If you're choosing between two different types of Mac, or two generations of the same Mac, you may be wondering just how much of a difference the processors will make.
While most of the Macs launched since autumn 2020 feature Apple's own processors: either the M1 or, as of October 2021, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, there are still some Intel processors in the line up. And, of course, if you are looking at buying a discounted discontinued model from a reseller, or a refurbished, second-hand Mac, you will be confronted by many different processor options.
Luckily in this Mac processor comparison we aren't just interested in Apple's new M1 series of processors that have marked the beginning of its transition away from Intel, we will also compare the various types of Intel processor Apple has used, including the differences between the Intel processor generations (e.g. Kaby Lake, Coffee Lake, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge). We will also discuss what you can expect from an i3, i5, i7, i9 or even a Xeon processor.
We will also examine whether you should choose Apple's M1 processors now - or if you should wait a little longer for Apple to introduce the M2 generation of its processors.
Which processor should you choose for your Mac? And does it really matter? Read on to find out.
What processor is in my Mac?
Before you can make a decision about whether to buy a particular Mac you should estabilish which processor it has as this can make a lot of difference to how powerful the Mac is. It can actually be quite confusing if you aren't familiar with the terminology. For example, the processor is sometimes referred to as the CPU (central processing unit), this is different to the GPU (graphics processing unit), but sometimes the 'processor' actually describes the SOC (system on chip) that contains both the CPU and GPU.
If you have purchased a new Mac since the beginning of 2021 it is likely that your Mac has an Apple processor (Apple's ARM-based SOC). If your Mac was bought after October 2021 it's possible it features an M1 Pro or M1 Max. But most likely, unless your Mac is brand new, it will feature an Intel processor. (If your Mac is very old - pre-2007 - then it could even have a Power PC processor, but we doubt that there are many of these still around!)
For context, here's a list of the various processors you will find in the current line up of Macs and the build-to-order options (at least when we updated this article in July 2020). As you will see when it comes to Intel there is a lot of variety in terms of processor speed, number of cores, Turbo Boost figures and whether it is an i3 or an i9.
MacBook Air (buy from Apple here)
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 7‑core GPU
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 8‑core GPU
13in MacBook Pro (buy from Apple here)
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 8‑core GPU
14in MacBook Pro (buy from Apple here)
- Apple M1 Pro chip with 8‑core CPU, 14‑core GPU
- Apple M1 Pro chip with 10‑core CPU, 16‑core GPU
- BTO: M1 Max chip with 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU or M1 Max chip with 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU
16in MacBook Pro (buy from Apple here)
- Apple M1 Pro chip with 10‑core CPU, 16‑core GPU
- Apple M1 Max chip with 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU
- BTO: M1 Max chip with 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU
Mac mini (buy from Apple here)
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 8‑core GPU and 16‑core Neural Engine
- 8th-gen, 3.0GHz 6-Core, i5, Turbo Boost: 4.1GHz
- BTO: 8th-gen, 3.2GHz 6-Core, i7, Turbo Boost: 4.6GHz
24in iMac (buy from Apple here)
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 7‑core GPU
- Apple M1 chip with 8‑core CPU, 8‑core GPU
27in iMac (buy from Apple here)
- 10th-gen, 3.1GHz 6-Core, i5, Turbo Boost: 4.5GHz
- 10th-gen, 3.3GHz 6-Core, i5, Turbo Boost: 4.8GHz
- 10th-gen, 3.8GHz 6-Core, i5, Turbo Boost: 5.0GHz
- BTO: 10th-gen, 3.6GHz 10-Core, i9, Turbo Boost: 5.0GHz
Mac Pro (buy from Apple here)
- Xeon W, 3.5GHz, 8-core, Turbo Boost: 4.0GHz
- BTO: Xeon W, 3.3GHz, 12-core, Turbo Boost: 4.4GHz
- BTO: Xeon W, 3.2GHz, 16-core, Turbo Boost: 4.4GHz
- BTO: Xeon W, 2.7GHz, 24-core, Turbo Boost: 4.4GHz
- BTO: Xeon W, 2.5GHz, 28-core, Turbo Boost: 4.4GHz
Apple's M1 processor was introduced in November 2020 and it featured inside these Macs:
- MacBook Air (2020)
- 13in MacBook Pro (2020)
- Mac mini (2020)
- 24in iMac (2021)
The M1 has eight processor cores (four of which are high performance and four are high-efficiency). It also has up to eight graphics cores. All on the same chip. The M1 was Apple's first chip designed by Apple specifically for the Mac. It made shockwaves in the industry with giant leaps in performance. We discuss the M1, also known as Apple Silicon in more detail below.
