I have an iMac...
My wife's iMac from 2009 finally gave up. Its hard drive, over the course of a couple of days, died. Then, I got out my suction cups and screwdriver set and grabbed a spare hard drive that was lying around. I popped it into the iMac and within a couple of hours had it up and running. Then, I noticed something: it was not slow! I have a MacBook Air from mid 2015; the lowest-end model, but it is pellet fast enough for me until a couple of weeks ago--see my other post on that one. Applications would load in less than a couple of seconds, and it just felt like I had hooked up my laptop to the iMac. However, being a hard drive and also being a pretty old one, it did start to slow down as I put a bunch of files onto it--maybe it is even failing. Thing is, other than that, I could totally use it is my secondary computer after my laptop. I was just wondering if you guys think it would be worth it to get a, maybe 128 GB SSD for like $100 and pop it into the iMac. See, I don't have really any need at all for a desktop computer sides that it has a much bigger, higher resolution screen. And that is why I would not actually buy one. It is 3.06 GHz, Intel Core 2 Duo, iMac 10,1, 1 processor, 2 cores, 3 MB L2 cache, 4GB memory (I could upgrade that easy-peasy), with an ATI Radeon HD 4670 GPU + 256 MB VRAM, 1920 x 1080 display 32-bit color, and USB 2.0. What do you guys think? Should I upgrade the RAM and grab an SSD? Or is it ready for The Collection?
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Intel's newer CPUs are certainly more capable than the Core series and handle CPU-intensive tasks much more efficiently, but most system tasks involve I/O. The limiting factor tends to be hard disk read/write activity. That wait is minimized by having an SSD, and to an even greater extent on a newer Macs incorporating integral flash memory. That resource minimizes the effects of limited physical memory (RAM).
As I wrote more RAM is almost always beneficial, but I have never seen OS X actually use any more than about 12 GB RAM, no matter how much may actually be installed. It runs fine with less. 4 GB is adequate on Macs with flash memory. I have not attempted to run El Capitan with less than 4 GB. Everyone's needs are different though.
Even with the Core 2 Duo you are not going to find yourself waiting very long or very often for the computer to do something. Editing or rendering video is one very processor-intensive example. The time to complete those tasks will be less with a more capable CPU.
(Activity monitor would tell me this?)
Yes, select the CPU pane and sort by %CPU to identify tasks that are more processor-dependent than others. When its "idle time" decreases below 70 - 80% (a very approximate range) you will probably begin to perceive some performance degradation. Much less than that and the "wait cursor" starts to be a constant annoyance.