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The full operating system is a free download for anyone who has purchased Mac OS X Snow Leopard, Lion, or Mountain Lion or has a Mac preloaded with OS X Mavericks, Yosemite, El Capitan, or macOS Sierra. Download the Application from the Mac App Store using your Apple ID on any Mac or functional computer running OS X 10.7.5 or later. Intel's innovation in cloud computing, data center, Internet of Things, and PC solutions is powering the smart and connected digital world we live in.

Buying a new Mac is exciting, but it can also be very confusing. For most of the Macs it sells, Apple offers a number of different configuration options, including different RAM capacities, storage sizes and disk types, and processors. For many people, it’s the last of those that’s most important. It’s arguable that processors, or CPUs, are now so powerful that they can do everything most of us need to do at a speed that is more than good enough and so choice of CPU isn’t important. But that’s not quite true, as we’ll explain below.

What is a processor?

Put simply, a processor is the ‘brain’ in your Mac. Until relatively recently the CPU was responsible only for taking input, executing instructions and passing on the results. Now, CPUs incorporate short-term memory of their own and, sometimes, graphics processors, or GPUs. In fact, when it comes to choosing a processor for your Mac, deciding whether to opt for one that has an on-chip graphics processor is one of the key decisions you’ll have to make. Macs that have processors with on-board GPUs tend to be less expensive than those that have separate graphics processors, but also are less capable when it comes to things like rendering 3D graphics and 4K video. To further complicate matters, new macOS features like Metal make excellent use of the hardware in GPUs, meaning the choice of graphics processor is almost as important as the choice of CPU.

What processor does my Mac have inside?

Since 2006 all Macs have used Intel processors — unlike iPhones and iPads which have Apple processors. Apple labels the Intel CPUs it uses in the Mac as Core i5 and Core i7 and differentiates them by speed in GHz. The other difference is the number of cores in the CPU and the number of CPUs in the Mac. So, roughly speaking a quad-core processor should be able to process instructions at twice the rate of a dual-core CPU. That’s not the case in the real world, as executing instructions relies on more than just the speed at which the CPU’s ‘brain’ can perform calculations (for example, it’s dependent on how quickly those instructions can be passed to and from the CPU). However, in an application optimized for multiple cores, you should notice a significant difference between CPUs with different numbers of cores.

Intel gives each generation of its processor a code name. Recent Intel CPUs have had names like Sandy Bridge, Haswell, and Skylake. Apple doesn’t use those names, or even talk publicly about which processor is in each Mac, but it’s known that the current crop of iMacs and MacBook Pros have Kaby Lake processors, which were the most recent available at the time they were released in 2017. So, if you bought it in the last year or so, your MacBook Pro processor is Kaby Lake. The slimline MacBook processor is known as Core M, designed specifically for low power mobile use. The MacBook Air and Mac mini have Haswell processors, as they were released in 2013. The Mac Pro uses a completely different family of Intel processors, designed for high-end workstations and known as Xeon. The Mac Pro, last updated in 2013, uses the Romley variant of Xeon.

What are the important features of a processor?

We’ve already talked about processors that have on-board graphics, such as Intel Iris and Iris Pro. These offer benefits such as taking up less space than discrete CPU and GPU chips and Mac’s that use them tend to be less expensive than those with separate CPU and GPU. However, they also tend to be less powerful.

The other key feature of a processor is the balance between speed and power consumption. CPUs that run faster use more energy and so generate more heat. This doesn’t just mean that fans have to run more often, it also uses more power — and if the Mac is a laptop, runs the batter down more quickly. Indeed, CPUs are often ‘throttled’ so that they don’t run at their theoretical maximum, in order to preserve battery life and reduce heat generation.

What about Turbo Boost?

Turbo Boost is a technology introduced by Intel and is designed to allow processors to run at speeds faster than those quoted on your Mac’s label in certain circumstances. Remember we said that CPUs are often throttled to prevent overheating? Turbo Boost monitors the power consumption and heat of the CPU and removes that throttle when it’s safe to do so. So, for example, a quad-core 2.8GHz Mac Pro could run as fast as 3.8GHz in the right circumstances.

