New 2011 iMacs and SL


Apple just announced new iMacs yesterday, and I’ve already gotten tons of questions about the new machines and how they’d handle SL. In an effort to offer some more detailed information, and to save myself from having to type the same thing over and over again in chats and IM’s, I’m posting it here.

For those who don’t want to do much reading....

The new iMacs are awesome. Even the base model has a pretty powerful GPU, and the high end is a powerhouse.

And now for the detailed bit.

When you’re looking for any computer, there are 4 main components to consider: processor (CPU), graphics (GPU), memory, and storage. For Second Life, the two features to really pay attention to are the CPU & GPU. It’s not that memory and storage don’t matter at all, it’s just that SL doesn’t have demanding requirements in those areas, and just about any machine you could buy today will have the bases covered. Let’s take a look at each of the four components.

In the CPU department, even the base model iMac has more than enough horsepower to handle whatever Second Life can throw at it. On a machine with only 1-2 processor cores, you’d want to pay attention to the clock speed and look for something ideally 2.2GHz or higher. Anything less, and the machine would struggle to keep up with SL, and multi-tasking (switching between a few different programs) would likely cause problems (most likely in the form of freezes and crashes as your computer came up short on resources). But all these new machines all have quad-core chips that can easily handle Second Life as well as other applications you may be interested in using at the same time.

GPU is where most people have struggled in the past. iMacs (as well as other Macs and PC’s) from several years ago often struggled with running Second Life even with quality settings turned way down, and the culprit was almost always that the GPU was lacking. In 2006 and 2007 high performance graphics power was just starting to become available, so getting something that could do everything you wanted meant a very expensive graphics card that consumed a lot of power and generated a lot of heat. Things have improved greatly in the last few years, and in 2011 each of the choices is a powerhouse.

In case the brand name confuses you, ATI and AMD are one in the same. AMD bought ATI several years ago, and kept using the ATI brand name on the graphics cards and chips. Last year, they decided that it was finally time to retire the ATI name, and starting with the Radeon 6000 series, they would only use the AMD name. But it’s the same group of people behind the designs and the drivers. Since the launch of the Radeon 4000 series, AMD/ATI has been firing on all cylinders and really doing a great job with their products, and their latest generation of GPU’s is no exception.

The first thing to point out about the GPU’s in the new iMacs is the letter M. Each of the chips has an M in its name (6570M, 6770M, and 6970M) - what does that stand for and what does it mean? M is for mobile. It’s a version of the desktop chip that uses less power and generates less heat, designed for mobile computing. Why would Apple want to put a lower power laptop chip in a desktop? Very simple - heat. Using more power and generating more heat would mean you’d need a lot of cooling fans, and you’d need a bigger case design in order to get enough airflow around all the components to keep it from overheating. In 2011 low power doesn’t mean under-powered, and each of these packs quite a punch.

On the low end, you get the Radeon HD 6570M, the same chip that’s in the most powerful MacBook Pro. It packs 400 vertex shaders, 20 geometry shaders (that’s a lot, and more is always better), has an incredibly fast fill rate (how fast it can draw pixels and fill textures), and has 512MB of dedicated video memory (256MB of which you could use for SL, the other half would be reserved for Mac OS and other applications).

The mid-range machines (the ‘big’ 21.5 inch model and the ‘little’ 27.5 inch iMac) come with the Radeon 6770M, which adds 80 more vertex shaders and 4 more geometry shaders, and has an even faster fill rate. Most measurements put the 6770M at around 15-20% more power than the 6570M, making it a very nice upgrade. It’s also got 512MB of dedicated video memory (256MB of which you could use for SL, the other half would be reserved for Mac OS and other applications).

The high end 27 inch iMac comes packed with the Radeon HD 6970M, which is an incredible GPU. It has double the number of vertex & geometry shaders of the Radeon 6770M (960 vertex and 48 geometry), nearly double the fill rate, and it packs double the video memory at 1GB (letting you use the max of 512MB for Second Life, and still have plenty of video memory for the OS and other programs). Serious content creators can even optionally go for 2GB of video memory (SL will still max at using 512MB, but you’ll have an extra gigabyte of video memory for running graphics intensive programs like Photoshop, AfterEffects, Premiere, Blender, Maya, Cinema 4D, etc). This machine is quite a content creation powerhouse in its own right, actually packing more punch than a quad core Mac Pro from a couple years ago (in fact, the Radeon HD 6970M has more shaders, a faster fill rate, and double the video memory of the ATI Radeon HD 4870 card you could add as an upgrade at the time).

Click here for an ultra-nerdy technical comparison of the GPU’s, along with listings for nearly every AMD/ATI offering in the last decade.

