Sunday, July 26, 2015

The New Apple MacBook Pro 15.4in with Retina Display

The New Apple MacBook Pro 15.4in with Retina Display


The new 15in MacBook Pro for 2015 has arrived, picking up a trio of component upgrades on the way. Apple’s best laptop features the same design and layout as the first Retina notebook that launched in 2012, and once again two models are available – here we focus on the top model with 2.5GHz processor and AMD graphics.

Apple pioneered the trackpad on laptops back in the early 1990s, when Windows laptop factories were still fitting upside-down-mouse trackballs or little rubber pointing sticks in the middle of the keyboard. The trackpad is now all but ubiquitous as the way to interact with every notebook computer of any faith.

Under Apple’s stewardship, the concept has seen trackpads grow larger in size, increase in precision and sensitivity, and notably gain multi-point touch recognition to allow new hand gestures to guide the user through a computer’s GUI.

The new Force Touch trackpad is something of a departure though, and even though the trackpad looks identical on the surface, it is now a fixed unmoving construct, relying on strain gauges, electromagnet solenoids and additional processors and algorithms to do its work. Superficially, the same as it was in the first Unibody MacBook of 2008 it may be, but still waters run deep.

As we found with first the 13in MacBook Pro and then the new little MacBook, the Force Touch trackpad allows you to control the strength of the ‘click’ for normal clicks (Light, Medium, Firm); and additionally to register an extra, deeper click when you press slightly longer and more firmly.

The Force Touch concept works well on the MacBook Pro, allowing you to deep click on the fast-forward and rewind buttons in QuickTime Player, for example. The harder you press, the faster the speedup. Another useful benefit, if one that takes some mental training to get used to if you’ve been driving trackpads for years, is that you can press anywhere on the trackpad surface with equal pressure to elicit a click, rather than along just the front edge.

Apple does not seem too partisan when it comes to favoring either of today’s two makers of PC graphics processors, tending to oscillate between fitting either nVidia or AMD’s graphics adapters. Since the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display was introduced back in 2012, there has been a build using discrete nVidia graphics in addition to low-power integrated Intel graphics, starting with the nVidia GeForce GTX 650M for the Mark I; and for the past two refreshes, the slightly better GTX 750M.

Now we see the pendulum swing back to AMD, with the inclusion of a Radeon R9 M370X graphics processing unit. It is fitted with 2GB of GDDR5 video memory, the same quota as the outgoing nVidia part.

Graphics

You won’t find this AMD graphics processor on other laptops though as the part seems to be custom-built for Apple. Note that like all GPUs that Apple has fitted to its professional-label MacBook Pro notebooks ever since the line was launched in 2006, the 2015 MacBook Pro takes a consumer-grade graphics adapter, here bearing the Radeon name.

The AMD Radeon R9 M370X looks to be based on a 28nm architecture codenamed Cape Verde that dates back to 2012, and this particular version runs an 800MHz GPU clock, 1125MHz memory clock (4500MHz effective speed, after the quadrupling properties of GDDR5 RAM) and 128-bit memory bus. It has 640 stream processors for parallel processing and 40 texture mapping units.

Comparing the AMD chip with nVidia’s graphics is not easy, as its architecture is slightly different, with a specification listing shading units (384) and render output processors (16) besides a count of 32 texture mapping units. However, the previous nVidia GTX 750M did have a slightly faster core-clock speed of 926MHz, the same size 128-bit memory bus, and a faster memory clock of 1254MHz.

Apple reports that the new AMD graphics are faster than the outgoing nVidia solution, and these claims were borne out in our testing in every instance, up to and including a 70 percent performance increase in one game.

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Before the graphics benchmark results, it’s worth reiterating that the CPU is the same as when we last tested the breed in summer 2014. We ran the usual processor tests anyway as part of our comprehensive routine to ensure nothing unexpected had arisen, and found figures that were within 1 percent tolerance of last year’s results. This means a single-core Geekbench 3 score of 3717 points, rising to 14,325 points in multi-core mode; Cinebench 11.5 with results of 1.54- and 6.41 points respectively for the two modes; while Cinebench 15 reported 132- and 602 points.

For reference, Dell’s comparable copycat computer is the Precision M3800, which runs an Intel Core i7-4712HQ at 2.3GHz, and gives benchmark scores around 5 percent slower in Cinebench, and up to 18 percent slower in Geekbench.

Cinebench will also test graphics rendering performance with an OpenGL routine, and in our tests of the mid-2015 MacBook Pro with its new AMD graphics we found 12.5- and 16 percent improvements over the previous nVidia model. Specifically, Cinebench 11.5 framerate rose from 48- to 54fps, while Cinebench 15 advanced from 54- to 63fps.

Turning to gaming, we started with Batman: Arkham City and found it would play around one-third faster. At the low setting of 1280x720 pixels and Medium detail, nVidia gave us 61fps, while AMD played at 83fps (36 percent faster).

