MBA Processing Power

Discussion in 'MacBook Air' started by Slivortal, Jun 24, 2012.

  1. macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #1
    Hello,

    I'm currently writing this from a 2009 13" MBP 2.53 Ghz 4GB RAM. It's been three years, and I want to upgrade my computer.

    It's not simply that this computer is "getting old." It's been running pretty slow recently, especially ever since I've started to try Virtualbox. I'm one for performance, and the performance that I've been getting out of this computer doesn't feel acceptable. I was considering waiting out until Haswell next year, but with Intel basically releasing a new chip every year at this point, I figure now is as good a time to upgrade as any (not to mention that I probably need to).

    I'm a computer science major in college. Several times I've been told not to buy the MBA because of the ULV processor. This is a big issue, as I have been looking into a Quad-Core i7 processor, especially considering the possibility that I may want multiple VMs running in the near future. The lack of a discrete graphics card and decent VRAM is something that I could also see contributing to poor performance, especially on both emulated OSs as emulated mobile devices. Add in taxing processes on Terminal, and I'm definitely not a computer user that you'd consider lightweight (even though I don't do any video/photo editing). I may game once in a while, but that would be the rare game (although some of those games would also be done in a VM).

    Even though I've mentioned that the MBA does not fit many of the things I've thought I've needed (and am still not sure on), it cheaply gives me three things that I do want - IvyBridge, SSD, and a minimum 8GB of RAM.

    For this reason I originally considered the new RMBP. Now, the RMBP is quite the investment, and one that probably wouldn't be upgraded for a while (which I'm not too fond of). I'd probably be paying $2,180 for the base model +16GB RAM (after student discount) (about $940 more than the RMBP I would be facing it against). So, allow me to get straight to the point:

    Will the 2012 13" MBA @ 1.8 GHz i5 8 GB RAM/$1240 fit my needs? Or do I need to look to a higher model to get the computing power that I desire? Right now I feel that the RMBP is my only recourse, but please sure your experiences of multiple VMs/games - I'd be happy to spend less money (and upgrade sooner in the future).

    Thanks.
     
  2. macrumors 68030

    Joined:
    Oct 15, 2008
    #2
    There really isn't a description of your uses that's easy to understand.

    If you want a lot of CPU power and plan to run multiple VMs at the same time then you won't want an ULV dual core CPU.
     
  3. thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #3
    Sorry. My uses revolve around the use of multiple OSs to write and experiment with programs/shell code. Additionally, I'd like to use the sandbox aspect of virtual machines to try and experiment with processes I'd normally consider too dangerous to use on my regular computer. I like to tinker a lot with multiple (virtual) computers, and I'd like to have a computer that could handle (almost) everything that I could throw at it.

    I'm rather new to this, but I know what I'm working off of right now (which is the bare minimum of what I'd eventually like to work with) certainly isn't handling it well (speed issues, heating problems, etc).

    I've heard wild stories about how the MBA is a far better computer than anyone would expect it to be - in spite of the ULV dual core, limit @ 8 GB of RAM, etc. I was curious if anyone could provide any such examples, or if I'd just have to bite the bullet on a mobile powerhouse.
     
  4. macrumors demi-god

    Joined:
    Oct 14, 2005
    Location:
    Virginia Beach
    #4
    IMO, that's because most people had no idea that it was the speed of the disk that was making their system run so slowly, not the speed of their processor.

    Computers have traditionally been marketed as "the faster the processor, the faster the computer". And while that's usually true when it comes to serious number crunching (iMovie export, Handbrake rip), having a faster processor rarely makes day-to-day tasks in iTunes, Safari, Mail, or iPhoto run faster. Having an SSD does. This surprises some people, which I think is why you see wild stories sometimes.

    Do you run Activity Monitor with View > Dock Icon >Show CPU history set on, so that you can get a real feel for how much processor you're actually using on your current Mac?

