CPU vs. RAM vs. SSD: Which Mac upgrades should you get?

CPU vs. RAM vs. SSD: Which Mac upgrades make the most sense?

There are a variety of configuration options when you buy a Mac. Where does it make the most sense to spend your money?

You've decided what Mac to get, but firing up the Apple online store web site presents you with myriad customization options. You can often have a faster or more capable CPU installed, have more RAM put in, or upgrade storage capacity. Which upgrades make the most sense?

Let me say right at the outset that there's no one correct answer for each of these categories. A lot of it has to do with your specific use case and what you need your Mac to do. But let's try to unravel what Apple's offering to figure out how these customization options work and what might be the right thing to focus on.

Dual-core versus quad-core: is the upgrade worth the money?

Each Mac model has a baseline configuration for CPU type and speed. As of this writing, the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini all have at least a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor inside. iMacs use quad-core i5 processors across the board. And the Mac Pro steps up to at least a quad-core Xeon E5 processor - a workstation/server-class version of the same technology in other Macs.

But Apple will allow you to configure to order machines with other CPU options, too. The MacBook Air, for example, can be upgraded with a 1.7 GHz dual-core i7 processor. You can configure lower-end Retina MacBook Pros with faster i5 or dual-core i7 processors; the higher-end ones can be configured with faster quad-core i7 processors. The iMac and Mac Pro can be outfitted with faster processors too, and even the Mac mini has some options.

Note carefully when you're ordering your system and considering your processor options the difference between dual-core and quad-core processors. How many cores a processor has determines how many instructions it can run simultaneously; as the names imply, a quad-core can juggle twice as many balls as a dual-core processor can. If you're running applications optimized for multiple cores, this can make a big difference. Rendering video is much faster, for example, or doing 3D graphics. Compression tasks go way faster. Compiling code.

In many cases, replacing a dual-core processor with a quad-core processor makes a lot of sense. The Mac mini's base configuration is almost the same as the old non-Retina display equipped MacBook Pro. But bumping it up with a quad-core processor makes it a very good small workgroup server system capable of handling multiple tasks simultaneously, which is what Apple has done in the OS X Server configuration of that system.

Otherwise, going replacing the stock dual-core processor with a faster i7 dual-core processor is mainly a speed bump. The MacBook Air, for example, offers a 1.7 GHz dual-core processor as an option - that's a 30 percent improvement in clock speed. That can make a big difference.

What's important to understand here is that whatever processor you order your machine with, you're stuck with it. Processors on Macs aren't socketed; they're soldered directly to the motherboard. So there's no way to upgrade once you've ordered.

Bottom line: If you're going to be doing stuff with your Mac that can benefit from a quad-core upgrade, it's worth considering. If you're just looking at a processor speed bump, consider the relative improvement in performance to the price and see if it's still worth it.

RAM: How much is enough?

So what's the point of RAM anyway? In short, RAM determines how many applications and how much data the Mac can keep track of without having to read from or write to the storage medium. Applications used in content creation - graphics, video and music editing, for example - can eat through gobs of memory in very short order. And while OS X Mavericks does a better job of managing memory than ever, it's still wise to have a bit more than you might need, if it's financially feasible.

A few years ago, getting a Mac with scanty RAM was no big deal. If you decided it was working too slowly, you could just pop open an access panel and put more in. These days it's getting tougher. Apple's MacBook Airs and Retina MacBook Pros, for example, have their RAM soldered in place. The 21-inch iMac doesn't have an accessible RAM slot like its 27-inch counterpart; it's still possible to upgrade, but it requires an extensive disassembly that's best done only by a trained professional. The Mac mini, however, is very easy to upgrade - just twist the bottom a few degrees and it pops off, revealing socketed RAM within. The 27-inch iMac has easily accessible RAM as well. And the new Mac Pro will have user-accessible RAM within, also.

If your Mac's RAM is user-accessible, it's sometimes a wise idea to wait to get it before you put more RAM in. Apple has a tendency to overprice RAM upgrades. You can get more bang for your buck by going with third-party RAM designed to work with Macs.

