Setting Expectations: A Preview of What's to Come in Mobile

Sitting in the audience at the iPhone 5s launch I remember seeing this graph showing iPhone CPU performance increase since the first iPhone. Apple claimed a 41x increase in CPU performance if you compared the Cyclone cores in its A7 SoC to the ARM11 core in the first iPhone. What’s insane is just how short of a time period that comparison spans: 2007 - 2013.

I ran SunSpider on all of the iPhones in our 5s review to validate Apple’s numbers. I came out with roughly a 100x increase in performance, or something closer to half of that if you could run later versions of iOS (with Safari/js perf improvements). SunSpider is a very CPU and browser bound workload, but even if we turn to something a bit closer to real world usage like Browsermark 2.0 I measured a 5x increase in CPU performance over the past 6 years of iPhones.

I frequently refer to the progress we’ve seen in mobile as being hyper-moore’s-law. Until recently, the gains in mobile hadn’t yet approached a point where they were limited by process technology. Instead it’s variables like cost or time to market that govern how much performance was delivered each year. We’re at the beginnings of all of this changing, and it’ll eventually look a lot like what we’ve had in the desktop and mobile CPU space for years now.

When performance results from the new Mac Pro first hit, there seemed to be disappointment in how small some of the gains were. If you compare it to the progress in CPU performance Apple has demonstrated on the other side of the fence, you’re bound to be underwhelmed.

Having personally reviewed every CPU architecture that has gone into the Mac Pro since its launch, I had a rough idea of what to expect from each generation - so I decided to put it all in a chart.

I went back through all of my Conroe, Penryn, Nehalem, Westmere and Ivy Bridge data, looked at IPC improvement in video encoding/3D rendering workloads and used it to come up with the charts below. I made a table of every CPU offered in the Mac Pro, and scaled expected performance according to max single and multicore turbo.

Let’s first start by looking at what you can expect if you always buy the absolute cheapest Mac Pro. That means starting off with the Xeon 5130, moving to the E5462, then the W3520, W3530, W3565 and ending up with the E5-1620 v2 in today’s Mac Pro. I’ve put all of the choices in the table below:

Mac Pro - Cheapest Configuration Upgrade Path
  CPU Chips Cores per Chip Total Cores / Threads Clock Base/1CT/MaxCT Launch Price
Mid 2006 Xeon 5130 2 2 4 / 4 2.0/2.0/2.0 GHz $2199
Early 2008 Xeon E5462 1 4 4 / 4 2.8/2.8/2.8 GHz $2299
Early 2009 Xeon W3520 1 4 4 / 8 2.66/2.93/2.8 GHz $2499
Mid 2010 Xeon W3530 1 4 4 / 8 2.8/3.06/2.93 GHz $2499
Mid 2012 Xeon W3565 1 4 4 / 8 3.2/3.46/3.33 GHz $2499
Late 2013 Xeon E5-1620 v2 1 4 4 / 8 3.7/3.9/3.7GHz $2999

If you always bought the cheapest Mac Pro CPU offering, this is what your performance curve in both single and multithreaded workloads would look like:

The first thing that stands out is both workloads follow roughly the same curve. The entry-level Mac Pro has always been a quad-core option, so you get no increased MT scaling (if you exclude the initial Nehalem bump from enabling Hyper Threading, which all subsequent Mac Pros have supported).

If you’ve always bought the slowest Mac Pro you’ll end up with a Mac Pro today that’s roughly 2.2x the performance of the very first Mac Pro. It’s a substantial increase in performance, but definitely not the sort of gains we’ve seen in mobile. For anyone who has been following the x86 CPU evolution over the past decade, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are huge power tradeoffs associated with aggressively scaling single threaded performance. Instead what you see at the core level is a handful of conservatively selected improvements. Intel requires that any new microarchitectural feature introduced has to increase performance by 2% for every 1% increase in power consumption. The result is the end of unabated increase in single threaded performance. The gains you see in the curve above are more or less as good as they get. I should point out that this obviously ignores the ~10% IPC gains offered by Haswell (since we don’t yet have a Haswell-EP). It’s also worth noting that Intel presently delivers the best single threaded performance in the industry. Compared to AMD alone you’re looking at somewhere around a 40% advantage, and ARM doesn’t yet offer anything that competes at these performance levels. It’s bound to be harder to deliver big gains when you’re at this performance level.