On thing to bear in mind, if you get an M1 Mac you can only run macOS Big Sur on it. Sadly it isn't possible to run older versions of macOS on M1 Macs.
Apple introduced the M1 Pro in October 2021. It features in these Macs:
- 14in MacBook Pro (2021)
- 16in MacBook Pro (2021)
The M1 Pro is an enhancement to the M1 with more processor cores and more graphics cores. You'll find more detail about the M1 Pro below.
The M1 Max was also introduced in October 2021. It is a standard option for the 16in MacBook Pro, and a build-to-order option for the 14in MAcBook Pro:
- 14in MacBook Pro (2021)
- 16in MacBook Pro (2021)
The M1 Max adds even more processor cores and more graphics cores to the M1. You'll also find more detail about the M1 Max below.
All other current Macs - and all Macs since around 2006/2007 feature Intel processors.
The only Macs Apple currently sells with Intel processors include:
- 21.5in iMac, 7th generation, 2.3GHz dual-core
- 27in iMac, 10th generation, 3.1GHz 6-core; 3.3GHz, 6-core; 3.8GHz 8-core
- Mac mini, 8th generation, 3.0GHz
- Mac Pro, 8-core Xeon W, 3.5GHz 8-core (and various build-to-order options)
Apple has used various generations of Intel processor over the year, bringing benefit such as improved speed, support for more cores, support for more RAM, improved power consumption and energy management, and so on.
In recent years Apple has specified an Intel processor generation for each Mac in its marketing materials. So you will probably see a description such as 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-generation Intel Core i5 processor. That should help you identify how old the model is and whether a different Mac might be a better choice.
As we said above, some older Macs from before 2006 could feature a PowerPC chip, usually referred to as G4, G5, and so on. It's unlikely you have one of these so we won't go in to a lot of detail. If you are considering buying one second hand we would recommend that you don't!
How to check Mac processor generation
It's likely that the Mac you are looking at has either an Apple M1 processor or a Intel processor. There are also M1 Pro or M1 Max processors, which are much more powerful variants of the M1.
Over the years Apple has furnished Macs with various generations of Intel processor, with the latest (and probably last) being the 10th generation (codenamed Ice Lake). While the processor may be listed as being a certain clock speed, or a number of cores, the generation of processor can be important if you are trying to decide between two different Macs - a newer processor may offer significant improvements over an older one. The problem is that it is not easy to see what processor generation is inside an Intel Mac.
Depending on the Mac you own it is either very easy to find out what processor is inside, or quite tricky.
If you have an M1, M1 Pro or M1 Max then you will see this there you can follow these steps:
Open the About This Mac information (click on the Apple logo in the left corner of the screen > About This Mac).
Here you will see details of the specs of your machine, including the Chip.
However. If you have an Intel processor in your Mac there will be no processor generation listed here. You will just see the amount of GHz and how many cores.
This means that it can be pretty tricky to find out which generation of processor you have inside an Intel-powered Mac. In fact you might want to go and grab your detective hat and spy glass.
- First you need to find out what kind of processor is inside your Mac. Go to About This Mac and note the details of the processor (e.g 2.7GHz Dual-Core Intel Core i5).
- Next note the launch date - this will be included in the product name, e.g. MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015).
- Now you have that information you can attempt to locate it at Everymac.com. Once you have found it you can view a page that gives you the specific processor information (in this case Broadwell)
If you want to find out more about the specs of your Mac we suggest you read our guide to how to check the specs of your Mac.