But depending on which Mac you get and your needs, you may have to consider configuring it to order with more than the stock allotment of RAM right from the start. There's no way to upgrade the RAM on a MacBook Air or Retina MacBook Pro, and if you find yourself bumping into a ceiling from the start, it'll drive you crazy.

4 GB is the dead minimum for the consumer-focused Mac models like the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Moving up to pro-focused Mac models like the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro and iMac, you'll find 8 GB standard-issue, and the Mac Pro sports 12 GB in its base configuration.

OS X Mavericks' core system requirement calls for 2GB of RAM, but that doesn't give your apps a lot of room to work. In fairness, 4 GB is enough to get by for users who aren't going to be putting a big strain on their computers: running only a few apps at a time, staying away from stuff that loads a lot into memory, like music, video and heavy-duty graphics apps.

If you're planning on running memory-intensive apps, I'd strongly consider upgrading to 16 GB if at all possible. You won't be sorry. Doing so means less frequent paging to disk as the CPU has to write out swap files less frequently. That means improved performance, even on Macs with SSDs.

Storage space vs. speed: SSD, Fusion drive, or big hard drive?

Solid state drives (SSDs) and flash storage have, in a fairly short period of time, become standard issue on a big segment of Apple's Mac line. MacBook Airs and Retina MacBook Pros, for example, are all solid-state. And it's not hard to understand why: Flash storage is very fast, very efficient, and very reliable compared to hard drives.

Flash is also incredibly expensive compared to a hard drive. Which is why base-model MacBook Airs and Retina MacBook Pros ship with 128 GB of storage space. The non-Retina MacBook Pro offers a 500 GB hard drive, by comparison.

Certainly, you can offset your internal storage needs by relying on cloud services like Apple's own iCloud or moving files to an external hard drive connected via USB 3 or Thunderbolt. And buying a new Mac is an excellent opportunity to cull files and apps you don't need anymore, archiving them to a backup volume or optical media for long-term storage.

But cloud services aren't convenient to use unless you have a Wi-Fi connection, and external storage can be cumbersome to travel with. So figure out how much space you absolutely need and then give yourself some growing room, and decide how much storage space you'll need from there.

Although the forthcoming Mac Pro is entirely SSD-based, the other Mac desktop computers offer an option called Fusion Drive, which combines a 1 TB or larger had disk drive mechanism with a 128 GB flash drive. Both devices are configured together as one logical volume, and infrequently-used files are written out to the hard disk, leaving the SSD with the files that are most frequently used.

The net result is that you get the best of both worlds - the larger storage capacity of a conventional hard disk drive with the immediate performance of an SSD. It's a great option, and one that I heartily recommend you consider if the Mac you're buying offers it. You can go pure SSD on some Mac mini and iMac models too, but you'll be paying dearly for the privilege.

As we've established, RAM is very important for optimal performance, especially if you'll be running memory-intensive apps like pro-level content creation tools. But no single thing that you do will make a bigger overall performance difference than having SSD storage on your Mac - it makes the Mac boot faster, makes applications launch faster, and makes your Mac read and write files faster than a regular hard drive. In fact, I've upgraded my four-year-old white polycarbonate MacBook with an SSD and it runs faster than it did new.

Who should configure their Mac to order with a faster processor?

Of all the upgrades I've talked about, CPU configurations offer the most questionable benefit depending on the configuration and what you're doing. A bump in overall processor speed is nice, but is it worth paying a couple of hundred bucks more to get another 20 or 30 percent improvement? I'll leave it to you to decide that.

But for people working with applications that can benefit from more processor cores - computationally-intensive operations that are optimized for multiprocessor computers, like math and science apps, video, 3D, video compression and other similar things, going from a dual-core to a quad-core can quite literally double performance in some cases, and should be considered.

Who should add more RAM?

4 GB is the bone stock minimum on all Macs, and while it'll get you by if you have a light system resource footprint, I think 8 GB is a more realistic amount, especially if you want to future-proof your computer.

Upgrading after the fact and not paying the Apple factory premium can save you money. But that advice is limited only to you if you're buying a Mac that can easily be upgraded, like the Mac mini, 27-inch iMac and forthcoming Mac Pro (the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro also has upgradeable RAM, though it requires a bit of disassembly to get to).

Who should upgrade SSD or go with Fusion Drive?