    Here's what mine looks like on the Air, with a Windows 7 VM running (using VMware). Granted, nothing was going on in the Windows 7 VM at the time (IE and Word were open, but not being used), but still, the processors were pretty dead.
     

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  5. macrumors G4

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    #5
    The i5 will blow away your 13" MPB. No, it isn't as fast as the Retina MacBook Pro, but it is a very powerful machine. Plus the SSD will speed up anything disk-intensive (which is a lot more than you probably realize). The GPU is also respectable, which is saying something for Intel Integrated Graphics.

    I run Windows 7 64-bit in a virtual machine, and it was fast enough for me with 4GB in my 2011. With 8GB in the 2012, it is almost like running it natively in Boot Camp. I can't speak for running multiple VMs at a time. Certainly having 16GB of RAM or a quad-core would help there, but for running a single VM, the MacBook Air is fine.
     
  6. thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #6
    When I'm running a single VM (haven't tried multiple VMs yet), the Activity Monitor outside of my VM will report 40-80% CPU usage. The Activity Monitor within my VM will consistently spike to 100%. I rarely actually run out of RAM, but I feel that's because I'm being throttled on CPU usage.

    My computer runs hot whenever I'm using a VM, but it will also run hot if Safari has too many tabs - so I'm not sure if that's a good metric.

    I have no doubt anything IvyBridge and SSD would blow my current computer out of the water - thus why I can't wait to upgrade. My issue though seems to be that my CPU is SO underpowered (and RAM so low) that I really can't judge just how much more I'd need to accomplish my tasks - my RAM and CPU often hit full, but using all of the specs in my current model doesn't exactly say how much I'd need in using future specs.
     
  7. macrumors 6502a

    Joined:
    Aug 8, 2011
    Location:
    Land of eternal Spring
    #7
    Know this, the new i7 2012 Air is approaching the geekbench scores of my 2010 2.8ghz i5.

    I have a 2011 Air and i sometimes run 2 VMs (1 for Visual Studio development, and the other for Linux) i've had 0 problems, the only issue is i was approaching using all 4GB of ram, but with the new ones with 8GB i'm sure you could run many more.

    The 2012 i5 might fit your needs, but it'll ultimately depend on how much cpu your VMs actually require when running more than 1.
     
  8. Slivortal, Jun 24, 2012
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2012

    thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #8
    The 2012 i7 might be better than the 2012 i5, but that has issues of its own. Mainly, the only way to get a cheap i7 chip is to get the higher-end 11" for $1275 (8GB RAM+i7+128GB). To get it on a 13", Apple would force me to upgrade to a 256GB SSD, and 8GB RAM+i7+256GB is $1630, at which point the extra $370 would probably be worth it for a low-end RMBP @ $2000 (the extra $180 going into RAM would also be an upgrade, so I didn't include it).

    A 11" i7 is certainly an option - for all the processing power I use, my actual storage usage is surprisingly low (think 40GB even with OSX), but at that point I'd be worried about my main workstation being an 11" screen - a 13" is nice, but I couldn't see myself working with something much smaller than it.

    128GB SSD @ 13" @ i7 might be nice - if only Apple offered it (should I ask... ;) )

    Note this isn't an argument of budget, but an argument of cost-effectiveness - if I'd be spending $1630 on an MBA, I'd rather just get the RMBP for less than $400 more (the argument for getting an MBA in my case is cost-effectiveness, after all).

    EDIT: As for your question of CPU usage, I really don't know - as I said, my Ubuntu VM uses 100% of its virtual CPU by merely existing - but that's off a Core 2 Duo.
     
  9. macrumors demi-god

    Joined:
    Oct 14, 2005
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    Virginia Beach
    #9
    That seems odd that it'd be chewing 100% of its (virtual) CPU. Was it running a process you'd expect to be using a lot of the processor, like updatedb or something?
     
  10. Slivortal, Jun 24, 2012
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2012

    thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #10
    Not really. It's running Unity, which I thought might be eating away at its CPU, but after a successful download, my attempts to switch to GNOME Classic just caused my VM (as well as my main computer) to crash.

