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

You can buy a ready-to-ship Mac at any Apple Store, reseller, or online vendor, but if you want something custom, you have to go to Apple's website and build it to order (BTO). That way, if any of the standard configurations aren't enough for you, you can bump up the CPU, add more memory, and even go with faster storage. Not every Mac has every option, of course, but for the ones that do, it''s worth asking — which upgrades are worth the price?

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Are CPU upgrades worth it?

The CPU — central processing unit — is the engine that makes your Mac go. Currently provided by Intel, they range from the ultra-low power CoreM to the ultra-powerful quad-core Core i7 in high-end MacBook Pro and iMac to — yeah, it's still around! — the Xeon workstation chips in the Mac Po.

Generally speaking, faster cores let you do single things faster. More cores let you do more things at once. So, getting a faster core is like upgrading from a regular car to a race car. Going from dual to quad core is like getting a second car.

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Since you can't change a CPU after you buy your Mac, you want to make sure you buy the right one — not just for your needs now, but for your needs next year and the year after that.

  • MacBook 12-inch: The Core m3... isn't great. It struggles under any kind of intensive load. Intel shouldn't cripple it and Apple shouldn't use it if they do. I'd recommend almost everyone go with the m5 and anyone needing to do more intensive work consider the m7, even at the $250 premium. That's what I got.

  • MacBook Air 13-inch: The baseline is a 1.6 GHz Core i5 and that should be good enough for most people, especially considering there's no Retina display here to drive. If you're doing a lot of intensive work, though, the 2.2 GHz Core i5 is worth the extra $150.

  • MacBook Pro 13-inch: The version without the Touch Bar comes with 2.0 GHz Core i5 but can go to a 2.4 GHz Core i7. The version with Touch Bar comes with a 2.9 GHz Core i5 but can go to a 3.1 GHz Core i5 or a 3.3 GHz Core i5. I wasn't terribly impressed with Intel's Skylake lineup, and it emphasizes power efficiency over raw power anyway, so I decided not to give them the extra $300 to max it out and I've been perfectly happy with the baseline 2.9 GHz Touchbar version. If you're nervous, 3.1 GHz is fine, but you have to really want it to go to 3.3 GHz.

  • MacBook Pro 15-inch: The baseline 15-inch with Touch Bar comes with a 2.6 GHz Core i5 but can go to a 2.9 GHz quad-core i7. I've used the 2.9 GHz model and it flew but all those cores and all that speed comes at the expense of battery life. Still, if you're going high-end, $200 isn't a lot to pay for double the cores.

  • iMac 4K 21.5-inch: Intel didn't make Skylake versions of the chips Apple uses in the 21.5-inch iMac, so you can't buy it expected even current-gen horsepower, never mind next-gen. That makes the $200 step-up from 3.1 GHz quad-core i7 to 3.3 GHz quad-core impossible to recommend.

  • iMac 5K 27-inch: You can get a 3.2 GHz quad-core i5 standard but you can also bump it all the way to 4.0 GHz quad-core i7 for $350 or $400 depending which baseline you start with. For most people, it's overkill. For anyone buying an iMac in lieu of a Mac Pro, though, the power is worth the price.

  • Mac mini: The options here are... old and sad. Apple no longer offers a quad-core Mac mini, which is frustrating. What they do offer are 1.4 GHz, 2.6 GHz, and 2.8 GHz i5 baselines, with a 3.0 GHz bump for the latter at a $200 premium. I'd go for the 2.6 GHz if I had to, but unless and until Apple updates the whole line, I won't be going for any Mac mini.

  • Mac Pro: Lost in 2013, the Mac Pro is another machine it's all but impossible to recommend right now. Still, Apple offers it in 3.7 GHz quad-core and 3.5 GHz six-core baselines, with options going up to 2.7 GHz 12-core monsters for an extra $3000. If you need massively parallel computing, though, you know it. If you're just getting a Mac Pro for the looks or for your collection, stick with the lower SKUs.

Are RAM upgrades worth it?

The more memory your Mac has, the bigger the images and videos you can work with, the more apps you can keep live, and generally the better performance you'll get. Modern Macs are more memory efficient than ever. There's compression and there's ultra-fast SSD for swapping. But if you want to work with a lot of files, and a lot of big files, RAM can still make your experience smoother.

Increasingly, Mac memory is also soldered right to the board, just like the processors. iMac still lets you change memory after purchase but, with MacBooks, what you buy is what you're stuck with. So, again, don't buy for today. Buy for tomorrow.