How to tell which Intel processor generation
The above method for identifying which processor you have can still be a bit confusing because Intel processor generations are sometimes referred to by their code name (usually a bridge or a lake) and sometimes just by a number (e.g. 7th generation). Since each generation builds on the one before it the important information to seek is which generation the chip is - how can you tell which generation it is?
Here's how that Intel processor line up has looked since around 2011:
- 1st Generation – Nehalem (2011)
- 2nd Generation – Sandy Bridge (2011)
- 3rd Generation – Ivy Bridge (2012)
- 4th Generation – Haswell (2013)
- 5th Generation – Broadwell (2015)
- 6th Generation – Skylake (2015)
- 7th Generation – Kaby Lake (2017)
- 8th Generation – Coffee Lake (2018)
- 9th Generation – Coffee Lake Refresh (2018)
- 10th Generation - Ice Lake (2019)
The names Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Haswell, Broadwell, and Skylake are Intel's codenames for its processor architectures. Nehalem and Sandy Bridge date back to 2011, and Ivy Bridge was an update to Sandy Bridge in 2012.
Haswell came in 2013 and was a major re-design of the Ivy Bridge architecture. Broadwell, in 2015, was a relatively minor update to Haswell. Skylake first appeared in late 2015, then in 2017 Kaby Lake processors started to appear.
Kaby Lake was followed by Coffee Lake. Coffee Lake brought some big changes, with 6-core options and more quad core options at the entry-level. The initial Coffee Lake release was the 8th generation of Intel processors. In autumn 2018 the 9th generation launched - known as the Coffee Lake refresh - which added 8-core i9 processor options.
Moving on to the next generation of Intel processors after the Coffee Lake refresh is not so simple. Next in succession was supposed to be Cannon Lake, but Intel as encountered a number of problems with Cannon Lake and in the end the line was discontinued before it even arrived in a Mac.
Ice Lake followed Cannon Lake at the end of 2019. The 10th generation Intel processors found inside the early-2020 MacBook Air and the early-2020 2.0GHz MacBook Pro models are Ice Lake, as are the Intel processors inside the 27in iMac.
And not forgetting Xeon...
There is another set of Intel processors used inside some Macs. The Mac Pro (and the now discontinued iMac Pro) use Intel Xeon processors, which are better suited to workstations and servers, although Apple will most likely be developing an Apple chip to power the Mac Pro and may even be developing a new iMac Pro. Read about the 2022 Mac Pro.
The 2019 Mac Pro offers 8- to 28-core Intel Xeon W processors, while the iMac Pro, offered Intel Xeon W processors that range from 10- to 18-cores (there was also an 8-core option at launch in 2017).
Xeon workstation processors have different codenames to the processors listed above, but are based on the same Intel architecture.
In June 2020 Apple announced that it will transition the Mac to its "world-class custom silicon to deliver industry-leading performance and powerful new technologies."
M1 is name Apple has given to its first generation of Mac processors that arrived in November 2020. Apple has based these chips on the ARM architecture. You may see them referred to as ARM processors, SoC (system on chip) or SiP (system in package). You may also see them referred to as Apple Silicon, which is what Apple referred to them as in the WWDC presentation when it announced the plans.
The first generation of Apple processors were M1. They arrived in November 2020 and are being used in the MacBook Air, 13in MacBook Pro, two Mac mini and the 24in iMac.
When it launched the M1, Apple claimed that its family of SoCs for the Mac would give the Mac "industry-leading performance per watt and higher performance GPUs - enabling app developers to write even more powerful pro apps and high-end games".
The transition will also enable access to technologies such as the Neural Engine. This means that developers will be able to benefit from machine learning when designing their apps. The move also means there will be a common architecture across all Apple products - so developers can write and optimise software for the entire Apple ecosystem. There are also a number of security features unique to the M1 series that Apple has showcased a Security Guide. Read: M1 safer than Intel Macs: Apple's Security Guide to find out how the security features of the M1 and Intel Macs compare.
What is M1 Pro?
