December 5, 2022

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Intel Core i9 vs. Apple M1 Max: Which Laptop CPU Is Better?

It’s a new day in the ongoing battle between Mac and PC. The competing computer ecosystems have been at odds with each other for decades, but with the introduction of laptop versions of Intel’s 12th Generation processors (dubbed “Alder Lake-H”), and Apple’s line of M1 processors over the last two years, the fight is fiercer than ever before. 

A couple of years ago, Apple dealt a major blow to Intel, announcing that it was going to drop Intel processors from the entire Mac lineup by the end of 2022. Apple is well on its way to meeting that goal, having launched several new members of the Mac family that use Apple Silicon, starting with the M1 processor for the MacBook Air and the Mac mini, and extending to the higher-powered M1 Pro and M1 Max found in the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros and the iMac desktop.

Fast forward to last month, when Intel released its 12th Generation processors for laptops, starting with the high-powered Core i9-12900HK. You can see our full rundown of the Intel processor’s capabilities in our writeup of our first batch of tests on the new CPU, but a larger question looms: Is the M1 Max better than the latest Core i9? Where do things stand now, when sizing up Intel versus Mac processors?


Hybrid Architecture: The Hot New Trend

Both the M1 line and Intel’s 12th Generation processors offer something different than we’ve seen in laptops past, leveraging heterogeneous cores—a mix of two different core types, one for high-powered performance and the other for low-powered efficiency.

Apple’s M1 processor was the first to bring this mixed-core approach to mainstream laptops, but it builds on technologies used in phones and tablets for several years. Intel’s adoption of the new high- and low-tier approach to chip structure cements this as a new era of processor technology rather than a passing fad.

And it makes perfect sense. The approach has worked well in phones and tablets because it offers a mix of processing muscle for demanding applications and energy-sipping efficiency that can be applied to less demanding tasks. The result is a device that offers long battery life without sacrificing performance when it’s needed.

With laptops handily outselling desktops these days, computing needs are no longer about pure power—they’re about battery life and mobility, too. The hybrid approach promises to squeeze more usability out of existing battery technology, while still delivering support for gaming, content creation, and other processor-intensive tasks that you expect your system to handle.


Alder Lake vs. M1 Max: Specs Compared

But as both Apple and Intel embrace more complex chip architecture, it does get a little more difficult to compare processors between the two brands.

The two companies use different terminology and slightly different technologies, but they still have several points of comparison. Both support newer memory formats, like DDR4 and DDR5, and the two processors offer plenty of power for high-performance tasks.

With basic specs compared directly, it’s hard to see much of a difference between the two. But it’s worth remembering that these processors come in very different packages.


Alder Lake vs. Apple Silicon, Feature by Feature

The M1 Max processor is available only as an option in Apple’s latest MacBook Pro laptops, which are slim systems, with a standardized set of ports and features. Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake processors, on the other hand, have already shown up in very different form factors (the MSI GE76 Raider we tested, and the latest version of the Alienware x17 gaming laptop), which offer different features, different configuration options, and dramatically different cooling technologies. All of those differences can have an impact on performance.

Intel, unlike Apple, has to support a wide-ranging mix of features and technologies. With Intel processors used in systems from more than a dozen manufacturers, each with its own designs, feature sets, and intended markets, Intel’s hardware has to support a lot.

MSI laptop with Intel 12th Generation Core i9 viewed from behind


The MSI GE76 Raider, with 12th Generation Core i9
(Photo: Brian Westover)

From different memory formats to varied standards for storage and peripherals and ports, Intel has to be a jack of all trades. Apple’s chip, in contrast, has to work only within the confines of the handful of Macs the company offers, giving it much tighter control over the mix of technologies and features in play. As a result, Intel’s new CPUs support features like Wi-Fi 6E networking, PCI Express 4.0 and 5.0, and a range of memory formats: DDR5, LPDDR5, DDR4 and LPDDR4X. The chipset also supports up to four Thunderbolt 4 ports, and a wide range of USB options—up to 10 USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3 ones.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch with M1 Max


The Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch, with M1 Max
(Photo: Molly Flores)

The M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro 16-inch is outfitted with three Thunderbolt 4 ports, an SDXC card slot and one HDMI output. Even if it supports more connections at the chip level, you’re limited to the ports offered on Apple’s machines.

