Inside the 13-inch MacBook: Graphics gains

The biggest single difference between new and old 13-inch MacBooks is the graphics silicon. So, what does that mean?

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

Among mostly subtle changes for Apple's 13-inch MacBooks, the graphics silicon stands out as the one distinct difference between the new and old models. So, what, graphically speaking, has changed exactly?

A lot. Apple was clearly making a point when it updated the 13-inch MacBook Pro and then followed with the white MacBook update this week: Nvidia graphics chips matter more than Intel processors. At least, in the case of these two models they do.

So, what do users get when they opt for a newer MacBook or MacBook Pro? A pretty significant jump in graphics performance, according to reviews and experts.

The bottom line is that the newer Nvidia GeForce 320M chipset has 48 processing cores versus 16 cores in the older GeForce 9400M chipset that was used in the previous generation of MacBooks. (And note that in the case of the 320M, it is a chipset, not a standalone graphics processor. Typically, Intel makes the chipset that accompanies the main processor and Nvidia attaches a discrete graphics processor to this. But in this case, Nvidia supplies the chipset containing the graphics silicon.)

The white Apple MacBook, seen here from the front and side, was updated this week with faster Nvidia graphics silicon, like the 13-inch MacBook Pro before it. Apple

"You can expect at least two times the benchmark performance with the 320M over the 9400M," said Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research, which tracks the graphics chip market. "And what it does most dramatically is improve the transcode throughput," he added, referring to the chip's ability to convert file formats on the fly. Peddie also said the 320M offers better performance than the Intel graphics integrated into the new Core i5 and Core i7 processors.

And speaking of Core i5 processors, that's an update that the 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro didn't get. They both continue to use the same Core 2 Duo processor design, albeit at slightly higher frequencies.

CNET Reviews said the 13-inch MacBook Pro with the 320M Nvidia chip did well in Call of Duty 4 benchmarks and Laptopmag.com said that the 320M in the new 13-inch Pro beats the old Pro "in every way...its score of 4,754 in 3DMark06 (a benchmark that measures graphics chip performance) is more than double that of the last MacBook Pro (2,174)."

With some reviews even citing better benchmarks for the 13-inch MacBook Pro over theoretically faster systems with new Intel Core i3 processors, maybe Apple is on to something here.