. The magic number is 10 Gbps, or more than four times what we’ve gotten from even Express Card. That could definitely have video applications, not only for storage but other peripherals, which could be one reason Apple is out in front on this.

As for audio or other devices, it’s still a big question mark. And you’ll be waiting for supported accessories. On the other hand, Apple’s a good partner to drive that kind of adoption, because they do have so many speed-hungry pro users of storage.

But since we live in the present, not the future. In the present, you can expect improved performance thanks to a more modern chip architecture in these machines; in Apple’s tests, Sandy Bridge yields 2x performance gains. (Now, I usually take Apple’s benchmarks with a grain of salt. 2x is more than you’ll typically get, but previous PC tests do suggest some significant improvements in the 1.5x range.)

Testing Half Live 2 Episode 2 and Portal (hey, give them a break, the Mac just got Steam), Apple gets 2.8x to 3.1x performance gains in tests of the new AMD chip. You can get up to 1GB of dedicated video RAM, as well you should. And video memory is faster – GDDR5 RAM.

The chip is a Radeon 6490M (256M) on the entry-level 15″, but the 2.2G 15″ and 17″ models both get the beefier 6750M and 1GB of video memory. Notebookcheck doesn’t yet have benchmarks, but they do have specs These are not Mac-specific chips; they are PC chips, too. But they’re nice enough, and should provide some terrific OpenGL 4.1 and OpenCL performance and compatibility. By the way, on the video decode front, this is exactly the sort of chip that doesn’t support hardware VP8 decoding for Google’s WebM+VP8 format, only H.264. It’s not a deal-killer for that format, because of how powerful the GPU is, but it is an indication that Google has more work to do with the chip vendors, or at least that actual products remain in the pipeline.

So, in review, significantly faster architecture, no sacrifice as far as ExpressCard and FW800 versus the previous models, some significant future-proofing with that Thunderbolt port, and better GPUs with faster video RAM. You just still miss out on the GPU if you buy a 13″.

And yes, you could also still buy a PC, but I’m going to assume you can figure that out for yourself.

Now, I wrote this rambling article in part because I’d like to hear from you. If you’re a developer/artist pushing these machines to the breaking point, let us know what you think about the GPUs and revised architecture of these machines. And PC owners, what for you has been the sweet spot on that side, particularly since on that side you do have choices for greater customization?

  • Varian Allen

    What does it mean for audio?

    "Thunderbolt technology was specifically designed with professional audio and video applications in mind, where the inherently low latency and highly accurate time synchronization features play a crucial role."

    Also, Apogee, Avid, and Universal Audio seem excited about it.

    (See the quotes on the bottom of the page)

  • How fast is thunderbolt really in comparison with internal components?

    Does this all mean that external GFX cards for laptops would be possible? Some sort of extension PC tower like we had in the serial days.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Bjorn: Not even comparable, because you'll note that part of the idea of Sandy Bridge is getting everything on the same *die*. The speed isn't the problem, distance is.

  • so…thunderbolt port is used for the video out as well? Thats a little odd, but i suppose with 10 watts of power you can use an unpowered hub?

  • Kevin Hackett

    Laptops will never have the same power as a desktop. VJs would do well to abandon the laptop in favor of real power and quality. I'm not sure about other VJs, but I do all my own production and I need a truck to get to every gig so the idea of using a laptop has always seemed a bit silly to me. I just built another mini ITX mac that has more power that any laptop and it only weighs 6 pounds and fits in 6"x6"x6" case. Oh did I mention it only costs 350 bucks to build. I now have 12 cores of mac power spread over 4 computers with combined GeekBench scores of 27,000 (A real 12 core mac pro gets abut 16,000)

    Sorry Apple, I'm not into your high priced, over-designed, marketed to people who have more money that they need computer.

  • I keep asking myself whether the small MBP or even the MBA will do a good job with VDMX if you don't push it too hard. The question is really whether the faster processors will make up the weaker GPU. Has anybody done any tests with MBAs or 13" MBPs?

  • Peter Kirn

    @Kevin: Well, I can't beat your value argument. I'm not entirely convinced in terms of the need for more power just to pull off the performance – that is, I've never watched someone play visuals and thought, hmm, this would have been great if only they had a better computer. (Actually, oddly enough, that DID use to be the case – remember when you'd show up and everyone was VJing at 320×240 x 16 fps if they were lucky? Regularly framerates would drop to two and three fps when they added layers?)

    But yes, if you can get away with toting the desktop machine, they're a better buy. 