Memory is a much smaller issue these days, both because Macs come with plenty and because Macs handle memory fairly well. All the new iMacs come with 4GB standard, and can be upgraded to 16GB. 4GB is more than enough to run SL as well as a few background apps, but if you do a lot of multi-tasking, and like to have beefy apps like Photoshop running in the background, I’d strongly consider the upgrade to 8GB. If you do a lot of video production work or are a serious SL content creator (who would likely be getting more involved in 3D rendering over the next couple years, if you aren’t already working with it) you may want to consider stepping up to 16GB, but 90% of even the biggest SL ‘power users’ won’t need to go beyond 8GB.

Storage is almost a non-issue. Second Life doesn’t take up much disk space, and even the smallest 2011 iMac has enough room to install a copy of every viewer you could ever want to run many times over. The major decision to make with the new machines is whether you want an SSD or not. SSD’s use flash memory for storage (like an iPad or iPhone), and load much more quickly than a hard drive. How much more quickly? On a machine that would normally take 30 seconds to go from the power completely off to being completely loaded and ready to run at your desktop, an SSD cuts that time down to 15 seconds. An SSD doesn’t make your CPU or GPU or memory work any faster, but because it can get to the files stored on it almost instantly, you end up with faster performance in just about everything. SL users who’ve made the switch from hard drive to SSD (or use an SSD and a hard disk) report an increase of around 5 fps (frames per second) in Second Life. SSD’s are a lot more expensive than hard drives, so depending on your budget you may or may not want to go that route just yet.

That covers the four components, and I think you’ll agree the new machines have a lot to offer.

But what about shadows?

The short answer: Not yet. Shadows (and the newer depth-of-field feature) are still considered experimental in Second Life (click here to see a video that shows dynamic shadows and depth-of-field in SL). In the earliest stages, they only worked with a limited number of nVidia graphics cards, and not at all on any Mac (regardless of the video card). But with the release of Viewer 2.3 last fall, Mac users with nVidia cards finally got working dynamic shadows, projected lights, global illumination, depth-of-field, and other cool ‘bleeding edge’ SL features. Linden Lab has continued to hammer away at it, and does have plans to get shadows working for ATI users as well. They’re finally working for some PC users (and should work on the new iMacs running Windows under boot camp), and in the not-too-distant future I hope to see an SL update that adds dynamic shadow support for ATI users.

New MacBook Pros and SL

Earlier today, Apple released new MacBook Pro computers. For the benefit of anyone considering a new system anytime in the near future, it's probably worth talking something they never seem to mention in the reviews.... how they'll handle SL.

Processor-wise, there isn't a whole lot to note. I'm of the opinion that once you get to a 2.4GHz or faster CPU, you have more than enough CPU power to run Second Life. Since the least powerful machine in the new lineup is at 2.4GHz, you can't really go wrong.

Of course faster doesn't hurt, and if you're considering running SL and other apps simultaneously, you'll definitely want to get one of the Core i5 or Core i7 models. All the machines have 2 processor cores, but the Core i5/i7 have two key features: hyper-threading (which creates twice as many virtual cores and really helps when multi-tasking) and turbo boost (which can at times concentrate power into fewer cores and give you a significant speed boost). Sounds nerdy, but the features don't require any input on your end and you just get better performance.

Memory-wise, you should be good to go. All the machines come with 4GB standard, which is more than enough to run SL and a few other apps. Better still, the machines can be expanded to 8GB (either right out of the box for serious power users or as a future upgrade for most users).

Graphics-wise, this is where it matters the most. The GPU (graphics processing unit) is where most machines (Macs as well as PC's and Linux boxes) struggle the most with SL. The 13-inch MacBook Pro's come with the nVidia GT320M integrated GPU. Like the 9400m chip that was in the entry-level MacBook Pro line before it, this does not have dedicated video memory, and instead makes use of your system RAM for SL textures and the like. While this isn't going to give you ideal performance, it's great bang-for-the-buck. The nVidia 9400m chip did a good job with SL, and the testing and benchmarks that have been done on the new GT320M chip are showing that it's 80% faster than the 9400m. Cool!

On the 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pro's, you get a 1-2 punch of graphical awesome. When Apple released the aluminum unibody MacBook Pro's at the end of 2008, one of the key features was two GPU's. You had both the nVidia 9400m integrated GPU, and the more powerful nVidia 9600m GT. Choosing the lower powered chip gave you an extra hour of battery life, and choosing the more powerful GPU gave you much better fps in SL. The only down-side was that switching between one and the other meant rebooting - not exactly convenient. With the new machines you not only don't have to reboot, you don't even have to choose. When you start running a graphically intensive app, the system switches over. When you quit, it shuts it down and goes back to the lower power chip. Awesome.