That’s a long way of saying that comparisons based purely on specs are not only difficult, they may not even be helpful. This is where performance testing comes in.


Core i9 vs. M1 Max: Performance Showdown

For a real comparison between the two processors, we turn to benchmark tests. These measure everything from raw number-crunching power to daily productivity and content creation, giving us a fairly clear picture of how the individual processors compare in different use cases.

Not every test we run on Windows machines is available for Macs, so our selection of performance comparisons is a bit limited. But we’ve seen enough to draw some important conclusions.

Before even getting to the test numbers, one thing is clear: Both the Intel Core i9-12900HK and the Apple M1 Max are absolute powerhouses. Let’s look at the test numbers to see how they actually compare.

Handbrake 1.4

The most straightforward test that we ran on both systems was Handbrake 1.4, which involves transcoding a 12-minute video from a 4K H.264 video file down to 1080p. It’s not only a great way to compare overall processor capabilities, but it also gauges how well-suited a CPU is to video editing, where such transcodes happen frequently. The results were similar, with the Intel Core i9 finishing mere seconds quicker, completing the task in 4 minutes and 42 seconds (4:42), compared with the Apple M1 Max at 4:49.

Cinebench R23

Another test that measures pure CPU brawn is Maxon’s Cinebench R23 test, which uses multicore processing to render images over a 10-minute stretch. It’s a test that favors exactly the sort of multiple cores and processing threads that both chips offer, making the final score a good indicator of overall processing power.

Here the 12th Generation Core i9-12900HK wins by a larger margin, scoring 16,259 points to the M1 Max-equipped MacBook Pro’s 12,395 points.

Geekbench 5.4.1 Pro

For a general sense of how well a processor handles day-to-day tasks, we turn to Primate Labs’ Geekbench Pro 5.4, which simulates a full load of productivity tasks, from video conferencing and speech recognition to machine learning. The MacBook Pro scored a decent 12,759 points, but the Intel Core i9 edged ahead again, with 13,506 points.

Adobe Photoshop 22 CC

To test content creation capability, we use Adobe Photoshop and a helpful testing extension by PugetBench. This test runs through a script of typical Photoshop functions, like applying masks and gradient fills, or filtering field blur. It’s much more of a real-world test, since these are tasks that any content creator will entail on a regular basis. However, unlike many of the tests we ran, it’s not purely focused on processor performance, bringing the full system into play, from the processor to the GPU, as well as memory and storage.

One additional caveat about our PugetBench Adobe Photoshop 22 CC test: It doesn’t run natively on Apple Silicon, requiring Rosetta 2 emulation to run on the M1 Max. With that in mind, the M1 Max scored a highly capable 876 points. The Intel Core i9-12900HK, on the other hand, had no such qualifying conditions, and scored an impressive 1,192 points.

Sure, we ran the test using Rosetta 2 on the Mac, but there’s still plenty of software that requires doing just that. This test makes it clear that, while the hardware on the latest MacBook Pros may be impressive, it’s not always going to translate into pure performance, because that added layer of emulation required to make legacy software work on the new Macs will definitely impose some performance limitations.

Blender

Our other content creation test is all about rendering. By using the open-source Blender creation suite, we can use the CPU to generate a photorealistic image from basic project files. The Intel-equipped MSI GE76 Raider completed the task in 3 minutes flat. The M1 Max MacBook Pro did it in 3:21.


Core i9 vs. M1 Max: Which is Better for Content Creation?

Apple has carved a solid niche for itself among creative professionals, offering hardware and applications that are in use across industries as varied as professional video production, graphic arts, and bedroom YouTubing. But Apple definitely doesn’t have a monopoly there, as more people than ever are working with media on a variety of Intel-powered machines. That raises the question: Which is better for content creation, the Intel Core i9 or the Apple M1 Max?

