But Macs Are Slower, Right?

About a month ago, I compared the cost for Apple’s desktop, server and laptop products to their nearest Dell equivalents (see Macs Are More Expensive, Right?) and discovered that Macs generally cost less than comparable PC products.

That was a bit of surprise, but the truly astonishing thing that came out of the comparison was that Dell’s product line extends marginally below Apple’s at the low end, but has nothing to stack up against Apple’s 17-inch Powerbook, X-Serve/X-RAID combination, or Cinema displays at the high end.

Bottom line: when you upgrade the PCs enough to allow an approximately apples to apples comparison, Apple turns out to offer both lower prices and a broader range than Dell.

The PC community response is, first, that the multimedia features distinguishing the Mac aren’t necessary and, secondly, that the PC is so far ahead of the Mac on speed that the comparisons are pointless anyway.

Personally I think they’re begging the question on stuff like firewire: that they don’t see the value of Apple’s multimedia capabilities only because they’ve never had them, but that’s an argument for another day. In this column I want to focus on the performance part of their response.

So are PCs faster than Macs? The real answer is that relative performance depends entirely on the software and is both hard to define and hard to measure.

Macintosh Hardware Fastest

The short answer, however, can be based entirely on raw hardware capabilities, and that answer is pretty simple: the Mac wins hands down.

There is a complication here: Mac users upgrade much less often than PC users. Look just at the hardware in a newly introduced Apple product like the latest iMacs and it will be capable of doing more processing per second than the roughly comparable Dell product. Survey people you know, however, and the PC users, on average, will have faster hardware than the Mac users, simply because most of the Mac people won’t have upgraded their hardware in years.

To determine which hardware is really more capable, we have to first strip out the impact of operating system and applications design and coding decisions.

It’s attractive to think that this could be done easily by running Linux on both an Apple and a Dell workstation, but in fact the impact of x86 architecture assumptions permeates the Linux kernel design. Thus, a better way to do this is to look at the per system contribution in the cluster-computer business, where everyone uses their own Unix and the application developers don’t have hardware agendas.

Cluster Comparison

For example, the NCSA “Tungsten” cluster computer built last year was recently upgraded to include 2,500 dual Xeon Dell Poweredge 1750 servers at 3.2 GHz. According to


      • I am a fervent Mac user of some four years now. I switched from Windows 2000 when I saw the first public betas of Mac OS X.
        I think the point that you quite rightly raise is that people should not be prejudiced by the ‘Jones” when investing in computing hardware, but they should also not be blinkered to its capabilities. Unfortunately, to make a really effective purchasing decision takes literally months of research to understand the best capabilities of each platform and to make a decision that is best for you as an individual.
        My point is that there is no need for Windows any more. It has nothing to offer anyone buying a computer today. As an illustrative anecdote, I would like to cite the example of my boss at work. He is a die-hard Linux aficionado – and has been since he used early version of a Linux distro to complete his Maths PhD. He knows it inside out. When I joined the company – bringing along my Powerbook, he had the opportunity to see it for real, and explore possibilities he wasn’t even aware existed. Subsequently, he has purchased a Powerbook of his own and is still using Linux as he ever did – but in headless mode running all his application across X11 and on the Mac. All his core daily computing functions (mail, Internet, file sharing, music, bluetooth phone using, contacts, etc…) he does on his Mac, and all the really heavy grunt-work code compiling and the line he leaves up to the raw power of the Linux box. He has seen the opportunities, and gone for the best solution to meet his needs. It just so happens that the Mac does everything he needs except the hard-core J2EE coding. After I bought my iMac G5 (essentially a cheap, crippled full-blown G5 as seen in PowerMacs), he has since commented that maybe we should replace the Linux box altogether and cut out the middle-man. The only thing stopping us, in truth, is IBM’s reluctance to port WSAD (our J2EE IDE) to OS X. If that were the case (not a gargantuan task, surely), there would be an overwhelming reason to use Mac OS X and a PowerMac G5 over anything else, Window or Linux.
        I would like to object, however, to your continued reference to Macs only being good at multimedia. Sure, they are great at video, image and music editing and manipulation – both at the professional and consumer levels. But this is a symptom of their legacy markets from years past. A modern Mac has brought all other levels of functionality up to par – and in most cases, above par – with any other platform.

