Macs Have Made Little Progress in Processing Power over 5 Years

A funny thing happened to Mac performance: It stopped making those big strides forward that it used to. Like 1987, when the 16 MHz Mac II blew the doors off the 8 MHz Mac SE with 2.4x its performance, or when the 25 MHz Quadra 700 arrived with over twice the raw power of the 40 MHz Mac IIfx in 1991.

The 1994 migration to PowerPC processors saw another big step forward in performance. The 80 MHz Power Mac 8100 with about 3x the MacBench 2.0 CPU score of the 40 MHz Quadra 840av. Apple’s PowerPC era ended with the 2.5 GHz Power Mac G5 Quad.

Dan Bashur recently pointed out how little the Mac has increased in processing power over the past five years or so. Let’s dig deeper.

The Intel Era

Mac ProThe Mac Pro

In August 2006, the first Mac Pro replaced the Power Mac G5 Quad, providing 63% more power with its four 3.0 GHz cores as the Quad did with its four 2.5 GHz cores. In April 2007, Apple introduced an 8-core Mac Pro with 49% more power than the 2006 quad-core model.

The 2008 Mac Pro wasn’t a big step forward with its piddling 7% increase in processing power, but the 2009 was 44% faster than that, and 2010 saw a power increase of another 34%. The top-end 2012 Mac Pro was a little bit less powerful than the 2010 model it replaced, although the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro had 32% more raw power than the 2010 Mac Pro.

Over the past five years, then, the Mac Pro has only increased in power by 32%!

Based on Geekbench 4 multi-core results, the top-end Mac Pro improved by 155% from 2008 to 2013, 78% from 2009 to 2014 (there has not been a new model since 2013), and 32% over the past five years.

The iMac

27" iMacOnce Apple’s consumer computer, the iMac has developed a real identity crisis. On the low end, we have some very nice, pretty affordable iMacs with 20″ or so displays. On the top end, we’re seeing 27″ 5K resolution models.

Here’s how power has increased, based on multi-core Geekbench 4 scores:

  • 2008: 19% improvement
  • 2009: 111% jump forward thanks to quad-core i7 CPU
  • 2010: inched forward by 9.9%
  • 2011: impressive 31% jump forward
  • 2012: 14.5% improvement
  • 2013: inched forward just 8.4%
  • 2015: nice 26% boost in processing power

From 2007 to 2012 (a five year period), the iMac saw an increase in processing power of 336%. From 2008 to 2013, 297%. From 2009 to 2014, 79% (there was no new model in 2014). From 2010 to 2015, 106%. From 2011 to 2016, again with no new iMac, 57%.

The MacBook Pro

15 inch MacBook Pro (Late 2016)Initial reports are in, and the top end 2.9 GHz 4-core Late 2016 MacBook Pro is coming in 4.4% slower than the fastest 2015 MacBook Pro. Ouch.

Let’s take a look at performance year to year, using Geekbench 4:

  • 2009: 12% improvement
  • 2010: 43% improvement thanks to Intel Core i7 CPU
  • 2011: 109% jump forward thanks to quad-core i7 CPU
  • 2012: 19% improvement
  • 2013: 18% improvement
  • 2015: inched forward 3.9%
  • 2016: slipped back 4.4%

Looking at five-year increments, the MacBook Pro saw an amazing 367% jump in raw power from 2008 to 2013, 317% from 2009 to 2014, 204% from 2010 to 2015, and just 39% from 2011 to 2016.

Expect a new model next year with Intel’s next generation Kaby Lake architecture and support for more than 16 GB of RAM for the first time on a mobile processor.

The Mac mini

Mac miniThe Mac mini has always been out of step with the rest of the Mac line. In 2006, it was the only Mac to ever use an Intel Core Solo CPU. In 2007, it finally made it to a Core 2 Duo CPU after all the other Macs had made that transition in 2006.

There was no new Mac mini in 2013, 2015, or 2016. Annual changes:

  • 2010: 1% drop
  • 2011: 204% megajump thanks to the 4-core Mac mini Server
  • 2012: 35% jump forward
  • 2014: 37% performance decline – no more quad-core Mac mini

Once again looking at five-year periods: 317% improvement from 2009 to 2014, 204% from 2010 to 2015 (no new model), and 39% from 2011 to 2016 (again, no new Mac mini).

