Hardware

How to translate processor specs when purchasing a new Mac

Business professionals purchasing a Mac have many decisions to make--worrying about selecting the correct CPU needn't be a concern. This primer will help you make sense of CPU jargon.

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12-inch MacBook (left) and 13-inch MacBook Air (right)

Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

When shopping for a new Mac, here's how to make sense of common processor terms—such as dual-core performance and Turbo Boost—and better decide whether an upgrade over Apple's default configuration might prove warranted.

SEE: Research: Apple's Growing Role in the Enterprise (Tech Pro Research)

The CPU's role

A computer's central processing unit (the CPU) is a critical component. Think of the processor as the engine that drives the computer. Faster processors typically equate to quicker execution of commands. What does that mean for Mac users? A faster processor is capable of completing Photoshop edits, for example, more quickly than a slower processor.

Don't confuse a faster processor with more memory, however. While a faster processor helps a computer execute commands more quickly, memory is responsible for temporarily storing data for processes and executions the CPU is executing.

Thankfully, Apple professionals need not fully appreciate the complexities connecting CPU and memory performance; Mac users can trust that Apple's engineers have specified optimal computer configurations, while providing customization options. The purpose of this discussion is to help ensure Mac users understand basic CPU terms and make the best choices when selecting from the customization options Apple offers, especially as CPUs (for all practical purposes) can't be upgraded once a Mac is purchased.

Processor jargon explained

Likely the first thing most customers notice about a Mac's CPU when considering which model to buy is the processor's speed, measured in gigahertz, commonly abbreviated as GHz. The higher the number, the faster the performance. Thus, a 3.1Ghz typically performs remarkably faster than a 1.6GHz CPU.

Here's where it gets tricky. Modern Mac CPUs possess multiple cores. These multiple cores are two or more independent processing units capable of operating simultaneously. Most Macs possess multi-core processors now.

  • Default MacBook CPU configurations possess dual-core Intel chips.
  • Default MacBook Air CPU configurations, for both 11" and 13" models, possess dual-core Intel chips.
  • Default 13" MacBook Pro CPU configurations possess dual-core Intel chips, while the 15" models boast quad-core Intel processors.
  • Default 21.5" iMac CPU configurations provide a choice of either dual-core or quad-core chips, while 27" iMac models pack quad-core processors.
  • Default Mac Pro CPU configurations provide a choice of either quad-core or six-core higher-end Intel CPUs.
  • Default Mac mini CPU configurations possess dual-core chips.

If you're unfamiliar with processor specs, the Mac mini's 2.8GHz Intel Core i5 chip may not appear that much slower than the Mac Pro's 3.5GHz Intel Xeon processor, but a tremendous performance gap separates the two chips. While the Mac mini's Intel Core i5 chip boasts two cores, the Mac Pro's Intel Xeon chip packs six cores. And, before hardcore technicians begin weighing in on clock speed, motherboard performance, memory configuration, hard disk specifications, capacity requirements, multi-threading advantages, and L3 cache dependencies, the purpose of this piece is to help laymen better understand basic CPU terminology. That said, the Intel Xeon chip also boasts significant capacity improvements that place the CPU in a wholly different category designed to better power intense computer processing tasks and applications.

SEE: The new MacBook Pro: Will it solve the Apple laptop shopper's dilemma? (CNET)

Most Mac users will find the system they're considering purchasing—whether it's a MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, or Mac mini—possesses either Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processors intended for common computing or, in some cases, mobile operation. In the case of mobile processors, typically noted by an "m" in the name (such as the MacBook's Intel Core m3 chip), Intel tweaks processor performance to better manage mobile computing needs and better accommodate battery life requirements, among other elements. But the Mac Pro packs the Intel Xeon chip, an enterprise-grade CPU capable of accommodating intensive audio and video production tasks, fulfilling demanding scientific and engineering calculations, and rendering 3D graphics, as is required by manufacturers, architects, and others.

Most laymen only need to remember that a quad-core processor running at 2.8GHz is exponentially faster than an older single-core CPU that may have run at 4.4GHz, by virtue of additional cores being available to essentially each run at the same speed and therefore complete more calculations simultaneously.

Then there's Turbo Boost, a concept that confuses some Mac users. Apple professionals shopping for a new Mac will note that Apple lists the Turbo Boost speed for the system's processor. For example, the standard MacBook Air includes a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 CPU that possesses Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz. That's quite a GHz leap. Mac users can rest assured there's nothing they need to do to receive the benefit of the faster 2.7GHz processing technology. Turbo Boost is just a fancy method Intel uses to describe the chip's ability to automatically run at faster speeds when demand requires and when power, temperature, and thermal design limits are all within an accepted range.

SEE: How to navigate Apple's repair and support programs using these quick tips

Should you opt for a CPU upgrade?

So, how do you make sense of these specifications and determine whether you should accept a CPU upgrade Apple offers for the Mac you're considering purchasing? Ask yourself whether you intend to use the Mac according to how it was designed.

If you're buying a MacBook Air, which prioritizes mobile operation and portability, and you intend to edit video or perform demanding scientific calculations (tasks better managed by a MacBook Pro or a Mac Pro), you should definitely consider accepting Apple's CPU upgrade option. On the other hand, if you're purchasing an iMac (or any other Mac, for that matter) and intend to use it only as a client workstation for powering common Office applications such as Word and Excel, processing email, and surfing the internet, the standard configuration will work well.

If CAD drawing, architecture, three-dimensional rendering, and similar demanding video tasks are common requirements, opt for a CPU upgrade. If audio and video creation, editing, and publishing are planned, opt for the CPU upgrade. In such cases, I also recommend buyers consider purchasing the memory upgrade, too.

Based on my experiences

As a technology consultant supporting hundreds of businesses over more than a decade, clients have almost never, if ever, complained of performance issues when they've accepted my recommendation to purchase the fastest CPU and most memory they can afford. The two meld together in an elegant, complex dance that speed performance and accelerate the everyday routine of starting and shutting down a system, opening and closing applications, and completing common edits and processes.

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About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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