    I guess the CPU usage skyrockets when I use any sort of app - so in this case, my hypothesis was that simply by running the Activity Monitor, it was eating away its CPU (ironic, I know), as it was by far the heaviest CPU usage - but not noticeably more heavy than Terminal, Firefox, etc, when I forced Ubuntu to lag-start them up as well.

    RAM was only at 300 MB/1 GB allocation, so it was surprising, to say the least.
     
  11. macrumors G4

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    #11
    The Core i5/i7 have 4 "virtual cores." What I've read is that in reality it amounts to about a 10-15% improvement in practice, since the main benefit is that it can keep both physical cores busy more of the time. The bigger difference is that the Sandy Bridge micro architecture (which the Ivy Bridge chip uses) is more efficient than the Core micro architecture.

    If you don't mind the added weight and cost, certainly the Retina MacBook Pro with 4 real cores would be better for running virtual machines, plus you'll have the benefit of the nicer screen. However, I think the Air would be quite an improvement.
     
  12. thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #12
    Yeah, I guess it comes down to a personal decision. But, what keeps pulling me away from the RMBP is that while I can afford the price, it wouldn't be something that I could simply upgrade in a few years - it's a long term (depreciating) investment. And with Intel now releasing a new CPU basically EVERY year, I'm not sure I want to put myself in that situation.

    But if I do choose an MBA, should I go 11"/8GB/128GB/i7 2.0 GHz, or 13"/8GB/128GB/i5 1.8GHz? It sounds like the former may be more powerful, but is it actually possible to get real work (across multiple VMs) done on an 11"?
     
  13. macrumors demi-god

    Joined:
    Oct 14, 2005
    Location:
    Virginia Beach
    #13
    In terms of depreciating value, I'd guess since the rMBP isn't as much of a commodity system as the Air is, it may depreciate less quickly than the Air.

    Personally, I prefer 15" screens. I've been using a 13" Air for the last two years (mostly hooked up to an external monitor), and it's OK when I'm traveling with it it. I couldn't imagine using an 11" screen, but that's just the old in me talking. :)
     
  14. macrumors 68030

    Joined:
    Oct 15, 2008
    #14
    You should be able to use 1 virtual machine just fine on a dual core machine without causing any problems. If you can't, then you might have some compatibility or configuration issue.
     
  15. macrumors demi-god

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    #15
    I've had three going OK on my 2011 13" i7 MBA.
     
  16. macrumors G4

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    #16
    The 11" screen has a 1366x768 display, while the 13" has a 1440x900 display. The latter would be better for running multiple windows, though either model would work equally well with an external monitor, such as an Apple Thunderbolt Display.

    If your primary concern is Intel's rapid CPU cycle, you may be better off sticking with the i5. It saves $100 on the 13" model, and it isn't much slower. Next year (Haswell) is the "tock" in Intel's cycle, which means a bigger boost to the CPU and GPU. Broadwell, in late 2014 or 2015, will be the "tick" (die shrink). That way in 2 years you can update to the next version, and maybe Apple will be able to fit a quad-core into the Air by then.
     
  17. thread starter macrumors 6502

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    #17
    I guess the only issue I'm worried about is whether a 1.8 GHz ULV will really detract from my usage as compared to a regular processor at something closer to 2.5 GHz. I'm no expert on clock speeds - is this a rational worry, or does a combination of SSD and RAM almost make GHz and quad-cores not worth the $1000+?
     
  18. macrumors 6502a

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    #18
    not a rational worry at all, as i said, the ULVs are approaching the performance of desktops cpus circa 2010
     
  19. macrumors 6502a

    Joined:
    Apr 6, 2008
    Location:
    Downtown San Diego
    #19
    Hi, fellow former CS student here (BSCS UCSD '99).

    The only thing I can say is I had a similar use case with an early 2k8 MBP like you describe, and replacing the spinning disk w/ an SSD (160G Intel X25-M) made a world of difference.

