Macbook Pro graphics, to buy or not to buy
October 21, 2006 2:43 PM   Subscribe

Macbook Pro graphics query: For a Photoshop user, is it necessary to get the 256MB graphics card?...

We went to the Apple Store today and the only Macbook Pros with Photoshop on board had 2.16Ghz w/ 256MB graphics card. The more affordable 2.0Ghz models didn't have Photoshop. The salesdude said that the extra memory in the graphics card makes a big difference and will make a big difference whenever Adobe releases an Intel-ized version of CS (January, April, ever?) He also said that extra graphics memory is way more important than extra RAM. My questions: 1) Is the salesdude right, does the extra memory on the graphics card make a huge difference? Would a 2.0Ghz machine running Photoshop be slow as molases? Is extra RAM really that unimportant? 2) Is it possible to get a 256 graphics card on a 2.0Ghz machine (salesdude said yes on Apple website; I looked and can't see that option...), and 3) should we wait for the long-rumored chip update/upgrade?...
posted by timnyc to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The salesdude told you the exact opposite of the truth. For Photoshop (or any other 2D applications), don't worry about the graphics card. Even the integrated graphics on the MacBook will handle Photoshop with no problem. What you DO need is a lot of RAM, especially if you're going to be running Photoshop in Rosetta (i.e., in emulation). Like, at least 1 GB, preferably 2 GB.

Also, buying a MacBook Pro mainly to run Photoshop now is not a great idea, because you will pay a substantial performance penalty due to running it in emulation. You'd be spending a lot of money for Photoshop to run slower than it would on a G4 Powerbook. If you can hold off until Adobe comes out with the Universal version, you should.
posted by myeviltwin at 2:54 PM on October 21, 2006

If there isn't enough video RAM then the graphics chip has to go out and borrow main RAM to make up the excess. That means it's on the bus constantly, and it has priority over the CPU. The result is that the CPU spends a lot of time tossing wait-states when it needs memory and can't get to it because the display chip is on the bus.

Yes, the result can well be the machine feeling as if it's been lubricated with ice-cold molasses.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:01 PM on October 21, 2006

On-board video memory is ultra-fast so that it can push data from the board to the GPU. This data is almost always calculations to do 3D graphics. Photoshop is a 2D graphic app and will just consume normal RAM and CPU resources.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:04 PM on October 21, 2006

However, the 17" Macbook Pro has a screen resolution of 1680*1050. If you assume frame-flipping and full memory depth then that means 8 bytes per pixel of display RAM, which would be 14 megabytes.

Where more display RAM comes into play is when the software is taking advantage of 3D acceleration. Then the display RAM has to hold vertex information about the objects being displayed. I gather that the OSX GUI does do quite a lot of that, but I wouldn't think it would be enough to overwhelm 128M of RAM, which is what I assume is the lower configured value.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:04 PM on October 21, 2006

SCDB can you show me a datasheet for a chip which does which you describe?

i know the original intent of AGP was so that the graphics card could keep its framebuffer, etc. in main memory, but by the time AGP started appearing in motherboards graphics chips were already using their own dedicated RAM.

i know there are integrated graphics chips which steal part of main memory for framebuffer, and in fact these appear in the MacBook and Mac Mini. but i've never heard of one that dynamically moves into the main memory of the machine.
posted by joeblough at 3:19 PM on October 21, 2006

My GF has run Photoshop 9 on a Macbook under bootcamp and the only problem with it has been the usual Adobe memory leaks, not video ram. She has the 13" Macbook with 128 MB VRAM.

And it's true that PS under OSX on the Macbook is terrible. Rosetta really can't keep up.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 3:21 PM on October 21, 2006

also FYI if you are planning to use photoshop in support of digital photography and don't plan to do much actual image editing, you can download the beta of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for free. it's intel-native and boy is it fast. IMHO much better than Aperture.
posted by joeblough at 3:22 PM on October 21, 2006

The amount of VRAM will make absolutely zero difference with Photoshop, and possibly any of the Abobe apps for, as far as I know, Lightroom does not use the GPU to accelerate itself.
posted by rbs at 3:33 PM on October 21, 2006

for anecdotal evidence, i use Photoshop on a Intel iMac with 1GB of RAM and 128 of VRAM and it does fine. ymmv.
posted by youcancallmeal at 3:37 PM on October 21, 2006

SCDB is talking out of his ass again. Auto-didactism can't get you everywhere.

Basically, all that matters is more RAM and a faster hard drive. A large 7200 RPM drive would make a noticeable difference. The graphics card wouldn't matter at all as long as it supports the resolution your display runs at.
posted by blasdelf at 4:26 PM on October 21, 2006

What everyone else said. Photoshop does all its processing on the CPU, which uses main memory as a storage buffer. When it's finished compositing and scaling the layers into the image you see on screen, it ends up with a few megabytes of data which it sends to the GPU, which has no work left to do.
posted by cillit bang at 4:57 PM on October 21, 2006

Apple used to let you pick between different cards. I'm going to guess than the difference between the 128mb card (and the 256mb card is around $50...