Back to the curve at hand, the increase in performance the 2013 Mac Pro offers is arguably one of the best upgrades over the life of the system - assuming you always opted for the entry level quad-core configuration.

What if you always did the opposite though and picked the highest-end CPU configuration? Same deal as before, I’ve documented the upgrade path in the table below:

Mac Pro - Most Expensive Configuration Upgrade Path
  CPU Chips Cores per Chip Total Cores / Threads Clock Base/1CT/MaxCT Launch Price
Mid 2006 Xeon X5365 2 4 8 / 8 3.0/3.0/3.0 GHz $3999
Early 2008 Xeon X5482 2 4 8 / 8 3.2/3.2/3.2 GHz $4399
Early 2009 Xeon X5570 2 4 8 / 16 2.93/3.33/3.06 GHz $5899
Mid 2010 Xeon X5670 2 6 12 / 24 2.93/3.33/3.06 GHz $6199
Mid 2012 Xeon X5675 2 6 12 / 24 3.06/3.46/3.2 GHz $6199
Late 2013 Xeon E5-2697 v2 1 12 12 / 24 2.7/3.5/3.0 GHz $6999

Now things start to get interesting. For starters, single and multithreaded performance scaling is divergent. The high-end CPU option started as two quad-core CPUs but after three generations moved to a total of twelve cores. What this means is that after the early 2009 model you see a pretty significant increase in multithreaded performance for the fastest Mac Pro configuration. Scaling since then has been comparatively moderate as you’re looking at IPC and frequency improvements mostly with no change in core count.

The single threaded performance improvement, by comparison, is fairly mild. If you bought the most expensive Mac Pro configuration back in 2006 you had a 3GHz part. In the past 7 years peak single core turbo has only improved by 30% to 3.9GHz. Granted there are other efficiency gains that help push the overall improvement north of 50%, but that’s assuming you haven’t purchased anything since 2006. If you bought into the Mac Pro somewhere in the middle and opted for a high-end configuration, you definitely won’t see an earth shattering increase in single threaded CPU performance. Note that we’re only looking at one vector of overall performance here. We aren’t taking into account things like storage and GPU performance improvements (yet).

For the third configuration I wanted to pick something in the middle. The issue is that there is no middle config for entirety of the Mac Pro’s history. In some cases shooting for the middle meant you’d end up with 4 cores, while other times it meant 6, 8 or 12. We settled on trying to shoot for a $4000 configuration each time and never go above it. It turns out that if you always had a $4000 budget for a Mac Pro and tried to optimize for CPU performance you’d end up with a somewhat bizarre upgrade path. The path we took is listed in the table below:

Mac Pro - Mid-Range Configuration Upgrade Path
  CPU Chips Cores per Chip Total Cores / Threads Clock Base/1CT/MaxCT Launch Price
Mid 2006 Xeon 5160 2 2 4 / 4 3.0/3.0/3.0 GHz $3299
Early 2008 Xeon E5472 2 4 8 / 8 3.0/3.0/3.0 GHz $3599
Early 2009 Xeon W3580 1 4 4 / 8 3.33/3.6/3.46 GHz $3699
Mid 2010 Xeon W3680 1 6 6 / 12 3.33/3.6/3.46 GHz $3699
Mid 2012 Xeon E5645 2 6 12 / 24 2.4/2.67/2.4 GHz $3799
Late 2013 Xeon E5-1650 v2 1 6 6 / 12 3.5/3.9/3.6 GHz $3999

Around $4000 the Mac Pro went from a quad-core system to eight-cores, back down to four cores, then up to six, then twelve and finally settling back at six cores this generation. What this means is a cycling between improving single and multithreaded performance over the course of the past 7 years:

Here’s where the comparison gets really interesting. If you spent $3799 on a Mac Pro last year, in order to see a multithreaded performance uplift on the CPU side you’d need to spend more this year. Single threaded performance on the other hand sees a big uptick compared to last year. The 2012 $4K config is the outlier however, if you have a budget fixed at $4000 then a 2013 Mac Pro will be quicker in all aspects compared to any previous generation Mac Pro at the same price point.

