Apple refreshed their Macbook Pro line-up at the end of January 2011. The big news out of this update was an announcement of a new data port called Thunderbolt and the move to Intel's Sandy Bridge micro-architecture. Apple also switched from Nvidia's integrated graphics processors (IGP) and discreet graphics processors to Intel's IGP and AMD's (formally ATI) discreet graphics processors. With this move, Apple changed the Macbook Pro 13" graphics chip to the Intel HD Graphics 3000. Intel's Sandy Bridge main processor is a big upgrade from the previous version, a Core 2 Duo, but is the graphics processor an upgrade or a downgrade?
Intel has been known in the past for producing very poor graphics processors. This lack of a good graphics processor from Intel is the main reason why most decent desktop and laptop computers come with a discreet processor. Nvidia built a graphics processor into the supporting chipset for the Intel x86 main processors, which was used in the previous MacBook Pros. Nvidia's IGP performance was substantially better than anything Intel came out with and provided a huge upgrade in performance.
It seemed like Intel didn't like this move and sued Nvidia for using unlicensed Intellectual Property in their chipsets. They settled out of court and Nvidia agreed to not build chipsets for anything beyond the Intel's Core 2 Duo main processor. For this reason, Apple had to either stay with the old Core 2 Duo or move to Sandy Bridge with Intel's IGP. With Sandy Bridge, Intel also moved the graphics processor from the supporting chipset to the main die of the processor. Basically, under Sandy Bridge, the graphics processor is just another core of the main processor. This move should help to improve Intel's graphics performance and reduce power consumption of the chipset as a whole. Has Intel improved their graphics processor enough to compete with Nvidia? Time to find out.
Three websites have tested and compared the Intel HD Graphics 3000 against the Nvidia GeForce 320M among other graphics processors. MacWorld.com tests show the Intel Graphics 3000 comes close, but the GeForce still wins. Yet, anandtech.com and notebookcheck.net tests show the the Intel Graphics 3000 is up to 8% better that the GeForce 320M. Some of these tests could be more CPU related than GPU. So, it looks like these two chips are pretty comparable at this time with each wining different benchmarks. Still, Intel is basically catching up to a year old graphics processor, but they still have a lot of work to do to become competitive.
Not only has Intel historically been bad at graphics processors, they have also had poor graphics drivers as well. Graphics drivers are basically programs that allow the operating system or other applications to communicate with the graphics chip. Poorly written graphics drivers lead to poor graphics performance. Early tests showed the Intel Graphics 3000 being equal to the GeForce 310M, a slower IGP. Those tests used beta drivers and led to poor results. New drivers have led to better results for Intel. AMD and Nvidia have more experience and a better track record for writing good drivers. Time will tell if Intel can build better drivers than they have done in the past. If they can, the HD Graphics 3000 will improve over the next year.
While the tests show the two graphics chips are comparable, this new MacBook graphics processor should be considered a downgrade as the GeForce 320m has been out for almost a year. These test also don't show the full picture. Intel's IGPs do not and will not include support for OpenCL until the Ivy Bridge comes out next year. It may also not be compatible with some OpenGL applications, as Intel is not known for good OpenGL support. To get the maximum performance out of the HD Graphics 3000, Intel needs to write better drivers. If they can do this, the HD Graphics 3000 may improve in time.
Update: Read my latest article on the performance improvements of the new MacBook Airs.