Do Processors Really Matter Anymore?

Last week, Apple refreshed their MacBook Pro lineup by introducing Intel’s newest set of Core i5 and i7 processors into the 15″ and 17″ models. This represents the first time since late 2006 that Apple has jumped ahead to a new processor architecture in its mainstream computers (last fall’s new generation of iMacs had i5 and i7 processors available in a build-to-order option for the 27″, but Core 2 Duo processors remain the standard for those machines).

Now Intel’s Core i5 and i7 processors, along with the i3 (not used by Apple currently) make up Intel’s newest lineup of processors which just came out in late-2009/early-2010, and are the successor to the Intel Core 2 architecture (from 2006). So it makes sense that we will slowly but surely see all of Apple’s Macs advance to these new processors in the coming year.

But the question has been asked, why then is the new 13″ MacBook Pro still lagging behind on Core 2 Duo processors? After all, the 13″ MBP is currently Apple’s most popular Mac, and it seems like it would deserve to move up to the latest and greatest technology. On the episode of Tech tAUk (which comes out late this week) I suggested that Apple must be trying to better differentiate its notebook lineup, but it turns out that the reason is purely technical.

To put it bluntly, Apple couldn’t fit the i5 processor into the 13″ MacBook Pro. Well, they could, but they would be forced to revert back to using Intel’s integrated graphics chip (much slower than the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M that they had already), and would lose out on having their huge battery. So instead, Apple chose to stick with the Core 2 Duo (which is admittedly no slouch), and beefed up the graphics with a new, custom-designed chip from NVIDIA called the GeForce 320M. Plus with battery life rated at up to 10 hours (actual usage will probably be more like 6-8 hours, still impressive), this is still quite a powerhouse machine, as The Unofficial Apple Weblog pointed out.

But I think that this begs the question, does processing power really matter that much anymore?

It used to be that if you wanted a faster computer, you got a processor with a higher clock speed. So we heard about “megahertz” in the 1990s, and then about “gigahertz” in the 2000s, and it just kept getting faster and faster as the chips and the transistors got smaller and smaller. But then, around 2003 or 2004, this trend hit the wall. Suddenly, the industry found out that right around the point they reached 3 GHz, they couldn’t increase the clock speed anymore without overloading the chip with power consumption. In fact, power consumption is the primary reason that Apple never released a PowerBook G5, and eventually made the choice to switch to Intel in 2005-06.

Now the buzz-word is not “How many gigahertz does it get?” but is now “How many cores does it have?” Yep, instead of shrinking the dimensions of the chip to make it faster, the CPU industry is now essentially putting multiple chips (“cores”) on one die, which work in tandem. The Intel Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors all are dual-core (have 2 cores), as are the new i5 and i7 processors in these new MacBook Pros. The Mac Pro uses higher-end quad-core processors (have 4 cores), and can even come with two of them, providing up to 8 cores. Intel also is developing chips with 6 cores on them, and we may even see 16 core machines around the corner. But the benefits of having more cores aren’t as clear cut as having a higher gigahertz: multiple cores means the machine is doing multiple tasks at once faster, but doesn’t necessarily make computers flat-out faster.

For multiple-cores to really excel, programs have to be written to take advantage of the additional (but separate) processor power. This is done by creating “threads” in programs–essentially dividing the program’s jobs into separate units that can be acted upon separately. Except that this is tough to do. This is why Apple’s release of Mac OS X Snow Leopard is such a big deal: one of its new services, dubbed Grand Central Dispatch, is a service built-into the operating system that makes it much easier for software developers to use threads so they can make their apps faster by taking advantage of the additional cores.

But Apple’s decision to opt for better graphics in the 13″ MacBook Pro speaks even greater to the new factors in measuring computing power. Another Apple feature that came in Snow Leopard is called OpenCL, which is a technology that developers can use to exploit graphics processors for ordinary non-graphics computing tasks. Interestingly enough, graphics processors have not hit the wall that ordinary processors have experienced, and the fastest GPUs can achieve over a teraflop of performance. That’s some mean power. So Apple’s thought was, why let all that performance go to waste by just using it for graphics? OpenCL is Apple-developed but open source, meaning that a lot of companies will be supporting its growth. Once more software developers start taking advantage of it, graphics processors will become as important–if not more so–than CPU specs in determining how fast computers are.

In April 2006 (4 years ago), the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro had a 2.16GHz Intel Core Duo processor. Today the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro has a 2.66GHz Intel Core i7 processor. That’s not a big jump in clock speed, considering that in April 2002 (4 years before ’06), the top-of-the-line PowerBook had only an 800MHz PowerPC G4 processor. But compared to 2006, today’s computers are 64-bit across the line, have multi-core processors, much faster graphics, much more memory, enormous hard-drives (with solid-state drives coming down the wire), and so much more of the many other things that can affect the performance of how we use our computers.

The moral of Apple’s new 13″ MacBook Pro is that having the newest and fastest processor doesn’t matter anymore, because a computer is more than just its clock speed. Will the 13″ MBP eventually ditch the Core 2 Duo processor? Of course, as the technology evolves and goes down in price. But for now, while it may not appear true at face-value, Apple has actually made a better and faster machine with old parts than it would have if it opted for the newest and shiniest gear. They’ve poised the 13″ MacBook Pro in an even better position to be the go-to machine for the majority of consumers, and the gravy train is just about to get even bigger.

This entry was posted in Invention and Innovation, On the Technical Side by Douglas Bell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Bell

I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a Broadcast Technician at WAMU 88.5 FM, the local NPR affiliate in the Washington metro area. My primary shift is to engineer the local feed of NPR’s Morning Edition, including local news and weather, long-form features and station breaks… and yes, the shift starts at 5 am, so I’ve got the whole quasi-nocturnal thing going on. I am also the Coordinating Producer for Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie, an independently-produced podcast and public radio program. Extracurricularly, I play cello, and participate in a church choir and a handbell choir. I enjoy discovering new places, and am constantly searching for the perfect cheeseburger. I am also known as a frequent teller of puns.

One thought on “Do Processors Really Matter Anymore?

  1. Okay so I was totally with you until the last paragraph. How could we both understand and agree on the same information and come to completely different conclusions? Yes, increasingly solid-state drives and parallel processing will have more of an effect on the speed of a computer, but we’re not there yet, and at the point where, as you rightly point out, multithreading is being used more and more in mainstream applications, both CPU speed and number of cores matter more than ever.

    The state of the art still matters too: for anyone doing more than just basic computing (stuff like ripping CD’s, running anti-virus, or just running multiple programs at once even), a faster CPU help a lot, and the newer Core i-series CPU’s are much more energy efficient than the older Core 2 Duos thanks to Turbo Boost (slowing down the CPU to save power when it doesn’t need to run fast). Though Apple did work with Nvidia to create a custom chipset that squeezed a lot more efficiency out of the Core 2 Duo, largely thanks to gains in GPU efficiency, which is pretty friggin sweet, it’s still a slower machine for everyday tasks than the 15- and 17-inch models.

    While the 13-inch Macbook Pro is slower than a PC you could get for the same money, I applaud Apple for offering a quality, relatively low-cost option with their unmatched build quality and battery life. And with the rest of their lineup featuring Core i5’s and i7’s, their performance is finally falling more in line with their price.

    Yes, they can (sort of) play Crysis.

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