Which processor should I choose?

It’s likely that if you’re buying a new Mac, you’re choice of processor will be made from the Core M, Core i5, and Core i7. Not all Mac models offer a choice of all three. The Core M, for example, is specifically designed to minimise power consumption in mobile devices and is used only in the MacBook. If you’re buying a MacBook Pro or iMac, you’ll have the choice of Core i5 or Core i7. Likewise, if you buy a MacBook Air or Mac mini, although those machines use older versions of Intel processors. And, as we said earlier, if you buy a Mac Pro, you’ll be able to choose from Xeon workstation processors with multiple cores.

There are two decisions you’re likely to have to make: i5 or i7 and dual-core or quad-core. Generally speaking, in terms of speed, a dual-core i5 is the slowest and a quad-core i7 the fastest. That, however, is not the whole story. In order to get the most from multiple cores, you’ll need to be performing tasks that really benefit from the ability to execute more instructions simultaneously. So, tasks like 3D rendering, video editing and working with large images in Photoshop will all improve noticeably with a quad-core vs a dual-core processor.

Core i7 processors have two main benefits over Core i5: larger cache and hyper-threading. The presence of a larger cache means the CPU can store more data locally and so spend less time transferring them back and forth to RAM. Hyper-threading allows the CPU to simulate additional cores. So, a quad-core i7 with hyperthreading behaves like and eight-core CPU.

The benefits of larger cache and hyperthreading are seen in scientific applications, where large calculations are performed and their results stored, as well as the 3D animation and 4K video editing.

Integrated vs discrete graphics

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As we discussed earlier, some Intel processors have GPUs onboard. In some Mac ranges, such as the MacBook Pro and iMac, you’ll have the choice of a model with integrated graphics or one with a separate, or discrete, GPU. If you’re going to use your Mac primarily for playing power-hungry games, manipulating large images, or editing video or animation, you should choose a Mac with a separate GPU. On the other hand, if you’re mostly going to use it for writing, email, social media and editing your own photos, a CPU with integrated graphics, like Iris, is fine.

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Can I upgrade the processor in my Mac?

That’s a flat no, sadly. There have in the past been Macs that had processors that could be upgraded, but now they’re soldered firmly in place and so your Apple CPU can’t be removed. That makes the choice you make when you buy your Mac even more important. The good news is that for most users every processor that ships with a currently available Mac, even those that haven’t been updated in several years, is absolutely fine and will run as fast as you need it to.

If I can’t upgrade the processor, how else can I speed up my Mac?

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Two of the most effective ways to make your Mac go faster are to install more RAM and swap your hard drive for an SSD. Those both cost quite a bit of money, however. A much less expensive and much easier way is to get rid of the ‘junk’ files that can clog up your Mac. These are installed by applications, or by the system, or downloaded to your machine by websites. Deleting them one by one is a long and difficult process, but CleanMyMac X makes it very easy. CleanMyMac identifies files on your Mac that either serve no purpose, that you’re unlikely to need, or that are large and haven’t been opened for a while.

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You can scan your Mac with one click and CleanMyMac will report back to you with the files it thinks you can delete and how much space it will save you — it can be tens of gigabytes. You can then review them and choose which to get rid of or press Delete and get rid of them all. CleanMyMac also makes it easy to uninstall apps you no longer use and removes all their associated files. You can download it free here.

Choosing a processor for your Mac can seem confusing and difficult but it’s not really. Once you’ve chosen the Mac you want, there are likely only to be a few options. And with the help of our guide, you should now know which one is right for you.

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Apple’s first-ever virtual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) came with the usual slew of mostly predictable announcements, like upgrades to the iPhone and iPad operating systems, new features for its AirPod earbuds, and more. But its most striking news was a decision to shift from powering its Mac devices with Intel processors in favor of its own homemade chip, which it’s calling “Apple silicon.”

The Cupertino, Calif. tech giant claims the move will bring myriad benefits: it will make Macs faster, let them benefit from the company’s latest machine learning technology (for features like augmented reality, photo processing, facial recognition and more), and make it easier for developers to bring popular apps from the iPhone and the iPad to desktops and laptops. The transition to Apple silicon will take about two years; more Intel-powered Macs are yet to come.

