This could be due to Mac OS having performance optimizations to run on Mac hardware? As far as I know this has been happening since the first Mac from 1984 (128k) and the release of Windows 1.0 (1985). And in the 1990s, Mac computers usually had slower clock speeds than most standard PC systems,but they were still faster.

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    Got any proof for that claim? In what were they faster?
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 3:23
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    It would be useful to stay with verifiable criteria, like benchmarks, otherwise this is just about opinion.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 3:52
  • 11
    @SimonF Perceived UI snappiness / responsiveness doesn't necessarily equal greater performance. The two are loosly connected, but not equivalent.
    – mnem
    Dec 23, 2019 at 11:06
  • 5
    @SimonF except the question is about performance, not snappiness nor home use. Also, I've been there during the 70s and 80s, had as well Xerox, Apple (Lisa and Mac) and PC computers, and in all seriousness, the Mac was sluggish at best. Just switch on a Fat Mac open a document and wait. Wait even more if the program isn't loaded. Try to scroll and wait. Type and wait.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 13:28
  • 10
    Apparently, Apple hardware comes with a Reality Distortion Field bundled, which makes it appear more performant, and look cooler, than competitors.
    – ninjalj
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:49

6 Answers 6


This could be due to Mac OS having performance optiminizations to run on Mac hardware?

Artificial benchmarks aside, in real-world applications Macs were generally faster than Windows because the OS was indeed 'optimized' to run on Mac hardware - or more correctly, the hardware was optimized to run a Graphic User Interface. In comparison, Windows had to use whatever hardware was already in the PC, which was generally not optimized for GUI operation.

And in the 1990s, Mac computers usually had slower clock speeds than most standard PC systems,but they were still faster.

Clock speed by itself doesn't mean much, particularly when comparing different architectures. For example a 486SX-25 and 386SX-25 run the same clock speed, but one is several times faster than the other.

The 1990s was a time of very rapid advances in PC performance, so trying to make a valid objective comparison between Mac and Windows in this time period is difficult. However I did find this in the April 1991 issue of Computerworld magazine:-

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The article claims that "the Macintosh line, from the entry-level Classic to the high-end Macintosh IIFX, consistently outperformed its PC competitors - often by as much as 70%". Notably the 'biggest leads' were in graphics and publishing applications, suggesting that GUI optimization was a major reason for the better performance.

Naysayers may cite CPU benchmarks in an attempt to prove that the PC was actually faster than the Mac, but this actually reinforces the point that GUI-heavy applications ran faster on the Mac despite its 'slower' CPU. That is the advantage of building the GUI into the system from the start, rather than trying to bolt it on later.

But was there ever a time when the Mac was always faster than Windows on an 'equivalent' PC?

The original Macintosh 128k was released on January 24, 1984. It had built-in 512x342 pixel monochrome bitmap graphics, 128k of RAM, 64k ROM, and a single 400k 3.5 inch floppy drive. What would the equivalent PC be?

The IBM PCjr was released in March 1984. It also had built-in bitmap graphics with 640×200 pixels in 2 or 4 colors, 128k RAM, up to 64k of ROM and a 360k 5.25 inch floppy drive. Surely this is the closest contemporary PC to the original Macintosh?

But no. Microsoft Windows 1.0 required a minimum of 256k RAM and two 360k floppy drives. So the PCjr couldn't run it. If a version of Windows had been produced for the PCjr its performance would been much worse than the Mac, due to the slower 8 bit CPU. The original IBM PC and PC/XT were not much better (a contemporary review of Windows 1.0 in the New York Times described it as "akin to pouring molasses in the Arctic").

So the closest equivalent would have to be the PC/AT. It had a 16 bit 80286 CPU running at 6MHz, 256k RAM (expandable to 16MB), a 1.2M 5.25 inch floppy drive and 20MB hard drive, and could take an EGA graphics card. With those specs it should have been as fast as the Mac if not faster - at least on paper.