    Right now I use a 2k12 11" i5/8/128 but only do open source web dev (primarily Rails right now), so I'm definitely not pushing the machine as hard.

    My advice is go pick up the Air first, if it doesn't work out you can return within 14 days without paying a restocking fee.
     
  20. macrumors G4

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    #20
    True. Sandy Bridge was a sea change, and Ivy Bridge is a further refinement on that. By the time we get to Haswell next year, the distinction between mobile and desktop will be blurred even further.

    The only things I'd be concerned about are gaming and running more than 2 virtual machines. The HD4000 is decent for everyday use, and light gaming, but this isn't a gaming machine by any stretch. As for virtual machines, 1 will run with ease, particularly if you get the 8GB version. 2 would start to slow down, as OS X and the two VMs would need to share the two physical cores. More than 2, and I'd seriously consider the Retina MBP upgraded to 16GB, though that is $2399.
     
  21. thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #21
    I mean, the biggest thing I'm worried about getting an RMBP is that it's so expensive, and I probably will want to upgrade in 2-3 years at the breakneck speed that Intel is moving along. It'll be much easier to upgrade off a $1250 Air than a $2200 RMBP, which is my real hesitation towards the RMBP.
     
  22. macrumors G4

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    #22
    No, I got your point. The MacBook Air is the "safer" choice because it costs less. In general, "buying up" does a lot less "future proofing" than it did 10-15 years ago, or even 5 years ago because Intel sells a single micro-architecture at a time, which they didn't always do. There were real differences between a 486 and Pentium, for instance (or even Core 2 vs. original Core i3/i5/i7) that just aren't the case with the current line. Today, though Intel sells a single icroarchitecture, just with different speeds and features. Now that Ivy Bridge is out, Sandy Bridge will be gone from the supply chain.
     
  23. thread starter macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jun 14, 2012
    #23
    So, do you think Intel will keep with the current i3/i5/i7 setup, then? I'm not really worried as much about losing out on a small upgrade as I am getting the equivalent of a C2D and watching as the next i3/i5/i7 come out (as Haswell will be the first tock since the C2D/SandyBridge switch).

    But I guess the question is if a 13" i5 1.8GHz/8GB RAM will actually fulfill my needs, and if it would detract from my experience as much as a 15" MBPR. From my perspective, as long as it would perform as well as the MBPR would (in spite of smaller/non-Retina screen), it doesn't really matter which one I actually get (my experience would be the same).
     
  24. macrumors G4

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2010
    #24
    We pretty much know Intel's road map for the next few years. My guess is that they will stick with the branding, sort of like how they called everything "Pentium" for a few years even though the architectures changed radically.

    Ivy Bridge will give way to Haswell, which is a "tock" on Intel's tick-tock strategy. A "tick" is a die shrink. Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge have the same CPU architecture. It's just that Sandy Bridge is made on a 32nm process, and Ivy Bridge a 22nm process. The smaller die lets Intel make the chips modestly faster without using up more power. It also lets them make the chips smaller. With Ivy Bridge, Intel also improved the GPU. Haswell will be a new microarchitecture, so we'll see more CPU improvements than we did this year, along with a significantly improved GPU. The main focus will be on power consumption, though. It will still be made on a 22nm process. Broadwell after that will be another "tick," taking Haswell and shrinking it to a 14nm process. Skymont is the next "tock."

    If everything goes as planned, Haswell will be out late next year, with Broadwell in early 2015. By then, the difference between Ivy Bridge of any kind and Broadwell will probably be as significant as the leap from Core 2 to the original Core i5. By Haswell, we might see quad-core chips make it to the MacBook Air, at least as options.
     
  25. thread starter macrumors 6502

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    Jun 14, 2012
    #25
    So in that case, will it be better to just spring on a quad-core RMBP now? Or do you feel that whatever I could get for $1200-$1300 2-3 years from now would be better?
     

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