Our Core i9 Alder Lake-equipped MSI GE76 Raider, viewed from the front


Our Core i9 Alder Lake-equipped MSI GE76 Raider, viewed from the front
(Photo: Brian Westover)

When it comes to working with media, be it simple Photoshop use or more complex tasks, like music production or video editing, it looks like the Intel Core i9-12900HK is the better of the two, with a better Photoshop score, a faster time in our Blender rendering test, and quicker video transcoding in Handbrake.

If you’ve ever sat and waited for a complex edit to finish rendering, or for a format change to finish chugging along when you’re exporting a video file, you’ll understand how those extra seconds of lag will add up when you’re dealing with big batches of photos, or a much longer video. It can be the difference between finishing a project today and finishing the project next week. And on that front, it looks like the Intel Core i9-12900HK is the better CPU for media work.

But—and it’s a significant “but”—this clearly doesn’t speak to the numerous tools designed for Mac, including the many professional-grade options that run natively on the M1 processor line. Tools like Apple Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro X, or Adobe Audition all run natively on the latest Macs, no Rosetta 2 needed. If your preferred tools have this capability, you might not see the same performance gap.


Core i9 vs. M1 Max: Which Is Better for Gaming?

What if you want to use your powerful new laptop for something a little less productive? Gaming is the other major market for these high-end systems, but which is better for gamers, the Intel Core i9, or the Apple M1 Max?

Gaming on the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch


Gaming on the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch
(Photo: Tom Brant)

On the whole, it’s an easy win for Intel. Apple has always struggled with gaming, which makes up a sizable chunk of the high-end computer market. But only a handful of games run natively on M1 CPUs, with sites like MacGamerHQ and IsAppleSiliconReady.com reporting on the slowly growing selection of native and Rosetta 2-enabled games. 

When we tested Mac gaming in PC Labs, we found decent performance…on the games that worked. The hardware delivered impressive 100-plus frames per second (fps) on titles like 2016’s Hitman and Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015), but a lot of current titles just wouldn’t run, whether it was natively or through Rosetta 2.

The other thing that Intel supports, that the Apple M1 doesn’t, is discrete graphics cards. All of the M1 processors rely on the GPU cores that are baked into the M1-class chips, and there is no option for adding dedicated Nvidia or AMD graphics hardware. Intel does offer its own powerful integrated graphics in Iris Xe Graphics (as seen on the Alder Lake Core i9-12900HK), but it doesn’t restrict you to that option alone.

The flip side of this is that the new Macs are better at gaming than any Mac prior, so the Apple faithful are seeing a vastly expanded landscape for gaming, with more titles and better quality than ever before. Mac-lovers are rightly crowing that gaming is better on the Mac, and finally equivalent to Intel, and it is—on those few games that are supported.

But compared to Intel’s broad support for hardware and new titles, the difference is night and day. The conclusion is very clear: Intel 12th Gen processors are much, much better for gaming.

Recommended by Our Editors


M1 Max: All the Performance for Half the Power

One of the big issues facing both of these new processor models is the question of power consumption. Sure, these category-leading processors are expected to offer best-in-class performance. We would expect nothing less from the latest and greatest CPUs.

But the power used to get that performance is another question. The adoption of hybrid chip architecture drives home the need for energy efficiency—for many users, battery life is king, even more than pure performance.

Our testing doesn’t usually include tracking wattage, but with so much focus on power usage, it seemed prudent to do so here. For this, we tested both the 12th Gen-equipped MSI GE76 Raider and the M1 Max MacBook Pro 16-inch in Cinebench R23 and HandBrake to see what sort of power draw occurred during these processor-intensive tasks.

We’ve already noted the similar performance results in both tests, but the numbers tell a very different story when you look at the power draw of each system. To measure this, we tested the MSI at both standard test conditions, and again in high-performance mode, which takes some of the brakes off to squeeze out more power. In order to give the M1 Max its best chance of beating the Core i9 CPU, we tested it in the MacBook Pro’s High Performance mode, which also will draw more power in order to goose performance.

Both systems were tested by measuring the power draw from a standard wall outlet using a Kill-A-Watt power meter. Wattage was measured throughout each test run and averaged between the highest and lowest recorded readings.