  • Is there info out there about being able to drive a display and use lightpeak for storage as well? I can see additional dongles coming into play there. I feel like my biggest bottleneck in terms of using higher quality footage is usually on the harddrive side of things at this point, and not always the processor's problem. Running two 720p videos at once in Jitter can be a bit of a feat coming off of fw800…it's do-able but can get a little outside of the comfort zone of fps fairly easily. Lightpeak would definitely be great to play with in regards to that particular hang up.

    The HD iSight/facetime camera is also an interesting addition…although the image quality will be fairly similar, I hope the HD doesn't slow down certain intensive calculations for CV experimentation (a lot of stuff I play with feels way more comfortable downsampled to 320×240)…but having those extra pixels can only help in the long run.

  • Yes, there is info about that on Apples page. You can connect 5 peripherals (think HD capture, HD RAID storage, whatever else you want) and then a full resolution Display Port display anywhere on the chain. Remove the display, and you can have 6 devices.

  • Re: Kevin; I'll gladly sacrifice a truck full of gear to be able to walk in and out of a show with my shoulder bag, thank you very much.

  • vjwunderkind: No replacing a good GPU for apps like VDMX. Stick to discrete, better GPUs.

  • Peter Kirn

    @vade: Curious on your thoughts on the Intel 3000. Sufficient for light work, at least? It seems some people have gotten by running Resolume and VDMX on the 9400s and 320Ms, which are similar. I don't think I'd recommend it as a primary machine for anyone with the spare change, but on the other hand, if you're not doing giant particle shaders and lots of layered textures, etc…

    I'm assuming that how LightPe–uh, Thunderbolt works is that it's running DisplayPort on separate pins. Also don't know what they're doing as far as bus power. I need to go read up on this spec now that it's official. 😉 And as far as I know, Apple is first, yeah? I've only seen USB3 on PCs, but I could be wrong.

  • Peter Kirn

    I asked that, and then you wrote. I don't disagree… 😉 

    I'm also very unsure of things like OpenCL implementation on Intel. That was enough to lead one of the Anandtech guys to assume Apple wouldn't do this, but I think he underestimated how important price point / margin / battery life is to them on that entry-level 13"-er. And I think Apple is very happy to force people up to the $1799 price point for the "entry-level" pro model with GPU.

  • The thing about OpenCL, is it *will* gracefully fall back to the CPU, so its not like OpenCL apps wont run on a HD 3000 (if the CL implementation is broken), it will just be slow. I suspect Apple is OK with that.

  • this whole thunderbolt is display port thing is kind of messing with my head. plugging my hard drive into the graphics port? we must be living in the future! but yeah it definitely makes me wonder whether an external graphics card would be possible…. oh man. just… why doesn't that exist?!?!?!

    regardless- I'm a little bummed the 13" doesn't warrant an accelerator.

  • Thunderbolt is going to be huge. We could theoretically have up to 4 express card adaptors on even the cheapest macbook pro – which was one of the big missing things on all but the 17" Model. Camera Data wranglers are going to be stoked.

    Peripherals will no doubt be expensive to start but lets hope it's on $US50-75 for a Thunderbolt -> USB2.0, FW800 & Displayport/Thunderbolt hub.

  • nicolas horne

    i guess for a vj doing traditional video-loop-jockeying, the lower priced models would be good enough? esp with ssd, or ext through tb., and given the bus speed bump. 
    i'm looking forward to some ext tb capture card to *replace* intensity pros, so to speak. maybe sell my mp altogether, – pick out the hdd's first, and make a tb raid? excited about the third party enthusiasm!

  • Am I the only one who was a bit disappointed about the swap from nVidia to AMD? It may just be that I grew a dislike of ATI from when I used Linux as the drivers were always useless in comparison. Anyone know of any pros/cons the swap could bring?

  • Peter Kirn

    I actually need to test the new proprietary Linux AMD drivers. I believe they've improved. The MBPs now have superb dual-boot Linux capability because, well, naturally a lot of Linux fans want to make it happen. Two good OSes deserve each other.

    Cons: No CUDA?

    I mean, there are so many bizarre subtle differences between AMD and NVIDIA. I've never determined one is genuinely better than the other. This looks, performance-wise, to be an upgrade from the NVs previously in these models, at least.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Nicolas: even for video loop jockeying, you might want to use some textures / filters. 😉 But yes, video *playback* performance should be good enough, and you can do quite a few things with the integrated chip. You just can't get into greater complexity with GPU usage…

  • Lau

    video in, video out, duplex, syphon*?:

    "Intel documents state each port provides two full-duplex channels; each channel carries 10Gbit/s in both directions." wikipedia on thunderbolt.

    just jamming.. havent got the slightest idea of the bandwith of a syphon stream… but oh well..


    oh well.

