• What is the difference between the i5 and i7 processors in Apple Macs
  • The question “Should I pay extra for an i7 CPU when buying a Mac” answered
  • Is the i7 processor worth paying for when buying a Mac
  • How much faster is an i7 compared to an i5 in an Apple Mac

When buying an Apple Mac one of the key differences between the different models is the processor. All Macs use Intel processors, and the latest range of Intel Core CPUs all offer generous amounts of speed; but some Macs use an i5 or i7 CPU. What’s the difference?

Sometimes this is rolled into a larger decision: The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display comes with an Intel i5 CPU, whereas the 15-inch model comes with an i7. But you can choose to upgrade the 13-inch model to an i7 processor for an additional cost (between £180 - £240 depending on the original model). Is that worth paying for?

Read our Best Mac buyers guide

The iMac comes with an i5 as standard, but you can elect to configure the most expensive i5 model (£1,749) it to an i7 for an additional £190). It brings it close to £2,000 for the system, though. Is it really worth paying that much for an i7 Apple Mac? The MacBook Air comes with a 1.3GHz i5 but you can upgrade to a 1.7GHz i7 for £120. The Mac mini comes with an i5 or i7 processor depending on whether you choose the £499 model or the £679 model (it’s worth noting that the Mac mini uses an older version of the chip).

Clearly the i7 is going to be better than the i5. Which should make it ideal for passionate Apple fans. The big question is though: what’s the actual difference?


Intel i5 vs i7

What is an Intel i5 and i7 processor

The Intel “i” range of processors has been around for a while and are officially known as the “Intel Core” range. The first Intel Core (i3, i5 and i7) CPUs appeared in 2008 and were also known by their code-name “Nehalem”. These have been replaced by several iterations with colourful code-name monikers: Arrandale, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge and so on, but the official brand is always Intel Core and the models are i3, i5 and i7. Apple only uses the i5 and i7 chips. The current range of Intel Core chips used by Apple are the Haswell range (apart from the new Mac Pro which will launch with the industrial Ivy Bridge-E Xeon processors).

What does Haswell offer over Ivy Bridge

Whether to get a newer Mac is often a choice between newer components as well as the newer external style. Haswell’s big advantage is that it offers spectacular power efficiency over its predecessor, which is one reason why the newer MacBook Air offers huge battery life (up to 15 hours in some tests). Haswell also has improved graphics performance, and runs faster with a lower clock speed. This is why the MacBook Air’s clock speed actually went down from 1.8GHz to 1.3GHz on the introductory model.

There are also some other differences between the new and old models. The Haswell chips have a built in voltage regulator which enables it to run on lower temperatures, which enables thinner devices.

iMac 2013 speed tests i7 vs i5

Take a look at the speed-test results of the i7-based iMac (3.5GHz quad-core, 27-inch) compared to its i5 siblings. It blows them away, and rivals even the new Mac Pro that boasts a 3GHz 8-core Intel Xeon E5 processor.

Which Intel Core models are inside the current Macs

It’s worth noting that Intel also makes a range of different i5 and i7 processors. These are the following:

  • Intel 4770
  • Intel 4670
  • Intel 4570
  • Intel 4430

And some of these have letter addendums, such as S, T, and K. So you can get an i7-4770, i7-4770T, i7-4770 K and so on. At this point all but the most hardened computer buffs generally throw their arms in the air and say “enough. Just give me a decent CPU.”  

What is Intel K vs S vs T?

Intel has a good description of how the processor numbers and suffixes mean on its site. And Wikipedia offers this breakdown of suffixes in use in the Haswell processors.

  • K - Unlocked
  • S - Performance-optimized lifestyle
  • T - Power-optimized lifestyle
  • R - BGA packaging / High performance GPU
  • M - Mobile processor
  • Q - Quad-core
  • U - Ultra-low power
  • X - 'Extreme'
  • Y - Extreme-low power
  • H - BGA 1364 packaging

Techpowerup has a good breakdown of all the different models available.

Intel Name Identifier

What Intel Core CPUs is Apple using inside Macs?

Good question. Apple tends not to go down to this level in its advertising or marketing literature. Maybe it just feels that it adds unnecessary confusion on the part of the customer (which it does) and what’s more important is having the most appropriate chip inside the computer (a decision that’s probably better left in the hands of Apple engineers).

But our friends at iFixIt offer a good line in taking apart technology, and have got a teardown of all current Apple Mac ranges. They offer the following

  • MacBook Air (mid-2013)Intel® Core™ i5-4250U
  • MacBook Pro with Retina DisplayIntel® Core™ i5-4258U
  • Intel iMac 27-inch (2013)Intel Core i5-4570R
  • Mac mini (2012)i5-3210M

MacBook Air Teardown

What’s the difference between an i5 and i7 processor?

The i7 isn’t just a thoroughbred version of the i5. There are a number of key difference between the two chips. Tech Power Up lists some of the key advantages of having an i7 CPU inside your Mac:

  • High performance
  • Includes Hyper-Threading Technology
  • Better GPU performance than HD 4000
  • Low power consumption under both idle and load
  • 8 MB cache

“The advantage of Hyper-Threading makes the Intel Core i7-4770K the most powerful processor of the Haswell series. Thanks to HT and the larger cache, it is able to surpass any processor in its price range.”

