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I Bet My CPU Can Beat Up Your CPU

June 23, 1997|CHARLES PILLER

It's fun to see Apple, after years of lagging Windows PCs in speed comparisons, bragging about its fast machines--the fastest on the market, so the ads say. Apple's clearly making at least a modest effort to woo PC users on the basis of speed. It even staged its largest-ever presence at last week's PC Expo trade show in New York. But are Macs really faster than PCs?

Today's Macs run on Power PC processors made by either IBM or Motorola. They go by the designations 603e and 604e and are speed-rated from 117 megahertz to 300 MHz. The 604e powers higher-end desktop Macs, and you'll find the 603e in home machines and PowerBooks. Windows PCs run primarily on Intel's Pentium family of processors, which also run to 300 MHz, though 266 MHz is the fastest you can buy today.

What does the megahertz rating mean? Less than meets the eye. First, speed ratings are not strictly comparable. A 233M Hz Pentium II CPU clearly moves faster than a 180 MHz Power PC, but may not be faster than a 225 MHz Power PC. This holds true even within the same chip family. A 300 MHz 603e Power PC chip is actually slower than a 250 MHz 604e, the fastest 604e available today. (It gets even hairier in the Windows/Intel-compatible chip world, but I'll spare you that.)

And overall system performance can vary by the speed of components such as hard drives and video cards as much as by the speed of the central processor itself.

So with these vagaries in mind, can I confidently anoint today's fastest personal computers? For notebooks, happily, yes: Apple's PowerBook 3400, with its 240 MHz 603e, leaves Windows notebooks (which top out at 200 MHz) in the dust.

Desktops are a closer call, partly because the differences are relatively small, partly because it's tough to get reliable comparisons. Although Mac and Windows versions of popular software usually offer nearly identical features, performance may vary greatly. (This is known as the dreaded Microsoft Effect. Word and Excel--essential products to test because they lead the market on both platforms by a wide margin--run much faster in their Windows versions.)

It's also hard to find reliable comparative testing. PC magazines rarely test Macs, and though Mac magazines do test Macs against PCs, they sometimes make comparisons that favor the Mac unfairly. Those magazines can easily obtain the latest and greatest Macs, but rarely have the connections to get top PCs as soon as they become available.

Marketing obfuscation doesn't help either. Apple calls its Power Mac 6500/300, with a 300 MHz 603e chip, the fastest home computer. "Home computer" is a pretty ambiguous term, though. The 6500/300--hardly a cheap machine at about $3,000--is slower than the top 604e- and Pentium II-based machines.

Overall, however, the fastest PCs and Macs track pretty closely in performance.

Competition aside, should you care that your Mac runs at a measly 200 MHz, when you could be running one at 300 MHz? Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for slightly more speed rarely makes sense for typical users.

Most of us office-types spend our computer time word-processing, sending e-mail, browsing the Web and manipulating small spreadsheets and databases. If that's you, a mid-range Mac works fine.

But if you're an advanced desktop publisher, graphic designer or database manager, incremental speed improvements can save scores of hours per year in processing time. And for 3-D game addicts, a bit more responsiveness can make a huge qualitative difference. In those cases, buy the fastest Mac you can afford.

And, of course, every few months everything changes. Both Power PC and Pentium II will extend further into the stratosphere for some time to come. Look for Macs using chips with ratings of 300 MHz to 400 MHz and higher to emerge between now and early next year. If you can afford one of those, you'll really buy some bragging rights.


Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at

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