Only one problem. The PC/AT was introduced on August 14, 1984, but Windows 1.0 was released on November 20, 1985. So for nearly 2 years the Mac was indeed faster than Windows on any PC, since it did not exist! But had it been available earlier the majority of IBM machines (PCs and XTs) would have run it much slower than a Mac.

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    Nice, just two issues here. For one you should at least mention, that this isn't any independent test, but based on Apples advertizeing ("Apple says its Macintosh beat Compaq and IBM..."). Second, there have been much faster PCs already in 1984, like the Compaq Deskpro using a full 8086 at 8 MHz.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 13:19
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    Although it is very controversial whether the MAC hardware in a whole was somehow "optimized" for GUI (Simple 1bit bitmap? Just compare it to amiga hardware!), there is still a strong point in MAC architecture: its programs had no need to mangle with all kinds of brain-damaged 16-bitted segmented memory management quirks, as they were found in all 16bit windowses. 68000 chip from the very beginning was addressing up to 16 megabytes of the memory in a 'linear' way. Later 68k chips almost seamlessly moved to the addressing up to 4G of memory.
    – lvd
    Dec 23, 2019 at 13:57
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    To add some anecdotal evidence, there's a reason the entire print/graphics industry did their work on Apple systems. For the longest time they were objectively better for graphics work than Windows devices. And although the performance edge is gone, they still remain as the go-to for printers and designers alike (much to my disdain).
    – Logarr
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:34
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    You didn't need a Mac to embarrass a PCjr. A Commodore 128 running GEOS would do it just fine.
    – Brian H
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:56
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    @lvd Almost seamlessly... no, not really. The Mac had a lot of problems with software not being 32-bit clean, not the least being Apple's own software. It wasn't until System 7 that Macs supported more than 8M of RAM, four years after the first Mac with a 68020 CPU was released. Even then Apple had to licence third party software to get it work on older Macs with ROMs that weren't 32-bit clean. Also, Macs had their own memory management quirks its doubly indirect memory pointer scheme used to access memory. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mac_OS_memory_management
    – user722
    Dec 23, 2019 at 19:04

Why Mac systems were always faster than Windows in processing performance?

Mind to give any proof to this claim?

According to various Benchmarks, the PCs usually outperform Macs of the same time.

For example a classic Macintosh (68k @ 7.8 MHz; *1) delivered about 0.40-0.52 Dhrystone MIPS (*2), while a PC/AT (80286 @ 6 MHz) scored 0.40 to 0.71 DMIPS - that's close to double the performance of a Mac, depending on compiler used.

Results for Whetstones are rather unfair, as already the first PC/XT could feature an 8087 FPU delivering 115 kWhetstones (a PC/AT with 80287 did about 300) where a Mac couldn't deliver more than 15. It wasn't until the 1987 that Apple offered an FPU (68881) with the top line Mac II and the mid 1990s until FPUs were delivered with volume models.

Bottom line: Macs were never faster than PCs of the same time.

*1 - That's any Mac before the introduction of the Mac II in 1987 or SE/30 in 1989.

*2 - Classic Dhrystone 1.1

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    I guess the difference might not be so pronounced for UI work if you assume that the Mac is able to rest heavily on its ROM for anything interactive, and allow for the faster ROM execution speed. But "I guess" is clearly insufficient, and I agree thoroughly that without relevant benchmarks it's hard to figure out what to answer.
    – Tommy
    Dec 23, 2019 at 5:20
  • True, the ROM is not slowed down by video access, but that accounts at best for 20%. Since ROM does access RAM to do its work, it will usually be lower - and then the program itself is always executed from RAM. Also, this is only true for very early versions of MacOS, as later did not only add many layers around and in addition to the toolbox, but as well replaced many parts in full. But even if we would add the whole 20%, it'll at best catch up a bit to a PC - for sure not be 'faster'. P.S.: Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending the PC as such, just trying to stay with verifiable numbers.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 5:52
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    What has Dhrystone MIPS got to do with Windows vs Mac OS performance? And how is '0.40 to 0.71' close to double '0.40-0.52'? Bottom line: the question wasn't about Macs vs PCs, it was about Mac vs Windows. Dec 23, 2019 at 6:46
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    @BruceAbbott The question asks for 'processing performance' and what else would you use to measure that? Next, I'd consider a value of 140 to 175% close to double. Also, if at all, it would be MacOS vs. Windows, wouldn't it? In this case, mind to mane some sources supporting the claim, as well as objective criteria to evaluate? Without interpreting the question being about some other feature than processing performance doesn't make much sense, or would it?
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 6:58
  • This is no longer true today. Dec 23, 2019 at 14:37