  • MacBook and MacBook Air: Apple's ultra-light laptops come with 8 GB of RAM and offer no other options. At least it makes your decision simple!

  • MacBook Pro: The 15-inch MacBook Pro is only available with 16 GB. That's it. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts with 8 GB but can be upgraded to 16 GB for an extra $200. Given the memory compression and fast SSD, I've been using the 8 GB version for months with no problem at all. If Pro means PRO to you, though, doubling the memory is more than worth the price.

  • iMac: 8 GB is the starting point for the 21.5-inch iMac but you can upgrade to 16 GB for $200. 16 GB is the starting point for the 27-inch, but you can upgrade to 16 GB for $200 or 32 GB for $600. On a desktop machine, 16 GB gives you room to grow. It's what I went with and I've been really happy. If you're using iMac as a workstation, though, you'll want the 32.

  • Mac mini: There's still a 4 GB version. I don't even. Most ship with 8 GB, though, and that should be enough for all but server use. $200 gets you 16 GB, though, so it's a worthwhile upgrade just for future-proofing. I'd wait until Apple updates the Mac mini before you think about updating your Mac mini.

Mac Pro: Server parts come with server prices. You get 16 GB in the baseline Mac Pro, but $400 will buy you 32 GB and $1200 will buy you 64 GB. If you have workstation needs, you'll have workstation budget. Get as much as you need. Then double it.

Are storage upgrades worth it?

Once you go SSD, you never go back. HD platters feel slow and unreliable, because they are, and Fusion Drive sounds like the best of both but still bottlenecks. There's an argument to be made that fast boot and voluminous storage make Fusion a must, but external storage is a viable option on a pure SSD-system as well.

That's probably why Apple is going pure SSD only on so many systems. For those, it's capacity and capacity alone that's the question.

  • MacBook 12-inch: There are only baseline SSD options for the MacBook, but there are two of them: 256 GB or 512 GB. You need the rest of the options to get it, though. If you just want an ultra-light, mostly online travel machine, 256 is fine. If you're making it a primary computer, go for 512.

  • MacBook Air: The low-end MacBook Air only comes with 128 GB of SSD, which isn't much if you travel with photos, movies, music, and more. The higher-end MacBook Air comes with 256 GB of SSD and can be bumped to 512 GB for $200. If it's your primary computer, it's worth the price.

  • MacBook Pro: All the MacBooks Pro start with 256 GB of ultra-fast SSD. You can bump that to 512 GB for $200 and to 1 TB for $600. Since MacBooks Pro tend to be primary computers, 512 GB is typically worth the price. For pros, though, 1 TB can let you keep a lot of work product on the go.

  • iMac and Mac mini: It's... complicated. iMacs and Macs mini offer both Fusion Drive, which are hybrid HD and SSD, and pure SSD options. Unless you really need to save money and have to have large amounts of storage inside your Mac, I'd avoid the complexity and compromise of Fusion Drive. Instead, I'd get pure SSD and buy an external HD or SSD for more storage. If you do get Fusion Drive, it's cheap enough you might as well max it out. If you go SSD, the $200 jump from 256 GB to 512 GB is worth it for a desktop. The $600 jump to 1 TB, only for pros using it as an iMac workstation or Mac mini server.

  • Mac Pro: Mac Pro has the same SSD options as the other desktop Macs, but only the SSD options. The dynamics are slightly different, though. If you're hanging all your storage off the plentiful Thunderbolt ports, you can get away with a smaller amount of internal storage for the OS and apps. Still, for $200, 512 GB is worth the bump. Given the possible workload, though, and the way macOS pages, 1 TB for $600 will make sense to pros.

Who should upgrade their Mac's processor?

Of all the upgrades, CPU configurations offer the most questionable benefit. A bump in overall processor speed is nice, but is it worth paying a couple of hundred bucks more to get another 10 or 30 percent improvement?

For people working with apps 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 and should be considered.

Who should upgrade their Mac's memory?

4 GB is almost extinct on the Mac and should be. 8 GB is the sweet spot for most people these days, especially given how macOS has optimized for fast storage. If you really want to future-proof, though, splurge for 16 GB.

Upgrading after the fact is only possible on a very few Macs these days and doesn't offer the price savings over fussiness benefit it used 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 newer models. Pay for as much as you can afford, but see what you can live without and try to save yourself some money.

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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.

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