Why tablets are winning

Why tablets are winning

Summary: I had a hulking, 45-pound quad-core Mac Pro for years. But my little, 3-pound i7 MacBook Air has faster Geekbench scores and feels snappier. This is why tablets are winning.


Comparing a seven-year-old Mac Pro to a current MacBook Air may not seem fair or wise. After all, isn't faster always better?


Not for me. I was happy with the performance of the Mac Pro, although I did upgrade it. I craved more flexibility, not performance, which is why geeks are mostly surprised by the popularity of tablets — and I'm not.

Case in point: Video editing. The reason I had the big Mac Pro was to edit video, although its stability — an Intel workstation motherboard, ECC RAM, ample cooling — haven't been equalled by any newer Mac I've used.

While I hire a professional for video editing now, I still do some at home. And I really can't tell the difference between editing on the Mac Pro and editing on the MacBook Air.

That's progress.


The Mac Pro had 2 dual-core 2.66GHz Xeon processors, an upgraded video card, a 10K RPM WD velociraptor disk, a two-disk RAID, and 10GB of ECC RAM. The new MacBook Air has a dual-core i7 processor running at 2GHz, Intel's HD 4000 graphics, a 500GB SSD, and an external four-drive Thunderbolt array.

The MacBook Air also has a 2,560x1,440 Thunderbolt display and USB 3.0 ports. And when it's time to travel, nothing beats slipping the MacBook Air into a briefcase — no syncing!

Geekbench scores

The Mac Pro with four cores achieved a Geekbench score of 5,873 in 64-bit mode. The dual core i7 MacBook Air achieved 7,644, a 30 percent increase over it it's hulking predecessor.

While the MacBook Air is only dual core, Intel's Hyperthreading gives it two more virtual cores. Looking at my system's test results demonstrates that for many benchmarks it really works, giving the system the performance of more than two physical cores.

Other MacBook Air features play a role. The system bus speed is significantly higher, the L1 cache — which the MacPro didn't have — is infinitely larger, the L2 cache is the same size, but it's on-chip. Main memory is two times faster, the standard VRAM is larger, and the total system bandwidth is significantly greater.

I have to make do with 8GB of RAM on the MacBook Air. But the usually — though not always — snappy 500GB SSD reduces paging overhead, so the lesser capacity is rarely noticeable.

If you compare the size of the motherboards on the two systems, well, there is no comparison. The MacBook Air motherboard is tiny,smaller than an iPhone. There's a lot less fan noise as well.

All this in a system that weighs 8 percent of the original. And costs less.

The Storage Bits take

It took me a while to believe that my tiny MacBook Air could actually be faster than my workhorse Mac Pro. Was my memory playing tricks on me?

But when I sat down and compared specs, it became clear that in the last six years, the pace of technology has given me my Mac Pro in a slim, stylish, 3-pound case with a display, the keyboard, and a very functional trackpad to boot.

Our perception of what we need in a computer changes much more slowly than the actual technology. That's why tablets are popular: We're able to put the technology that people need and want into lightweight, portable, and functional systems. They have more power, ease of use, and battery life than most notebooks did 10 years ago. No wonder people love 'em!

While desktops and notebooks aren't going away, the tablet will be the leading platform for the next eight to 10 years. Perhaps in 2018, they'll even be fast enough for me.

Comments welcome. Have you switched to a smaller but faster system lately? Fun fact (for me, anyway): my #1 YouTube video has over 320,000 views.

Topics: Apple, Emerging Tech, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Processors, Tablets

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  • What has...

    the improvement of Intel processors, so that a current MB Air is faster than an ancient Mac Pro got to do with tablets?

    The MB Air can make a direct comparison, it can use the same software you use on the Pro and does the same job faster. How are you going to attach that 27" display and 4 disk RAID to an iPad and get Final Cut Pro running on it?

    I switched to a smaller, slower system, I have an Atom based Windows 8 tablet, which feels faster than my 3 year old Windows 7 PC. It isn't and editing graphics is still faster on the PC, but the UI is snappier on the tablet and running apps and normal office applications (ERP suite, MS Office etc.) it is fast enough, when connected to a desktop dock and 24" monitor it makes a suitable desktop replacement for a majority of the work I do.
    • an interesting question

      "How are you going to attach that 27" display and 4 disk RAID to an iPad and get Final Cut Pro running on it?"

      Perhaps, using the same Thunderbolt technology that you use on all current Macs? It's no coincidence the current iPad docking connector is named Lighting. Last year's iPads had CPUs that didn't anything but USB, but who knows what this years iPads might use. It is entirely possible that Apple switches to Intel CPUs with Thunderbolt or integrate similar technology in their very own CPUs -- after all, it's Apple who designs them.
      • Tablets

        Tablets doesn't exists as an entity. They are not "Winning". Tablets offers possibilities that a PC cannot offer. It's designed for light use. A PC, by design is made for extensive functionalities. 75-85% of the population doesn't need all those functionalities and they can be a pain just to maintain, update, booth and find a proper place for it.

