Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need
If the new MacBook Pro and its amazing Thunderbolt don't blow your mind, you're not paying attention
Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: CPU architecture
A mild warning for readers who didn't come for the science content: The next couple of sections are on the dense side, if only because they back up strong conclusions. If you find no beauty in the nuts and bolts, you'll miss nothing if you skip to the last paragraph under the "CPU benchmarks" heading.
This isn't the place to launch into a deep analysis of Intel's second-generation Core i7 technology, but a summary is in order. These are very new CPUs, released to retail by Intel in February 2011. They are based on a 32-nanometer fabrication process, allowing Intel to pack a lot of low-power transistors into a very small space. A single processor die houses four independent computing cores that run at widely varying clock speeds depending on workload and power management instructions from the OS.
Each core is capable of running considerably faster than its rated clock speed through a feature called Turbo Boost. For example, the 2.2GHz CPU in the 17-inch MacBook Pro can execute instructions at up to 3.3GHz if it can avoid getting too hot. Here's where the metal-vs.-plastic argument gains traction. A PC notebook's plastic case acts as an insulator, pooling heat around components, while MacBook Pro's unibody aluminum chassis dissipates it. The Mac is better able to keep heat-generating components like the CPU, GPU, wireless, RAM, hard drive, and battery (during charging) cool. In the past, this has allowed MacBook Pro to avoid the thermal throttling commonplace in PC notebooks. Today, it means Mac notebook cores can kick into Turbo Boost more often. That Mac notebooks are faster than PC counterparts isn't Apple fanboy mythology. It's by design.
Boosting the RAM speed by nearly one-third over prior generations, from 1,066MHz to 1,333MHz, figures significantly in speed improvements. This pairs nicely with the increase in Level 3 cache size, and it makes a RAM upgrade to the maximum 8GB a smart and affordable investment. You can upgrade your system's RAM yourself after purchase. Just don't buy the cheap stuff.
I elected to use SPECjbb2005 (Java server benchmark) as the primary CPU benchmark. This test simulates business transactions on a multithreaded host, providing insight into CPU and memory throughput and scalability. Progressive throughput benchmarks like SPECjbb2005 measure how much work can be put through the system before it slows down. You want to see significant increases in transactions as threads are added, up to the number of physical cores.
In server-class systems and clients with Hyper-Threading, I also look for a smooth downward ramp from the peak, indicating that the architecture will likely handle an overload of work without slowing down the whole system. To ensure a consistent environment, the tests were run with a maximum 1GB Java heap, which is just shy of what's needed to run 32 SPECjbb2005 threads.
Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: CPU benchmarks
I tested the 2.2GHz 17-inch Thunderbolt MacBook Pro against two other Macs: a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro and a two-processor, eight-core 2.93GHz Nehalem Mac Pro. The Mac Pro is architecturally closer to the new 17-inch MacBook Pro, and its results deserve consideration if you're looking at 17-inch MacBook Pro as a desktop replacement.
Note that the 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro I'm using for comparison hails from mid-2009. Apple followed this model with dual-core 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro models, based on first-generation Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs and Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPUs, less than a year ago. Compared to current models, these have slower RAM, half as many cores and Hyper-Threading units, smaller Level 3 cache, and less robust GPUs. However, if you bought a machine just nine months ago, you're not likely ready for an upgrade. It's far more likely that you're carrying a Core 2 Duo Mac or PC notebook, so that's my comparison target.