Sunday, July 8, 2012

2012 Ivy Bridge MacBook Pro 13 short review

With the retina 15" Macbook Pro stealing the show, the best selling MacBook Pro 13 gets very little fanfare. In fact, there are not many reviews on the net for the new Ivy Bridge refresh. It isn't as exciting as newer laptops on the market and the resolution of 1280x800 is very dated with newer machines now sporting full HD. However, if you are a mac user, this machine is still a viable option for those who prefer the OS X operating system.

Frys recently advertised the 2.5ghz i5-3210M, 4GB Ram, 500GB 5400 rpm hard drive model for $999. This may have been a price mistake but nonetheless, I had Best Buy price matched it. I had about $900 in Best Buy gift certificates and $115 out of pocket, I got myself a new 2012 MBP 13. I already have extras SSD, extra 2.5 drives and memory lying around so I chose the MBP 13 over the Air due to expandability reasons. I now have MBP13 with dual drives (512GB SSD and 7200 rpm Seagate hybrid HDD in cd bay) and 16GB of RAM. No Air can match this. This will be my secondary Mac while I wait for a corporate issue Retina MBP 15 to arrive.

Here is my take on the new device. This machine is a nice welcome upgrade. I'm going to mostly cover expandability/upgrade and the new USB 3.0 performance.  This post might come in handy for those considering 3rd party upgrades for the Macbook Pros.

First of all, I want to comment that Apple has excellent packaging. Compared to my Dells and Thinkpads, no one comes close in terms of packaging. Opening the box, you get a very good first impression. Not that it matters for geeks like us but I did take note.

Compared to previous MBP 13, the only noticeable exterior change are the Thunderbolt port and the new USB 3.0. Otherwise, it looks exactly the same as the previous models.

And pictured below is the reason why I would get an MBP 13 over an comparable Air. Expandability.

Opening the interior, you can see the precision engineering Apple puts into its products. The interior is a fine piece of industrial design.  This corroborates what I've said earlier, Apple takes packaging very seriously and the quality shows. The interior is tight and I can see why Apple decided to go soldered ram/daughter card on the new Retina Macbook Pro. You can't get any smaller with off-the-shelf components.

I replaced the CD burner and place an SSD into the bay. You can get cheap adapters on ebay or use something like the OWC data-doubler pictured below. With every Macbook I've owned, I usually toss out the CD burner for a second drive.

I'm not going to go into CPU and graphics benchmarks because I'm not qualified to do so.With Google, you can probably find reviews of the i5-3210M and geek bench scores online. Coming from a Core Duo 2.5 (circa 2009), this machine is almost two times faster. 

Most important for me is disk I/O. Everything about it is better. SATA 6 all the way (even the CD bay is SATA 6), UHS-1 SD card reader, Thunderbolt, and USB 3.0. I'm going to be using this machine for Lightroom photos, minor final cut editing and managing my 500GB or so music library. I'm usually backing up and copying hundred of gigs worth of data so the fast I/O is important to me. 

Lets get started with my review.

I got a Crucial M4 512GB SSD as my OS drive. Street price is roughly $350 if you know where to look. You can't get this price and performance in any Apple upgrade. I also have a 7200 rpm HDD in the main drive.

Internal Storage Speeds.

The SSD produces an average 512 MB/s read and 250 MB/s writes. This is smoking fast.
Boot times takes less than 8 seconds. Photoshop CS5 and Lightroom starts up in less than 2 seconds. Cycling through 100 20MB Raw Image files is buttery smooth. Again, CPU processing doesn't matter for my needs but with fast I/O, you can clearly see the benefits. Couple with 16GB of RAM, I can now open 5-10 Gigabyte TIFF files with ease that even my old Mac Pro struggles with.

Now for the Seagate Hybrid 750 Momentus XT hard drive. This is a 7200 rpm Hybrid drive with a 32MB SSD cache. Retail is $179 but if you hang out on slick deals and discount forums, you can find them for $80 street price if you know where to look. If I didn't have a few SSDs lying around, I'd probably use this as my primary drive. It is probably overkill for my needs as it is mostly for storing music and videos. 

When you are used to SSD, HDD benchmarks aren't so impressive any more. Still, this clocks better than 80% of the users out there still using 5400/7200 rpm drives. It clocks in at 108 MB/s read and 104 MB/s writes. My old 2009 Macbook with a 7200 rpm drive and SATA (1 or 3) interface could only muster 80MB/s.

External Drive Speeds

Now for the external drive speed observations. How does USB 3 fare? Well, I decided to find out using a Crucial M4 128GB SSD w/ SATA 6. I've tested this drive and normally get 500MB/s reads when plugged in internally. I am also using another Seagate Momentus HDD for the external HDD comparison. All the devices will be connected via Go Flex SATA controller adapters.

