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Lab Report: The fastest Macs money can buy 2010

Apple offers its Macs in a number of standard configurations; these are the systems you see when perusing the shelves of retail Apple Stores or the virtual shelves of the online Apple Store. But Apple offers upgrades for each system that can increase performance—and the price—of a Mac.

The upgrades include faster processors, faster storage devices, and more RAM, and these built-to-order (BTO) options usually offer considerably improved performance over the base standard configuration that you start with. Macworld Lab got a few of these BTO Macs, and our new overall system performance test suite, Speedmark 6.5, shows that four of the five fastest Macs we’ve tested are BTO configurations.

More cores, faster cores

As Macworld Lab has experienced with past benchmark test results, the speed of the individual processing cores on a processor affects overall performance more that the number of processing cores. In fact, the 12-core 2.66GHz Xeon Westmere Mac Pro with 12GB of RAM and a $5449 price tag (though our RAM was provided by Crucial not Apple), was not the overall fastest Mac that we’ve tested. That honor goes to a $3699 BTO Mac Pro with a 6-core 3.33GHz Xeon Westmere processor and 3GB of RAM, which edged out its 12-core sibling by one point in Speedmark 6.5. The 6-core 3.33GHz Mac Pro beat the 12-core 2.66GHz Mac Pro in 12 of the 17 individual tasks that make up Speedmark 6.5.

Surprisingly, the amount of RAM didn’t matter much with our Mac Pro tests. The results from the 12-core 2.66GHz Xeon Westmere Mac Pro with 6GB of RAM (the standard configuration) were nearly identical to the results of the same Mac Pro with 12GB of RAM. Even our multitasking test wasn’t faster on the 2.66GHz 12-core Mac Pro with 12GB of RAM.

In the few Speedmark tests that make use of all 12-cores (and with Intel’s Hyper Threading technology, all 24 virtual cores), like MathematicaMark, CineBench CPU, and HandBrake, the more processors available, the better the performance. For example, the 12-core 2.66GHz Xeon Westmere Mac Pro finished the CineBench CPU test in one-fifth of the time it took the 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro to complete the test and 33 percent faster than the 6-core 3.33GHz Xeon Westmere Mac Pro.

Impressive iMacs

Recently, we’ve seen the iMac and Mac Pro battle it out for the title of Fastest Mac. In fact the iMac overtook the Mac Pro for a little while, until the release of the Westmere-powered Mac Pros.

The fourth fastest Mac we’ve tested is a BTO 27-inch iMac with the 2.93GHz Core i7 Quad-Core processor option, a $200 upgrade to the standard $1999, 2.8GHz Core i5 Quad-Core iMac ( ), which came in ninth place in our Mac speed trials. The 27-inch 2.93GHz Quad-Core iMac even beat the 12-core Mac Pro in our Photoshop test.

Speedmark 6.5 scores

Computer Price Speedmark
6.5 Score
Cost per
Speedmark
Point
Mac Pro 3.33GHz 6-Core Xeon Westmere
3GB RAM
(Mid 2010, BTO)
$3699 263$14.06
Mac Pro 2.66GHz 6-Core x2 (12 cores total) Xeon Westmere
12GB RAM
(Mid 2010, BTO)
$5449 262$20.80
Mac Pro 2.66GHz 6-Core x2 (12 cores total) Xeon Westmere
6GB RAM
(Mid 2010)
$4999 261$19.15
27" iMac 2.93GHz Core i7 Quad-Core
4GB RAM
(Mid 2010, BTO)
$2199 225$9.77
27" iMac 3.6GHz Core i5 Dual-Core
4GB RAM SSD
(Mid 2010, BTO)
$2499 218$11.46
Mac Pro 2.4GHz Quad-Core x2 (8 cores total) Xeon Westmere
6GB RAM
(Mid 2010)
$3499 216$16.20
Mac Pro 2.8GHz Quad-Core Xeon Nehalem
3GB RAM
(Mid 2010)
$2499 207$12.07
27" iMac 3.6GHz Core i5 Dual-Core
4GB RAM
(Mid 2010, BTO)
$1899 199$9.54
27" iMac 2.8GHz Core i5 Quad-Core
4GB RAM
(Mid 2010)
$1999 196$10.20
15" MacBook Pro 2.66GHz Core i7
4GB RAM
(Mid 2010)
$2199 151$14.56

Higher scores are better. Best result in bold.

How we tested. Speedmark 6.5 scores are relative to those of a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo Mac mini (Mid 2010) with 2GB of RAM, which is assigned a score of 100. All iMacs were tested with OS X 10.6.4 and standard shipping RAM configuration. We duplicated a 1GB file, created a Zip archive in the Finder from the two 1GB files and then unzipped it. We converted 135 minutes of AAC audio files to MP3 using iTunes’ High Quality setting. In iMovie ’09, we imported a camera archive and exported it to iTunes using the Mobile Devices setting. We ran a Timedemo at 1024-by-768 with 4X anti-aliasing on in Call of Duty 4. We imported 200 JPEGs into iPhoto ’09. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 23 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 70 percent and History was set to Minimum. For our multitasking test, we timed the Photoshop test again, but with the iTunes MP3 encoding and file compression tests running in the background. We used Handbrake to encode four chapters from a DVD previously ripped to the hard drive to H.264. We recorded how long it took to render a scene with multiprocessors in Cinebench and ran that application\'s OpenGL, frames per second test. We ran the Evaluate Notebook test in MathematicaMark 7. We ran the WorldBench 6 multitasking test on a Parallels 6 VM running Windows 7 Professional. We timed the import and processing time for 200 photos in Aperture.—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith, McKinley Noble, Gil Loyola, and William Wang

The fifth fastest Mac is another custom 27-inch iMac with a processor upgrade: a 3.6GHz Core i5 Dual-Core iMac with a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD). And while fifth place is nothing to sneeze at, its position in the list is a little misleading, thanks to its speedy SSD. The 3.6GHz Core i5 Dual-Core iMac with SSD was the fastest Mac we tested in 7 or our 17 tests, beating the Mac Pros in file duplication, zipping, unzipping, opening Pages, encoding iTunes files, and importing images into both iPhoto and Aperture. An identical iMac system, but with a standard 1TB hard drive instead of the solid state drive finished eighth in our overall speed tests.

To give some perspective, I added the fastest Mac portable, a 15-inch 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro, to the list. It received a Speedmark 6.5 score of 151. By comparison, the standard configuration 27-inch 2.8GHz Core i5 Quad-Core iMac was 30 percent faster and 9 percent less expensive.

If you’re interested, you can take a look at the full Speedmark 6.5 results (including individual application test results) of over 30 Mac systems.

[James Galbraith is Macworld’s lab director.]

Editor's note: Updated 10/8/10 at 2:40 p.m. PT to add Cost per Speedmark Point to the performance table.

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