As computer sales overall have dropped sharply in recent years, Apple(s AAPL) has put most of its attention on the source of its growth: mobile products. And its main focus on chips has transitioned to the kind that go inside its smartphones and tablets. Apple has spent a lot of time and money optimizing iPhone and iPad chips for speed and battery life. It still makes computers, but the focus is mostly on laptops, and making them fast, but also optimizing for weight, display quality and battery life. Meanwhile the company has let its workhorse, the Mac Pro, lapse.
With what most perceived as a minor update in 2012, the Mac Pro had gone two years prior to that before receiving a meaningful upgrade. Still, Apple has a loyal following among Mac users looking for power. Apple CEO Tim Cook stated last year that Apple is working on “something great” in reference to the Mac Pro, and we’re still waiting for that.
While things are not quite what they used to be, the company does still have a shot at impressing its seemingly forgotten Mac Pro customers by putting the power back into its Macs.
It was not too long ago when part of the Mac versus PC debate took place in the lab with a series of benchmark tests. Try to find such a comparison since Apple switched from IBM’s PowerPC chipset to Intel; you will be hard pressed to do so. When Apple first introduced the PowerMac G5 we witnessed the worlds first 64-bit desktop computer. Those days are long gone, as Apple has apparently elected to step out of the computer chip speed race.
To see how big of a gap we are talking about, we must first look to see how much faster today’s PCs are when compared to the Mac.
Benchmarking the current gap between Macs and PCs
Comparing Macs to Macs – If you look at Primate Labs, a long standing provider of benchmarking software on the Mac, you can see how each of Apple’s computers stack up against each other. Looking only at this list, one would think that Apple’s older lineup of Mac Pros is still doing quite well being situated at the top of the GeekBench’s performance list. That is until you look outside of Apple’s product line and see how the Intel Xeon X5675 chip that powers the top performing Mac Pro compares to other Intel chips.
Intel chipset benchmarks scores – One such benchmark to look at when comparing Intel chip performance is the PassMark CPU Mark. Using EveryMac.com as a guide to figure out what Intel chips are used in each of Apple’s Macs, you will find that the chips being used in today’s Macs are not among the fastest currently available. With a CPU Mark of just 9,382 for the fastest chip available in the Mac Pro, and a score of 9,461 for the fastest iMac chip, Apple comes in at roughly two-thirds the performance of the top rated Intel chip scoring 14,969. Keep in mind that this top performing chip is Intel’s Xeon E5-4650 with a street price around $4,000, for just the chip.
A fair comparison to PCs – Looking at the chips used in last years round up of top performing PCs from both PC World and PC Magazine, the Falcon Northwest Mach V and the Maingear Shift Super Stock both used Intel’s Core i7-3960X processor. Since then, each PC company now offers an updated configuration with the slightly faster Intel Core i7-3970X. It is also worth noting that the newer i7-3970X is currently available in Dell’s own Alienware line of desktop computers. Each of these new systems sell at prices comparable to Mac Pros. With a CPU Mark score of 12,976, the i7-3970X is still faster than the CPUs used inside of Apple’s top performing Mac’s.
And that’s just the current state of where Macs and PCs in the CPU performance race. The GPU race doesn’t look any better for Apple. What may surprise many is that Apple does in fact support the latest drivers for many of the fastest GPUs on the market in each updated release of OS X. It is just not an option when you build your own Mac in Apple’s online store. You have to look elsewhere to get one added to your Mac after you buy it.
Why Apple should design its own Mac chips
Apple has two options to consider when it comes to increasing the performance of its Macs. A short-term tactical play where it catches up with the PC by continuing to make modest upgrades to its existing lineup of Macs, or a long-term strategic play to surpass the competition by boldly stepping away from the component-based chip market all together.
Matching the competition – The first option is to simply match the fastest PCs in performance by updating the chips being used inside Apple’s Mac lineup. This tactic of adamantly keeping pace with Intel’s release schedule has been employed by Apple in the past and every other computer vendor to keep making their machines performing slightly faster each year. So long as Apple continues to use off-the-shelf chips from the likes of Intel,(s INTC) AMD,(s AMD) Nvidia(s NVDA) and ATI, Macs will never again be faster than PCs since everyone uses the same exact chips.
Surpassing the competition – The other option open for Apple is to follow the same path that it has taken with its mobile chips. That is to optimize the chip specific to Apple’s own software and hardware design specifications. Adding to this strategy, by continuing the complete adoption of Thunderbolt technology, Apple will likely be among the first to adopt Intel’s new Falcon Ridge Thunderbolt controller later this year. And finally with the advent of integrated SSD technology directly on a logic board rather than conforming to a more modular SATA design standard, the design of desktop powerhouse systems should start to change dramatically. Breaking from the modular design that has dominated the top performing computer market for decades now, a radical new design that maximizes the potential of all of these advances in technology is in order.
Apple is not only not losing the laptop and desktop speed race versus the PC at the moment, it appears that it’s not even interested in competing in it. Apple’s own marketing shows how its newer hardware is only faster than its older hardware; as old Macs race against new Macs, PCs have meanwhile moved ahead in a race all their own. If Apple truly does want to get back out in front of the PC market, and produce a lineup of Macs or even one Mac that outpaces the fastest PCs available, it will have to leave the off-the-shelf chips behind and show the world how to best take advantage of all of the changes we have seen in technology over the last few years.
Taking a chip design and making it your own is not something that just any company can do. Apple has proven that they can do it with ARM-based chips on its mobile platform. The question remains if Apple can successfully pull off the same feat with a chip design that places them in the forefront of desktop processor speed.