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i5 or i7? Haswell or Broadwell? What is turbo boost? Here's how to choose the best processor for your Mac

Kenny Hemphill | June 25, 2015
Is it worth paying more for a faster processor? Find out the difference between i5 and i7, Haswell or Broadwell, and whether Turbo Boost matters

Haswell, Broadwell, Ivy Bridge. Dual Core, Quad Core, Turbo Boost. Mobile, i5, i7. There are so many different terms used to describe the processor in the current crop of Macs that trying to figure out which is best for you is enough to make your head spin. So which processor should you choose? And does it really matter?

Modern micro-processors are incredibly complex beasts, housing more than a billion transistors, each about 0.02 percent of the thickness of a human hair. And they do far more than the CPUs of old; those took inputs, executed instructions on them, and passed the output to memory. Today's processors are mini-computers, incorporating multiple cores, or CPUs, on one chip, alongside short-term memory, or cache, and even graphics processors.

Processor names: Haswell, Broadwell, Skylake...

The names Haswell, Broadwell, Skylake and Ivy Bridge are Intel code names for its processor architectures. Ivy Bridge is the oldest, and is used only in the Mac Pro. Haswell was a major re-design of the Ivy Bridge architecture and features on most current Macs. And Broadwell is a relatively minor update to Haswell. It's used in the new MacBook, the 2015 MacBook Airs, and the 2015 13in MacBook Pro. Skylake is due for release later this year.

There are two elements where one processor can improve over another: the number of instructions it can execute in a given time period, and the amount of power it consumes doing so. While the former is crucial for some applications, like encoding 4K video, rendering complex 3D models and animation, and some mathematics and scientific applications, for most of us it's the latter which should be of most concern.

Processor power consumption

The power used by a processor affects us in two ways: battery life and heat. Quite simply, all other things being equal, the faster a processor runs, the more heat it will give off and the more energy it will suck from a laptop battery.

Reducing that power consumption and making processors more efficient is at the heart of most of the improvements processor designers such as Intel have made in recent years. As a result, the more recent the processor in a Mac, the more efficient it's likely to be.

Apple uses the mobile version of Broadwell, designed to be the most efficient of all, in the new MacBook. The Core M, as it's called, is the first Intel laptop chip that doesn't need a fan to cool it. It's power efficiency is what allowed Apple to build a notebook that's almost ridiculously thin, weighs only 900g, and yet still clocks up 9 hours of battery life while running at a reasonable speed.

 

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