Are Macs Fast Enough Yet?

March 1st, 2011

Just the other day, I read the first test results from Macworld for the latest members of the MacBook Pro family. The top-of-the-line $2,499 17-inch MacBook Pro scores some 53% faster than its predecessor from 2010. By any definition of faster, this is a huge improvement, and one that often requires two or three product refreshes to attain. What’s more, the benchmarks were done on standard configurations. There are even faster processors available as options, along with solid state drives to provide immense boosts in disk-related tasks.

True, the speed improvement on other MacBook Pros weren’t quite as extreme, but it all goes to demonstrate the prowess of the first release of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processor family. It doesn’t hurt that those high-end MacBook Pros are the first Apple note-books to sport quad-core processors, which counts for a fair amount of the speed bump. It’s quite likely that the next generation iMacs might not improve quite so much, simply because the high-end configurations already include quad-core from last year’s processor families.

Indeed, the speed enhancements from the extra cores are fairly modest right now, simply because so few apps really take advantage of any more than the first core. But with a smart OS, and Mac OS X is doing better and better in this respect, tasks can still be cleverly allocated so more of the cores on that processor are doing their share of the number crunching.

No doubt a near-future Mac mini will also be upgraded with Sandy Bridge processors. Imagine a quad-core mini?

But the real change in recent years is the fact that more and more content creation can be done even on a relatively affordable Mac with excellent performance. Sure, there are still advantages with the Mac Pro when it comes to expandability, and the ability to run the very fastest RAID drives available, along with extra graphics cards and other components. But Apple has also become a great equalizer. When powerful RAID-based storage devices appear to support the new Thunderbolt protocol first introduced on the MacBook Pro, you can bet that the need of a Mac Pro will be lessened severely, and I have little doubt that the iMac will soon get Thunderbolt as well, and, perhaps, the Mac mini. The best way to make this peripheral port successful is to make sure that no Macs are left out.

I know I’ve taken advantage of the less-costly solutions on the Mac platform in the past couple of years. It all began when, in late 2009, I sold off a Mac Pro with a 30-inch display, and acquired a 27-inch iMac with the fastest optional quad-core Intel i7 available at the time. I got $300 change for my efforts, after buying that iMac, which I used to pay some bills.

What I discovered was that nothing I did seemed any slower. While I’m not engaged in 3D graphics creation, I certainly do my share of audio editing, and none of the apps I used, including Bias Peak Pro — my favored post-production tool — ran any slower than before. At the time, Macworld’s own benchmarks showed that top-of-the-line iMac to perform slightly better than a 2009 Mac Pro.

Even today, the performance advantages of buying a workstation that can easily cost upwards of $5,000 for many configurations are nowhere near as significant as they used to be. Yes, I understand that a small cadre of Mac users will still bask in the additional capabilities of a Mac Pro. No doubt Apple will continue to build this product, even though sales can’t be much higher than the tens of thousands each quarter nowadays. Along with the arrival of Thunderbolt, you’ll most likely be seeing processors with six or more cores in consumer Macs before long. I do see a day when there will be little or no need for a Mac Pro, and I know some of you will resist that prospect.

Indeed, the time will arrive in the next few years where any Mac will be a luxury that will be mostly used by business customers with very demanding needs. To be sure, I certainly can’t imagine myself writing these columns, or longer manuscripts on an iPad. But for many of you, the iPad will become your chosen personal computer, since it does so many things so well even this early in its lifecycle.

When it comes to overall performance, I’ve always wondered how many processor cores and terabytes of storage you need to read and write email, surf the Internet, play games, listen to music, and watch movies. Certainly no word processor, even one as humongously bloated as Microsoft Word, should require the vast amounts of processor power that are the norm in personal computers these days.

Right now, I understand why one of my colleagues, author Kirk McElhearn, dumped his Mac Pro and switched to a Mac mini some time back. He hasn’t regretted the decision, and I expect more and more of you might follow the move to more affordable Macs in the near future. That is until, you fully adopt the iPad instead.


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3 Responses to “Are Macs Fast Enough Yet?”

  1. Lazer Wolf says:


    For the most part, I agree with what you’re saying. For basic computing: surfing, email, image and music management, word processing etc. how much faster do we need to go? And I think a corollary of your position is how much do we need to pay to surf, email, word process, manage images and music and watch movies?

    With the least expensive MacBook your looking at around $900 and for the MacMini your looking at around $600-$700 (w/out monitor etc.). I was looking to get my grandma a machine that could the basics and for the first time in a long time, I began to wonder if it made sense for me to spend that type of money for a system my grandma would never stress? I started looking at building my own and running Ubuntu. AMD has some very intriguing cost effective options that are dual and quad core. And I priced a reasonable system out for around $350 whose hardware would easily handle grandma’s basic computing tasks. I understand what I am missing not getting a Mac, but I think we are reaching a point that it almost seems to be overkill. I am guessing this is what Apple foresaw and started in on the iPad.

    Having said that, I am still somewhat surprised that a 2.4 GHz MacBook Pro from late 2008 with 3 GB of RAM running Snow Leopard absolutely lags and stutters when I try and put together a technical document that requires me to simultaneously run Photoshop (multiple windows), Illustrator, Word, Preview and EndNote and Safari. I understand more RAM would help, maybe a faster hard drive, but sometimes it feels like things really aren’t much better than when I did this type of work on a G4 Powerbook in 2005/6.

    • @Lazer Wolf, Perhaps, but if you expect to get decent performance from a bloated content creation suite, 3GB is far too little. That stuttering is probably the result of virtual memory swaps, because you’re hitting the RAM limits constantly.

      For that, blame the software publishers for being unable to build efficient software that doesn’t require a supercomputer in a notebook to run decently. Maybe the inspiration of the iOS will change that, but I expect mobile apps will follow their desktop counterparts in the next few years.


  2. Andrew says:

    Power is getting to the overkill level in routine use, but I believe that the functions and capabilities of advanced software have and will continue to keep pace with advances in hardware capabilities.

    Take games as an example. I remember playing a networked, multiplayer 1st-person shooter on a PPC upgraded Quadra 700 back in 1995. That computer was a 50 MHz PPC 601, and the game, Marathon, had, for its time, rather advanced graphics, sound and the ability to taunt other players (or just communicate) over the Mac’s sound system on the network. LocalTalk (remember that) was adequate for multiplayer gaming with two players, while, if I recall, you needed 10BaseT for large lan parties, which were a blast.

    Today’s 1st-person shooters, like Marathon back in 1995, push the capabilities of a modern computer as far as they will go, with most of the demand being advanced graphics. If you like to play the latest games, you need an extremely powerful and fairly new computer. Ditto for scientific applications, video, and the like.

    Word Processing? Not so much. I still have a 2007 plastic MacBook (2.2 GHz Core2Duo, Intel GMA graphics) that won’t play high def video or any demanding games, but does just fine with Office 2011, iPhoto 11 (a bit sluggish, but usable) and just about anything else I throw at it. That machine has 2 GB RAM. My MacBook Air (11.6″, 2 GB RAM) positively flies on just about everything, even when forced to use virtual memory because that too is lightning fast.

    When I look at the new MacBook Pros, I really wonder if they are overkill, but then, I thought the same when last-year’s MacBook Pro was released. I own a 15″ 2010 MacBook Pro, the top model with 512 MB nVidia GPU and Dual Core i7. That machine is extremely fast, but the new one is 40% or so faster. Could I use the extra speed? My current machine will play Crysis in full detail with decent framerates, but no doubt the framerates would be higher on the new model. Crysis is also a 4-year-old game.

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