13" MacBook Air (Early 2014)The MacBook Air

The only other model that’s been around for more than five years is the MacBook Air, which arrived in January 2008 with a slim enclosure and slim processing power. Over the years, its power has improved.

  • 2009: 2.4% was nothing to get excited about
  • 2010: 12% was a nice step forward
  • 2011: huge 102% jump moving to Intel Core i7
  • 2012: 21% improvement
  • 2013: 9.3% still a decent step in the right direction
  • 2014: 19% drop due to 1.4 GHz low power CPU
  • 2015: 32% jump forward, but only 6.3% ahead of 2013

Looking at five-year periods, the MacBook Air improved by 206% from 2008 through 2013, by 141% from 2009 to 2014, 183% between 2010 and 2015, and 40% from 2011 to 2016, when there was no new model.

Conclusion

In light of the Mac Pro last being updated in 2013, the Mac mini in 2014, and the iMac and MacBook Air in 2015, Apple has really slipped behind the performance curve. You know Dell, HP, Acer, and all the others continue to offer new models at least once a year – and invariably with more power, unlike some of Apple’s step backward.

Once upon a time, Moore’s Law made it easy to predict that processing power would roughly double every two or three years, quadrupling power over five years or so. As recently as 2015, much of the Apple line was still trending in that direction, but the dearth of new models in 2015 and 2016 means that most Mac users have little excuse to upgrade from their aging gear. Those 2011 Mac in particular marked a big step forward with Intel Core i CPUs.

Used Macs to Contemplate

There are some older powerhouse deals out there, if you’re lucky enough to find one at a good price. The quad-core 2012 Mac mini Server is rare but very powerful. The 2013 MacBook Air models are nearly as powerful as their 2015 replacements, but that may also be why few MacBook Air users are upgrading from 2013 units.

If you’re into ports, an SDXC slot, and MagSafe, any 15″ or 17″ MacBook Pro from 2011 to 2015 is worth considering. Some people are bound to upgrade to the new model to get that Touch Bar, so be patient.

Any 27″ iMac should be more than enough to make even many power users happy, and the 21.5″ iMacs have some very good values, although with not nearly as much power as the 27-incher. Wait until the first quarter of 2017 – we are due for new iMacs.

As always, get a real Mac Pro, not the black Mac-in-a-can model from 2013. You want expansion slots, internal drive bays, standard USB Type A ports, FireWire, and video output. The Mid 2010 model still supports OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard if you need to use older apps, especially PowerPC software that newer versions of the Mac OS do not support – and you can also install macOS 10.12 Sierra with a modified installer.

Keywords: #mooreslaw

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One thought on “Macs Have Made Little Progress in Processing Power over 5 Years

  1. You’re missing three important items:

    1. PC laptops may gain higher performance by using desktop CPUs or RAM. They pay for it in battery life. It works for you depending on whether you use your machine as a laptop or if you use it as a portable desktop.

    2. You neglect other component improvements:

    a. GPU performance has continued to climb. I got a 2016 MBP with the 460 GPU and it’s a much larger performance increase over prior GPUs than the Skylake represents over prior CPUs.

    b. SSD performance is dramatically faster. In fact, it’s pretty much class-leading at this point.

    c. I/O performance. Thunderbolt 3 is a solid improvement, and the USB-C form factor means Apple has finally been able to use mainstream connectors and you can do things like hook up to a 5K monitor and actually charge through that same connection.

    d. Screen performance. The 2016 15″ has a larger color gamut — i.e. a wider range of colors are displayed — and it’s 50% brighter. In a sunny office, the brightness difference is amazing.

    I’m also skeptical of the “slipping back 4.4%” claim. I’m seeing CPU speed performance improvements of 25% or more compared to my 2012 MBP. (Both machines with the build-to-order CPU and GPU upgrades.)

    3. It is discouraging to still be limited to 16 GB of RAM, which was the max back in 2012. On the other hand, MacOS has adopted RAM compression since then which helps a lot. Still, if I could change one thing about the 2016 MBP, it would be to allow up to 64 GB of RAM. As you mention in the article, Intel simply hasn’t been delivering improvements in mobile chips lately, and the RAM limit is also due to that.

    Last, this all leaves me wondering if Apple might not build the next MacBook with its own ARM chip, followed by the MacBook Pro in a couple of years. Apple’s been increasing its performance advantage in the phone space because of their ARM prowess, so it seems reasonable that they might stage a second CPU revolution and declare their independence from Intel, as they did with the PowerPC before.