The M1 Pro (and M1 Max) chips feature in the 14in MacBook Pro and 16in MacBook Pro and are more of an enhancement of the M1, rather than a true successor (which is expected to be called M2).
The M1 Pro packs offers either a 10-core or an 8-core processor. The-core version features eight high-performance cores and two high-efficiency cores. (The M1 offers four high-performance cores and four high-efficiency cores.)
The M1 Pro offers a 14-core GPU or a 16-core GPU. Apple claims the GPU in the M1 Pro is 2x faster than the M1. (Apple also claims the GPU is up to 7x faster than the integrated graphics on the latest 8-core PC laptop chip.)
The M1 Pro also adds a ProRes accelerator in the media engine to speed up video processing.
Apple also claims that the M1 Pro can deliver up to 200GB/s of memory bandwidth, which is nearly 3x the bandwidth of M1. It can support up to 32GB RAM (compared to a maximum of 16GB for the M1).
What is M1 Max?
The M1 Max is also an option for the 2021 14in MacBook Pro and 16in MacBook Pro. The M1 Max has the same 10-core CPU as the M1 Pro, but everything else is significantly enhanced.
The GPU is probably the most important difference between the M1 Pro and M1 Max. The M1 Max GPU goes all the way up to 32-cores (there is also a build-to-order 24-core option.) Apple claims the graphics performance of the 32GB GPU is up to 4x faster than the M1.
M1 Max also has two ProRes accelerators that help it deliver up to 2x faster video encoding than M1 Pro. Apple says the M1 Max powered MacBook Pros can edit up to 30 streams of 4K ProRes video or up to seven streams of 8K ProRes video in Final Cut Pro. That's more streams than on a 28-core Mac Pro with Afterburner.
Apple states that the performance of the M1 Max is "similar to that of the highest-end GPU in the largest PC laptops while using up to 100 watts less power."
M1 Max also offers up to 400GB/s of memory bandwidth. That is 2x that of M1 Pro and nearly 6x that of M1. As a result 64GB RAM is possible with the Max.
We have more information about the M1 Pro and M1 Max Chips in a separate article.
Other processors Apple makes
Apple isn't new to chip design. Even before the M1 launched the company was making its own ARM-based processors for the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, HomePod, Apple TV.
The first processor designed by Apple was the A4, which appeared inside the iPhone 4 back in 2010 (and subsequently the iPad, iPod touch and Apple TV). The latest A-series chip is the A13 Bionic that features in the iPhone 11 series.
Apple also makes S-series chips for use inside the Apple Watch, and W-series and H-series for use inside the AirPods. There is also a U-series chip used for Ultra Wideband technology in the iPhone 11-series.
In fact, even before the M1 arrived there were already Apple ARM-based processors inside Macs: the T1 and T2 are ARM-based security related chips that appear in various Macs. The T1 chip first appeared inside the MacBook Pro in 2016. It had the sole purpose of running the System Management Controller (SMC) and the Touch ID sensor. Its successor, the T2 adds an image signal processor, audio controller, a SSD controller, secure boot and encryption features, and "Hey Siri" support.
We discuss which Mac will next to get an Apple processor in a separate article.
M1 vs Intel
The Intel processors that Apple has used in its Macs since 2006 are x86 chips. The processors Apple makes in house are based on ARM, but include a number of Apple technologies (so they aren't ARM chips, strictly speaking).
When we tested them we found Apple's M1 chips to delivered performance that was equal to, or even better, than the most powerful Intel laptop chips - and the M1 Macs aren't even targetted at those who need the most powerful laptops. The M1 really is better than a comparable Intel chip - just as Apple claimed it is.
With the M1 delivering on Apple's promises there was a lot of anticipation for the successor, so when the M1 Pro and M1 Max arrived and were shown to be even faster we couldn't help but feel a little bit sorry for Intel (who's CEO now wants Apple back as a customer, having mocked Apple in a cringeworthy marketing campaign earlier in October).
The M1 Max will be overkill for the majority, and it does have a high price, but benchmarks have shown that it beats the Mac Pro with the best graphics card option, suggesting that Apple knows exactly what it is doing with its CPUs and GPUs.
