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What does this mean in the real world?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

What is faster?

There are so many aspects of performance that it is easy for two people to claim that their respective machines are faster, and for them both to be correct (for what they are looking at). So first we must define "What is performance".

Performance (overall) is a collection of things, it includes the sum of all the sub-components - the Processors Speed (CPU) and the I/O systems. Even those issues are pretty complex and there are articles on each of those areas. (See Understanding Performance). However, processor speed and I/O speed along is not "general" performance - those are specific performance, and while critical to some people - most people are looking for the overall average. Real speed is the sum of the horsepower, added into the the most important aspects of all - how fast the machine is to use.

Some of the areas of performance that are critical, require more in depth understanding -

  • MHz is not processor speed. It is only one indicator of processor speed. Macs are not only faster in MHz, but they are much faster at doing work at the same MHz. For a more complete explanation of processor speed, see Processors (not just MHz).

    A summary of processor speed would be that Macs beat the pants of PC's in processor intensive code. But emulation holds the Mac back for some general purpose apps (usually those apps that don't need speed).So parts of the system that really need speed on a computer (say rendering, filters, multimedia, etc.), are often much faster on a Mac. But tools that don't need as much speed are often faster on a PC. Overall the Mac is much faster - and faster where its needed.
  • Virtual Memory causes some strange performance effects. PC's use VM more than Macs. So if you run a PC application it is more likely to load only part of the App (while the Mac is much more likely to load all parts of the App). This makes an app start-up faster on a PC. Then when you actually go to do a function on a PC, it often has to load that part of the app. This causes strange stutters or the infamous "disk thrashing". To those unused to VM, you system stalls (little pauses) while it loads the parts of the app that it didn't load at the start-up. The end result is that it often takes more time overall to load all parts of the Application (with PC's) - but it was broken up so that users didn't notice it as much.
  • Macs beat PC's for disk-I/O of large sequential streams and straight throughput. But the Macs also do much more in their file system, so some things take more time. For example - PC's don't generally update the status of a copy (they show flying pages, but not how much total time nor do they show a progress bar) but copying of lots of small files can sometimes be a little faster, copying a few big files is usually faster on the Mac. To further alter the users perceptions, on a Mac the file system preflight a copy (makes sure there is enough room to complete the copy before it starts) - this takes time, while the PC will just die when it runs out of room. The Mac way is better - but many don't know it. Furthermore the Macs often do a verify when copying (make sure the data got copied properly), while PC's do not.

    Some people also put high-end SCSI cards in PC's to allow them to have SCSI like the Mac. Then they compare these "turbo" machines to the Macs basic SCSI, and surprise-surprise it is a little faster. Of course if you accelerate the Macs with the same options, they often leap ahead of the PC's. So overall Macs are faster with I/O - but there are exceptions to every rule. See I/O sub-systems or Hard Drives for more.
  • Macs often lose in networking performance, but Macs are often easier to hook up and more robust. And for most users the Mac is more than fast enough. It also matters your choice of Networks (and protocols). In general I have seen little difference on being an IP (internet) client - but PC's can make slightly better servers if running NT. However the Mac is generally better than Win95. Running Novells networks, and the PC is often better as both a client and a server - but I write this off as Novells inability to write good code. AppleShare (AFP) and AppleTalk and the Mac is faster for a client, but surprisingly the PC (WinNT) can beat the Mac slightly as a server. In almost all these cases Unix (and therefore Rhapsody) can beat both the Mac and Windows. So if your only purpose of a computer is serving network stuff, then Unix is the way to go. If you want it to be easy (and secure) to serve a network or be a client on one, then the Mac is the way to go.  

So there are many little gotcha's in system performance behavior - and there are many tradeoffs in system designs. In most cases - I usually like the Macs choice of tradeoffs. If you really need to know which machine will be faster for a particular application - then you must benchmark (compare both systems against a benchmark - usually a stopwatch). Those will be your real world results. In most cases that I have done this - and as a Software engineer we tend to do this a lot - we found that the Mac was much more than satisfactory, and often the PC's were way below our expectations.

One of the illusions that has harmed Mac in some PC users minds is "percieved" performance. Percieved performance is which machine feels faster. If you ask PC people, they will almost always answer PC's (to them) and if you ask Mac people it can vary. Yet in user interface design you learn that users are sometimes the worst gauges for performance. Many people feel they are working slower - while the stop watch proves they are working much faster - and with fewer errors. In general Apple caters to their real work performance - and MS feeds their falacies and gives users things that make them feel like they are working faster - when in reality they are working slower. If you want to understand the realities of perceived performance then see Perceived Performance.


The Mac is faster in areas where it counts. In usability, productivity, installation, and day to day usage it usually beats the PC's (either Win95 or WinNT). There are certainly small areas where the PC's beat the Macs - but those narrow focus is only useful if those are the only functions you are going to do. Even then, a 10% faster network copy is not as important to me as a machine being 3 or 4 times as fast in rendering or doing a filter, etc. like it is on the Mac. Gaining a few percent on a file copy is not as important to me as being secure in the knowledge that what was written to the floppy is really there. And having potential speed or unusable speed (as is often the case in a PC) is not as important to me as productivity and the ability to actually use the speed that I have.

Using the speed of the computer to make ME more productive is what the computer performance is all about -- and Macs usually far excell over PC's at doing exactly that.


Created: 02/15/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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