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, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, or the M1 Ultra, or the M2 which was introduced in June 2022, 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 or 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.
Whether you want to know what processor is in your existing Mac, or you are trying to find out which processor is in the Mac you are planning to buy, you should be able to find out the answer below.
If you have purchased a brand new Mac in the last year or so it is likely that your Mac has an Apple processor, likely one of the M1-series made by Apple using the ARM architecture and sometimes referred to as Apple Silicon.
If your Mac isn’t 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!) While Apple is phasing out the Intel chips there are still some Macs that feature them. It is likely that it will be possible to buy Intel Macs from resellers and on the second hand market for some time, so we will discuss the options in this feature.
The processor inside a Mac makes a big difference to how powerful the Mac is. However, it can actually be quite confusing if you aren’t familiar with the terminology. The processor is sometimes referred to as the CPU (central processing unit), this is different to the GPU (graphics processing unit), but sometimes people will refer to the ‘processor’ when they actually mean the SOC (system on chip) that contains both the CPU and GPU. You may even hear it referred to as a SiP (system in package).
Apple’s M1-series are system on chips that combine CPU and GPU. M1-series chips offer a variety of CPU and GPU cores. Similarly there are a number of different Intel chips which combine a number of CPU cores with integrated or discrete graphics options, all of which we will discuss below.
Here’s a list of the various processors you will find in the current line up of Macs and the build-to-order options. The vast majority of Macs are powered by Apple’s M1-series chips (as of April 2022 anyway).
Here’s more information about the Apple SOCs you will find inside the current range of Macs. We have more information about the various M1-series chips in a separate article.
In June 2020 Apple announced that it would transition Mac from Intel to its “world-class custom silicon.” This process began with Apple’s M1 processor, which was introduced in November 2020 and it features 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. The M1 was Apple’s first chip designed by Apple specifically for the Mac and it made shockwaves in the industry with giant leaps in performance. .
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 will find either a 10-core or an 8-core CPU. The 10-core version features eight high-performance cores and two high-efficiency cores.
The M1 Pro also 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).
The M1 Max was also introduced in October 2021 as a standard option for the 16in MacBook Pro, and a build-to-order option for the 14in MacBook Pro. Then in March 2022 the M1 Max became one of the options for the Mac Studio.
14in MacBook Pro (2021)
16in MacBook Pro (2021)
Mac Studio (2022)
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.
The M1 Ultra was also introduced in March 2022 as an option for the Mac Studio.
Mac Studio (2022)
The M1 Ultra is essentially two M1 Mac chips, so it can offer a 20-core CPU and up to 64-core GPU. Apple achieves this using UltraFusion architecture to connect the two M1 Max chips to avoid trade-offs such as increased latency, reduced bandwidth, and increased power consumption. Apple claims to offer “4x the bandwidth of the leading multi-chip interconnect technology” and explains that the M1 Ultra behaves like, and is recognised by software, as one chip.
Apple claims that its 64-core GPU delivers faster performance than the highest-end PC GPU available – all while using 200 fewer watts of power.
The M1 Ultra can be configured with up to 128GB unified memory – according to Apple the most powerful PC graphics cards max out at 48GB. The M1 Ultra also offers twice the media engine capabilities of the M1 Max, for accelerated video encoding and decoding.
Mac processors made by Intel
Apple has used various generations of Intel processor over the years. Here’s more information about some of the Intel chips you may find inside any Macs that predate Apple’s move to the M1 and beyond.
The only Macs Apple currently sells with Intel processors include:
Mac mini, 8th generation, 3.0GHz
Mac Pro, 8-core Xeon W, 3.5GHz 8-core (and various build-to-order options)
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. If you are considering buying one second hand we would recommend that you don’t! Read Should I buy a second hand Mac?
Here’s how the 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)
It’s not only processor generation you need to consider with Intel though. 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. 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 below.
Core M – The M is a mobile versions of Intel’s chips – it appeared in the first Retina MacBook when it launched in 2014. There were three M processors with increasing performance: m3, m5 and m7.