Seagate Go Flex drives comes with a variety of SATA adapters including esata and pricey Thunderbolt. I have a few of their adapters - USB2, USB3, and FireWire800.

It is not going to be an accurate comparison because each controller have different characteristics. It is also hard to know which brand of USB2/USB3 controller is the fastest. However, I think this is going to be fair comparison since all the controllers are made by Seagate. I will do a review of the Seagate Go Flex devices in another post. If I can pony up the money, I will also follow up with a Thunderbolt adapter review. After reading many reviews on the Thunderbolt to SSD benchmarks and comparing with my own USB3 benchmarks, I may just stick with USB 3.

Here it is in action. 

USB 3.0

I have to say, I was a big fan of Firewire 800 for years. Before eSata, I only used Firewire 800 due to its inherit advantages over USB 2.0. With the arrival of Thunderbolt, I was hoping manufactures would come up with Thunderbolt docks and enclosures. That hasn't happen yet. USB 3.0 is the most economical external I/O connection. In my general use, it is by far faster than USB 2 and Firewire.

From the screen grabs below, we have 204.4 MB/s read and 152 MB/s reads. This is fast but not as fast as native SATA 6. You also have to remember this is USB 3 connected to a fast SSD. 

USB 3 to HDD won't get these speeds. Also, USB 3 to HDD is very close to Firewire 800 to HDD that I think it is a toss up. So if you are using a portable drive enclosure, your usage may vary.

Here is is with a HDD. 90MB/s and 83MB/s write and reads.

Firewire 800

As you can see in the following screenshot, there is no real benefit to connect a SSD to a Firewire 800 controller or enclosure. You will get the same speed as you would connecting Firewire 800 to a 7200 rpm hard drive.

73-80 MB/s read is typical of what you get from Firewire 800. I've seen  Firewire 800 go up to 80-90 on some high-end controllers but I wanted to stick to using Seagate GoFlex adapters for these tests. Using different controllers, you can get the same speed as the USB 3.0 to HDD I pictured above.

USB 2.0

Like Firewire 800, there is no advantage to connecting a SSD to USB 2.0
38 MB/s read and write is on the very high end of USB 2.0's bandwidth threshold.

So what do these benchmarks tell us?

For mac users, USB 3.0 is a very cost effective and fast I/O. Thunderbolt's advantage that I've seen only comes when you have fast RAID setups. The SSD-Thunderbolt reviews I've seen on the net are in the high 200 MB/s. ESATA still rules for external I/O. Unfortunately, there is no ESATA on macs and it is harder to come by even on PC. I've even had problems with ESATA on my Thinkpad with drop-off and connectivity issues.

If you are using HDD (standard platter based hard drives), Firewire 800 is still a good platform. If you are like me, I would not rush to dump your existing legacy Firewire 800 for new USB 3.0 drives yet. Those docks, enclosures are still good for standard platter drives.

About these benchmarks, I have the luxury of having 4-5 fast SATA 6 SSDs lying around and it is great to see 200+ MB/s speeds. However, for the majority of people, HDD is still a way more cost effective solution. You can pick up 1TB drives for $80 versus $120 for 128GB SSD.

Going forward, I will be investing in USB 3.0 for future proofing.

UHS1 SD Card Reader

Now for the SD card reader. As most photographers know, built in SD card readers on laptops are woefully slow. Most people I know get expresscard/PCMCIA adapters to get a fast SDcard reader. I had to do the same thing for my Thinkpad T420 because the the SDcard reader was so slow.

The MacBook Pro since 2011 now have UHS-1 (Ultra High Speed) readers. If you have a UHS1 card, expect a pleasant surprise. Using a SanDisk Extreme 45 (rated at 45MB/s), I got the rated speed of 45MB/s of my card. I wish I had a 90MB card to compare but I don't.

As you can see by the screen grab, it reads as fast as the card and you don't need to invest $30-40 for a new high speed reader. It is faster than many USB 2/USB 3 sd card readers.

As for the writes, I assume that is the limitation of the card or formatting of the card as FAT32 which causes problems for mac based disk benchmarks. Furthermore, I hardly ever write to SD as I am usually reading files that have been written by my camera.

In conclusion, the MackBook Pro 13" Mid 2012 Ivy Bridge is a great machine. The I/O improvements are very tangible for a mac users who want a portable lower price macbook. The expandability of this machine is more attractive to me than the portability form factor of ultrabooks or Airs. 16GB RAM is my minimum requirements and this book is capable of it. The only drawback is the 1280x800 screen resolution. It is very antiquated. I don't mind so much because I will mostly be docked into a WQHD Cinema  Display 90% of the time.  As I said before in another post, anything is better than 1336x768. 768 resolution doesn't cut it for me.

Now, I can't wait for my Retina MBP 15 to arrive to compare this with.

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