  • Dear guys,
    I REALLY like this story. As a long time Apple user who loves his new G5 Dual 2.5GHz with its chips from IBM, its core OS from the FreeBSD underpinnings, video card from nVidia etc., it is nice to read a story like this. But, just as the guy who does Barefeats does, I don’t want unsubstantiated puff either.
    To be perfectly clear: I am NOT suggesting this story is unsubstantiated puff. I like it. I like Apple.
    But I would like to know how the G5 stacks up against the chip used by HPC market contender, HP, i.e.: the Itanium? Apparently they are getting over 90% efficiency or something someone I know told me.
    Is this true? Is the G5 the only contender in the HPC cluster market at the moment?

  • This article was an interesting skew on the debate. I know windows and mac users that absolutely fly through their work and I couldn’t keep up without going into stress paralysis on my mac or pc. I don’t think that debate is even answerable or useful. Then, trying to get software working as advertised on a wintel box is often a frustrating experience no matter how stable XP or 2000 is or how straightforward the GUI is. The more programs one installs on windows, the larger and more complicated the registry becomes and each task requiring a check of the registry becomes slower and slower, eventually requiring a rebuild of the OS to clean out all the garbage. Neither Mac os x nor Linux have this problem.
    A friend just called me while I was writing this reply and said his virus program was requiring an update before he could open a Word 2003 document. He asked me what to do. I suggested that he dump that *free* virus program for another (more reliable) one he owned that also needed to be upgraded. Has anybody thought how a weak a speedy new wintel box becomes with the constant vigilance of a thorough virus checker/anti-spyware bot? (not to mention the latest rev of Office (Titanic) bloatware)
    At work I have a 4-year-old mid-range power mac that keeps up with a 2-year-old state-of-the-art Dell XP box. I know who wins this argument.

    • Certainly I know what QED means, I have a degree in math. And your secondary comment reveals really the heart of my point. "the average Mac user..". The comment is also perfectly applicable to the average computer user in general. Its also perfectly accurate to say that the average computer user has absolutely no use for these fancy multimedia tools that ship on lots of PCs and Macs.
      There is this nearly religious debate about Mac better, PC better, whatever better. Its all garbage. They are all blindingly fast. My advice is to simply ignore the proverbial Jones’s and buy the tool that matches the specification.
      As to the number of computers, you really ought to try it before you dismiss the idea, it really is pretty cool, and considering the apparent benefit you see in multimedia, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a second machine with no load to surf on while the multimedia system spends the next hour(s) encoding an 800 x 600 24bit 30fps video recording??
      I also like it because, quite simply, if email and browser never run on my work machine, it becomes nearly invulnerable to viruses, worms, adware, malware, etc.

      • Agreed, they are prejudices, but the prejudices run both way. Mac users are just terribly convinced that their machines are just incredible for everything. I’ve used both, and it is certainly true that if I wanted to process video, I’d buy a Mac, as it is the better tool for processing video. But for printing tons of black and white images, editing text, doing accounting, I can get the same end user performance from a $500 wintel as I can from a $2,000 Mac. That causes me to think a lot of Mac "defenders" out there are really trying to justify to themselves, after owning it for a few months, why they dumped $2,000 down the drain, when a $500 tool would have been just as effective at what they actually use the machine for.
        Also, the USB/Firewire debate is long over, virtually every PC motherboard out there now comes with both USB2 and Firewire. In real applications, both are plenty fast for external harddrives, videocameras, etc.
        Sorry if this offends people, I’ve just seen way to many folks spend way to much money because they were sold the "fastest and the bestest", when in reality the $500 bottom line PC would have done their email and occassional letters and spreadsheets just as well.