If you'll forgive the imposition, I've been on a benchmark hunt. These tend to skew later because they assume some sort of convergence of application support. Of course, in sticking with a CPU benchmark I'm assuming that the interesting case is application software that does a lot of processing.

On the early days of the 68000 versus the 286, I found both Motorola's "AN ARCHITECTURAL CONTRAST: The M68000 Microprocessor Family and the 8086/IAPX 286" and Intel's rebuttal, both predating the launch of the Mac. The Intel response is better for citing Motorola's sources, but I was unable to obtain them online regardless, making the whole exercise very he-said-she-said. But my takeaway was that the 80286 would likely have the edge if it were used properly, though that verdict is muddied by a lot of squabbling about register quantities (68000 win!) versus access scheduling and how much effect wait states have (80286 win!).

Closing the 68000 era, I found this on the 68040 versus the 486. It applied various synthetic benchmarks:

  • Drhystone (i.e. heavily integer-oriented): the 25 Mhz 68040 was twice as fast as the 25 Mhz 486 (and the 25 Mhz 486 was 20% faster than a 50 Mhz 68030);
  • Linpack (i.e. floating pointy): the 25 Mhz 68040 was three times as fast as the 25 Mhz 486 — the article strongly implies it's a 486DX as it lists FPU registers in its mini-spec sheet, but it isn't explicit.

Caveat: the 68040 has a pipeline that's about 50% longer than the 486s, neither does branch prediction, and at least Dryhstones aren't very branchy. So the 68040 probably benefits in a way that it might not with actual application code.

In the mid-PowerPC era, I found http://macspeedzone.com which has a few broken links but still contains the relevant graphs for benchmarks comparing:

  • Mathematica, where 400Mhz PowerMac G3 just barely trails a 400Mhz Pentium II;
  • vector processing comparing Intel's Signal Processing Library to G4 AltiVec versions of the same functions, in which a 500Mhz G4 trounces a 600Mhz Pentium III;
  • SPEC, in which:
    • when performing integer arithmetic: a 500Mhz G4 beats a 550Mhz Pentium III but is slightly outpaced by a 600Mhz Pentium III — top of the heap: an Alpha 21264; top of the PC/Mac heap: a 650Mhz Athlon, 25% faster than the G4;
    • when performing floating point arithmetic: a 500Mhz G4 beats all of the Intel options and, just barely, the 650Mhz Athlon, but is heavily bested by a bunch of SPARCs, Alphas and PA-RISCs;
  • BYTEMark, which skews Mac-happy by:
    • integer: rating the 400Mhz G3 as almost 250% as fast as the 400Mhz Pentium II; and
    • floating point: rating the 400Mhz G3 at 144% as fast as the 400Mhz Pentium II.

But in net I think there's enough there to disprove the statement that Mac systems were always faster than Windows. It would seem more likely that they started either at parity or slightly behind, overtook during the 486 era, in theory roared ahead during the very early PowerPC period but was back in a tussle at least as early as the Athlon, and then sank slowly backwards as you head up towards the Intel transition.

With the heavy 'in theory' caveat on the early PowerPC days: in the real world it took several years just to get all the 680x0 code out of the OS, never mind applications. Having a fast processor that spends a decent amount of its time emulating another is only so much of a win.

