“At any given price point, you can get a PC that's much faster and better specified than than a Mac. So if say you've got $1500 to spend on a computer; that'll only get you a very modestly specified Mac, whereas for that money, you could get a stonkingly fast hotrod of a PC that will run rings around any Mac...
Okay, let's talk about speed!
- Bang for the buck
- Top of the range
- Historical factors
- The 'Megahertz Myth'
- Hardware bottlenecks
- The operating system
1. Bang for the buck
Every PC manufacturer, including Apple, will have models with different levels of performance. That performance will be dictated by various factors, but obviously, the biggest factor will be the parts that were selected to build them. Higher performance parts will be found in the higher priced models.
So if processing power is your prime consideration, then you buy the top of the range. If price is your prime concern, then you have to sacrifice processing power. This is the same for any platform.
However, there is the big question of 'Bang for the buck'. Being as there is much more choice or custom configurability in the PC world compared to the much tinier Mac range, you could potentially configure a PC with much more emphasis on performance than with a Mac at a similar price point.
So indeed, Apple certainly isn't the cheapest brand name out there, but it's often for good reason. But that's a whole different story...
See also reason 3
2. Top of the range
As for whether top of the range of other brands of PC are faster than a top of the range Mac, that's highly questionable considering their technical similarity. Technology advances from one day to the next, so which brand has got the latest bleeding edge components today, will probably be just one of many tomorrow. And anyway, when you're talking about top end of the range, slower doesn't mean slow by any stretch of the imagination.
The current top of the range Mac, is the Mac Pro workstation. It will usually be based on components at the top end of what's available for PC architecture, including the latest generation of hellishly expensive Xeon processors. And being tower based, it can be upgradable to better than standard kit, e.g. faster graphics cards.
Would you be able to configure a similarly luxury PC to match that? Indeed you probably could. But would you be able to configure something significantly more powerful? Doubtful. Not without some serious overclocking along with some elaborate cooling systems. Although that is of course an option for hardware enthusiasts serious enough about ultimate performance to risk their processor's life span.
You could probably do something nearly as powerful for significantly less money, but that's a whole different story covered already.
3. Historical factors
Where such a myth could have been cultivated, was in the past. There was a time not too long ago when the Macintosh architecture was based around PowerPC processors; a modern and clean architecture of much potential, but with a much smaller budget to develop it.
The rest of the PC industry was using architecture based around compatibility with the vastly better funded Intel processor (x86). With these two platforms having such a different architecture, there would inevitably be times when one or the other had the advantage, and the other had to play catchup. As such, there were long periods of time when the Mac's architecture lagged behind in the overall performance race.
But that was yesterday. Today, the Macintosh platform is based around the same architecture, topping out with the monumentally fast Intel Xeon range of processors of up to 12 cores (at last count). So if Macs are inherently slower than some other hardware platform, it will not be as compared to the the architecturally identical PC platform. Of course, the down side of that is that they can never be inherently faster either. Any perceived speed differences will more likely come from the efficiency of the OS and its software, which we'll look at later.
4. The 'Megahertz Myth'
Another historical factor is the common misapprehension among the not so technical minded, that came to be commonly known as the 'Megahertz Myth'. That is the assumption that the clock rate of the CPU, is the sole or main measure of a computer's speed.
Firstly, the CPU is only one factor of many which determines the power of a computer. But also, this clock rate effectively the CPU's heartbeat is only one factor of many which determines how powerful a CPU is. To assume they are the same thing would be akin to assuming a car whose engine can rev higher, while disregarding every other factor, must be the fastest.
As touched on above, there was a time when Macs used a different architecture of CPU (PowerPC) than the rest of the PC world. These CPUs were often of a lower clock rate than the Intel CPUs of the time; culminating in the Pentium 4 range, which were purposefully designed to run at higher clock rates, but were not actually as fast as their higher clock rate would lead one to believe. As such, someone not familiar with the 'megahertz myth' may assume the Mac's CPUs were a lot slower. They were not. CPU speed is a lot more complicated than can be summarised into a single number.
But now, the old high-revving Pentium is history, and as said, Macs are using the same architecture as the PC platform anyway, so it's all moot.
5. Hardware bottlenecks
Much talk of how fast a CPU is, revolves around how quickly it is capable of internal computations. However, that CPU also need to be able to communicate with the outside world via the other components it shares a PC with. And this is where the biggest bottlenecks can occur, often negating much of the potential performance of the CPU.
- Too little RAM the computer's temporary workspace can produce a severe bottleneck, necessitating the OS having to make more usage of the much slower hard drive.
- All RAM is not created equal, and not all RAM is capable of communicating with its surrounding components at the same speed. Newer standards will tend to be faster.
- The hard drive can produce the biggest bottleneck of all. It is a mechanical device which has its limits. If they become nearly full or fragmented, the rate of which they can supply the information they contain can degrade. Solid state drives (SSD) are a newer technology which have the potential to offer much faster performance.
- Graphics hardware (the GPU) can play a much bigger part in performance with applications of a graphics heavy nature, e.g. games.
- The motherboard and support chipsets are what join all the components together, and therefore are a factor in determining how quickly they communicate with each other.
- If a PC is relying on information from a network to proceed (e.g. the internet), then all the CPU power in the world isn't going to help you if that network is being shared with more users that it can instantaneously supply.
6. The operating system
All this of course, has only looked at raw, number crunching power that largely comes from the hardware. But there are other aspects to consider. A computer may be powerful, but still not 'feel' fast. That 'feel' will largely come from the software, or more specifically, it's operating system (OS). Not only how efficient it is, but also more endemic of the generation of hardware it was designed to run on.
For instance, modern hardware running a last generation OS, will usually feel more 'snappy' compared to running a modern OS, which may appear comparatively 'sluggish'. In general, the more recently the OS was developed, the more likely it is it will expect to find hardware that can feed it with the kind of resources it needs to run such niceties like its graphical eye candy. An older OS will not have those niceties to such a degree, and as such, will make much fewer demands on its hardware; a consequence of being designed at a time when hardware was much less beefy.
So it all comes down to preference and individual opinion. Some may prefer the consequential snappiness of running an older OS, like Windows XP. Others may prefer the niceties of a modern, good looking OS, like Windows 7. Or Mac OS X of course. Each to their own.
So in summary...
...there is much more configuration choice with a PC compared to the small range of Macs. As such, it will indeed be possible to purchase or build a PC that devotes a much larger proportion of a particular budget to factors relating to increased hardware performance, thereby devoting less emphasis on other factors that a price-comparable Mac may have more of.
However, while it may not have always been so, the Mac's hardware architecture is basically the same as PC architecture. So that being so, it cannot be argued that one can be inherently faster than the other. So in short, when comparing like-for like, Macs are just as powerful as any other comparable model from any other brand of PC.
Page content last updated 1 January 2011