There is no reason to avoid buying an M1, M1 Pro or M1 Max over an Intel-powered Mac unless you absolutly need a new Mac and Apple hasn't yet updated it to it's own processors. And if that is the case for you we strongly recommend that you wait until the summer of 2022 if you can.
How to choose a Mac processor
You now hopefully understand the differences between Apple processors and Intel processors, and in the case of the latter, the importance of the processor generation. But that's not everything you need to know before you can decide which processor will best suit your needs.
It's pretty simple to make a decision between the various Apple processors: the M1 is ideal for standard use, the M1 Pro is going to be a better option if you use more powerful apps, and the M1 Max will suit the type of user who relies on graphics intensive apps.
For the Intel-powered Macs the differences are quite a bit more varied, so, despite the fact that Apple is not going to be selling new Macs with Intel processors for a lot longer, we will look at the differences between Intel processors, including the processor speed (in GHz) and the speed that can be claimed if Turbo Boost is active. Apple soon won't be selling them anymore, but there will be plenty still on sale whether new, refurbished or second hand.
We will also look at the different processor types in each generation of Intel chip. For example, you can choose from an i5 and an i7 chip and even an i3 or i9.
The other big difference will be the number of cores available, with dual-core, quad-core, and even 8- 12- and 18-cores available. We'll also examine this below.
In order to decide which processor best suits you we suggest you run though the following options: GHz, Turbo Boost, i5 vs i7, Cores and Cache - each of which we will look at in detail below.
How many GHz?
You'll notice that it's not that easy to compare the M1 with an Intel processor because while Intel lists the GHz Apple doesn't.
GHz reflects the number of clock cycles per second. So a 2.3GHz processor's internal clock beats 2.3 billion times per second. Hence people referring to the number of GHz as the clock speed.
Each range of Intel-equipped Macs usually has more than one option in terms of GHz.
Sometimes it will look like a more powerful Mac has a slower clock speed. This is invariably due to the Mac in question having more cores available. For example, the 3.1GHz 6-Core iMac costs considerably more than the 3.6GHz Quad-Core model. At first glance that might look like a bad deal, but that's six 3.1GHz cores, rather than four 3.6GHz cores. And the more cores the better, as we will explain below. (At least we know how many cores the M1 offers).
What is Turbo Boost?
Another thing to note in terms of GHz is Intel's Turbo Boost figure. The simplest way to think of Turbo Boost is as a way of safely over-clocking the cores on a processor. This figure can sometimes give a clue as to how one generation's processor compares to the next.
The Turbo Boost controller samples the power consumption and temperature of the cores hundreds of times a second while monitoring the demands made of them by software. If any of the cores are being driven to their theoretical maximum, Turbo Boost can, if enough power is available and the temperature is at a safe level 'over-clock' the core and enable it to work faster.
So the eight cores in a MacBook Pro's 2.3GHz 8-Core i9 processor can, if needed, be pushed to 4.8GHz subject to power consumption and heat dissipation.
One thing to note, some processors won't be able to Turbo Boost. These i3 processors, found in the 3.6GHz Quad-Core iMac do not include Turbo Boost, so the 3.6GHz speed is never going to be over-clocked. However, that may not matter to you if you won't benefit from Turbo Boost.
Why would you need Turbo Boost? Turbo Boost kicks in when you aren't using all the cores, so the clock speed can be increased on the cores that are in use. So, Turbo Boost is a feature that will benefit you most if you aren't using applications that use multiple cores.
Why you might not want Turbo Boost? When Turbo Boost is in use your computer will be using more power, so if you have a laptop it might not be in your interest to have Turbo Boost.
Core M, i3, i5, i7, or i9?
Wondering how i5 is better than i7, or if i3 is going to be inadequate? We look through the different processors right up to i9.
Intel makes mobile versions of its chips. The M, which appeared in the first Retina MacBook when it launched in 2014, was the first Intel laptop chip that didn't need a fan to cool it. Its power efficiency is what allowed Apple to build a notebook that was thin, weighed only 900g, and clocked up 9 hours of battery life while running at a reasonable speed.