Hyper-Threading is an Intel proprietary technology that makes a computer faster at performing multiple tasks simultaneously. It does this by intelligently figuring out which parts of a processor core upcoming tasks are going to use, and if they use different parts seeding two tasks to a processor core at once. As Wikipedia says “For each processor core that is physically present, the operating system addresses two virtual or logical cores, and shares the workload between them when possible”

Hyper Threading is the big advantage, especially for tasks that are data intensive. Intel claims a 30 per cent speed enhancement using Hyper Threading technology.

Which Macs use Intel Turbo Boost?

Intel Turbo Boost is a technology that provides a temporary speed boost to the processor clock speed. It's like overclocking but controlled safely by the CPU. Turbo Boost is found in all Intel Core CPU chips. The new Macs (apart from the Mac mini) all feature the latest version, Intel Turbo Boost 2.0, which automatically boosts the speed of the CPU. According to Intel it's Turbo Boost 2.0 does the following:
"Intel Turbo Boost Technology provides more performance when needed on 4th generation Intel® Core™ processor-based systems. Intel® Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 automatically allows processor cores to run faster than the Thermal Design Power (TDP) configuration specified frequency if they’re operating below power, current, and temperature specification limits.
Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 is activated when the Operating System (OS) requests the highest processor performance state (P0).
The maximum frequency of Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 is dependent on the number of active cores. The amount of time the processor spends in the Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 state depends on the workload and operating environment.
Any of the following can set the upper limit of Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 on a given workload:

  • Number of active cores
  • Estimated current consumption
  • Estimated power consumption
  • Processor temperature"

Because the power of Turbo Boost is dependent on the ability of the system to regulate temperature it is very much depended on to the quality of the manufacture process. Apple is very much at an advantage here due to its superior build quality. According to Apple:
"Say you’re using a processor-intensive application like Aperture or Final Cut Pro that benefits from extra power. Turbo Boost 2.0 automatically increases the speed of the active cores, so the Core i7, for example, can offer up to 3.9GHz. And by shifting core frequency in small increments, Turbo Boost allows the processor to manage performance without sacrificing efficiency. All this takes place behind the scenes, so your work — and play — goes smoother and faster."
Turbo Boost is found on both the i5 and i7 chips so it's not really a determining factor. Although it's worth bearing in mind that the Mac mini currently uses the third generation of Intel Core CPUs which feature Turbo Boost 1.0 and not 2.0. 

Should I upgrade to i7 when buying my Apple Mac?

It’s worth bearing in mind that the i5 CPU is certainly no slouch, and an i5 CPU is certainly perfectly capable of most high-performance tasks. Mind you, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the i7 CPU is manifestly faster than the i5 and that you can’t upgrade your processor at a later date.
Whether you should go for an Intel i5 or i7 CPU depends very much on the task you do on a regular basis. Here are some common tasks and whether we think it’s worth upgrading to an i7 processor:

  • Video editing. Hyper-Threading is the biggest difference between the two models. One area that makes heavy use of Hyper-Threading is video editing, which uses the threads during rendering. Go for the i7.
  • Programming and compiling. This is another area that uses a lot of hyper threading technology. again this largely depends on the size and scale of the programs you are editing, but if you spend a lot of time in Xcode you will want to update to an i7 CPU.
  • Cinebench and 3D rendering. Again, this is an area where the hyper-threading will give you a good speed increase. Go for the i7.
  • Gaming. This, surprisingly, is an area that doesn’t lend itself to hyper threading. So there isn’t an advantage for gaming with multiple cores or hyper threading. Instead you are better going for a pure faster clock speed, or spending the money on games. Go for the i5.
  • Digital Photography and Image Editing. Hyper Threading but only when it provides a performance boost, which it rarely does. Mostly Photoshop uses the multiple physical cores rather than the Hyper-Threaded logical cores. We do not think that Photoshop, Lightroom users or digital photographers get enough of a speed boost from the I7 processor. Stick with the i5.
  • Music. If you’re creating music in Logic or GarageBand you will get faster performance from an i7, but it really won’t be noticeable. You are advised to spend your money on larger storage space instead. Stick with i5 processor.
  • Finance. if you use extremely large spreadsheets then the i7 has a larger cache that helps the refresh rate. However they have to be large (more than 20,000 entries) and have complex equations for you to start noticing the difference. Go with an i7.

So, as a general rule, if you are a programmer, video editor, or work in 3D rendering, or deal in huge finance documents then you should veer towards the Intel i7 CPU. If you are a photographer, image editor, gamer or musician, then the i5 is a more financially prudent choice. It’s worth noting that the i5 often provides plenty of power for the average Mac user. Spend the money on extra storage or RAM.

[Wondering whether to buy a MacBook or a Mac desktop? Find out if you should buy a Mac laptop or Mac desktop here.]