Downgrade to Snow Leopard for performance boost on a late 2011 quad Macbook Pro

March 8th, 2013 by Mark Nanut Leave a reply »

symlinkAt the time of writing this post, the latest version of OS X is 10.8.2 Mountain Lion. While it brought many nice features and definitely is nicer and faster than Lion, it also comes with some compromises. I already wrote about how Apple uses power throttling in order to make battery run longer and this behavior persists in Mountain Lion.

Oh, woes

Running Mountain Lion, my late-2011 Macbook Pro shows 9 hours of battery left when fully charged. While this sort of battery life definitely is something Apple can brag about, it unfortunately comes with a downside: the graphic interface is pretty much lagging most of the time even on 10.8.2. Choppy transitions, choppy scrolling, lag in general…better than Lion but still… Let me point out that this is essentially a higher end laptop with quad core i7 sandy bridge and a pretty powerful AMD Radeon 6750M dedicated graphics chip. This same piece of hardware performs like a champ under bootcamped Windows 7, which is most obvious in super responsive Windows OS and awesome performance of video games even as demanding as Battlefield 3. All this computing power! Yet user interface in Mountain Lion still lags! My frustration with Apple making such performance-related compromises in its software (along with Apple’s many other sins), had me seriously contemplating a final and permanent switch to Windows. I even went as far as installing Mountain Lion in a VMWare virtual machine under Windows 7, for those few Mac-specific apps I couldn’t live without (even if there is no hardware graphic acceleration (CI/QE) for OSX under VMWare). I just had to try one more thing – installing Snow Leopard on this late 2011 MacBook Pro.

Snow Leopard compatibility with newer hardware

This machine came with Lion preinstalled. So officially installing Snow Leopard on it (10.6.8) is not supported, therefore you are doing this at your own risk. It turns out that the last officially supported MacBook Pro for Snow Leopard was the early 2011 version. Since my particular late-2011 base model has roughly the same hardware as the early-2011 high-end model (6750M Radeon graphics, Sandy Bridge), Snow Leopard CAN be installed on it.

What you need to do is get a retail version of Snow Leopard 10.6.7 install disc. After installing, you will need to update to 10.6.8 (download a combo updater). For precaution and to test if it will install on your system, try first installing 10.6.7 on another partition, maybe even an external drive.

The results

The newly installed Snow Leopard should perform flawlessly – even more so when running on discrete Radeon graphics (use gfxCardStatus to switch to discrete graphics). Admittedly, on my machine I also installed a modded, Leopard-like Dock from the beta version of Snow Leopard, plus I enabled QuartzGL and disabled vertical sync with Quartz Debug, the speed optimizations which I always do. I dumped Safari 5 for the latest version of Chrome (for the first time I’m using Chrome as my primary browser due to its GPU acceleration) and everything is blazing fast. So fast in fact, that it comes as a dire reminder of how fast and smooth OSX really is supposed to work, and frankly, I don’t remember any of my previous machines ever running this smoothly. Scrolling and transitions are buttery smooth; frame meter in Quartz Debug actually shows frame rates of more than 100 frames per second. Does this have anything to do with potentially missing GPU or CPU power management, I haven’t yet found out. Whatever the cause, the battery life isn’t half bad. When fully charged, it still shows around 6 hours on integrated graphics and 4,5 hours on discrete graphics. In my opinion – a nice trade off considering the new performance boost.

I am now running 10.6.8 as my main system, with a 10.8.2 instance on another partition for testing the upcoming iterations of Mountain Lion. We’ll see what newer versions of 10.8.x will bring in terms of better performance, yet I stopped looking forward to it quite a while ago. It would be optimal if Apple could keep its promise about long battery life while computer runs on integrated graphics and let the system optimally handle power usage, however, while running on discrete graphics, there such be an option to turn off power throttling and make the system run at its maximum potential.

Good luck, cheers.

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