About Mac Performance

June 20th, 2014

So after Apple introduced a cheaper iMac, a 21.5-inch model, for $1,099, it didn’t take long for the first tear-downs and benchmarks to appear. So we know, for example, that upgrading is impossible even if you take it apart. The 8GB RAM is soldered onto the main board, for example. But the target users probably wouldn’t fret over the standard configuration.

You see, early benchmarks indicate that the entry-level iMac’s performance is actually quite close to the previous bottom-of-the-line $1,299 model, at least in a single-core benchmark. This despite the fact that the cheapest model features the basic MacBook Air’s 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, compared to a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel i5. The former will Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz, while the latter goes up to 3.2GHz. But I suppose that feature, which impacts a single core under load, is the main reason for the minor performance difference.

In the real world, I’d probably challenge most Mac users to perceive a meaningful difference between the two, except for the lesser graphics chip with popular games. But that’s the point. Actual performance of a new Mac these days is, by and large, more than acceptable even for the $599 Mac mini. Improvements in Intel chip technology in recent years have focused mostly on power efficiency, which is a big deal on a note-book, and beefier integrated graphics.

The real change is in a solid state drive, which can bring a slower Mac close in performance to a much faster one since so many functions are disk-intensive. Bootup times, for example, are amazingly fast when an SSD is in place, even when you use the combo Fusion drive. But few customers for a $1,099 iMac will consider more costly options. It is probably perfect for the people who might otherwise have avoided a Mac because of price, or have modest computing needs that don’t require paying extra for more powerful hardware.

Indeed, the iMac lineup has become the mainstream Mac. Professional users can max out the processor, add beefier graphics, and a Fusion drive or full SSD, and get performance that may match or exceed that of a Mac Pro in most respects. The key issue is whether they are using the very few apps that benefit from multicore processors, or require the extensive external expansion that’s offered on a Mac Pro.

So I wasn’t surprised when one of my colleagues dumped an older Mac Pro and replaced it with a Mac mini a couple of years ago. Well, it was outfitted with faster drives and such, but for most of his needs, the performance difference wasn’t significant.

This explains why the window of compatibility for OS X Yosemite covers Macs that are from four to six years old, depending on whether they have true 64-bit processors. The possible fly in the ointment is the lack of support for Bluetooth LE, first introduced in 2011 and 2012 Macs, which may be required to make the Handoff feature run. I suppose this issue will be fleshed out more in the next few weeks, though it would be highly unfortunate to tout such an important feature and leave millions of users unsupported. I suppose Apple could offer support for one of those cheap Bluetooth LE USB adapters, which would resolve the situation for those who care.

Meantime, the fact that most Macs offer good enough performance for many users is the great equalizer. It means you can focus on price and configuration and not worry that your Mac may by poky for routine tasks. Obviously gamers would want a Mac with more powerful graphics, and those doing heavy-duty video editing, 3D rendering and other processor-intensive tasks will possibly place the Mac Pro in their sights.

Of course, Apple’s critics will continue to claim that Macs are overpriced, which is decidedly not true. When you actually compare the hardware and the software bundle, Macs are quite competitive up and down the line. Indeed, when it comes to the Mac Pro, Apple manages to make them cheaper than a PC, assuming you can even find one that’s similarly equipped, and that’s not so easy, as I discovered when I tried just that a while back.

It’s also true that the $1,099 iMac will get lots of criticism because of the lack of expandability. But I can see where Apple made the internal workings similar to the MacBook Air to keep the price down, expecting to reach a number of potential customers who might not have considered buying a Mac for $200 more. As the price goes down, resistance lessens, and this is a great time to go after Windows users. So many are disgusted with the pathetic state of PC hardware — even the Surface 3 — and the failings of Windows 8.1.

Of course, it’s also the twilight of the PC era, meaning that Apple and the PC makers are fighting for a diminishing market, but if Apple can continue to grow sales, for those who still want a traditional form factor, this may be the best time to make it so.

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One Response to “About Mac Performance”

  1. DaveD says:

    A couple of days after reading the announcement and the comments about the new iMac, I’ve come to a realization that Apple was just filling in a pricing gap between the low-end MacBook Air ($899) and the was-low-end iMac ($1299). For $1099, one gets a morphed MacBook Air with 2 times the base memory, a hard drive, and a very nice large display.

    For a historical perspective, I recalled the first iMac that in 1998 for $1299, you get a CRT-based Mac with a 233 MHz PowerPC processor running Mac OS 8.1 and having a tiny RAM, hard drive, and graphic processor.

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