The bigger takeaway from this is the following: the very same limited gains in CPU performance will eventually come to ultra mobile devices as well. It’s only a matter of time before those CPU curves flatten out. What that does to the smartphone/tablet market is a discussion for another day.

Introduction, the Hardware, Pricing & Config Plotting the Mac Pro’s GPU Performance Over Time


View All Comments

  • Chirpie - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    Uh, remind me again which low-power HTPC can run 16 4K video streams at once? Beyond that, why on earth would you buy this computer as a HTPC? The graphic cards would be a waste. If you're gonna bash, I demand some effort. Reply
  • Liquidmark - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    I don't see you admitting you have a problem with haterism. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    The problem with saying Apple's pricing isn't out of touch with reality is that you can't only compare this to high end workstation's from other companies...this is Apple's only desktop-ish device. These things 10 years ago used to start in the mid $1000-2000 range, and with inflation that would be cheaper still. They were STILL expensive, but at least not absurdly so.

    Yeah, Xeons, etc. cost a lot, but Apple doesn't provide options for people who want a high end notebook or desktop for normal use...this is the closest they get, and it's at least 2x as expensive as it should be for it's base unit (even with the Apple tax).
  • OreoCookie - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    I don't understand this comment: Apple does cover this *price range* with the Mac mini and the iMac. The 27" iMac sports up to 32 GB RAM, a decent graphics card and 4 fast cores. And since these machines come with Thunderbolt, you can expand them with the same ultrafast peripherals that also attach to a Mac Pro. The only thing that Apple does not offer to you is the product that you want for the price that you want (the xMac, a traditional tower system). Reply
  • lilo777 - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    iMac is not a classic desktop. It's a A-I-O computer with its inherent disadvantages (i.e. CPUs,, GPUs etc. usually getting obsolete much faster than the monitor) Reply
  • OreoCookie - Thursday, January 2, 2014 - link

    I understand what the iMac is. It is nevertheless a desktop computer that covers the price segment between $1200 and $3500 in Apple's line-up. Compared to 10, 15 years ago, the demographics have changed: people have migrated to mobile computers for the most part, and the demographic who still use desktops are often quite happy using iMacs (e. g. have a look at The Verge's review of the Mac Pro where the video editors admit to using iMacs and Mac Pros, for instance).

    Certainly, if you want or need a traditional headless computer, Apple simply does not serve your needs. But looking ahead, Broadwell CPUs will be soldered to the mainboards. Most people will rely on the integrated graphics (which become increasingly powerful).
  • Regular Reader - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    How often do you replace a CPU or graphics card? If you're a serious gamer, then Macs have never been the right machine for you and never will be. For people like me, the 27" iMac is perfect because we don't need a classic desktop. There's little reason to need a true desktop machine these days. AIO is the way to go. So much easier, you can get most of the power, they're quieter...the advantages far outweigh the negatives. Reply
  • wallysb01 - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    The iMac is not quieter than decent desktop PC. Maybe you’ve just been around absurdly loud computers? For the $1500-$2000 you pay for an iMac, you should be able to buy a pretty much silent PC with as much or more power than the iMac. Oh, and you get your choice of monitor or you can keep your old one that you still like just fine. Reply
  • Chirpie - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    I dunno man, usually the graphic card alone is enough to make it louder than an iMac. At least, until you're willing to start mucking with the RPMs through various mods/software hacks. Reply
  • Regular Reader - Friday, January 3, 2014 - link

    27" iMac. There's no need for much more. You can upgrade everything but the CPU.

    I used to be the DIY PC build type. I got sick of wires everywhere, intermittent cooling issues, and just generally having a desktop full of crap. I've had a 4-core i7 27" iMac for nearly 4 years now, haven't looked back, and it is more than enough to run OSX and Windows in parallel, even only having 8 GB of PC1333 RAM. And with a firmware update, my old 27" can support up to 32 GB. I have Thunderbolt even, along with FW800. If you need external SATA, OWC makes a component to do that (though you have to send your machine to them to get it installed). I'd happily buy another if I needed to do even more serious work than I do.

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