Predicting MacBook Pro performance

Any time Apple releases updated hardware, there’s a clamor for definitive numbers on how the new systems perform. It’s no different with the updated MacBook Pro models Apple announced Tuesday; Macworld Lab director James Galbraith is already tracking down new laptops to test, and we’ll publish the results at Macworld.com just as soon as we have the numbers.

But this time around, we already have some idea of how the Core 2 Duo-powered MacBook Pro will perform relative to its predecessors before a single benchmark is even tallied. That’s because Apple already made such a switch last month, when it updated the iMac Core Duo line by adding next-generation Core 2 Duo chips.

In our initial benchmark testing for the updated iMacs, we compared a 17-inch iMac running on a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor with a 20-inch 2GHz model powered by an older Core Duo chip. The Core 2 Duo machine posted a 10 percent improvement over the older iMac in our Speedmark 4.5 test. In all but one of the individual tests, the iMac Core 2 Duo ran faster than the iMac Core Duo with the same processor speed, with gains between 10 and 20 percent depending on the test. The one test where the Core 2 Duo machine wasn’t faster? Creating a Zip archive in the Finder from a 1GB folder; the two iMacs posted the same scores in that test.

Here’s what James Galbraith wrote about those iMac results:

With very similar processor clock speeds as well as identical graphics, RAM, and bus speeds specifications as the Core Duo iMacs released back in January, you may not anticipate much of a performance difference—you’d be wrong. The improvements the Core 2 Duo chip brings to the new iMacs include 4MBs of shared L2 cache—twice that of its predecessors. The new chip also delivers improvements in efficiency and performance when executing instructions.

Now those test results probably won’t sync up exactly with what our Lab finds when it compares the 2.16GHz MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo with its Core Duo counterpart. After all, a laptop isn’t a desktop—though the iMac uses a lot of laptop components, and the MacBook Pro, like the iMac, has doubled its shared L2 cache to 4MB. And there are other changes to the MacBook Pro that we either know about (like the bigger hard drives) or that we’ll find out about soon enough that could further bolster performance.

(Also worth mentioning: our colleagues at PC World ran some tests back in September on Core 2 Duo chips in PC laptops. They found only a small performance boost in portables featuring the new chip. Again, a PC is not a Mac, as anyone who has used the latter will be happy to tell you, so these results may not jibe with what we find once we have a new MacBook Pro in hand.)

When Intel introduced its Core 2 Duo chips this summer, CEO Paul Otellini promised a 20 percent increase in laptop performance over the Core Duo while maintaining the same battery life. Apple is making more radical claims—gains of up to 39 percent over the previous version of the MacBook Pro. It will be interesting once we get these new models into the Lab to see who’s right.

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