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How much faster is the Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor in later MacBook models compared to the Intel GMA 950 in earlier models? Is gaming performance improved?
Please note that the Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor was introduced with the "Late 2007 Santa Rosa" MacBook models, but this answer is applicable to subsequent MacBook systems that use the GMA X3100 as well. Also see: How much faster is the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor in the "Unibody" MacBook models compared to the Intel GMA X3100 and GMA 950 in earlier models?
For the Intel GMA 950 "integrated graphics" processor that Apple used in previous MacBook models -- as well as the Mac mini and some iMac systems -- Apple bragged that:
The Intel GMA 950 graphics supports Tiger Core Graphics and the latest 3D games. It shares fast 667 MHz memory with the Intel Core processor, for an incredible value proposition.
For the "Late 2007 Santa Rosa" MacBook systems, Apple was far more modest -- not even issuing a press release and only mentioning the GMA X3100 graphics processor in the specifications without promoting it at all, even though it is superior to the GMA 950. Additionally, albeit buried in technical documents, Apple goes as far as candidly stating that "software with intensive 3D graphics requirements may exhibit performance limitations".
In an in-depth review, the always excellent ArsTechnica compared a MacBook "Core 2 Duo" 2.2 13" (Black - Santa Rosa) to recent iMac and MacBook Pro models equipped with 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo processors in a battery of synthetic benchmark and application tests.
Although the complete details should be evaluated in their entirety -- and the difference in overall performance was more modest -- the graphics performance of the X3100 paled in comparison to the more expensive "dedicated" graphics in the other systems. In synthetic benchmarks, ArsTechnica noted:
Where the MacBook really got spanked was when it came to the OpenGL tests. As with the Xbench tests, the integrated X3100 graphics performed very poorly compared to the discrete NVIDIA and ATI cards in the other two machines.
In real-world tests, the results were similar:
Most of the MacBook's PSBench scores lagged by between five and ten percent, but in the OpenGL test they're around 20 to 30 percent behind.
Gaming scores improved with the new models, reflecting their updated graphics chips. Unreal Tournament 2004 frame rates jumped from 18.5 fps for the 2.16 GHz white model to 25.4 fps for the 2.2 GHz black model. For Quake 4 test, frame rates nearly doubled from 4.5 fps to 7.8 fps in comparing those same same models. Hard core gamers will still want to steer clear of the MacBook line, but if you play games only occasionally or you tend to play games that are only moderately graphics-processor-intensive, you'll definitely benefit from the MacBooks' new graphics chip.
The continuously superb BareFeats has provided in-depth test results for graphics applications, high-resolution, and low-resolution gaming on the MacBook, all of which should be read completely. For low-resolution gaming, the site discovered that "some games actually are playable" but for high-resolution gaming and serious graphics applications:
Not only is the new MacBook with the GMA X3100 a bummer for high rez gamers, it's going to disappoint pro users when running serious graphics intensive apps. On the other hand, if you are running purely CPU intensive tasks (Compressor, Photoshop, After Effects), the new MacBook should compare very well with similarly clocked MacBook Pros.
Ultimately, for those with modest graphics performance needs, the MacBook would be an excellent choice. Those with more demanding needs would be better served by a MacBook Pro.