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Apple silicon differs from Intel’s processors by virtue of their architecture, which determines how a computer executes tasks. Apple is using ARM technology, which boasts faster performance with less power use compared to the architecture used by Intel (and its rival AMD). Generally, ARM processors make sense for devices like phones and tablets (because ARM chips use less battery power), while Intel and AMD’s chips have made more sense for high-performance desktops and laptops (where battery usage is less of a concern).

While the move may seem like a major blow to Intel—a longtime processor giant whose “Intel Inside” motto was once ubiquitous in computer stores—the company has already been moving away from making chips for companies like Apple, focusing instead on autonomous vehicle hardware, AI analytics, and high-margin, high-end processors for entertainment and gaming PCs.

“They recognize the challenges that are inherent in the client businesses these days and while they’re not going anywhere, they’re certainly trying to diversify themselves away from that,” says NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker. The Apple news, he says, is “not great, but in the long run I don’t think it’ll have an incredible impact on Intel.”

To be sure, Intel faces some headwinds. It still leads in market share, but it has consistently lost ground in the consumer market month after month to rival AMD (AMD’s share of the desktop market jump from 12% to 18% in the past two years, according to Mercury Research). Intel has also struggled to gain ground in the mobile world—it sold its ARM processor subsidiary in 2005, it killed off a pair of experimental augmented reality glasses in 2018, and last year stopped making 5G smartphone modems in favor of focusing on 5G infrastructure.

Perhaps Intel’s biggest struggle—and a reason it lost favor with Apple—is a never-ending battle with the laws of physics. Processors are composed of billions of transistors that perform calculations by turning on and off. The larger the transistor (measured in nanometers, or “nm”), the more power it uses. By using smaller transistors, you can fit more of them on a processor, which means more computing power, but also more energy efficiency. All told, the size of a processor’s transistors is a good indicator of how powerful that processor will be.

For most of modern computing history, chipmakers like Intel have been able to rely on “Moore’s law”—an observation that the number of transistors you can fit on a single chip doubles about every two years, thanks mostly to technological improvements. But, space being a finite thing, it’s getting harder and harder to cram transistors onto processors. As of today, Intel can make 10 nm processors, but even that achievement came after significant delays that put it behind the curve. By comparison, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which makes mobile chips designed by Apple, has released smaller, more efficient 7 nm processors for mobile devices.

Intel’s delay in introducing 10 nm processors may have contributed to Apple’s decision to go their own way. “Having their own microprocessor architecture is something they’ve wanted to do since the Jobs era, for sure, to not be beholden to an outside partner,” says Jon Stokes, author of Inside the Machine: An Illustrated Introduction to Microprocessors and Computer Architecture, and co-founder of technology site Ars Technica. “I think the tipping point was when ARM started to catch up to Intel in … performance, and Intel stalled in processor leadership.”

Still, Intel is doing fine when it comes to powering other companies’ laptops, along with its other projects in AI and autonomous vehicle sensors. Its PC-centric business (providing processors for consumers’ desktops and laptops) grew by 14% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2020 as people bought new devices to work from home in the COVID-19 era. But in a sign of the company’s evolution, its best performing sector has been its data center group, which boosted revenue by 23% year-over-year thanks to an increase in cloud services.

What should the everyday Apple user make of the switch from Intel? It may end up being something to celebrate: Apple has a good track record of designing chips; the processor in the iPhone has outperformed Intel-powered laptops at certain tasks. Furthermore, the company is bringing popular third-party developers like Adobe on board early in the process, which should ensure that Apple silicon-powered Macs have plenty of useful software from jump (avoiding a critical misstep Microsoft made when releasing an ARM-powered Surface). That Macs armed with ARM will be instantly compatible with millions of existing iPhone and iPad apps is another nice bonus. And if Apple’s making Macs with iPhone-like internals, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine features like integrated LTE or 5G wireless connectivity, Face ID, and other mobile-only goodies come to its desktops and laptops. All told, Apple betting on itself might be the best decision the company has made since, well, betting on Intel.

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