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.

A Glimpse Of The Future!

At last week's Game Developer Conference, nVidia was seen sneak-previewing their soon-to-be-released (March 26) graphics technology. While the cards may well be prohibitively expensive at launch, the nature of technology is such that within the next few years we may very well see this kind of performance on most video cards. The clip below shows a demonstration of real-time hair rendering:

That, my friends, is the future of prim hair. 18,000 prim hair, to be exact :) No, LL has not announced any specific plans to support that many prims, but this is exactly the sort of thing we'll see in a few years (assuming those Mayan chaps weren't right and things don't all end horribly before then).

For those with a more technical interest, I'd like to point out what happens as they zoom out from the head of hair - the frame rate increases substantially. What's happening is something called "tessellation" which will likely be a popular buzzword in the realm of graphics over the next couple years. DirectX 11 (and DirectX 11 compatible video cards, like ATI's Radeon HD5xxx series) have been calling the feature out, not only because it's remarkable technology but because it was something only they offered. In a nutshell, tessellation lets the graphics card reduce the complexity of a 3D object as it gets further away. Lower complexity means fewer triangles to calculate and render, and ultimately better performance and faster frame rates. It's worth pointing out that at last week's show, the OpenGL standards group also announced their OpenGL 4.0 standard (which will likely eventually be incorporated into SL), which also supports tessellation. Fascinating.