There were three M processors with increasing performance: m3, m5 and m7. The M processors aren't currently being used by Apple.
There are a couple of Macs that currently ship with i3 processors, which, as we said above, don't feature Turbo Boost.
The majority of Macs use Intel's i5 processors. Right now the i5 tends to be quad-core or 6-core, but you'll notice that there is an old i5 processor in the entry-level iMac, with a dual-core (it's an older generation).
There aren't currently any i7 processors in the Mac range. However, it's worth looking out for if you are thinking of purchasing an older Mac. This is because, in older generations of Macs, when it came to quad-core the i5 and i7 versions were not equal.
The Quad-Core i7, which was once used in the 15in MacBook Pro offered some features that the Quad-Core i5 didn't, one of which was Hyper threading, which we discuss below.
Another difference was the size of the cache, which we will also discuss later.
Thanks to these features, i7 processors were better for multitasking, multimedia, high-end gaming, and scientific work.
Intel's i9 processors arrived with the 9th generation Coffee Lake refresh, and have up to 8-cores.
Core i9 is faster, but you don't necessarily need it and that extra power will mean a sacrifice when it comes to battery life.
Xeon processors are workstation or server processors. Xeon processors support more memory than the i5/i7/i9 processors - the 2019 Mac Pro offers up to 1.5TB RAM. You will also find more cores available on Xeon processors, up to 28-cores in the Mac Pro.
How many cores?
You will notice that Apple's M1 has eight cores and the M1 Pro and M1 Max have ten cores while the equivalent Intel Macs usually have four or six.
Among the Macs on sale currently you will generally find dual-core, quad-core, 6-core, 8-core and 10-core CPUs.
If you need more cores, the Mac Pro and iMac Pro offer a Xeon processor with 8, 12, 16, 24, or 28-cores.
The more cores in your CPU the faster it will perform, and, in the case of Intel at least, and the more energy it will guzzle. Apple's M1 Macs have eight cores, but there are four high performance and four high efficiency cores - so machines are less power hungry.
The more processor cache you have the better. Cache is on-board memory and it helps the processor deal with repetitive tasks faster, because information can be held in the memory. Greater amounts of cache will also help with multitasking, because several tasks can be run simultaneously.
Hyper threading allows the processor to handle twice as many 'streams' as it has cores, by fooling software into thinking it has twice as many cores. So a quad-core processor with hyper threading should be able to execute four times as many sets of instructions in a given time period as a dual-core processor with the same clock speed but without hyper threading.
This means that a quad-core i7, for example, can act like it has eight cores, but a quad-core i5 will only be able to use the four cores available to it.
Which Mac Processor to choose?
The Mac processor that best suits you will be determined by your needs. We would generally advise that you buy the best option you can afford though - based on the idea that doing so will future-proof you for longer.
We also suggest you check whether an update is anticipated for the Mac you are considering buying - because there is nothing worse than buying a new Mac only for Apple to update the processors the next month. Read: When to buy a Mac: Should you buy a Mac or MacBook now?
Right now, with the arrival of Apple's M1, M1 Pro and M1 Max, the question of which processor is predominantly a choice between Intel and Apple. We have in the past recommended waiting for a second generation product, but the M1 chip impressed us and we would suggest that if the Mac you need has an M1 chip you should buy it. It's a similar story with the M1 Pro and M1 Max, if you need a powerful Mac.
If the Mac you need doesn't yet have an Apple processor inside it you will need to consider whether you can wait. Apple says that all Macs will transition to its own silicon by November 2022. With the global component shortages the company may miss this self-imposed deadline, but it's likely that the majority of Macs will indeed be running on Apple's chips by that point.
However, you may prefer to purchase a new Mac now though, in which case choose the best Intel processor suited to your needs.
Some people will want to stick with Intel, perhaps because the software they use doesn't yet work with the M1 (read Which apps work on M1 Macs?) or because they would prefer to use AMD graphics cards.
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