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    What's really missing here are numbers on the early ones - which is quite important for the 'all' claim. (Some little nitpicking: the 040 did already use kind of a branch prdiction, as it assumes them to be taken, thus continuing prefetch from the branch target)
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 20:56
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    I've also had to make up my own criteria on faster (i.e. CPU benchmarks), hand wave the effects of the PowerPC transition (i.e. ummm, maybe don't put too much weight on the CPU benchmarks, at least for a period). So I wouldn't hold this forward as Retrocomputing's best answer even if I can find the documents that both Intel and Motorola selectively quote from.
    – Tommy
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:03
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    This wasn't meant as basic critic. Juut pointing out that the PowerPC issue is a quite late one - and as you rightful point out the one moment in time where Macs were quite fast (ofc, only when considering the top end models).
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:08
  • I think software FP would be more than 4x slower so probably it's a 486DX. Your link says "FPU on chip: yes" for both, so that pretty much confirms it. (And rules out a 486SX + a separate 387 FPU, which I think I've read was a possible config.) Dec 24, 2019 at 6:12
  • The part about x86 registers being "dedicated" for certain tasks is a bit over-blown. Yes most register have some implicit uses, but that doesn't interfere with using them for other things when you aren't using those special-case instructions. Still, x86 before x86-64 is less nice than m68k, and yes the x87 FPU register stack sucks, especially as a compiler target. You have to carefully schedule your computations to minimize extra fxch instructions to move data around in the FP stack, or even store/reload. IDK how good early compilers were. Dec 24, 2019 at 6:13

Although the "computer speed" is totally subjective and all those ***stones are just synthetic tests, let's take this question seriously, but from a different point of view.

There are differences between the Intel x86 and the Motorola 68x family. Motorola has a slightly better performance and can do a few more memory operations than an Intel on the same frequency.

The Windows/DOS combination, at least in Windows 1 you are mentioning, runs in real mode, with almost no benefits of protected mode or 32bit architecture. It locked the whole Windows into the "640kB world, segmented". On the other side, the 68k family was "32bit by nature" with full memory access, so it could do some operations faster.

The other thing is "user feeling". Mac OS had a better-optimized UI, so the user did not notice annoying slowdowns (as in the Windows did).

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    Mind to explain how "Motorola [...] can do a few more memory operations than an Intel on the same frequency" ? Both CPUs take 4 clock cycles for an undelayed memory access. So in theory, they are the same - in reality 68k gets lower memory thruput, as it does all access strictly in sync with processing, while x86 CPUs do prefetch code during internal operation. Further Windows 1 didn't do any virtual 8086. That wasn't used until Windows 386 - as the 386 was the first CPU to support virtual 8086 mode.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 8:24
  • "as it does all access strictly in sync with processing" -- 68000 prefetches the first word of the following CPU instruction before doing memory accesses for the current one.
    – lvd
    Dec 23, 2019 at 14:04
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    I think the 68000 actually has a two-word prefetch queue, but the queue is filled synchronously by instructions in the microcode for each operation. So it's more like overt pipelining. Whereas I think the 8086 has a completely free-running bus unit with a short fetch queue in it?
    – Tommy
    Dec 23, 2019 at 15:51
  • @Tommy Exact. While the 8086/88 queue is quite short, it is filled asynchronous whenever the CPU doesn't need to fetch any data. This pushes bus utilization quite close to 100% (ofc, depending on code), which helps performance a lot.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 25, 2019 at 2:46

Are we comparing oranges to oranges?

A difference in the amount of RAM could explain the performance difference.

I recall years ago learning a story that would help explain this.

Macs typically had more memory than their PC counterparts in many colleges(/universities).

Many colleges figured out that PCs were cheaper than Macs. And so they gravitated towards using PCs.

However, certain college programs like "graphics design" and "desktop publishing" reported that Macs provided better performance, and this was really needed for the tasks used by these specific industries. The key reason that the Macs performed better was simply that the Macs tended to have beefier hardware, including notably higher amounts of RAM.

The colleges were able to afford the higher prices for Macs, as long as they weren't buying too many of them. So the college programs that needed the better hardware were supplied with the more expensive Macs which were supposedly necessary, while other departments got cheaper PCs since they weren't crying so loudly about an apparently-justified need for the more expensive hardware. The PCs that ran word processors and spreadsheets could often get by with less RAM, and so the colleges saved money by buying computers with less RAM for the general-purpose computer labs.

