Sometime earlier this month, Apple finally released the highly anticipated Intel Sandy Bridge updates for both the Mac Mini and the MacBook Air. However, this does little to address the fact that most of these Apple machines, including the 13 inch MacBook Pro, only feature Intel’s integrated graphics solutions. This hasn’t gone down well with those users who use these devices for graphics intensive uses as Intel’s onboard graphics compromise with the GPU performance. Even with this shift away from the integrated GPU of the Intel 320M, the performance does not improve much.
Intel currently doesn’t have much of a reputation in the graphics department; it is generally considered to be barely sufficient. However, the Sandy Bridge processors with their integrated GPU look like Intel’s first real attempt at tackling the problem. Their performance is just about comparable to low-end dedicated GPUs; however they do offer reduced power consumption in most cases.
The earlier Apple produced low-end machines used to feature Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors paired with a controller from NVIDIA which had an integrated graphics unit. The functions of southbridge and northbridge are controlled by such controllers, which were typically found in older PCs. The 9400M was the first controller which was widely adopted by Apple across its computer lineup.
It included a GPU with 16 cores which ran at the speed of 580 MHz; the GPU had a processing power of 54Gflops. A little later, Apple started using an updated version of this controller which it called the 320M. This was a part made exclusively for Apple, even though it had certain similarities with the 310M mobile solution from NVIDIA.
The Intel HD Graphics 3000 is an integrated graphics solution which Intel has bundled with the Sandy Bridge processors. It comes with 12 programmable execution units, capable of running at a speed of 350 MHz on the mobile processors used by Apple in its lower-end machines. As far as most non-gaming applications are concerned, the performance of the HD 3000 is comparable to that of NVIDIA’s 320M.
However, the fixed function hardware of Intel doesn’t perform anywhere as well as NVIDIA’s, whereas the CPU integration of Intel allows it to perform better in terms of memory access, which often bottlenecks integrated GPUs. On top of this, the drivers for the Intel processors also distribute functions among the CPU cores in order to optimize performance.