Core i7 vs. Core i5: Understanding the Power Story

Between generations Apple constantly struggles between squeezing every last ounce of max performance out of silicon and reducing system temperatures. I believe Apple's philosophy here is that most of the time your CPU should be running at relatively low utilization and as a result offering the full dynamic range of CPU performance is preferred to clamping max performance in order to preserve lower thermals. The problem is that in some cases, lazy background task management (e.g. keeping too many Safari windows open with Flash active) can drive CPU usage and thermals up even if you're actively doing nothing on the machine. This scenario coupled with Haswell ULT's excellent idle power consumption I believe are primary motivators for Mavericks' App Nap and occluded window slumber features.



To understand the impact on thermals (and battery life) of the Core i7-4650U on the 13-inch MacBook Air you need to understand what's going on under the hood. To hit higher frequencies, the i7-4650U generally requires a higher voltage. Power consumption (and thus thermal dissipation) can scale linearly with frequency, but it scales quadratically with voltage. The combination of the two is quite possibly the worst case scenario from a power consumption standpoint. This is why it's generally always best to increase performance via process shrinks or architectural enhancements vs. simply scaling frequency. In the case of the i7-4650U we're not talking about huge frequency/voltage scaling here, but rather a tradeoff between added performance and increased power consumption. In the table below I noted typical CPU core voltages for a couple of different operating modes on my i5-4250U and i7-4650U samples. Several years ago Intel introduced voltage binning even at a given frequency, so the voltages you see in the table below are only applicable to my parts (or other similar parts) - you could see a range of acceptable voltages in other binned parts even carrying the same model number. The values in parantheses indicate the CPU frequency (or frequencies) observed during the workload.

13-inch MacBook Air (Mid 2013) CPU Comparison - Observed Voltages
  Idle Cinebench 11.5 (1 thread) Cinebench 11.5 (4 threads)
Intel Core i5-4250U 0.665V
0.852V - 0.904V
(2.3GHz - 2.6GHz*)
Intel Core i7-4650U 0.655V
0.949V - 1.041V
(2.9GHz - 3.3GHz*)
0.786V - 0.949V
(2.8GHz - 2.9GHz*)

There are a bunch of observations here. First off, the two parts are very comparable at idle - this is how Apple can quote all implementations of the MacBook Air as being capable of up to 12 hours of battery life. At idle large parts of the silicon are clock gated if not fully power gated. Idle voltages are extremely low (even compared to what you find in modern smartphones) and both parts run at the same 800MHz frequency at idle, so power consumption is comparable between the two at idle.

Using Cinebench 11.5, I ramped up a FP intensive single threaded workload. FP workloads tend to force a bunch of large units into switching making this a great test for voltage scaling. Here we see that the i5-4250U is capable of hitting its max turbo frequency but for the most part it hangs out around 2.3GHz. The same is true for the i7-4650U, 3.3GHz is possible but most of the time it's sitting down at 2.9GHz. The i7-4650U needs higher voltages all around to hit these higher frequencies.

Next, I cranked up the number of threads. First you'll notice a reduction in clock speeds and voltages. This is where multithreading can actually be good for power consumption. Running more cores at a lower voltage for a shorter period of time can reduce total energy consumed while performing a task. The i5-4250U has no issues running at its max DC turbo frequency (2.3GHz), while the i7-4650U mostly sticks to 2.8GHz with occasional bursts up to 2.9GHz. Note that the 4650U's min voltage at 2.8GHz is actually lower than the 4250U's here. In order to hit these higher frequencies within the same TDP, Intel does have to bin for parts that do a bit better at higher frequencies whereas to make the cut for a 4250U the leakage requirements aren't as severe.

There shouldn't be any surprises thus far, but this data should give us an indication of what we can expect in terms of battery life and thermals. Where the i7 vs i5 comparison becomes tricky is if you look at workloads that can complete quick enough due to the faster performance in order to offset any additional power consumption.

CPU Performance Battery Life & Thermals


View All Comments

  • KitsuneKnight - Friday, July 5, 2013 - link

    > Why did Apple decide to use 2x PCI-E 2.0 for its SSD instead of 4x like the one Samsung shown.

    If Apple's current SSD can't completely saturate a 2x interface (that's 1 GB/second!), why bother with a 4x interface?
  • robco - Saturday, July 6, 2013 - link

    There's ready, and then there's ready to ship in volume. Apple sells a lot of Airs. Relying on a single supplier, one whose relationship with Apple is already strained, is probably not a good idea. Reply
  • f0rumwh0re - Friday, July 5, 2013 - link

    I'm not a PC or a Mac fanboi. I have ~8 PCs, a couple Androids, and there are two iPads, an iPod, and a iPhone 4 in my house. I think the bigscreen teevee has a chip but I never bothered to find out.
    Being anti-Mac or PC just limits yourself.
    Why do that?
    I will use whatever tool does the job.

    I *prefer* windows but I can get around in a mac, get messages in the droid, and I admit,the iPhone... just works. works great in a walled garden but works. I find hating a thing, to be limiting to oneself.
  • lmcd - Friday, July 5, 2013 - link

    Anyone looking at the i7 version with disdain for power -- when this device isn't given a loop but instead a "race to idle" situation, it will get better battery life than the i5 version, hence the win in the "light" bench.

    Also, please note that the Air was never meant to be a performance beast, and as such it's not a disappointment that the i5 Air underperformed next to last year's model. The battery life win is more than enough of a compensation.
  • Sushisamurai - Friday, July 5, 2013 - link

    Sweet. I was waiting for this, thanks *goes off to buy the i7 MBA* Reply
  • alittleteap0t - Saturday, July 6, 2013 - link

    I bought my Mom a previous gen MBA 11"; her letting me borrow it for 2 weeks was enough for me to want one for myself. I was formerly big on Lenovo, but have since switched to HP mobile workstations. I bought a BTO 13" MBA, 1.7 GHz, 8 GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and it took about a week to ship to my door. It's a decent Windows laptop and gets around ten hours of battery life - very easy to do many things on it and ignore the power plug for a while. Reply
  • geok1ng - Saturday, July 6, 2013 - link

    I beg to differ from the conclusion. The performance gap between the SKUs is greater than the battery life gap. Since both systems have equivalent idle numbers, with a nominal advantage going for the i7, in most usage scenarios the race to idle would be equal, if not benefitting the i7 part.
    USD 150 for more 4GB of RAM and better performance/watt? Sounds fair enough, which when talking about Apple price policies is as best as it gets.
  • mutatio - Saturday, July 6, 2013 - link

    It'll be interesting to see how or if the battery life changes once Mavericks rolls out, given all the commentary in the WWDC keynote about how it is supposed to help with that. Any chance you have your hands on a Mavericks Developer's preview, Anand? Reply
  • captainBOB - Monday, July 8, 2013 - link

    Of course he does, but he's under NDA, like all the other developers.

    Besides, Mavericks is still in beta, it wouldn't be an accurate test.
  • jabber - Sunday, July 7, 2013 - link

    I was on vacation witjh my best buddy last weekend. Was a nice hot sunny day. He pulled out his two day old Macbook Air to show me.

    He powered it up and about two minutes later it went "plink".

    Dead as a doornail.

    Oh well.

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