The end result is that Macs got a reputation for working better on graphics programs in college. Then, the college graduates went into the industry and told their employers that they were Mac-trained because Macs were better, and so many companies cooperated by getting Macs for the departments that were going to be heavily staffed by such trained graduates.

So, if you want to have meaningful comparison between brands (like Apple vs. others), make sure you know how much RAM were in the machines. If you don't know, then that could very well have likely been the cause of the performance difference.

  • For those who prefer verified (or, at least, easy reference-able/verifiable) facts, I'm sorry to disappoint. I simply don't recall where I was exposed to the story (maybe website, or rumor by a fellow computer game player, or instructor of a college course... I totally don't recall), so I don't have any further basis to be able to verify any of this better than anybody else who has just read the story.
    – TOOGAM
    Dec 23, 2019 at 13:49
  • I think something that is indisputably a fact is that all Macintoshes with hard drives were using SCSI prior to the 1994 debut of the Quadra 630. So if you had a Mac you were obliged to buy premium (i.e. faster) storage.
    – Tommy
    Dec 23, 2019 at 15:36

The users' perception of "processing performance" on Macs vs. Windows PCs is likely influenced by 3 unmentioned differentiators:

  1. The relative performance of all versions of MacOS (macOS) vs. all the contemporary versions of Windows OS.
  2. The particular applications that the users are actually running.
  3. The extent to which the rest of the system has been adequately equipped to handle the particular applications.

For #1, it should not be particularly controversial that the OS shipped with Macintosh computers has, for the most part, maintained a performance advantage over contemporary Windows PCs when viewed through the subjective lens of user experience. An OS "feeling responsive" is mainly an issue of system integration; hardware and software working well together. Since the Macintosh OS has always been able to target a narrower set of hardware variations, this is easier and better achieved than for PCs that must target a much broader range of hardware. Just as is alluded to in the question, "optimizing for the hardware" requires the developers to know specifically the hardware that is being targeted. Since Apple is actually in the computer business, this was always part of their software development "DNA".

Number 2 and #3 are best illustrated through examples, I think. Take Desktop Publishing for the Mac vs. Computer-aided Design (CAD) for PC's. An early adopter of Desktop Publishing applications had a relatively easy choice for a Macintosh. Aldus' products ran acceptably on Macs, and extremely well on Macs specifically expanded for that application, usually with higher resolution displays and plenty of RAM. The exact same can be said for AutoCAD users and PC's. Note that in the AutoCAD case, Windows was not initially a consideration.

The point is the choice of application dictates everything else about the system, including the right OS and the right hardware add-ons. Most AutoCAD users also chose specific graphics cards that included accelerated 2D drawing capabilities and very high-resolution frame buffers in order to get that optimized "processing performance" they needed. Such graphics cards were readily available for PCs to feed this market.

In summary, computers are not just CPU's, which compute certain quantities at certain speeds. They are complete systems of Hardware+OS+applications that are (optimally) tuned for the application workloads that their users are demanding from them. That's sort of why these are called "Personal" Computers to begin with, and why it should be obvious that comparing them based on something as mundane as MIPS or clock speed or numeric benchmarks is just a curiosity and not a recipe for deciding whether a given system is best for a given user.

  • "optimizing for the hardware" in case of the Mac? Not really. Apple triedquite hard to keep programmers away from optimizing for hardware. And programms that did failed many times with new machines and OS versions Also, for perceived speed, you may want to sit down in front of some Fat Mac and just boot it and start an application - like Word - and finally open a text file. Even with a hard disk this takes up to two minutes. More than double of a contemporary PC.
    – Raffzahn
    Dec 23, 2019 at 21:06
  • @Raffzahn I've done that, but it's a poor comparison. SCSI interface was added with Mac Plus. HD on a Fat Mac is connected to the floppy port. Naturally, it is slow when compared to any real HD interface. Can't optimize for hardware that's not even there.
    – Brian H
    Dec 24, 2019 at 13:24

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