Apple Mac Pro vs. MacBook Pro Test Drive, Part 1

Apple MacBook Pro

Apple MacBook Pro

Month after month, one of the most widely researched topics on the millimeter site is the performance difference between an Apple Mac Pro and a MacBook Pro. Given that I have brand-new models of both computers in my office, it felt like it was time to revisit the issue.

In September 2007, I compared a four-core Mac Pro and two-core MacBook Pro and concluded that while the editing experience was roughly comparable from a performance perspective, the Mac Pro kicked serious bootie when it came to rendering, performing the measured tasks in roughly half the time it took the MacBook Pro.

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Test Drive: HP Compaq 8710p, Part 1

My love affair with portable computers began in about 1983, when I taught myself Lotus 1-2-3 on a luggable Compaq, right there on my kitchen table one Friday night (and early Saturday morning). Other milestones include the my first Toshiba clamshell, which I used to demo fax boards on press tours back in the early 1990s...

In terms of hardware trends, 2007 turned out to be a good time to buy a notebook. Intel's Core2 Duo, an amazingly capable CPU, was available for notebooks, a vast upgrade over the previous generation Pentium M. Serial ATA drives had also started appearing in notebooks, though capacity was limited to 150GB or so—which is OK for single-camera shoots, but uncomfortably small for multicam HD projects. Basically, from a performance perspective, notebooks and desktops shared the same building blocks, which had never really occurred before. The only major difference from a performance perspective was that you could put multiple CPUs in a desktop.

Since then, multiple trends have affected the computing and video worlds, most favoring the desktop computer over the notebook. Most important was Intel's release of the Nehalem chipset in early 2009, which boosted performance by up to 100 percent in some applications (more on the Mac Pro with Nehalem). To date, Intel hasn't released any Nehalem-based notebook CPUs, though various reports have them appearing by the end of 2009, if not earlier. Not to pull a Carnac on you (and really date myself), but as I look ahead, I see one or two Nehalem-based notebook reviews in my near-term future—and yes, that is a faint smile upon my face.

The other CPU-related trend was the introduction of the quad-core processor and dual-processor, quad-core systems, doubling the desktop CPU tally while notebook computers stayed pat. So this time around, I'm comparing an eight-core Nehalem-based system (with Hyper-Threading Technology), against a dual-core notebook architecture that was very similar to what I tested last time, which is obviously a mismatch.

The other watershed event was the release of Adobe Creative Suite 4, which really needs a 64-bit system to leverage many of its new advances. Other than Macs, none of my systems back in 2007 were 64-bit; today, all of my primary Windows editing workstations are 64-bit with at least 6GB of RAM, and as much as 24GB.

Unfortunately, my HP Compaq 8710p notebook, which I acquired in very early 2007, runs 32-bit Windows Vista, with only 2GB of RAM. This worked well for CS3 and is certainly a wonderful platform for day-to-day writing, image editing, presentations, and teaching. But even if I could clear up the necessary disk space for my test projects on its 110GB drive, it didn't seem fair to compare it to a liquid-cooled eight-core Nehalem-based system with 24GB of RAM and 64-bit Vista, not to mention the MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM. So this comparison will be Mac-only.

One trend, the further miniaturization of hard drives, obviously helped the notebook computer more than the desktop. The MacBook Pro I reviewed last time had only 150GB of capacity, which meant using an external drive for most projects, which is a hassle and can drain performance. In contrast, this year's MacBook Pro came with 465GB, which is sufficient for some very serious work, such as the four-camera, 2-hour presentations that I frequently produce.

With that perspective, let me introduce you to the computers, and tell you about what I tried to do with the tests used to compare them. Then I'll adjourn for two weeks and return with the results of the tests.

Apple Mac Pro

Apple Mac Pro

Meet the new beasts

The MacBook Pro came with a 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 8GB of 1067MHz DDR3 RAM, and the aforementioned 465GB Serial ATA drive. I tested using Mac OS X 10.5.8 on both systems, missing Snow Leopard by a matter of days, if not hours. Graphics were supplied by the Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT, with 512MB of VRAM, driving a 17in. LCD panel that I ran in 1920x1200 resolution.

The Mac Pro has two 2.93GHz quad-core Nehalem Xeon CPUs with 18GB of 1067MHz DDR3 RAM and close to 4TB of Serial ATA, non-RAID storage. Driving the 24in. 1920x1200 LED display is an ATI Radeon HD 4870 card with 512MB of VRAM.

About the tests

Everyone approaches the desktop-versus-notebook decision differently. On some message boards that I reviewed, it was, "Which computer do I buy?" On others, it was, "Which computer do I take?" I adopted the latter approach.

My thinking was this: Like many producers, I work on a range of projects, from audio-only podcasts to 2-hour event productions. On both extremes of this continuum, it's relatively easy to choose a computer—the notebook is fine for podcast work, while I really want my 24in./30in. screens and eight-core systems if I'll be editing for 20 hours to 30 hours.

So I tried to focus in the middle: shorter projects that would easily fit on a notebook drive but might also benefit from the muscle of an eight-core system. Where the internal debate goes like this: "Man, I'd love to edit on the Mac Pro, but is it really worth the time, effort, and hassle to pack and lug that around, or (gulp) ship it?"

Those are the types of project that I picked, three in Apple Final Cut Pro and three in CS4. Read all about them in two weeks.