Comparing the Ivy Bridge MacBooks

At WWDC 2012 Apple released a major update to all of their MacBook computers. This ranged from the tiny 11” MacBook Air through to the 15” MacBook Pro. The 17” MacBook Pro was quietly discontinued.

These new machines bring Intel’s latest microarchitecture, Ivy Bridge, to Apple. Perhaps most significantly Apple also introduced their first high resolution (Retina) display in a Mac product. The 15” Retina MacBook Pro is clearly the vanguard of the next generation of Macs.

The look, feel and finish of these machines has been better covered elsewhere. I wanted to focus on the more objective measures of these new machines and see how they stack up.

CPU Performance

The new MacBoooks allow Apple to make use of Intel’s latest laptop grade CPUs. The Ivy Bridge architecture brings a number of improvements in terms of power and performance. Most notably it also brings USB3 directly to the motherboard.

To compare the relative CPU performance of the new lineup I pulled the Geekbench scores for each system (32-bit). The actual values aren’t so interesting, what is more useful here is having an objective measure to compare the various CPU configurations with.

Geekbench is a multi-threaded comprehensive benchmark which should give a good indication of how CPU bound operations would compare. Things like video encoding, code compilation and the like would fit best into this category. General use applications like Mail or Safari will see some improvement from a faster machine but are likely limited more by network and disk constraints.

Overall this update’s biggest impact is on the high end. The top of the line 15” MacBook Pros are now getting scores that used to only be possible with a Mac Pro or iMac. The top models (2.7GHz Quad i7) now score better than base configuration Mac Pro.

This is likely sufficient for all but the most demanding users, especially when coupled with the super fast internal SSDs that are now standard on some models.

Value, Cost per Performance

Longtime readers of this site may remember my Mac Value Analysis from last summer. The premise is to configure each CPU option as cheaply as possible (base RAM, harddrive, etc) and then compare their benchmark scores to their cost. This isn’t a perfect metric because it totally discounts changes in cost due to other system features (for example the Retina display). The goal is moreover to get a sense of where the best ‘deals’ are within the linup. Lower is better.

When looked at this way the 11” MacBook Airs really come out well. The provide solid performance per dollar.

Also notable is the difference the Retina screen makes to the ‘value’ of a machine. The difference between the Retina and non-Retina machines is smaller than I would have guessed given the addition of standard SSD storage and the new gorgeous display. It is only a 17% increase in ‘cost/performance’ between the old and new models, which I’d say is a steal.

Performance per Pound

Since we are looking at laptop computers perhaps their most important characteristic is their mobility. Many of these computers will be lugged around daily so getting the best performance in the smallest, lightest package is important.

The improvements in portability that Apple was able to squeeze into the Retina MacBook Pros really shows through when looked at this way. Their 4.46Lbs weight conceals a massively powerful machine, especially at the top end.


The standout in this analysis to me is the 2.0GHz 11” MacBook Air. It is an impressive machine both in terms of cost and weight. The performance it brings at such a low price ($1,249.00) and incredible weight (2.38Lbs) is remarkable. I would probably recommend this as the goto model for someone who expects to use their laptop on-the-go for much of its life.

The Retina MacBook Pros are very impressive machines. However, I’d recommend them more as a desktop replacement than for portable use. They aren’t all that heavy (4.46Lbs) but the difference between that and the Airs is very noticeable in practice. Especially because of their small physical size the density of the machine makes them feel even more weighty to my touch.

The Retina screen is clearly the direction Apple will be heading in the future. I suspect we won’t see it brought to the other laptops atleast until early 2013. Until then that is the place to go if you want to experience the clarity it allows.

Note: With the introduction of Retina screens for Macs I have now shifted fully to using Javascript based graphics, rather than exported images, for all my data comparisons. This allows for a much more efficient and beautiful experience on these new machines. Let me know what you think.

David Smith