It's hard to tell because the cheaper card is in the cheaper MBP and there is no configuring the card (to see the difference in price.)

Now, will it make a difference in photoshop? Today? No. Ram is the issue - and load up on it.

Will it make a difference in Apr. by photoshop world? Possible. Adobe hasn't said (as far as I'm aware) whether or not they're going to utilize Core Image. They're definitely going to optimize for the intel chipset.

With that being said...get the 128mb card and invest in Ram.
posted by filmgeek at 5:20 PM on October 21, 2006

I feel like I should point out that no Mac comes with Photoshop "on board"; it's always a separate purchase.
posted by raf at 5:43 PM on October 21, 2006

I should point out that in my limited experience Photoshop currently runs better when run as a Windows app. in a Parallels VM than it does via Rosetta.

Assuming you have a proper amount of RAM for such an operation.
posted by sparkletone at 6:13 PM on October 21, 2006

I would not expect that the added graphics RAM would make any difference in anything other than 3D applications. However, Apple itself does claim it gives a slight advantage for rendering web pages in Safari (which I assume is, if anything, graphically simpler than Photoshop). Check out this page and hover over the "15-inch" and "17-inch" titles in the sidebar.

However, the salesman was definitely talking out his ass when he suggested additional RAM (regular RAM) wouldn't make a difference. It makes a big difference.
posted by adamrice at 6:24 PM on October 21, 2006

Really the only purpose the videocard is going to serve for Photoshop is as a glorified framebuffer. The lesser memory option (128MB) is almost an order of magnitude beyond your needs for that (SCDB's math is right, even though his conceptual model is wrong). You want system RAM and as much as you can get, if you're going to be working with tons of layers or large image sizes.

I'd still go for the 256MB video RAM option just because, you know, World of Warcraft = many many characters on screen, often with fairly unique geometry and textures, and this will only get worse over the years of expansion packs.

As an aside, could Adobe hypothetically make use of highend 3D cards to greatly enhance Photoshop? Only marginally at best. While you can do great things these days to textures directly on the videocard with pixel shaders, the simple fact is that the internal representation of your images needs to be as close as possible to a general-purpose processor. While modern videocards can FANTASTICALLY outperform even the best modern CPUs in computational throughput, too many of the routine operations in Photoshop (not to mention plugins) have requirements that cannot be efficiently performed by specialized hardware.

So, yeah. System RAM it is, although for me I'd want to keep the gaming possibilities open.
posted by Ryvar at 7:15 PM on October 21, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the good advice! Looks like we'll go with the 2.0Ghz w/ 128MB VRAM and 1.5G RAM. (Too bad that Ye Apple Shoppe doesn't have any of their 20+ Macbook Pro's with the above config running Photoshop. We would have liked to have seen it in action. Ah, well.)
posted by timnyc at 7:23 PM on October 21, 2006

Just to pile on: I'm rocking a G4 PowerBook with 64 mb of video RAM but 768 mb of onboard RAM. For 2d graphics stuff like photoshop and scientific imaging applications, it has been just fine. The onboard memory is more important than video RAM for photoshop, since a lot of the computationally intensive stuff in 2d applications happens at the CPU level (transforming images etc) rather than at the GPU level (computing and displaying many images one after the other, like in a 3d video game).

It's telling that Aperture requires you to have 1 GB of onboard RAM, but is much more lenient with respect to what type video card you have.
posted by drmarcj at 8:10 PM on October 21, 2006

timnyc, the core 2 duo chips are starting to ship from intel. I think we'll either see a MacBook Pro update in early-mid november, or mac world sf in january. But if your need is now... your need is now!
posted by mmdei at 10:12 PM on October 21, 2006

The graphics card shouldn't make a large difference for Photoshop, but it's supposed to make a large difference in Aperture. Something to consider.
posted by alidarbac at 8:20 AM on October 22, 2006

Basically, all that matters is more RAM and a faster hard drive. A large 7200 RPM drive would make a noticeable difference.

Yes on the RAM (max it out if you can afford it), the faster hard drive however will not significantly increase the performance feel for the average user. I would only go for the faster hard drive if you were doing video editing, or some other large, sequential data throughput application.

7200 vs. 5400 benchmarks:
posted by splatta at 6:01 PM on October 22, 2006

To address your last question: Yes! Wait a week or two. It's been 182 days since the last MBP update, and the interwebs are buzzing with rumors that an update is happening very soon.
posted by donguanella at 2:45 PM on October 23, 2006

OK, Now is the time to get that MBP (and get one for me, while you're at it). Apple just updated it to the Core 2 Duo.
posted by adamrice at 12:04 PM on October 24, 2006

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