Mar 9, 2011 — by: Karl Johnson
Categories: Products, Review

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. tests show the Intel Graphics 3000 comes close, but the GeForce still wins.  Yet, and 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. 

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  1. Mateo Gonzalez ~ Mar. 9, 2011 @ 5:08 am

    Hi, this is a very useful article, I need some advice of buying. I currently have the last white MacBook with core2duo 2.4ghz and nvidia 320m. With it I can play all call of duty games on high with good fps. Now, I want the MacBook pro most for the aluminum design and the sd card slot. Question is, having in mind I play the games I mentioned before with good performance on my actual MacBook. Is better for me to buy the 2010 MacBook pro with 2.66 ghz 13" core2duo and nvidia 320m? Or is better for me to buy the 2011 core i5 2.3ghz 13" with the intel hd 3000? I just don't want to feel I lost my money with poor gameplay on the 2011 MacBook pro, since I don't live in the us and can't return it, please write to my email or reply and help me with this decision. I I'm really afraid of being disappointed with the intel hd 3000 graphics. The choice has to be one of the two. Thanks in advance. #
  2. Karl Johnson ~ Mar. 9, 2011 @ 9:43 am

    Sounds like you have a pretty nice MacBook right now. The 2010 MacBook Pro 13" or the current one won't be any better than what you have right now. I would keep what you have and wait a couple of years before moving to the MacBook Pros unless you need a Thunderbolt port. If you have the money, buying a Solid State Drive for your current MaBook would be the best option. Thanks for reading. #
  3. Iván Balseiro ~ Mar. 10, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    Having read the article above, i´ve got a macbook pro and the only difference between your macbook and my mac pro is the keyboard that has backlight. If you have 2 gigs of memory buy 1 more 2 gigs module (very cheap) and if you buy a SSD buy ONLY intel which has 0.15 W in reads and writes, your battery will last longer. Here in Spain the 80 gig SSD costs 160 euros. Bye #
  4. Juan Fagua ~ Mar. 14, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    What about Macbook air 13"? It comes with Nvidia Geforce 320M and SSD. Comparing it with Macbook Pro 13", which comes with Intel HD graphics 3000, it seems to be a good option in 13" screens for people like me, who wants to use a Mac laptop for gaming, in addition of its slim and light weight. Thanks for read and for your comments. #
  5. anonymous ~ Mar. 17, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    Sadly enough, the HD3000 images are terible, similar colors will blend together. My MBA with 320M is dramatically better at watching video or looking at detailed images in general. HD3000 may be similar in performance of frame rates; but not the quality of frame rates... #
  6. cameron ~ Apr. 8, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    Good information here. When I redeploy to the states I plan on buying a mac just not sure at all...just knowin' I'M GETTIN' A MAC. #
  7. amir emam ~ Apr. 9, 2011 @ 5:00 am

    hey guys thanks really for the advice in the articlwe above, but i really have a question which mac book to buy? the 2011 13.3" macbook pro with the intel HD 3000 or the white MacBook with core2duo 2.4ghz and nvidia 320m. thanks. #
  8. Karl Johnson ~ Apr. 10, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    I would go with the MacBook Pro. The graphic cards are pretty equal, but the Pro has a much faster processor with the sandy bridge i5 or i7. The MBP also has the Thunderbolt port and a backlit keyboard. I wish they would have put the MacBook Air display in the MacBook Pro. #
  9. Andrew W ~ Apr. 17, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    Switching from NVidia rules out many GPU accelerated scientific computing applications that use CUDA - big mistake IMHO. #
  10. Sam ~ Apr. 29, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    Hi, I would suggest the MacBook Pro 13" with Nvidia Graphics. Unless you need a Thunderport (Transfer large amounts of data with lightening speed). Nvidia is much better. This Intel crap has always and will always be crap. Im sorry to say that. The fact is the the 2011 Macbook Pro 13 is a great and really fast laptop but ITS NOT A GAMING COMPUTER. The 2010 Macbook Pro 13" is a little slower due to the lack of i5 processer but this one plays games much better. Hope you find your choice :) I was in the same dilemma some months ago and i didnt pick any of the 2010 or 2011 models. I picked the MacBook Air 13". #
  11. luis ~ Apr. 30, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    hi!!! im in search of somo advice, i currently own a macbook pro 13 inch 2.4 coreduo with nvidia320m ive had it for almost a year and i love it, but i use a lot programs like autocad an revit, photoshop etc. and sometimes i wish it could perform better,so since the new one came out whith core i7 ,i wanted to make the effort and get the new one,wishing it will perform better . so.. my question. is it worth it to change my macbook pro? after reading about the accelerator it makes me wonder,should i wait? id apriciate your response. thanx!!!!! #
  12. Karl Johnson ~ May. 2, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

