First Look: Under-the-hood changes boost MacBook performance

On the surface, last week’s MacBook update only seemed to introduce some minor changes to Apple’s consumer laptop line—a modest bump to processor speeds representing the biggest change from the previous MacBook iterations released only in May. Nevertheless, that speed bump coupled with changes under the hood—notably updated graphics—helped the new 2.2GHz Mac Books beat out the last generation’s 2.16GHz model by about 4 percent in our Speedmark 5 system performance benchmark. The new top-of-the-line MacBooks even edged past a 2.2GHz MacBook Pro in overall performance.

Last week’s MacBook update marks the first Apple hardware release since the October 26 debut of Leopard, the latest version of Mac OS X. As the operation system affects so much of system’s performance, we needed to retool our benchmarking suite. And so this benchmark chart marks the debut of Speedmark 5. You can read more about it on the Speedmark page, but the short version of the story is that we’ve added a few tests, removed a few others, and changed the baseline system to be a 1.5GHz Intel Core Solo Mac mini with 2GBs of RAM running OS X 10.5.

In Speedmark 5, the two new 2.2GHz MacBooks scored almost identically, with the black model getting a score of 186 versus the white model’s 185 score. The new 2GHz white MacBook received a Speedmark 5 score of 172, about 7.5-percent slower than the current black 2.2GHz model and about 4-percent slower than the 2.16GHz white MacBook from the previous generation.

New MacBook Benchmarks

Speedmark 5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 10.5 Compressor 3 iMovie HD iTunes 7.5 Unreal Tournament 2004 Quake 4 Finder
OVERALL SCORE SUITE RENDER MPEG2 Encode Aged Effect MP3 ENCODE FRAME RATE FRAME RATE ZIP ARCHIVE
MacBook Core 2 Duo (black)/2.2GHz (black) 186 1:17 1:00 2:05 0:51 1:12 25.4 7.8 5:13
MacBook Core 2 Duo (white)/2.2GHz 185 1:17 1:01 2:11 0:53 1:11 23.3 7.7 5:09
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz (November 2007) 172 1:27 1:06 2:22 0:57 1:16 24.1 7.7 5:42
MacBook Core 2 Duo (white)/2.16GHz 179 1:16 1:04 2:17 0:53 1:13 18.5 4.5 5:11
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.2GH z 185 1:24 1:00 2:16 0:55 1:09 78 43.1 5:37
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better >Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference system in italics .

Speedmark 5 scores are relative to those of a 1.5GHz Core Solo Mac mini, which is assigned a score of 100. Adobe Photoshop, Cinema 4D XL, iMovie, iTunes, and Finder scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5 with 2GB of RAM. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. We recorded how long it took to render a scene in Cinema 4D XL. We used Compressor to encode a 6minute:26second DV file using the DVD: Fastest Encode 120 minutes - 4:3 setting. In iMovie, we applied the Aged Film effect from the Video FX. menu to a one minute movie. We converted 45 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. We used Unreal Tournament 2004’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels at the Maximum setting with both audio and graphics enabled. We ran Quake 4 timedemo at a resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels at High Quality settings. We created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 2GB folder.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

Generally, the results show the new 2.2GHz models finishing each test just a couple of seconds faster than the 2.16GHz MacBooks, with the new 2GHz bringing up the rear (though with very respectable scores for the latter system).

One area where the new MacBooks made marked improvement was in game scores. Though still far from being a gamer’s dream machine, the new MacBooks use Intel’s GMA X3100 graphics with 144MB of RAM allocated from the system’s main memory. Previous models had the Intel GMA 950 with just 64MB of shared memory. Our game benchmark results show the benefit of the new X3100, with the new black 2.2GHz MacBook able to display 37-percent more frames than the 2.16GHz MacBook from the last generation when playing Unreal Tournament 2004. Unfortunately, that’s still about one-third the amount of frames per second a 2.2GHz MacBook Pro can display, but it’s still a decent performance boost. In newer games, like Quake 4, the results still show improvement, but at our 1,024-by-768, high-quality settings, none of the MacBooks could be considered playable.

The new MacBooks also have a faster 800MHz system bus—the old frontside bus was 667MHz. They can now support up to 4GB of RAM, up from 2GB officially supported in previous systems. One interesting thing to note is that the 2.2GHz black MacBook actually achieved a higher Speedmark score than the current 2.2GHz MacBook Pro. With identical-speed Intel processors, we were not surprised to find similar results between the Macbook and MacBook Pro in our Cinema4D tests, but with what appears to be a sluggish hard drive in the MacBook Pro, the 2.2GHz MacBooks were actually faster than the MacBook Pro in almost all other non-gaming tests.

Check back soon for Macworld ’s full review of these new MacBooks. From a benchmark perspective, these new MacBooks are giving their Pro counterparts a run for their money—unless, of course, you’re a gamer.

[ James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director. ]

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