Core i3 – i3 processors featured in some Macs. They don’t feature Turbo Boost.
Core i5 – The majority of Macs used to use Intel’s i5 processors. The i5 tended to be quad-core or 6-core. If you find a dual-core it’s an older generation.
Core i7 – The i7 is worth looking out for if you are thinking of purchasing an older Mac 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. Another difference was the size of the cache. Thanks to these features, i7 processors were better for multitasking, multimedia, high-end gaming, and scientific work.
Core i9 – Intel’s i9 processors arrived with the 9th generation Coffee Lake refresh, and have up to 8-cores.
Xeon – Intel’s Xeon processors are workstation or server processors. Xeon processors support more memory than the i5/i7/i9 processors.
How to check Mac processor generation
It’s likely that the Mac you are looking at has either an Apple M1-series processor or an Intel processor.
Over the years Apple has furnished Macs with various generations of Intel processor, with the 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, M1 Max or M1 Ultra you can follow the steps below. We will address how to find out which processor is inside an Intel Mac next.
How to tell which Apple processor generation
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 details – in this case Apple M1.
How to tell which Intel processor generation
However. If you have an Intel processor in your Mac there will be no processor generation listed in the overview tab. 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)
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. You can check with generation the Intel chip in question is by referring to the list of Intel processors above.
M1 vs Intel
The Intel processors that Apple used in its Macs since 2006 were 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 that even Apple’s M1 chips delivered performance that was equal to, or even better, than the most powerful Intel laptop chips found in Macs – and the M1 Macs aren’t even targeted at the kind of people who need the most powerful laptops. The M1 really is better than a comparable Intel chip – just as Apple claimed.
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.
Then in March 2022 Apple introduced the M1 Ultra, which Apple claims “delivers 90 percent higher multi-threaded performance than the fastest available 16-core PC desktop chip in the same power envelope.”
There is no reason to avoid buying an M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max or M1 Ultra over an Intel-powered Mac. The only reason to delay would be if you want to wait for the M2, which could arrive in the second half of 2022 – but note that there may be a much longer wait for the M2 Pro, Max and Ultra versions.
How to choose a Mac processor
Whether you are comparing two Macs with Apple chips, or one Apple chip and one Intel chip, or even two Intel chips, this is what to consider:
How many CPU cores?
You will notice that Apple’s M1 has eight CPU cores, the M1 Pro and M1 Max have ten CPU cores, and the M1 Ultra has 20 CPU cores.
Among the Intel Macs you would generally find dual-core, quad-core, 6-core, 8-core and 10-core CPUs, while the Mac Pro offers a Xeon processor with 8, 12, 16, 24, or 28-cores.
Having more cores available means that your Mac will be able to run multiple processes at once. Apple’s M1-series Macs have two kinds of cores: high performance and high efficiency cores. The difference between high performance and efficiency cores is that the efficiency cores are power saving while the performance cores can be used for more demanding tasks. So while the performance cores focus on demanding tasks there won’t be a hit on power efficient processing, both can happen in tandem.
How many GHz?
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.
You’ll notice that it’s not that easy to compare the M1 with an Intel processor because while Intel lists GHz Apple doesn’t. However you can find out the maximum clock speed of the M1-series Macs. The M1 is known to be clocked at 3.2GHz, for example.
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.
What is Turbo Boost?
There is no Turbo Boost figure to consider with Apple’s M1-series, but is a significant part of Intel’s marketing so we will discuss it here.
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.
Not all processors can Turbo Boost. The 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.
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.
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?
Now that Apple has almost completed its transition from Intel to the M1-series of chips – the Apple’s M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max and M1 Ultra – the question of which processor is no longer 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, M1 Max and M1 Ultra, if you need a powerful Mac go ahead and buy one. The only reason to delay would be if you want to wait for the M2, which could arrive in the second half of 2022 – but note that there may be a much longer wait for the M2 Pro, Max and Ultra versions.