  • I currently use the 13" with the 9400m in it, and find for simple tasks it's absolutely fine. However now I've started experimenting with projection mapping I have to make sure my patches are a little bit more optimised to get smooth fps. I have been considering an upgrade but it was more for the ability to add a capture card than a graphics update. However I don't want to go back to Intel graphics. I know the HD3000 outperforms my 9400 but it still seems like a backwards step.

  • Anybody have some thoughts on what Thunderbolt means for screen capture from one laptop to another? Would this mean native capture with no need for capture cards? Or does it just mean a new generation of capture cards?

    Also I am thinking now there are no limitations speed wise that prevents a sort of machine-to-machine version of Syphon? Or am I dreaming?

  • I think you have to remove the idea of Thunderbolt being a video standard or anything to do with video – its a plug that can carry video AND thunderbolt.
    You could, if someone makes one, add another video card to thunderbolt but a thunderbolt plug by itself won't do any cap or video out.

    Interestingly you can apparently use target disk mode via Thunderbolt.

  • Peter Kirn

    @lotech: Yes, though I think we'll see Thunderbolt used as a transport for connecting cameras and capture cards, to be fair…

  • Naus3a

    I'm one of those guys need to make their hardware red hot, since I use my laptop to develop computer vision and assorted generative media stuff.
    I often need to go multiplatform (Linux, Mac and sadly sometimes win too), so I was considering to get a MBP 13", install 3 OSs and have a compact, portable developer workhorse; needless to say these news are ruining my party… 

  • Jensu

    What are peoples thoughts about expresscard vs. no expresscard? Because I use my computer at gig's and at school, I need to be able to bike around with the mac in a slingbag. Therefore the 17 incher is bit big, but am i pissing my owv pants if i dont get the expresscard slot?

  • Bruce

    @Blair Here you have a pretty good exemple of Thunderbolt used to connect multiple peripherals
    As Anton said you can have full resolution Display Port display anywhere on the chain

  • @Jensu – its good news for you – with an adaptor you can theoretically now add an express card slot to a Thunderbolt plug on any machine from the 13" up.
    Nothings been announced but I can't imagine it wont be long till someone announces one.

  • roboterrr

    from http://www.apple.com/thunderbolt/:
    "With PCI Express technology, you can use existing USB and FireWire peripherals — even connect to Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks — using simple adapters."

    Do we know anything about these "simple adapters"?

  • roboterrr

    I'm itching to upgrade my mid-2007 mbp, but it would suck to give up its connectivity (separate ports for FW800, FW400, Expresscard, and DVI) while waiting for manufacturers to start selling hubs and adapters.

  • nicolas horne

    hopefully, apple will incorporate a TB section march 2nd, intoducing some peripherals.
    so TB > expresscard would be one thing. could expresscard > TB be possible too? i ordered my 17'' on thursday thinking eventually i will need two TB universes..

  • Jensu

    @ nicolas horne: Well PCI express can do up to 2.5 Gbit/s, so you wouldnt really gain anything with a TB –> Expresscard. Except perhabs the whole "everything through one cabel" experience.

  • Kevin Hackett

    Here you go, this will help.

  • Kevin Hackett

    @ Vade, that's why I have a small crew. I still get to walk in with my shoulder bag with 2 of these inside 😉

  • @kevin hackett, I would be interested in learning more about your mini-ITX mac setup.

  • minos ticazi

    I'm quite upset by the price point of the 15",
    was looking forward to replace my white macbook, but don't wanna spend 2500€ for a laptop with a 1000€ worth configuration.

    I'm really interested in knowing something more about the hackintosh solution: which videocards are compatible, etc…
    do you have any good link to get me started?

    Thanks a lot,

  • Yuriy

    Wow! @kevin!
    You are a wizard! Can you tell us how you built the mini-itx for less than $350? I would gladly spend twice that for 12 cores or anything that comes close to the new MBP. Super cool!

  • Hi all, I bought a macbook pro 13, and I really happy, I'm using Visual Jockey Gold(Karma) under bootcamp to do very havy video calculations, and it goes ok.
    The ony thing that bothered me is that It's impossible to get "waveout" ou "StereoMix" signals, and I try a lot, read all internet, and people told me it is a new change of Apple, Dell, Sony etc… Due to copyrights etc…
    Is that true?