The chips themselves are impressive. For the integrated chip, Apple has gone back to Intel. While most Mac users will cringe at the mention of "Intel Integrated Graphics" - this is completely different. In the past, Apple used Intel's 'GMA' technology, which struggled to handle SL (to put it kindly). Since then, Intel has gone back to the drawing board a few times, and the current Intel HD Graphics appear to have a lot of great features. Hardware support for HD video scaling/resizing and H.264 video decoding, and the ability to use up to 1.70GB of system memory for shared video (aka texture) memory, up from 0.25GB in the past. On the higher end, Apple is using the nVidia GT330M GPU which features 256MB (on the base model 15-inch) or 512MB (on all the others) dedicated video memory and a whopping 48 cores. Looking at benchmarks, the GT330M has just about double the graphics power of the the best MacBook Pro available up to September 2008, and a third more powerful than the best aluminum unibody MacBook Pro that were available through yesterday. Despite all the added power, the automatic battery switching technology and other improvements results in a longer battery life - a full hour longer than the previous models.

If you use Adobe's professional apps (Photoshop, AfterEffects, etc), you'll reap some huge benefits when you upgrade to the just-announced CS5 versions, which not only fully supports 64-bit on Mac but can also put those 48 cores to use in cranking through your renders and other processor intensive tasks.

What might be the most awesome SL-related feature, though, is SHADOWS. While dynamic shadows is still in its earliest stages, it's something most (if not all) of us are interested in. At present, shadows aren't possible on the Mac with an ATI card. Not ATI's fault, just that the software support isn't there yet. Shadows are possible on the nVidia side, but in my tests the 9600m GT in my aluminum unibody just wasn't quite powerful enough to get the job done. There is a very good chance that shadows will work out of the box on the new 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pro systems. I'll keep my eyes open in the Macintosh User's Group and other spots, and report back/update once I can confirm whether they work or not. UPDATE! The new machines are currently unable to render shadows using a Second Life Viewer on the Mac. As with many other Macintosh models, this does not appear to be a hardware limitation as much as a software/driver limitation.

The new machines have several additional new features and options available, but that’s getting beyond the scope of this post (I’ll leave it to you to go check out Apple’s site or visit an Apple store and see for yourself). The new hardware represents a significant boost in performance over the machines they replace, and it looks like they’re going to do a great job running Second Life.

Close Call

I recently experienced a close call in the RL technical support department. At some point late on Sunday, I started to experience problems with the multi-touch trackpad on my computer. It didn't feel right, as if it had somehow lost some of its springiness. And it was far too sensitive. But it was late, and so I just stepped away from the computer for the evening.

When I started on Monday morning, things seemed to have gone from bad to worse. It was almost unusable - moving my finger around on the touchpad was frequently being treated as a click or click-and drag, yielding very unexpected and unwelcome results. I had been planning to spend a lot of time in the studio this week, as well as put the finishing touches on our Burning Life project, and who knows what else. Instead, it looked like the computer was going to be in the shop. I should be mad, but I'm not.

Why? I'm spoiled. On Monday morning I hit the Apple site and made an appointment at the nearest location's in-store Genius Bar. While the name may sound silly, it serves a great purpose - the company tags and identifies the more technically savvy retail staffers, and organizes them into an on-location support center. I could have gone in later on Monday, but things were hectic. So Tuesday it was.

At the store on a rainy Tuesday, staffers greeted me and checked me in and soon I was speaking with a tech/genius. After explaining my trouble and checking the machine out, he'd determined that it wasn't actually a defective trackpad, but that my battery was failing. And in the process of failing, it had started to swell up. As it swelled, it was pushing the bottom of the trackpad up, which was causing all my headaches. While I'm no 'road warrior' and don't abuse the machine, these things do happen. But in less time than it's taken me to write this paragraph, he had replaced my battery with a new one, done the paperwork, and we'd tested out the new battery in my computer.

I apologize if this comes off as sounding like a rant. I do my best to avoid sounding like an evangelist or the member of some kind of cult. But there are times (like now) when I feel a certain need to gush. I woke up on Monday, not at all looking forward to possibly having to send my computer off to some mysterious repair center or leave it in the shop for days on end. Instead, within 24 hours of even raising a warning flag, I had face to face support from someone who had an idea what they were doing, and the problem was solved.

I'm not sure if there are any PC manufacturers that offer that kind of service to all their customers, but there certainly wasn't when I finally made the switch in 2003. And before you ask, no I hadn't purchased any special service package or premium for special treatment. The experience I got is standard. And it should be. Lately, though, it seems I've been hearing lots of stories from SL users who are either trying to skate by on a netbook or loaner computer while their machine is in the shop, or are completely unable to use their new-ish machine because of either mal-ware or something that got screwed up with the system software.

Well, now that I've got my technical problem sorted, there's work to do. I've got a bunch of tracks to prep in Ableton Live, and some prims calling my name, just begging to be squashed, stretched, twisted, and textured.