In Cinebench R23, we saw the Intel-equipped MSI draw an average of 107.45 watts. But the average doesn’t tell the whole story. Voltage use tends to spike at the start of each test, then level off at a median range for the duration. In this case, the MSI pulled in as much as 138 watts, but settled in between 98 and 105 watts for most of the test, slightly lower than the calculated average. Switching to High Performance mode in the laptop’s MSI Center software bumped the power usage up by 7 or 8 watts. The average power draw stepped up higher, to 115.7 watts, but even the media power usage crept up to the 110-watt range toward the end of the 10-minute test.

The M1 Max-equipped MacBook Pro, on the other hand, essentially halved that, drawing 55 watts throughout the test. And unlike the MSI, which kicked the cooling fans into high gear as it rendered image after image, the MacBook Pro was stone-cold silent from start to finish.

We saw a similar pattern in our HandBrake test. This one was a little different, because we switched the MacBook Pro over to HandBrake 1.5.1 instead of version 1.4, which we normally use (and which was used on our MSI test unit). The reason is simple: The newer version is a Universal app, which helps clear up the confusion of how power use is changed by running on Rosetta 2—with no emulation layer adding an extra computational load, we know that we’re only testing the CPU’s power draw for the one task.

In any case, the results had a similar distribution to what we saw in our Cinebench test. In HandBrake, the MSI with Intel Core i9-12900HK drew an average of 115.85 watts but spent most of the test between 95 and 108 watts. Under High Performance mode, the same test caused the MSI to pull more power, with an average of 126.5 watts.

The M1 Max MacBook Pro, however, averaged a far more efficient 59.5 watts, ranging between 57 and 62 watts throughout. And, again, the MacBook did it all without the din of fans keeping things cool.

These results also seemed to carry over to our battery test results. Our video playback test involves a locally stored, hours-long video file of the open-source Blender movie Tears of Steel, playing continuously. With a standardized batch of settings, like 50% screen brightness, and 100% audio, we use this rundown test as our general test of battery life.

In this test, the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch, with M1 Max, lasted 20 hours and 13 minutes. That’s impressive no matter how you look at it. The Intel-quipped MSI GE76 Raider, on the other hand, lasted just 4 hours and 53 minutes.

But all of this is complicated by the differences between the two systems. The MacBook Pro 16-inch is a 0.64-inch-thick machine, and while it’s a little too thick and heavy (4.3 pounds) to be considered a thin-and-light laptop, it’s notably thinner and lighter than the MSI GE76 Raider. The Raider is a gaming beast with a high-powered GeForce RTX GPU; it measures a full third of an inch thicker (0.92 inch) and weighs in at 5.5 pounds. That extra thickness makes room for more cooling hardware, larger ventilation grilles, and gamer-friendly extras like a glowing LED bar on the front of the chassis. The difference in battery life is still stark, but these are hardly identical machines.


Verdict: Comparing Apples and Intels

At the end of the day, one thing is obvious: Both of these processors are monsters. Intel appears to have edged out Apple in terms of pure performance, and it’s done so in almost all tests, making it the clear winner in processing power.

But when you dig down into those numbers and consider the use cases and unavoidable complicating factors in our comparisons, it’s not quite so clear cut. The Apple M1 line seems to deliver better energy efficiency and battery life, and our performance comparisons may not accurately reflect what you get if you’re using tools built specifically for Apple’s new processing platform. The only area where the 12th Generation Core i9 is truly a decisive winner is gaming, and that stems more from the Windows platform’s gaming ecosystem, having a much wider selection of new and playable games.

Intel 12th Generation Core processor

The bottom line here: There is much more to a machine than the processor. And if you’re already invested in Apple’s software and ecosystem, the small difference in performance may not matter to you. Likewise, Apple’s battery-life win may not be enough to sway you unless you’re already considering a switch from Intel and Windows.

But the bigger picture is a good one: Both brands are offering better performance than ever before, and the competition between them seems to be fueling innovation. Architecture and platform changes like we’ve seen from Intel and Apple are years in the making, but both companies have delivered genuinely excellent results, with great performance, cutting-edge features, and a new path forward that considers power usage as much as it does raw processing. That’s a major leap in the right direction, and that means everyone wins.

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https://www.pcmag.com/news/intel-core-i9-vs-apple-m1-max-which-laptop-cpu-is-better