Undercutting yourself with storage space right off the bat will cause you problems, but take a long hard look at your current storage footprint and see what you can't live without. If you're like many people, you'll discover that you don't actually need everything you have, and that you'll be able to offload some of it to a server, external device or archive system.

SSD is expensive, but the performance is spectacular - especially since has Apple incorporated PCI Express (PCIe)-based flash storage in 2013 Mac models. Pay for as much as you can afford, but see what you can live without and try to save yourself some money.

If you're buying an iMac or Mac mini, Fusion Drive is definitely worth considering: it'll make a huge performance difference for you, and you'll be getting the best of both worlds. Going pure SSD is the best option - you'll get no performance slowdown no matter how much data is on the disk - but the cost per gigabyte is astronomical compared to a regular hard drive.

Still undecided?

There's a lot to think over, so if this hasn't helped you sort it out, please turn to our Apple Hardware forums and post your question there. Our legion of helpful forum posters will give you their expert feedback. You're also welcome to post comments here.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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CPU vs. RAM vs. SSD: Which Mac upgrades should you get?

41 Comments

My order of preference is RAM, then SSD, then CPU. These days if a Mac does not have user upgradeable RAM, I'll max it out when I buy it.

Just last weekend I installed a Samsung Evo 500gb SSD in my 2012 i7 MBP and it's a night-and-day performance improvement over the 5400rpm hard drive. my system boots in 17 seconds including typing in the password. some apps launch instantly and others have maybe a 1-2 second delay tops. iPhoto and iTunes are lightning fast now where they used to lag like crazy when scrolling.

I can't recommend the SSD option enough. it's SO worthwhile, IMO.

Thanks for your opinion! I own a 2012 MacBook Pro and I'm deciding whether to install an SSD. Did you replace the optical drive or did you remove the HDD?

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Every Mac user needs to know this stuff. Knowing when to customize for each model can save dollars and headaches.

Great write up Peter. I'm growing fond of your article wrap-ups.
As for me, I always gravitate towards more power up front followed by RAM. Now that SSDs are into the mix and can have such a noticeable impact on the modern computing experience... Buying a new Mac is getting more expensive! xD

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This article is exactly what I needed thanks!! Any advice though? Will a i7 quad core Mac mini be enough to work efficiently using Final Cut Pro X?

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At that point the real bottleneck for Final Cut Pro becomes the integrated graphics processor on the Mac mini. When you're rendering video effects things get very graphically intense and FCP depends a lot of GPU performance. To that end, I'd recommend spending the extra money on an iMac.

I'm also gun-shy about recommending the Mac mini for anything really intensive right now because it's still using last year's technology - it hasn't been refreshed with the newer, more efficient Haswell chips that we've seen in the laptops and iMac.

Basically all computing systems are memory and I/O constrained, not CPU. So spend the money on the SSD or Fusion, then upgrade the RAM, than the CPU should be the last thing.

I would agree to a certain extent. Just like the article says; the CPU's in macs are soldered in. So in this case I would say when buying a NEW mac get the "better" CPU which suits your needs while SSD and RAM can later on be replaced and/or upgraded.

I think the biggest decision on CPU is between dual or quad core, and you don't have the choice on iMacs, MBPs or Mac Pros. If you transcode video a lot, go quad. If you do anything 3D go quad or higher. The people who know their workloads scales with cores (be it CPU or GPU) really don't need our or Peter's advice at all, so I'm only talking about your prototypical modern day consumer here. Someone who needs an Apple Store Genius (who sometimes are questionable too).

My qualm with the binary choice between SSD vs CPU upgrade is the user is foregoing, say, a year of benefit from the SSD, while the benefit of a upgraded CPU simply isn't as big through time. (Ie, benefits from SSD or bigger than benefits from upgraded CPU). That's a long year. A typical consumer workload is heavily I/O (network and storage) constrained. So fast Internet connection, fast storage, low latency memory, and fast single core performance is where they should be going.

I'm not sure what the bandwidth of the PCIe connection for SSDs are on 2013 Macs. If it is 2 GB/s, a user can also upgrade to a 1.5 GB/s SSD 2 years down the road, and that'll be like a CPU upgrade too. If it is 1 GB/s, the scenario changes a bit.

