Apple silicon’s greatest feat is eliminating the gap between MacBooks and desktops
As Apple releases more Macs with its M1-series system on a chip, it seems like Apple’s lineup is getting more complicated. When the rollout is complete, it will be easier to discern what Macs address which markets. There’s one consideration users don’t need to make any more thanks to Apple silicon: you don’t have to worry about compromising performance if you decide to go with a laptop instead of a desktop Mac.
Before Apple started using its own silicon in Macs, the company used Intel processors. Intel’s processors are designed as mobile or desktop chips, and they differ based on thermal dynamics and power consumption. That usually meant that a MacBook would be slower than a desktop Mac.
We’ve reviewed a few of Apple’s M1-equipped Macs, and for the most part, there are no performance differences between the laptops and desktops that use the same SoC. That means when you’re shopping for a Mac, you can focus on your use case, and the only performance issue to think about is between the M1 variants.
Apple still sells two Intel-based Macs: the Mac Pro and the high-end Mac mini. The Mac Pro is a unique machine for special scenarios, so we’re not considering it in this analysis. We’ll start with the Intel Mac mini.
Apple released this $1,099 Mac mini in October 2018. At the same time, Apple released a $799 Mac mini, $1,199 MacBook Air, and a $1,799 13-inch MacBook Pro. The Mac lineup also included two 21.5-inch iMacs released in June 2017: a $1,099 iMac with a 1920-by-1080p display, and a $1,299 Retina iMac. If you were shopping for a Mac in the fall of 2018, these are the models you’d think about.
Geekbench 5 scores are available online for these Macs, and it’s obvious that the laptops are slower than the desktops. The MacBook Pro is more competitive, but it’s also the most expensive Mac in this chart by a few hundred dollars. I’ve included the Intel code names for the CPUs to help differentiate them in the charts below. Apple didn’t use the code names, however, they identified them by “generation,” so below is a quick guide to the code names in the charts below, listed by oldest first, most recent last.
I used 2018 in this first set of data because that’s when the Mac mini was released and it’s still for sale. But let’s look at the last round of sub-$1,500 Intel-based Macs before the M1 rollout started. I’m using $1,500 as a threshold to keep the chart from getting too big.
Okay, brace yourself for the data analysis. [Inhales deeply.] The quad-core Core i5 MacBook Air is faster than the Core i5 dual-core 21.5-inch iMac that has an older CPU with two fewer CPU cores, while the Core i5 quad-core Coffee Lake MacBook Pro is faster than three desktop Macs, the Core i3 quad-core Coffee Lake Mac mini, Core i3 quad-core Coffee Lake iMac, and the 2.3GHz Core i5 Kaby Lake iMac that has two fewer cores and an older CPU, though this iMac is faster than the MacBook Air with a dual-core Core i3 Ice Lake CPU, and not surprisingly the 6-core Macs are the fastest but only available for the desktop…
ARRRRGGGGH!….Sorry, my brain just exploded. Gimme a minute…
The point is, the desktop Macs are faster than the laptops, for the most part. But Apple’s and Intel’s release schedules never jived, so Apple had newer Intel chips in some Macs, and older ones in others, not to mention the differences in processing cores. Unless you are really into chip releases, it’s a headache to figure out. Apple tried to make it easier for the customer by identifying the Intel processors as 8th-, 9th-, 10th-generation, and so on, but it’s still not consumer-friendly. Why would a typical consumer understand what the generations mean?
M1 and its uniformity
The M1 is fast, but the beauty of it is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a laptop or desktop Mac, the CPU performance is essentially the same within each SoC model. Here’s how the M1 Macs compare.
And here are the M1 Max Macs. I included the M1 Pro and Ultra for reference. Apple doesn’t offer an M1 Pro desktop right now, but that seems like the ideal chip for the current Intel-based Mac mini. As for the M1 Ultra, that chip is likely for the desktop only—its power consumption and cooling needs are too much for a laptop by Apple’s standards. It is unlikely that Apple would do what many PC companies do and make a high-performance laptop that you can never really unplug and use remotely.
See the pattern? With single-core performance, all the Macs from the entry-level M1 to the top-of-the-line M1 Ultra have the same performance. That’s actually not surprising, since there’s nothing fundamentally different about the CPU cores each SoC uses.
With multi-core performance, Each SoC variant performs the same, whether it’s a laptop or a desktop. The Mac mini and 24-inch iMac are as fast as the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air, all of which have the M1. The M1 Pro Max MacBook Pro is as fast as the M1 Max Mac Studio.
For most users, where the M1 SoCs get a little complicated is the GPU. There are different GPU configurations for each M1 variant. Here’s a breakdown.
You need to consider the type of work that you do and whether a bigger GPU would help you. That’s not that complicated to figure out—you probably already know if you rely on GPU speed. If you determine that you do need GPU muscle, here’s the thing: the GPU performance for each M1 variant (with the number of CPU cores being equal) is the same for both laptop and desktop. Take a look.
That’s a far cry from the GPU situation with Intel Macs. I’m not going to chart data for those Intel Macs because it’s not needed and far too complicated. (Plus, I’m still recovering from my earlier brain explosion.) All you have to do is look at the GPUs made available for each Intel Mac, and if you look up each GPU, you’ll find that the desktop Macs had more powerful discreet graphics cards than the laptops. It was a given that integrated laptop GPU performance wasn’t as fast as the desktop. That’s not the case with the M1.
In the end, this is all a thought exercise to examine how the M1 has affected the Mac lineup. What Apple has done is simplify the line in a way that requires fewer mental calisthenics—you no longer need to ponder if the performance sacrifice is worth the mobility. Customers who need only one computer now have more choices. In some production workflows, a MacBook acts as a companion to a more powerful desktop Mac—now with the M1, the MacBook can play both roles.
In fact, it brings up this thought: if portability is truly the priority and you don’t care about performance, maybe an M1 iPad Air or iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard is the way to go instead of a MacBook. As a Mac desktop companion, the iPad’s role has improved a lot thanks to Universal Control and, you guessed it, an M1 processor. But that’ll have to wait for another article.
But you don’t need a bunch of charts to see how Apple has truly leveled the playing field with the first of its Mac processors. Now, buyers can simply buy the Mac with the features they want and not have to worry about sacrificing an ounce of performance.