As Apple patches serious long-standing CPU bugs on its iOS, tvOS and macOS gear, they claim you shouldn’t notice any performance dip. Well, maybe a little in Safari, where, after installing the Spectre fix, Apple reported that one web benchmark was reduced by 2.5%. But you can get on with your life as Apple continues to “mitigate” the problem.
But there have been concerns, because Intel claimed that the impact would be in the range of 5-30%. So if it’s not so much on Apple’s platforms, what about the rest of the computing world?
Well, according to Microsoft, PC users with older processors and operating systems will pay the price and see lower performance.
Microsoft claims that people running Windows 10 and PCs with 2016 or later Intel hardware, should only see slowdowns in the single digits. But that means that people with older gear may suffer from far worse results. Microsoft has yet to publish detailed benchmarks, but tech sites have already begun to run their own.
I did catch a set of benchmarks at one site, but it appeared to involve recent or current hardware, and the impact was either insignificant or in the range of 1-4%. Another set of tests at a second site yielded similar results across a battery of benchmarks. Again they involved recent hardware, and that appears to confirm Microsoft’s conclusion that newer PCs would suffer minor losses, probably not noticeable under normal use. But I’d like to see what happens with older hardware, the PCs you’d normally see at many businesses.
Cloud systems may exhibit a worse impact, however. According to Epic games, it’s servers received Meltdown patches, and suffered from a 20% increase in CPU utilization as a result. The Linux server we use for these sites was patched recently and restarted today. I have yet to observe any increase in server load and performance of our sites appears normal. But the system is usually under especially heavy load on Sundays and Mondays, after my two radio shows are posted. I’ll see what happens then.
Obviously if you’re using using Microsoft Office, checking email or using a browser, even a more significant reduction in overall CPU performance may go largely unnoticed. The main impact will be when the hardware is pressed to work harder.
Unfortunately, users with PCs running older generation AMD CPUs may be essentially bricked after the Windows patch for the Spectre bug is installed. Last I heard was that AMD was working with Microsoft to fix the problem, but that means an unknown number of computers were left unusable. When these machines, running Windows 7 or Windows 10, were started up, they’d stall at the startup logo.
I suppose you could say that Apple got off pretty much scot free on this one, except that more fixes are expected, and it’s possible any of them might have a negative impact. It’s not that Apple hasn’t suffered from flawed updates.
In the meantime, it appears that Google and its Android vendors, such as LG, Motorola and Samsung, are working to patch their products. Recent Nexus and Pixel smartphones may have already been updated, or will be shortly.
Regardless, you won’t just suffer from Meltdown and Spectre without doing something. You need to install malware that has been programmed to take advantage of these flaws. Since the bugs went undiscovered for over 20 years, any exploits would have to be of recent duration.
So it goes back to practicing safe computing. Unless you jailbreak your iOS device, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Mac users need to download software mainly from well-known sites, or the Mac App Store. Clicking on unknown email links or visiting sites that are off the beaten track could leave you vulnerable to some sort of intrusion, but that’s always been true.
In any case, I’m not altogether certain how this all remained undiscovered for so long. One of my colleagues suggested the use of sandboxing in recent years created the climate where these bugs could be exploited. But you’d think hackers and security researchers have been regularly kicking the tires of operating systems and hardware for years in search of undiscovered flaws.
Why so long?
I don’t want to fear-monger, but if such serious bugs could exist for two decades before being found, just what else is lurking deep within the recesses of those millions of transistors that make up modern computing chips? Will other defects turn up next? Obviously, keeping abreast of security flaws is a 24/7 job, and there are always discoveries and fixes posted by Apple and other companies.
What it goes to show is that no computer is perfect. There are always going to be glitches along the way. Some will impact performance, or cause unstable behavior. Others will, as you’ve seen, open up the hardware or software to security exploits of one sort or another.
As new operating system features are tested, they might reveal other previously undiscovered flaws. At the same time, perhaps this episode will serve as an object lesson for Intel, AMD, ARM and other hardware makers to redouble their efforts to make the products installed in billions of homes and businesses as safe as possible.