        Tablets, because small CPUS can do more, simply responds better to todays needs.

        There is no race between tablets and PC's, only good old Darwin like evolution. The PC is not dead and there will not be any post pc era. PCs will continue to exists and they will only be used by people who needs more functionalities, a fixed location, and a standard Keyboard/mouse interface.
        • or...

          Tablets will eventually match the specs of a PC and just plug into a docking station that has keyboard/mouse and large screens.

          Tablets are currently consuming the netbook market and even the laptop market to some degree. But their long term position will be to replace the "tower" PC and simply dock into desktop workstations as the "new PC."
          • A tablet with PC-like capabilities, would be a PC of tablet size.

            So, your tablet would have become a PC.
          • tablet size PC

            This line of though only matters if you for some reason believe that tablets are not PCs (as in Personal Computers).

            They are. Tablets have always been PCs in slate form. So nothing is becoming anything -- it has always been this way.
          • match which PC specs?

            Laptops can match performance specs of desktops because they use nearly identical components (ignoring, of course, form factor issues, i.e. 2.5" vs. 3.5" hard drives). However, while a desktop & a laptop utilizing identical CPUs, RAM, OS & harddrive will produce identical performance, the laptop still doesn't match 100% of a desktop's performance. The laptop trades in the expansion & easy component replacement capabilities of a desktop PC for a smaller form factor & easy portability. This is simply the nature of the beast, so to speak: given identical levels of tech in your components, the larger the PC the more components -- and therefore the more *potential* performance -- you can have in it.

            This also happens with tablets. Whether comparing ARM-based laptops to tablets, or comparing x86-based tablets to laptops, *current* laptops will have the same or more RAM, the same or (most often) more storage space (even the SSD-only laptops), and usually a superior OS, which translates to superior performance.

            And so, by the time that you have advanced to the point of a "pure" tablet PC having a top-grade x86-64 multi-core processor, large SSD, and high amount of RAM...you will still be able to find a laptop with superior hardware, let alone a desktop.
          • danbi: tablets can be considered PCs, but, most tablets lack the power

            of what most people have come to define as a PC.

            Heck, with your definition, even a calculator can be considered a computer, but, it's still not a PC in the traditional sense. Likewise, the iPad and all of the Android tablets, cannot be considered PCs. One of my PCs, for example, has 750 gigabytes of storage, and 6 gigabytes of main memory, and 3 USB ports (one is USB 3), and a 15.6" screen, and an i5 intel processor, and connectivity via Wi-Fi and ethernet, and it can run millions of applications that were designed for Windows, plus a bunch more specs. The iPad is a very limited function device, and a lot of what it does and a lot of what Android devices do, can only be done with the help of the cloud and internet. Your tablets "PCs" are to a regular PC, what a 2-passenger bi-plane is to a Boeing 747. ;)
          • Simple Fact That's Been Missed

            You can place an i7-4770 w/ 16GB of 1600mhz RAM and a gtx7xx in a tablet (albeit, a greatly oversized one); however, the main obstacle is not even size really, but the reason for size... it's cooling. Why do you think the best performing laptops aren't "mac book air" thin, w/ CPUs running WAY less voltage? Because of cooooooling :) Sure, performance will increase with tablets as die shrinks and memory densities become better (so that they generate less heat); however, think of it this way... do you remember when 64MB of RAM was "all you will ever need?" Our useage, data consumption, data creation all increase, granted, hardware seems to increase almost exponentially, but figured I'd add a lil input to the discussion, and my thoughts as to why tablets aren't sporting the firepower needed for Crysis from 2007 :P Hope that helped :)
      • why would you need thunderbolt on iPad?

        to access files on drives that iOS doesn't let you see?
        • Thunderbolt

          Is a technology that extends CPU's PCI-Express bus outside of the case, via "cable".

          It has nothing to do with "files and drives". There are plenty of peripherals that use Thunderbolt that are not storage. Audio and Video comes to mind -- and because the iPad is already in use by such professionals to connect to their peripherals, it only makes sense to let it connect to such peripherals with Thunderbolt too.

          By the way, I gave "iPad" as an example. That could be well any other tablet, from any other manufacturer. It's just that the iPad continues to be most popular to this day.
          • Bus ports

            FireWire was the same concept.
            while the concept of having bus access via cable sounds like unlimited expansion, I question whether we really need that much on a tablet.
            Having a bus port opens up a hardware vector in terms of security. Tablet security is a huge issue being very portable, so the last thing we need is a way for thieves to DMA attack the device and obtain a memory dump and bypass the OS level.
    • It's Not About Mac Pro vs MBA

      He's showing that smaller packages have the same computing power that big ones did a few years ago, Like hooking a monitor and keyboard up to the iPad in the future to do the editing.
      • Robin's comarison has nothign to do with tablets. It's about hardware.

        Yes, you can now put a Core i7 in a MacBook Air but a MacBook Air is not iOS or Android.

