It took several decades for Macs to catch up. I mean, you could type text quickly enough, even if you were a speedy typist. But it would often seem to take forever to save even a small word processing file. Dealing with multimedia files, rendering, converting or saving, sometimes meant long minutes — or hours in some cases.
Apple’s 1994 transition from Motorola 680×0 CPUs to the PowerPC was meant to put your Mac on steroids, more or less, or at least that was the promise. But it took a few years to realize its potential, because apps were slow to update. Thus, you had to run most of your software in emulation, which was actually slower than the previous Macs.
With the arrival of Mac OS X, you’d think a tried and true Unix platform managing the operating system would have meant better performance. But Apple’s focus on eye candy, the legendary Aqua interface, meant that everything proceeding slowly. You’d feel you were stuck in a tub of molasses until Apple sorted things out. In the early days, even hardware acceleration via the graphics card wasn’t supported according to what one Apple developer told me at the time.
By the time the transition to Intel began, it wasn’t so bad. The PowerPC languished, because Apple’s business wasn’t sufficient to encourage IBM and Motorola to upgrade its G5 desktop chips, and they were never adapted to PowerBooks.
With the new CPUs, Macs became lots faster for the most part. Even apps that run under Rosetta emulation didn’t do too badly. It appeared that the biggest slowdown was the hard drive, and in those days SSDs were almost unaffordable.
Now going SSD was the obvious choice to speed things up. I have a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro that still chugs away. It received a 500GB SSD transplant and a RAM upgrade a few years back, and they made a huge difference. When my desktop 27-inch iMac (Late 2014 model) needed a drive replacement, I put the laptop into use. Aside from the smaller display, I was able to manage recording and editing my radio shows with little evidence of a slowdown.
That said, my iMac is fairly quick. It has a 3TB Fusion drive, which means a 128GB SSD and a 3TB hard drive. Since a lot of the file management is done via the SSD, except for older (seldom accessed) or really large files, it can come close to the performance of a full SSD. It’s a worthy and affordable compromise.
Fusion drives are history nowadays. SSDs are offered even on entry-level hardware, but they can still be a costly upgrade if you need more storage. So going from a 512GB SSD on a 2021 24-inch iMac to the maximum of 2TB is a $600 upgrade.
But Intel evidently bogged down in delivering regular and substantial upgrades. And Apple clearly didn’t expect to just focus on adding its own silicon to mobile gear. There was a larger plan, obviously, although the official news didn’t arrive until WWDC in 2020, where ongoing rumors about another Mac processor switch were confirmed. That fall, the first M1 models hit the streets. By the fall of 2021, Apple introduced the M1 Pro and the M1 Max for the newest MacBook Pros.
That takes us to March, 2022.
As Apple moves to the final stages of its move to Apple Silicon, the media rumors were mostly off about key elements of last week’s reveal at a media event. So early on there wasn’t much or any talk about an M1 Ultra that essentially married two M1 Max chips. Forgetting the hardware, this may be Apple’s biggest achievement, since preliminary unofficial benchmarks put it ahead of a 28-core Mac Pro in most respects.
And that’s before a Mac Pro with Apple Silicon comes.
Answering speculation about a smaller Mac Pro configuration, or a grown-up Mac mini, Apple’s solution was the Mac Studio, and its accompanying Studio Display.
In a sense it answers both rumors. The Mac mini is 7.7 inches square and 1.4 inches high; the Mac Studio is a little higher than two minis stacked atop each other at 3.7 inches. Still very small in the scheme of things.
But these new models clearly demonstrate that Apple’s move to its own silicon was worth it. Each release of the M1 family has delivered performance levels much higher than you might have expected compared to most Intel and AMD competition. The basic M1 rivals the higher-end Intel hardware in many respects. The M1 Pro and M1 Max move benchmarks almost on a par with the most powerful PC laptops.
Setting benchmark aside, Apple’s new CPUs are far more power efficient than Intel and AMD have offered, and when you can buy a professional laptop of normal size and weight with a roughly 20 hour battery life, in addition to the high performance, that is an achievement that sets these models apart.
Now for most people, the processor isn’t a serious issue. So long as it runs fast enough — and they all do — and has the display size and storage capacity you need, any Mac with Apple Silicon gets the job done.
On the other hand, while Apple has made a huge deal over its processor switch from Intel, the most popular consumer review magazine, Consumer Reports, continues to downplay the differences between macOS and Windows.
So in a recent survey of laptops and Chromebooks, here’s how CR differentiated the major platforms:
“Apple computers usually cost more than similarly configured Windows-based systems. Apple computers use macOS (formerly known as OS X). Macs can also run Windows using specialized software. The company offers several consumer lines: MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air laptops; iMac all-in-one desktops; and the Mac mini, a small, budget desktop. The Mac Pro desktop is its professional line. Apple’s free telephone tech support is limited to three months, but you can get unlimited free support at the Genius Bar in Apple Stores.”
It’s not as if CR has ignored Apple’s processor switch. I found two articles on the subject at the publication’s site, but they weren’t referenced in the summaries of the latest survey of portable gear; you have to take a deep drive through the specs to see what kind of CPU is included. The brief summaries about the MacBooks and MacBook Pros tested failed to explain the processor difference. Where an Intel and Apple Silicon model were both considered, it’s not clearly explained which model contains which and the impact.
In the real world, Apple has managed to do something you might not have expected, and that is to reduce the size of the customer base that needs the performance of a professional model. Most of us can survive quite nicely with a Mac using an M1 chip. On the basis of the published benchmarks, the 24-inch iMac is probably twice as fast as my aging 27-inch iMac. The difference in drive speeds are off the charts. That’s probably more than sufficient to manage the multimedia files on which my workflow focuses on.
Moving to the MacBook Pro with the speedier silicon won’t mean much of a difference unless you are editing large photo and movie files, handling complicated scientific tasks or performing other work that you might regard as professional.
The Mac Studio is, as I said, off the charts in terms of performance, and there’s still a Mac Pro in the offing. The rumors suggest that the processor will be the equivalent of two M1 Ultras, meaning 40 cores, and unheard of speeds for a personal computer or workstation.
And that’s before the rumored M2 appears.
The possible user base will be smaller than the current Mac Pro, because the Studio will manage most of the tasks pros need unless you expect to be able to install extra components such as PCI cards, drives and memory.
In other words all Macs are more than fast enough for most of us. But it also means that professionals who need and can afford the hardware will be able to expand the kind of work they do, or at least get it done faster.
Then again, if you’re paid by the hour, you might live to regret the improvements Apple Silicon offers.
THE FINAL WORD
Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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