I've got an IT managed 2012 MBP. I weep for it. Be interesting to have Peter write an article on what Enterprise IT can do to computers, and therefore, what they do to their users. Not even sure an SSD can make it perform as it should.

Yes but only when you buy non retina MAC (which is now only 13 inch). All other MacBooks have also SSD and RAM soldered

I'd go with upgrading the CPU to quad core for faster performance overall doing things like video processing and doing work related thing that call for a higher processor power would be much more of a breeze. But I like to do a ton of different things at once so I'd also like to have more RAM to increase multi-tasking abilities as well. So it's a toss up for me but it all boils down to where you want to put your money for what you need specifically on your mac.

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Great article! I've always wanted to know about each of those. Thanks! Know I will know what to ask for in my next computer.

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I use Xcode daily and with 4gb of RAM in my MacBook Pro it ground to a halt every few hours. Upgraded to 16gb of RAM for around £120 and it hasn't slowed down since. Absolutely worth it!

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Great article Peter! I guess this is a dilemma every new Mac buyer faces. I don't remember how many times I have gone to Apple's sit and played around with the customization options to maintain the balance between the best configuration and my budget.

Thanks for your help!

Important note: It's not just speed you get when going from an i5 to an i7. i7 always gives you multi-threading.. So, when going from a duel core i5 to a duel-core i7.. you get 2 more cores - kind of.. you gain 2 extra 'virtual' cores for extra threads.. So if you multi-task (use VMWare or Parallels) or do any kind of video processing you will notice a difference, more than just speed a bump.

Basically, things don't get bogged down as much under heavy multi-tasking/threading situations. I always go i7 as I work with VM's a lot for work. Its much more noticeable than a .3 or .5 bump in speed.

I got a fully tricked out 27" iMac only fudging by getting the 3 TB fusion drive. The i7 quad has come in very handy converting video. MUCH faster! The 32 Gig RAM hasn't much come into play, but I have a vast sample collection for Logic Pro X that might seriously change that soon. Running 2 monitors at the moment, its own and a garden variety HD display. Will be adding a third once Apple upgrades its Thunderbolt monitors.

I've spent a lot on this beast, but I intend to keep it 4-5 years.

Question: how much can a top-of-the-line 27" iMac run so far as monitors goes? Certainly not two external 4K displays along with its own. I need to know this before I start slinging more money at my setup.

Your iMac can work with another external display via Thunderbolt at up to 2560 x 1600 (the resolution of Apple's 27-inch Thunderbolt Display).

Definitely breathed new life into my 2007 and 2008 iMacs with a couple of SSD drives. Funny how DDR2 RAM is hard to find (and more expensive than DDR3!).

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If you plan on using the device that you're going to buy for 3-4 years, it's better to get a quad core CPU, 8gb of RAM, then at the very least 256gb of SSD storage/1tb Fusion Drive (then buy an external storage). It might get a little expensive but all of it would really be worthwhile.
The only thing I would like to get from Apple in the future would be more options in adding discrete graphic cards on their devices.

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Great article I'm also a RAM first guy. The difference between a system with 4GB and 8GB is just night and day. The systems that aren't that upgradable I usually have to spec it to the maximum from day one because I can't upgrade it over time. It sucks but it is the way things are going and when you try to sell a computer you can see the logic in it. The upgrades you do hardly count to the resale price to others. So the $2-300 I paid to put in that SSD how do I count that into the resale value of the laptop? It's hard and you end up losing money over just selling a stock system.

You make some great points and I'm going through some of that selling my 2011 MacBook Pro to cover some cost of my new one. It has a 1tb hard drive but everyone looking to buy wants SSD. Obviously I'm not going to sink another penny into it but tell that to the cheapskates that want all the new stuff without paying for it.

I don't think you can look at upgrading your computer as a return on investment when you resell it. It's all a question of the value it provides to you in improving your productivity while you use the machine. Whatever you sell the computer for after you're done using it is going to be a steep depreciation from what you paid, anyway.