        Like Windows, MacOSX is a full-featured computing environment featuring preemptive multitasking.

        Neither iOS, nor Android, nor even Windows RT can boast the kind of computing power or capabilities that are offered by Windows for as little as $300 or MacOSX for as little as $600.

        Put the Surface Pro up against the MacBook Air (or most any other ultrabook) and you are making a fair one-to-one comparison but it is a stretch to equate that with demand for tablets.

        A more direct comparison is that ten years ago the average user (not people like Robin, or you, or me) needed a $1700 desktop personal computer to browse the web, exchange e-mail, sort photos, listen to music, or watch movies. Today, those functions can easily be performed by a $170 tablet.

        That is the takeaway we should get out of Robin's article - though, IMO, it was poorly conveyed.

        That really doesn't answer my question though. Are people REALLY replacing their notebook/laptop PCs with tablets OR are hardware advancements allowing people to put off their next PC purchase so they can buy a tablet as a COMPANION DEVICE to their notebook/laptop?
        M Wagner
        • Agreed. I've asked the same thing.

          "Are people REALLY replacing their notebook/laptop PCs with tablets OR are hardware advancements allowing people to put off their next PC purchase so they can buy a tablet as a COMPANION DEVICE to their notebook/laptop?"

          Yet we'll never get an answer, as the answer doesn't spell doom or gloom for PC/MS/Intel, so better to not entertain that as a thought.

          We're no longer living in the "I'll take one of each" economy, so the choice is either "one or the other". In many cases, you're right, the PC hardware is good enough to last a few more years, so the obvious choice is likely going to be the "other" since they already own the "one".
          William Farrel
        • keeping the old pc

          M. Wagner - I vote no need for a new desktop PC. Unless your XP machine is so old it won't run Win 8, Win8 will be faster than XP was. Lots of people bought that $40 upgrade to Win 8, kept the old PC and bought a fondle slab. I've got Win8 running on my old netbook for traveling. My wife has a Surface Pro and is starting to use it as her main development machine for phone/tablet apps. She still has a big box quad core with big monitors. I have a TouchPad and an i5 desktop. I'm waiting to check out the performance of the BayTrail and Haswell units. I'll probably get a Haswell Pro that replaces my current desktop and netbook and pad.
        • nobody cares about your flawed OS comparisons

          First, because both iOS and OS X are the very same UNIX OS.
          Second, because no user ever "uses" the OS.

          Users care only what they can do with the computer. Doesn't matter if the computer fits in a data center, a rack, on your desk, in your hands or in your pocket.

          Computers do things because of application software. If there is application software for Windows RT, that does what you need the computer to do, then whatever device runs it is good. Windows RT, in this care is pretty much irrelevant for the user and they accept it's being on their device as "the necessary evil".

          Now, substitute "Windows RT" with whatever "OS" you love or hate and you might eventually understand why your opinion of "computing power capabilities, blah, blah" do not really matter for anyone, but fanboys.

          If you did not understand the message in this article, let me repeat it for you: People want to be able to use computing everywhere. Given that now they can do tasks that once required they be tied to a desk, as in the example given -- the huge and heavy Mac Pro -- by using an light and portable system, is in the example given -- the compact and light MacBook Air -- then people will chose the more compact and light system over the heavy one --- even if in theory the heavier stationary system can "do more".
          Tablets are compact and light personal computers that already have software that covers most of what people do on personal computers.

          I believe you are smart enough to connect the rest of the dots.
        • Companion

          Our main PC is still the desktop, which I just built less than a year ago as a replacement for our old XP machine. Assuming the same kind of upgrade life-cycle I did on the previous one, it should last us at least another 5-7 years.

          Our secondary PC is my wife's laptop. She primarily uses it for work to connect to her SMART Slate -- some of the classrooms have the dedicated SMART stations, but some only have an overhead that connects into the classroom desktop, so she just plugs her laptop in -- but it also works nice when connected via HDMI to our living room TV so we can watch Hulu, or if she wants to work on something while sitting on the couch.

          Our iPod Touches are essentially companion devices. Yes, we check our email on them quite a bit. Yes, we do most of our Facebook updating from them. But we also still use the other PCs for both tasks, with the iPods primarily used when a) neither PC is turned on & we just need to check something really quickly, or b) a PC isn't available & we're somewhere with free Wi-Fi. But we wouldn't ever dream of replacing either PC with the iPods...nor would we consider replacing them with tablets. My wife, especially, would be extremely upset if we took away her ability to connect to her SMART Slate, let alone use MS Office with a full keyboard (even her laptop has a full keyboard plus the 10-key side portion on it).
      • Geekbench not indicative of Video editing abilities

        if video editing is your power hungry application, there is no substitute for GPU accelerated Premiere. There is no Macbook Air that has the GPU for hardware accelerated Premiere. Mac Pro: yes.
        The difference is immense.
    • Lol

      I strongly agree, this post is as relevant as comparing apples and carrots.