Feb 3, 2006

Benchmarking the MacBook Pro

Written by Rob Galbraith

Like us, you may be considering the purchase of an Apple MacBook Pro as a way to bring deadline-friendly processing speed to a Mac-based field workflow. For several years, certain models of Apple’s Powerbook line have represented a superb blend of features, screen quality and portability; in fact, the overall design of the company’s mobile machines has far eclipsed computers we’ve used from mainstream PC vendors in all key areas, except one: speed. A PowerPC G4-equipped Mac laptop simply can’t keep up to a Windows laptop powered by an Intel or AMD processor.

For intensive tasks such as RAW conversion, applying beefy filters like Smart Sharpen in Photoshop CS2 and previewing folders overflowing with 8+ megapixel photos, a Powerbook doesn’t keep pace. For example, processing a 16-bit EOS-1Ds Mark II file with Noise Ninja takes about 44 seconds on a Powerbook with a 1.67GHz G4 processor. The same operation on the same file zips by in under 15 seconds on a Toshiba A70/A75 armed with a 3.33GHz Pentium 4. It’s this sort of real-world performance difference that has resulted in site co-editor Mike Sturk relying almost entirely upon a Pentium 4-equipped Dell laptop for on-site work, despite the fact he is at heart a Mac guy.

As we noted in an article introducing the MacBook Pro last month, we hope that the switch to Intel processors by Apple will close the speed gap between Mac laptops and laptops from everyone else. But it’s really too soon to address whether an Intel-equipped Mac will perform comparably to an Intel (or AMD)-equipped PC, since so few Mac pro imaging applications have yet been turned into versions optimized for the Intel architecture of the latest Macs. For months to come, the majority of Mac applications we rely on to get photo work done will be PowerPC versions, and will operate on an Intel Mac only through the assistance of the Rosetta emulation technology built into the Mac OS.

It’s also really too soon to benchmark a MacBook Pro specifically, since they aren’t yet shipping and we don’t have one. What we do have on hand is a close cousin to the MacBook Pro: an early 2006 iMac with a 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor. As fans of Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, we applied his standard of truthiness in coming up with the headline for this article. We really wanted to benchmark a MacBook Pro, but couldn’t, so we got hold of an iMac instead and having been calling it a MacBook Pro.

There’s a method to our madness: prior to Apple’s new laptop hitting the streets, we wanted to get a sense of whether – when running Universal Binary versions of an application – the MacBook Pro is going to deliver anything close to the promised 4.5x+ speed increase (using benchmarking software) relative to a Powerbook G4. And whether PowerPC applications pumped through the seamless but speed-robbing Rosetta will perform at least as well as they would on a Powerbook G4. The Intel Core Duo version of the iMac makes for good stand-in, since it contains similar components, including the all-important Intel Core Duo processor and X1600-series graphics card from ATI. So, without further ado, here’s what we tested, and the results:

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