Benchmarks: The new MacBook and games

9400M
Nvidia's GeForce 9400M.

Macworld Lab has had the new MacBook and MacBook Pro for a few days now, and we’ve spent our time running lots of tests. For these new laptops, we decided to expand our gaming benchmarks a bit to see how the MacBook’s new Nvidia graphics subsystem performs. The verdict is in: The Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip makes the MacBook a capable and affordable action gaming laptop—finally. And the new Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip in the MacBook Pro provides a substantial boost over the graphics chip in the previous MacBook Pro.

Mo’ better MacBook

As our own Peter Cohen explained earlier this week, the previous MacBook used Intel’s GMA X3100 integrated graphics subsystem, which used a portion of the MacBook’s main memory as video memory. The new 9400M graphics subsystem in the new MacBook is still an integrated subsystem, but the Nvidia chip is a much more capable chip than the X3100, and it uses 256MB of main memory as video memory, nearly twice as much as used by the X3100.

With the new Nvidia chip, gone is the slideshow-like performance that the previous MacBook had in games like Doom 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2004, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Our test results show significant increase in frame rate with the Nvidia-equipped MacBook over the Intel-based laptop. When running Call of Duty 4 at 1,280-by-800 resolution, the new 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook displayed 20 more frames per second over the previous white plastic 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. In Doom 3 at 1,280-by-800, the improvement was 29 frames per second. The performance gains were even greater at 1,024-by-768. Testing at that same resolution, Unreal Tournament saw an improvement of 47(!) frames. (We didn’t test Unreal Tournament at 1,280-by-854 on the MacBook because that resolution exceeds the machine's native 1,280-by-800 resolution.)

Interestingly, in Doom 3 and Quake 4, the new MacBook is a bit faster than the current 20-inch 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo iMac, which uses ATI’s Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics card with 128MB of dedicated video RAM. The iMac was faster when it came to Call of Duty 4 and Unreal Tournament 2004.

Our testing was done with the graphics detail set to high, so if you think that some of the framerates aren’t fast enough for hard core gamers, you can turn down some of the graphic detail and get better rates. In general, the framerates with the 9400M are more than acceptable for most modern first-person shooters. If you play a lot of casual games, you’ll notice a snappier feel to your games, though performance isn’t as crucial for Peggle Deluxe ( ).

MacBook Pro boost

The MacBook Pro also uses the 9400M integrated graphics chip, and not surprisingly, the performance numbers of the new 2.4GHz MacBook Pro using the 9400M are almost identical to the numbers from the new 2.4GHz MacBook. The new 2.53GHz MacBook Pro using the 9400M was a few frames faster than the new 2.4GHz MacBook and MacBook Pro.

9600M GT
Nvidia's GeForce 9600M GT

The MacBook Pro is unique in that it comes equipped with two graphic chips. The second chip, a GeForce 9600M GT, is a discrete part, not an integrated chip like the 9400M. Another key difference is that the 9600M GT has its own dedicated video RAM: 512MB on the 2.53GHz MacBook Pro versus 256MB on the 2.4GHz model.

On the new MacBook Pros the frame rate performance takes a dramatic leap when switching from the 9400M to the 9600M GT. In Doom 3, the frame rate more than doubled when testing at 1,024-by-768, and nearly tripled at 1,280-by-800. In Quake 4, switching from the 9400M to the 9600M GT resulted in a gain of 20 to 30 frames per second. In Unreal Tournament 2004, the gain at 1,024-by-768 is modest, but significant at 1,280-by-854. The boost in Call of Duty 4 results in about 20 frames.

Comparing the new 2.4GHz MacBook Pro and its GeForce 9600M GT results to that of the previous high-end system—a 2.4GHz configuration with a 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600GT graphics card—yields some interesting information. Only in our Doom 3 test at 1,280-by-800 is there a significant gain in performance with the new MacBook Pro; the rest of the results show that the performance is virtually the same between the two, or that the older MacBook Pro is faster by a few frames.

Gaming benchmarks

  Doom 3 Quake 4 UT 2K4 CoD 4 Doom 3 Quake 4 UT 2K4 CoD 4
1,280 by 800 1,280 by 800 1,280 by 854 1,280 by 800 1,024 by 768 1,024 by 768 1,024 by 768 1,024 by 768
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz
(Aluminum, 256MB GeForce 9400M)
35.2 32.3 NA* 28.4 42.6 39.4 64.8 35.7
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2GHz
(Aluminum, 256MB GeForce 9400M)
34.3 31.9 NA* 27.9 41.4 38.7 60.0 35.1
MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.53GHz
(Unibody, 512MB GeForce 9600M GT)
96.3 61.9 74.8 48.8 104.0 65.7 77.0 57.7
MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.53GHz
(Unibody, 256MB GeForce 9400M)
35.1 32.8 61.0 28.1 43.5 40.1 70.4 35.9
MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz
(Unibody, 256MB GeForce 9600M GT)
90.3 55.7 71.6 48.4 95.6 59.2 73.4 56.7
MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz
(Unibody, 256MB GeForce 9400M)
34.6 32.2 56.9 28.0 42.3 39.2 64.0 35.6
MacBook Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz
(White, 144MB Intel GMA X3100)
6.3 5.0 NA* 8.1 7.7 6.1 17.3 10.1
15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz
(256MB Nvidia 8600GT)
77.5 58.5 70.5 42.5 86.7 62.7 74.7 52.2
20-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.4GHz
(128MB ATI Radeon HD 2400XT)
30.4 26.3 59.1 33.4 36.6 32.5 74.8 42.0

Best results in bold. Reference systems in italics. Scores denote frames per second.
*The MacBook does not support screen resolutions beyond 1,280-by-800. Unreal Torunament 2004 supports a resolution of 1,280-by-854.

We tested using the built-in benchmark tool of Doom 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2004, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare at two different screen resolutions (when possible). Graphics settings for each game were set to highest quality with audio enabled. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.5.5 with 2GB of RAM.—MACWORLD LAB TESTING BY JERRY JUNG

Other results

We’ve included several different Macs for your examination. In addition to the two new MacBook Pros and the new 2.4GHz MacBook, we also tested with the previous white plastic 2.4GHz MacBook that uses the X3100 graphics chipset, and the current 2.4GHz 20-inch iMac.

Check back often for more Mac portable coverage, including our full reviews of the new MacBook and the MacBook Pro. In case you missed it, you can take a look at our preliminary MacBook benchmarks, which includes application testing and SpeedMark results.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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