As you probably know, Apple refreshed their MacBook Pro line, upgrading the 13″, 15″, and 17″ models to new NVIDIA GPUs and the 15″ and 17″ units to Core i5 and i7 CPUs. It’s a nice refresh for Mac fans, though a relatively modest one. Anyone hoping for a big leap in multi-core processing or top-of-range GPUs, that’s still largely the domain of the PC market. (In fairness, that also means you can buy PC laptops that sap batteries quickly and heat up to waffle-making temperatures.) And if you wanted a significant price break or value-for-price change, you’ll be disappointed – Apple even raised the entry-level 15″ SKU by US$100. On the other hand, that means that even more than with a typical refresh, this could be a great time to start looking around for a price drop on refurbs and open box models of the previous generation, which remain slick, solid choices. (Pocket the cash for an iPad to use as a controller, perhaps?)

Yesterday, I broke down the prices and specs for the different models of MacBook Pro on Create Digital Music. (The “Pro” is becoming redundant, as the only non-Pro is the still-available plastic model from a couple of generations ago.)

That post even started a refreshingly flame-free discussion of why people use the OS they do, and how different models of Macs compare with previous generations. One interesting comment on the expense of a new MacBook, though: some are opting to use something like an iPad on the go, and do their heavy lifting on a desktop machine with better value-for-money.

GPU Logic?

The important thing to readers of this site, though, is how the GPU balances with other aspects of the line, since live visuals and effects do make use of the graphics horsepower of these machines.

The 13″ MacBook Pro, priced at US$1199-1499, unfortunately still gets the short end of the stick. Its new GPU is the NVIDIA GeForce 320M. That’s not to be confused with the GT 320M, which has the same model number but is actually a much more powerful discrete graphics chip. The “non-GT” 320M, like the 9400M on this model before it, uses shared memory. And while it shows a significant performance boost over the 9400M – up to 1.5x or 2x the framerate of the old model – it’s still a fairly low-end GPU. (In fact, the 9400M is now available in $500 netbooks and nettops.) The 320M gives you 48 pixel pipelines, enough to do most basic visual tasks, but underpowered once you start getting into fancy effects and shader tricks.

That does mean, if you must get a lower-end Mac, the new model is almost certainly a better choice: the 9400M has 16 pipelines to the 320M’s 48.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s too early to pass judgment on the 320M entirely. It’s a new chip NVIDIA is apparently making just for Apple, though similar to the marginally-slower 310M found in a lot of PCs. We’ll likely be waiting on new benchmarks. And it is impressive how quickly NVIDIA’s integrated graphics are improving. But Mac visual software developers I talked to generally agree you’re better off splurging on a 15″ laptop with discrete GPU, once you’re making the investment.

The 13″ also lacks the new i5/i7 processor found in PC competitors costing hundreds less. I won’t comment yet on whether Apple would have been better off with an i3 in place of the last-generation Core 2 Duo; Intel’s branding is a bit complex and I haven’t seen a convincing benchmark pitting those two CPUs against one another. But while the 13″ model gives you the fantastic promised battery life the 15″ and 17″ models do (well over 8 hours), there’s no question you’ll get better performance out of the 15″ model. And I still find that a bit sad, given that you can spec out the new Alienware M11x for about US$1000 with a high-end GPU, but in a lighter, smaller form factor. Other machines from makers like Asus offer the higher-spec CPUs together with serious discrete GPUs also in 14″ or smaller form factors. (Now, too bad the M11x also looks like a prop from Knight Rider in the process. I always love a computer that screams, “I’m Batman!”)

Onto the good news: the 15″ MacBook Pro is now available with a high-density, 1680 x 1050 display and no-glare option. That makes any of the 15″ models a just-about perfect choice, especially if you’ve been on the fence. You get a higher-end, current generation, discrete GPU (the GT 330M), long battery life (9 hours), a great display, a great form factor, and a terrific CPU. You pay for it, to be sure, but it’s likely the best option if you want to run Mac OS and Mac-only tools like VDMX and Quartz Composer.

One question I’ll have is how well the switching works between integrated and discrete GPUs on the new models. The automatic switching is intended as a power-saving feature, but not having seen it in action on the Mac, you’ll want to make sure there aren’t any glitches in making that happen. (There shouldn’t be, but “shouldn’t” and technology don’t always get along. Early hands-on tests I’ve seen seem to suggest it’s fine, but then I’ve manually disabled NVIDIA’s PowerMizer technology when it started causing performance problems.)

More on the GPUs:
NVIDIA GEFORCE 320M, GEFORCE GT 330M [notebookcheck]

Quick Developer Reactions

Disclaimer, disclaimer: I spoke to these developers for some snap reactions, not official word. This thing has just come out. But as a way of taking the temperature of a couple of visual developers, here are some thoughts. (I happen to generally agree with their advice, too, so if you blame someone, blame me, instead.)

David Lublin of Vidvox, makers of VDMX 5:

The 320M is definitely an improvement over the 9400M, but like I said before I’m really reserving judgement about it stacks up to the pro cards (this generation and previous) until I see some independent benchmarks or get a chance to try one out in person…

Regardless of how powerful it is, we’ll still definitely recommend to our users to splurge on the 15″ with the better GPU. VDMX is totally open ended and since the GPU can’t be upgraded in a MBP it is better to scrape together a few extra $$ to get a machine that you can grow into. There is always going to be ‘more’ that you can do with the ‘pro’ card which is why I’ll still lug my Mac Pro to some gigs.

It is of course worth noting that when it comes to VJing there are other bottlenecks, like disk access, which become a big deal when playing back multiple HD clips. While pricey, the BTO 500 GB SSD option is pretty dope.

Bart van der Ploeg, a developer of Resolume Avenue, agrees the screens are one of the best features. And let’s all sing “Taps” for the demise of analog TV out (which seems to be entirely missing from PCs, as well).

I’m quite excited about the Hi-Res Antiglare Display. Glossy displays are terrible with all the lights in a club environment so I advise vj’s to get that.

It’s still a shame that there is no analog tv-out anymore, that would make life a bit easier.

Anton Marini (vade) is our resident Quartz Composer guru. I asked him whether his stuff was likely to work on the 13″ – a key question, given I often see people go with the cheaper MacBook Pro as an option. Anton notes that Quartz Composer and Mac OS in general is designed to work across machines and architectures:

OS X’s GL drivers use LLVM to dynamically *reprogram* GL code and GLSL code (also, core image) to emulate features if the GPU does not support it in hardware for example. I’ve seen folks use mac books, and for the most part, it works pretty well unless you get deep into shader land.

Having likely scared away non-Mac-users from this post, I am curious as I was on Create Digital Music if people are eying PC hardware for visual performance, running WIndows, Linux, or both. The choice of a Mac is usually pretty simple (part of the point), but not so with PC hardware. (For instance, that M11x looks great on paper and has gotten glowing reviews, but I tend to believe the actual reliability of those machines only when I see it.)

On the Mac side, we’ve already heard some people buying the new machines. For instance, from Twitter, derrickbelcham writes: “Just bought one… now I can come closer to designing VDMX performance on the Quad 27″ iMac and performing on the MBP i7 SS HDD…”

So, other readers? Let us know what you’re thinking. Also, if you’ve found easy sources of cash for tech purchases, ideally legal and ethical ones, do let us know. (Back to resisting my consumerist urges and trying to celebrate “Buy Nothing Day.”)