Intel iMac vs. MacBook: The Snow Leopard Challenge

Two machines and one operating system – which one performs better? I test them out with surprising results.


I have had my MacBook for just over two years. It is an Early 2009 Core 2 Duo model, and it is one of the last white ones. It has served me very well and was a huge improvement over the 12” PowerBook G4 it replaced.

iMac G5My wife has a 2006 Core Duo iMac. It is the first ever Intel iMac. We haven’t had it very long, and before purchasing it I was a little dubious how a 2006 Mac would perform these days. It is running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and came with 1 GB of RAM, which was recently upgraded to its maximum of 2 GB.

Specs Compared

With two Intel Macs, I decided to see how they compared to each other. My MacBook has a Snow Leopard and Mavericks dual boot, and it did have 4 GB of RAM, but for comparison purposes I took it down to 2 GB, to match the iMac.

  • iMac: 17” 1.83 GHz Core Duo, 32-bit, 2 GB DDR2 667 MHz RAM, 667 MHz system bus, 160 GB SATA hard drive, ATI Radeon  X1600 graphics chip with 128 MB GDDR3 video memory, 1440 x 900 screen resolution.
  • White MacBookMacBook: 13” 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo, 64-bit, 2 GB DDR2 667 MHz RAM, 1066 MHz system bus, 160 GB SATA hard drive, nVidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip with 256 MB DDR2 shared video memory, 1280 x 800 screen resolution.

Both machines are running Snow Leopard, fully updated.

Snow Leopard

The iMac is only a Core Duo and therefore tops at Snow Leopard, as Lion upwards requires a Core 2 Duo. Snow Leopard was the first Intel-only version of Mac OS X, leaving the PowerPC platform behind. It is a very fast, very streamlined operating system often praised for its extreme stability and speed.

It may have been Intel-only, but it has a built-in PowerPC emulator engine called Rosetta to run apps that were designed for PowerPC Macs and not updated for Intel. For this reason a lot of people – even now – still run Snow Leopard to ensure compatibility with older software.

How Do They Compare?

I love my MacBook. It does everything I need and does it at brilliant speed. I know a newer machine will do everything quicker, but I have no issues with my MacBook so will be holding on to it for a while. My wife loves her iMac, and apart from a small amount of lag on some Flash-based games does everything she needs without the hassles of a Windows computer.

Over the past few months I have used her iMac a few times, and it began to strike me that it was far more capable than I had thought it would be. In fact, in some respects it was putting my MacBook to shame.


Booting up, the iMac was 5 seconds faster than the MacBook. Loading Safari on both was almost identical, iTunes on the MacBook was a bit faster. Shutting down both Macs, the iMac was nearly half the time – although Snow Leopard is very quick anyway.

Both can also handle high definition YouTube videos full screen without any dropped frames.

Which One Wins?

On face value you see the basic tests I did, the iMac has the edge, but why? It has a slower, older processor and system architecture with less video RAM and a higher resolution screen to drive.

The MacBook does have the advantage of being able to take more RAM and newer versions of OS X, as well as being 64-bit capable.

However, in a direct comparison it would seem a 2006 iMac can outshine a 2009 MacBook.

It would be interesting to replicate the test comparing the 2006 iMac to a 2006 MacBook – to get the idea of what both aged machines were like against either other.

I would also like to know if a 2009 MacBook Pro performs better – as it aimed at the professional end of their market.

Check out my article comparing Snow Leopard with 2 GB RAM vs. 4 GB RAM and OS X 10.6 vs. 10.9 on my MacBook.

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