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Are Macs Fast Enough Yet?

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.