Set to 1440x900 size – arguably the best resolution for this MacBook Pro’s 2880x1900-pixel display – the game rose from 50fps through nVidia GeForce GTX 750M, to 66fps through the AMD Radeon R9 M370X, for a 32 percent improvement.

Unigine Heaven is a synthetic gaming benchmark, and here the AMD graphics showed around 20 percent improvements on the previous nVidia – moving from 35- to 42fps (1280x800, Medium), and from 29- to 35fps (1440x900, Medium).

Most impressive gaming performance lifts were found in the 2013 reboot of the classic Tomb Raider game. In our experience testing Windows machines, this game typically works better through AMD graphics hardware – right down to the added TressFX graphics API for DirectX, which optionally shows Lara’s hair more realistically, each strand rendered separately with the help of the AMD Graphics Core Next architecture. Sadly this feature has not been ported to the OpenGL version of Tomb Raider for Mac.

Set to a modest 1280x800- pixel resolution and Normal detail, framerate was lifted from 40fps under nVidia to 65fps under AMD (63 percent faster). At 1440x900, Normal detail moved from 33- to 56fps (the vaunted 70 percent improvement) and from 31- to 49fps at High detail (or a 58 percent lift).

With the help of QuickRes we also pushed the graphics to their size limit, expanding screen resolution beyond what OS X normally allows, to the MacBook Pro’s native 2880x1800 pixels. At this point, you cannot expect to have playable framerates from anything but the best graphics cards. For the nVidia 750M, it averaged 9fps in Tomb Raider, while the AMD R9 M370X showed us a much better, if still too slow, 18fps. That’s what statisticians and marketeers would call a 100 percent improvement.

Performance

We’ve already seen some significant improvements in storage performance in this year’s Apple Mac refreshes, building on the 2013 refresh when Apple kicked out SATA and introduced PCIe-attached flash drives to the world.

This year saw this strategy developed again by the use of four rather than two lanes of PCI Express. So in the case of the new 13in MacBook Pro with Retina display, sequential read speed from the PCIe-attached flash drive doubled from around 750- to 1500MB/s.

This year’s 15in Retina MacBook Pro also gains from the doubling in PCIe bus lanes, again from two to four. But it also adds another trick that takes sequential read speed up to a staggering 2000MB/s. In place of the venerable PCIe 2.0 standard, we now have a flash drive using four lanes of PCIe 3.0. The newer standard has nominal speed of 8GT/s (giga transfers per second), a bump up from the previous 5GT/s of PCIe 2.0.

Using QuickBench, we measured storage transfer speeds in excess of 2000MB/s, peaking at 2077MB/s, and averaging 2050MB/s for data sized 20- to 100MB. Sequential write speeds were lower as is typical for SSDs and averaged 1542MB/s.

Small-file random reads were almost disappointing, the weakest in measurement at 37MB/s for 4kB random reads, while 4kB random writes hit 118MB/s. Averaged across all small files from 4- to 1024kB, random reads were 533MB/s and random writes averaged 948MB/s.

Compared to 2014’s best, which came in at 199MB/s for averaged random reads and 351MB/s for averaged random writes that’s roughly a three-fold increase since the last refresh, and one that will really make the Retina MacBook Pro fly in real-world usage.

We have seen a clear evolution in Mac storage performance in the past two years; a revolution in terms of the shake-up to the PC industry. Up until the MacBook refreshes of 2013, the best SATA SSDs had read speeds capped by SATA interface at little over 500MB/s.

Then Apple replaced SATA with PCIe, giving a 50 percent read speed increase to 750MB/s. Then earlier this year it used twice as many PCIe lanes, doubling that 750 figure to 1500MB/s. And now the lanes have been widened to expand the top speed to 2000GB/s.

Last year’s MacBook Pro (Retina, 15in, mid 2014) with the same 2.5GHz Core i7 processor lasted for seven hours 57 minutes, in our test of streaming an MPEG-4 HD film over Wi-Fi, with screen set to 120cd/m2 (an 11.75 setting on the 0-16 brightness range available through OS X).

This year’s model with the same CPU ran for eight hours 58 minutes, which we’re happy to call "nine-hour battery life". If we had to guess the "how", we’d wager it was either improved power-saving techniques in the Samsung-made flash drive controller; reduced quiescent current draw from the AMD graphics processor; or it could be a little of both, combined with some under-bonnet changes in the OS.


Verdict

Apple’s latest 15in Retina MacBook Pro maintains its place as a premium mobile workstation laptop, with great performance and a stylish design.


Specifications

15.4in (2880x1800, 220ppi) LED-backlit widescreen display;
OS X Yosemite;
512GB PCIe-based flash storage;
2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.7GHz) with 6MB shared L3 cache;
16GB of 1600MHz DDR3L onboard memory;
Intel Iris Pro Graphics;
720p FaceTime camera;
802.11ac Wi-Fi networking;
4 IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible;
Bluetooth 4.0;
1x MagSafe;
2x Thunderbolt 2;
2x USB 3.0;
1x HDMI;
1x headphone;
SDXC slot;
18x358.9x247.1mm; 2.04kg


By Andrew Harrison

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