  • I’m no expert, but Windows XP is running at 32-bit graphics within the GUI. OS X is running at 128-bit. Why are people still bothering to compare. Win XP is comparable to OS 8 or 9 at the GUI level, so I can see why Win XP runs faster than OS X… unless I’m missing something. Put OS 9 on a G5 (not possible now unless in Classic mode), and test speeds with Win XP. OS X is way ahead of the curve and with the new audio and video integration that Tiger will have, we finally have a 21st Century OS. Awesome, awesome team that Apple has. 🙂

  • This is an excellent piece, and very clear in its conclusion. The truth about the endless comparison is even more complex that Mr Murphy imagines. In most businesses, the PC became a rallying point through the years that Apple re-invented itself. That meant that just about every business IT person focused on just the PC, and in doing so achieved consistency, a good compromise in terms of increased productivity and lower costs as a result of both, and things like bulk buying and support optimization etc. So three practical barriers prevent folks for either admitting that the Mac is better, or that it should be deployed. First, all that support given to the PC over the years, and the associated investment, is frankly embarrassing to address. Second. the business IT community’s voice is less and less trusted these days, and certainly not in the context of radical change – all those no-pay-off ERP and CRM investments on the back of the Y2K non-event has built up a lot of top management distrust. Second, introducing another variable into the business IT world, especially when IT budgets and head-count are being reduced, is about as exciting as a dose of the flu. And third, despite all the Mac hoopla, the reality is that most of the business personal computing productivity benefit has been banked, so why invest limited budgets in going after small gains. Bottom line is until personal computing really comes of age, like when its treated in the same way as with other skilled workers, where the individual decides with tools are better, and buys/owns their own, the tide will always be against the Mac. Which is a real pity, because I’m an overwhelming convert to the Mac cause.

  • Again the author has jumped into the world that says everyone using computers either knows that they want to do spectacular multimedia, or are simply to ignorant to know that they should want to. Macs are great at multimedia, no doubts there, and if I wanted to play with video on a computer, I’d add a Mac to my computer room. But the point of fact is, I don’t even own a working video camera, nor do I have much interest in owning a video camera. I just don’t find it fun or useful.
    The author also makes this strange comment about having never met someone who isn’t having to work around the limitations of their PC in order to do their work. Respondant stands up and raises his hand. My Win2K laptop plus docking station (cost $500) handles my job responsibilities just fine, and my Linux workstation (cost $1000) handles all my archival, still imaging, and internet surfing desires just fine. Both seem quick enough for most things, and integrate well with my samba server.
    Now, if I were writing such an article with the authors mindset, perhaps I’d assume everyone should spend $200 a month on their internet connection, or assume they all must simply be to ignorant to realize that they should want to spend $200 a month on internet connectivity. But I’m wiser than that, everyone’s needs and desires are different, and the most important thing is for folks to spend their money buying the tools that match their own individual needs.

    • Where’s your point? Congrats for being wise and choosing the tools that match your own individual needs, but you haven’t been forced to buy a Mac. And you haven’t been blamed for choosing a PC.
      The author speaks about two prejudices that can be heard all around the world (there is no point of repeating them here). And they are prejudices, when people that never have even used a Mac dismiss any talk about this platform by just comparing numbers. And it is about comparing numbers – for the average PC user a PC with the higher amount of Megahertz is faster.
      There is no need to take a look at the platform design, use of Interface etc. For years a *PC* equiped with a SCSI-Interface was faster because IDE needed CPU time to transfer data. So, a PC with a, lets say 350MHz CPU could have been faster than a PC with an IDE drive.
      That’s the same with USB vs. Firewire: After USB 2 hit the market it was said to be faster, because it made 480Mbit, instead of just 400Mbit. But if you take an external Harddrive with both an USB2- and a Firewire-Interface, you’ll notice that the disk is faster connected to Firewire, because of USB 2s protocol overhead.

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