19 March 2014 - Laptop choices and aftermath

In November I was lamenting the lack of selection in credible Haswell-powered laptops for Mesa development. I chose the 15" MacBook Pro, while coworkers picked the 13" MBP and the System76 Galago Pro. After using the three laptops for a few months, I review our choices and whether they panned out like we expected.

  CPU RAM Graphics Screen Storage Battery
13" MacBook Pro 2.8 GHz 4558U 16 GiB GT3 - 1200 MHz 13.3" 2560x1600 512 GiB PCIe 71.8 Wh
15" MacBook Pro 2.0 GHz 4750HQ 16 GiB GT3e - 1200 MHz 15.4" 2880x1800 256 GiB PCIe 95 Wh
Galago Pro 2.0 GHz 4750HQ 16 GiB GT3e - 1200 MHz 14.1" 1920x1080 many options 52 Wh

15" MacBook Pro

The installation procedure on the MacBook was very simple. I shrunk the HFS partition from OS X and installed rEFInd, before following the usual Gentoo installation.

Quirks and Annoyances

Running Linux on the MacBook is a good experience overall, with some quirks:

Worst Thing: Insufficient cooling

The worst thing about the MacBook is the insufficient cooling. Even forcing the two fans to their maximum frequencies isn't enough to prevent the CPUs from thermal throttling in less than a minute of full load. Most worrying is that my CPU's core #1 seems to run significantly hotter under load that the other cores. It's always the first, and routinely the only, core to reach 100 C, causing the whole CPU package to be throttled until it cools slightly. The temperature gradient across a chip only 177 square millimeters is also troubling: frequently core #1 is 15 C hotter than core #3 under load. The only plausible conclusion I've come to is that the thermal paste isn't applied evenly across the CPU die. And since Apple uses tamper resistant screws I couldn't reapply the thermal paste without special tools (and probably voiding the warranty).

Best Thing: Retina display

I didn't realize how much the Retina display would improve the experience. Having multiple windows (that would have been close to full screen at 1080p) open at once is really nice. Being able to have driver code open on the left half of the screen, and the PDF documentation open on the right makes patch review quicker and more efficient. I've attached other laptops I've used to larger monitors, but I've never even felt like trying with the 15" MBP.

13" MacBook Pro

I consider the 13" MacBook Pro to be strictly inferior (okay, lighter and smaller is nice, but...) to the 15". Other than the obvious differences in the hardware, the most disappointing thing I've discovered about it is that the 13" screen isn't really big enough to be comfortable for development. The coworker that owns it plugs it into his physically larger 1080p monitor when he gets to the office. For a screen that's supposed to be probably the biggest selling point of the laptop, it's not getting a lot of use.

As I mentioned, I'm perfectly satisfied with the 15" screen for everyday development.

System76 Galago Pro

I used the Galago Pro for about three weeks before switching to the 15" MacBook. In total it's a really compelling system, except for the serious lack of attention to detail.

Quirks and Annoyances

Worst Thing: Keyboard

The keyboard is probably the worst part. The first time I booted the system, typing k while holding the shift key wouldn't register a key press. Lower case k typed fine, but with shift held – nothing. After about 25 presses, it began working without any indication as to what changed.

The key stroke is very short, you get almost no feedback, and if you press the keys at an angle slightly off center they may not register. Typing on it can be a rather frustrating experience. Beyond it being a generally unpleasant keyboard, the function key placement confirms that the keyboard is a complete afterthought: Suspend is between Mute and Volume Down. Whoops!

Best Thing: Cooling

The Galago Pro has an excellent cooling system. Its fans are capable of moving a surprising amount of air and don't make too much noise doing it. Under full load, the CPU's temperature never passed 84 C – 16 C cooler than the 15" MBP (and the MBP doesn't break 100 C only because it starts throttling!). On top of not scorching your lap during compiles, the cooler temperatures mean the CPU and GPU are going to be able to stay in turbo mode longer and give better performance.

Final thoughts

Concerns about the keyboard and general build quality of the Galago Pro turned out to be true. I think it's possible to get used to the keyboard, and if you do I feel confident that the system is really nice to use (well, I guess you have to get used to the other input device too).

I'm overall quite happy with the MacBook Pro. The Retina display is awesome, and the PCIe SSD is incredibly fast. I was most worried about the 15" MacBook overheating and triggering thermal throttling. Unfortunately this was well founded. Other than the quirks, which are par for the course, the overheating issue is the one significant downside to this machine.

Tags: freedesktop intel linux mesa