You can accuse Apple of many things, but it doesn’t sell cheap computers, nor are Macs the fastest computers available. Apple’s entry-level systems have generally cost around £/$/€ 1000-1200, and its high end has often been four or five times that. When Apple has tried to make popular home and SOHO Macs, like the LC/Performa 520, they haven’t been cheap – in that case, around £/$/€ 2000 – and most have long been forgotten.
Recent talk of high Mac prices is therefore hardly novel. Apple has been a premium brand for much longer than you might care to remember. My Mac IIfx from 1990, justifiably called ‘wicked fast’, was priced as a workstation, from $10,000-12,000. My 8-core Mac Pro of 2007 was less than half that price, and the current base Mac Pro still starts at £/$/€ 2999 for a five year-old design.
We’re also prone to get carried away with excitement at the latest hardware that Apple is offering. Of late, that seems to be the new iPad Pro, and how this heralds the switch of Macs from Intel processors to something derived from the ARM-based systems-on-a-chip which seem to be turning out such stunning performance in those new iPads.
Then there are the new Mac minis, no longer the cheap little pizza boxes that they used to be, but apparently rivalling Apple’s high-end desktops like the iMac Pro.
In this article I’d like to examine some of those claims more objectively, using performance benchmarks obtained in Geekbench, and the simple concept of ‘bang per buck’: how much performance you get for your money.
You may recall my own recent quandary about which Mac to buy to replace my three year-old iMac. After a lot of soul-searching, I chose the base iMac Pro model, and am more than delighted, at least now it is fully set up and running. Therefore my starting point for looking at performance and cost is what that delivers.
For around £/$/€ 5000 – a similar price to that of my last 8-core Mac in 2007, and half the cost of my IIfx in 1990 – it turns in a very respectable CPU performance, with a single-core of around 5,300 (higher is faster), and a multi-core of 33,500.
You can of course go higher on both, although not together. I have seen one of the latest Mac minis which turns in 6,000 for its single-core performance, but having only six cores, is behind my 8-core when it comes to the multi-core result, which is a more modest 28,000. Instead, you can pay eye-wateringly large amounts for even more cores in your iMac Pro, to attain 47,000 with a total of 18 cores, but its individual CPUs run slightly slower to yield a lower single-core result.
Single-core performance is more even across different Macs and iOS devices. New iPhone models such as the XS, XS Max and XR come in at around 4,800, and Macs with slower i5 CPUs are also lower. Interestingly, the A12X in the newest iPad Pro (iPad8,8) isn’t much faster here than in the iPhone, at around 5,020.
If you want substantial boosts in performance, it’s the number of cores that count. Here an i7 quad-core and A12X are quite similar at between 18,000 and 19,000. Go up to the six cores of a new Mac mini and you should see at least 22,000 and maybe as much as 28,000, but to break the 30,000 barrier you’ll need eight cores.
Looking at Geekbench multi-core score per £/$/€ is more revealing. The current (2017) iMac with a quad-core i7 delivers a multi-core score of about 19,000, that’s 5.5 per £/$/€. That is well below the figure for the base iMac Pro, though, which achieves an impressive 6.9 per £/$/€, showing its better value.
Before I consider the new Mac mini, we need to look at another benchmark, that for the GPU. This is important not just for graphics performance with Metal 2, but the increasing use which is made of ML and other computationally-intensive tasks which are farmed out to these specialist processors.
My iMac Pro with its standard Radeon Pro Vega 56 turns in a Geekbench Metal score of over 160,000 (higher is faster, and if you prefer the OpenCL figure that’s just short of 160,000 too). The iPad Pro that everyone is swooning over manages upwards of 41,000 – impressive but in a different league.
It’s here that the current (old) iMac and the latest Mac mini really fall short. I can’t even find figures for these, but would expect the mini’s built-in Intel UHD Graphics 630 to be quite dismal in comparison. So to bring the latter up to match the performance of my iMac Pro, you’d need to add a comparable eGPU costing upwards of £/$/€ 800.
So the new Mac mini, which starts as a bare box delivering over 10 multi-core bangs per £/$/€, ends up nearly doubling in cost by the time that you have added its 27″ 5K display, an eGPU, and keyboard and trackpad. Its overall score thus falls to much the same as a 2017 iMac.
If you’re looking for good performance in a Mac system with around 16 GB memory, a 1 TB internal SSD, and a 27″ 5K display, as far as I can tell at the moment you’ll get it at best cost in an iMac Pro. The new Mac mini has a lot going for it, particularly if you want to mix and match components, but in terms of bang per buck, you can’t better the base model of iMac Pro.
As to the rumoured new high-performance Macs with Apple systems-on-a-chip based on ARM CPUs, I think that they have a way to go before they can contend with these faster Intel-based Macs, impressive though the latest iOS devices might be.
Now you’ll come and shoot me down in flames, of course.