    Luis, Thanks for reading. I would keep your current MacBook Pro and wait until next year. Although this new one is 2x faster, a better one (with a redesigned case) will be coming out early next year. A better option would be to upgrade the hard drive to an solid state drive. Can you read my other article for more information. #
  13. Laura Hoffman ~ May. 16, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    Hey, great advice! I am from a pc family and starting to look into the macs. I was looking into some refurbs on apple. Would you say its worth the money to go with the 2011 model of the macbook pro? I don't fully understand the difference between the 2010 and 2011 versions of the macbook pro. Thank you so much for the help! #
  14. TomBoyNI ~ Jun. 1, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    Thanks for this article, I was about to sell my MacBook 2010 and get a MBP just for the lovely case, however having read this article I think I will hold off for a year to see what comes next! #
  15. JackWhelan ~ Jun. 14, 2011 @ 2:50 am

    hi im looking to buy a mac because i cant stand windows any more. i cant choose which mac to buy, i want to be able to play some games but wont be bothered about having them on highest settings. i cant afford anything more than the 13" macbook pro 2011 basic model, because im only 18 and i have to pay for my car insurance, so which mac is best for me? any help would be appreciated. #
  16. Miriam ~ Jul. 2, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    Hi there, I bought a 2011 Macbook Pro 13' because I broke my 2010 one and now I have issues with the Intel chip. I cannot get my recently bought game Two worlds II to run (insufficient shader support). Is there a chance that Intel will come up with a fix for this soon? So far I cannot find any drivers that solve my problem. #
  17. terry ~ Jul. 20, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    I am so not getting a new macbook with no damn intel video chip after reading this. I have the 2008 macbook Al unibody and the Nvidia processor is freaking awesome. I can play quake on quaklive and the colors are superb. Wow! #
  18. Dendy ~ Aug. 11, 2011 @ 2:04 am

    Yes indeed there is always sacrificed for the sake of an achievement, and it's just a form of compromise. But still, its main purpose should not be blurred. Apple MacBook Air that has been juxtaposed with the Intel Core i5-2557M ... is a machine that is very reliable laptop computers, and a serious product. Aimed at professionals .... to achieve maximum productivity. Everyone will feel the MacBook Air 13 Multitasking performance is more robust than the MacBook Pro 13, even much better than the previous generation MacBook Air 13. So when there is one feature that is sacrificed, but to get more functionality, I think it is normal, even common sense, necessary. #
  19. thomcarl ~ Aug. 12, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    Thinking of getting a new Mac as the extended warranty on my early 2009 iMac will run out this March. The Mac Book was on my list but not any longer, when is Apple going to figure out that Intel GPU's are a side line and crap as well. #
  20. Joey ~ Oct. 1, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    I had a 2010 13" MBP 2.4GHZ c2d with nVidia 320M GPU. I recently bought a 2011 13" MBP 2.7/i7. The fan noise was so intense on simple applications and youtube videos. So I returned that and bought a 13" MBP 2.3/i5. This one is a little less worse but still no where as quiet as my 2010 MBP with the nVidia chip. I sold that 2010 mac and now only at a hindsight I realized that old mac with the nVidia chip is much better. I wish I could go back. #
  21. Shang ~ Nov. 27, 2011 @ 3:57 am

    Hi this article is really helpful, however I just read your another article "MacBook Air Performance Face Off" and am just wondering why there is such a big difference between the two generations when their graphic cards performance are almost the same.If this it is true, I might change my plan as I was going to buy the 2010 MBA. Thanks in advance. #
  22. Karl ~ Nov. 29, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    Intel has greatly improved their processor and graphics performance when they move to the Sandy bridge architecture. The problem was Intel's previous graphics processors were horrible. They have really improved them, but still don't beat Nvidia or AMD on GPU yet. That said, unless you are a big gamer or 3D artists, the MacBook Air GPU should be good enough. #

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