From the Lab: MacBooks get a boost from Penryn

At the same time Apple replaced the processors in its MacBook Pro offerings with a next-generation version of the Core 2 Duo chip, it did the same thing with its MacBook models. And just as we saw with our MacBook Pro benchmarks, tests of the revamped MacBooks have found that the consumer-friendly laptops get a performance boost from the Intel processors code-named Penryn.

The new MacBooks released last week come in three standard models: a white, 2.1GHz entry-level system with a 120GB hard drive and 1GB of RAM for $1,099; a white 2.4GHz model with 160GB of storage and 2GB of RAM for $1,299; and the $1,499 high-end black model, also with a 2.4GHz chip and 2GB of RAM but with 250GB of storage. All three MacBooks use the same graphics system as their predecessors—an Intel GMA X3100 integrated graphics processor with 144 MB of DDR2 SDRAM shared with main memory. Those older MacBooks from last fall shipped with 1GB of RAM, processors ranging from 2GHz to 2.2GHz, and hard drive capacities of 80GB, 120GB, and 160GB, depending on which model you used.

Comparing performance between these two generations of MacBooks, the low-end, 2.1GHz MacBook (tested with 2GB of RAM) edged past the previous high-end black 2.2GHz model by just one point in our Speedmark 5 overall system performance test suite. In individual tests, the two systems were also evenly matched with each taking top honors in half of the tests we usually report.

This result is particularly interesting, not just because of the new MacBook’s slower clock speed but also because the Penryn processors inside feature just 3MB of on-chip L2 cache compared to 4MB in the older systems. Clearly, the Penryn chips are handling tasks more efficiently, leading to this boost in performance.

Penryn-Based MacBook Benchmarks

Speedmark 5 Adobe Photoshop CS3 Cinema 4D XL 10.5 Compressor iMovie HD iTunes 7.5 Unreal Tournament 2004 Finder HandBrake
OVERALL SCORE SUITE RENDER MPEG ENCODE AGED EFFECT MP3 ENCODE FRAME RATE ZIP ARCHIVE H.264 ENCODE
MacBook (black)/2.4GHz Core 2 Duo 196 1:16 0:54 1:52 0:51 1:04 27.6 4:51 2:43
MacBook (white)/2.4GHz Core 2 Duo 193 1:16 0:54 1:52 0:51 1:04 27.6 4:57 2:40
MacBook (white)/2.1GHz Core 2 Duo 180 1:19 1:01 2:02 0:56 1:10 26.9 5:24 2:58
MacBook (black, fall 2007)/2.2GHz Core 2 Duo 179 1:15 1:01 2:07 0:52 1:13 26.7 5:06 3:11
MacBook (white, fall 2007)/2.GHz Core 2 Duo 167 1:32 1:07 2:27 1:00 1:15 26.6 5:54 3:14
MacBook (black, late 2006)/2.GHz Core 2 Duo 145 1:27 1:13 2:47 1:00 1:18 17.8 6:24 3:40
MacBook Air/1.6GHz Core 2 Duo 121 1:48 1:41 3:32 1:24 1:54 17.5 7:40 5:17
15-inch MacBook Pro/2.4GHz Core 2 Duo 204 1:05 0:53 1:51 0:49 1:03 73.4 4:46 2:57
PowerBook G4/1.67GHz PowerPC G4 89 3:04 4:05 7:57 1:55 2:34 19.7 7:18 17:07
>Better <Better <Better <Better <Better <Better >Better <Better <Better

Best results in bold. Reference systems 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 10.5.2 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 created a Zip archive in the Finder from a 2GB folder. For the Professional Application Multitasking suite, we recorded how long it took Photoshop to run our standard test suite while a longer Cinema4D task and our Compressor encode test ran in the background.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JAMES GALBRAITH, JERRY JUNG, AND BRIAN CHEN

Comparing the new entry-level 2.1GHz MacBook to its older 2GHz counterpart, the new system saw about an 8-percent improvement in its Speedmark 5 score. It completed the Photoshop speed test 16 percent faster than the older MacBook. Comparing the new high-end 2.4GHz black MacBook to the older high-end 2.2GHz black MacBook, the new system was about 9 percent faster in both Speedmark and Cinema 4D; it logged a 16-percent improvement in our Handbrake H.264 encode tests.

Going back a few generations to the first Core 2 Duo MacBooks released in late 2006, we included a black 2GHz MacBook that represented the top of its line. Comparing that system to the new high-end model, we see the new 2.4GHz MacBook’s Speedmark and Compressor encode scores jump 35 percent. Handbrake times improved by 26 percent, while iTunes MP3 encoding and applying iMovie HD effects got about 15 percent faster.

If you’re weighing which model from Apple’s recently revamped laptop line to buy, the overall performance between the new high-end MacBook and the low-end MacBook Pro is fairly similar. The 2.4GHz MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo features a Speedmark score of 204—4 percent faster than the score turned in by the 2.4GHz MacBook. The biggest difference in performance stems from 3-D gaming, where the MacBook’s integrated Intel graphics struggled to display 27.6 frames per second in Unreal Tournament. The new MacBook Pro and its Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT graphics and 256MB of dedicated graphics memory displayed 73.4 frames per second.

If you’re deciding between a MacBook Air and a new MacBook, the decision isn’t likely to be based on performance. There was already a large performance gap between Apple’s two smallest laptops, and now that gap is even wider, with the new low-end MacBook turning in a Speedmark score 49 percent higher than the standard MacBook Air.

Check back soon for Macworld’s full review of these new MacBooks, as well as battery life testing data for all of the revamped laptops.

[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]

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