Waiting for my new iMac to be delivered this week. My current 20(ish) inch has served me well over the past 6 years (first aluminum model) but it is sluggish on my 50GB iphoto library and iMovie is a test in patience at this point. New one is 27 inch, 3TB fusion that I'm putting 32 GB of RAM in (when Crucial delivery arrives).

Peter, have you ever done articles with suggestions on what to use old Apple hardware for after it no longer becomes the day to day computer but it still in good working order?

Thanks.

Great write up, thanks. Now I just need someone who can give an honest answer as to how much Mac I'll need to meet my needs. I don't want to under-spec and under-buy.

I've been running a lot of Mac Buyers Guides over the past few weeks - check the links at the end of the article.

Great article. I was wondering if you might be able to expand on this topic with a specific recommendations to various applications. For instance, will someone using InDesign, Illustrator and PhotoShop open benefit with more RAM or a faster processor, or more cores?

Does anyone know what adapter is on the SSD in the picture? I'm trying to get an SSD into my Mac Pro but couldn't find any adapters to make it work. The adapter in the picture is perfect for what I need.

I bought a new 15" rMBP about a month ago and bumped all the specs to the maximum - 2.6GHz CPU, 1TB SSD, dGPU and 16GB RAM (it's astonishingly good, in case anyone was wondering; pair it with a fibre optic internet connection and it simply doesn't understand the concept of lag at all - everything is done instantaneously). Cost me a small fortune, but the hope is that in 4-5 years' time, it'll still be running fairly smoothly. I've got to the stage where I don't do enough intensive work to justify upgrading my laptop every 2-3 years (which I know a lot of people do), so I thought it best to max it out now to give it a chance to last longer than average. Has anyone else had this philosophy?

Additionally, what crossed my mind is the rate of growth of external equipment, with 4k monitors being the most obvious point here - whilst a base-spec rMBP could technically run a 4k monitor, I suspect the lack of a discreet GPU and lower amount of RAM would somewhat tarnish the experience (although perhaps that's just paranoia).

I say this because when I bought my previous laptop (a Dell XPS M1530 from 2008...!), I went for a mid specced system (because at the time, it was all I needed) and tried to run high-res monitors on it recently after having used it for a few fairly intensive years. It simply couldn't handle it, and whilst I know that Macs tend to last much longer than their windows counterparts, I didn't want to be in a situation where I'd spent - let's be honest - a fair amount of money on a Mac specced for my "current" needs, but in a few years it was struggling to run state of the art perhiperals (e.g. 4K monitors) because I hadn't plumped for higher specs.

It'd be interesting to see how many people (if any) took this attitude, especially if they weren't using Macs primarily for graphics-heavy tasks.

While all of this is well and good, the first thing to consider is what is glued and soldered down. It's a sad state of affairs but if there is any chance you will need the highest amount or speed of cpu/memory over the lifespan of the device, and it can't be upgraded, spend your money their first. The other stuff that is not glued or soldered can be purchased at a much lower price from another company. So if the memory is soldered down, buy all you can afford. Then buy an SSD on your own dime and install it yourself. CPU usually is not as critical unless you are running a CPU intensive application. For most people this is not the case. Memory and the SSD are more important than the "slight" usual difference in Apple's configurations. The new Mac Pro may be an exception for the professional.

I agree with the "max it out" theory. My first Mac, rMBP 16GB, i7 2.8, 768 GB SSD. Best computer I've ever owned. Use Lightroom, Photoshop, Illustrator plus office apps. Runs Parallels for legacy windows apps. Even if a spec is good enough today the software is a moving target that is more demanding of the hardware every iteration.

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Hey Peter! Great article, very informative and helpful! You mentioned that you had replaced the hard-drive in your 4-year old white unibody MacBook I was just wondering which SSD you used? Thanks in advance,
Andrew

Would love to get some input on this - can I get by with less RAM if I have SSD. I would usually need 12 to 16 GB on an iMac for my graphic design work. Could I get by with 8 GB on a Macbook Air because of the SSD.

Don't skimp on RAM. Having an SSD is nice - it makes everything start faster. But it's not really going to make a program run better once it's open. Programs run using the RAM, not the SSD/HD.

if applications run slow, like it takes 10 seconds just to open Finder, the whole system just goes stuck after awhile, pure annoyance.

memory problem or processor problem?