Do You Need a Mac Pro?

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I like reading tech blogs, especially the ones in which the authors give vent to their disappointments about forthcoming technology. I happened upon an article at MacWorld.com about how the soon-to-be-released Mac Pro is just too darn expensive, but the reasoning employed was so convoluted that I basically came away from the article with this summary:

A guy who admits he doesn’t need a Mac Pro thinks that a new Mac Pro spec’d beyond the base model he doesn’t need is too much money for him to spend on a Mac Pro he doesn’t need.

On the floor beneath my desk sits the behemoth that is a 2009 Mac Pro. Combined with a 24-inch Cinema Display, that system cost around $3600 when I bought. While the Mac Pro could never be accused of being a bargain, the Pro’s superior specs and greater internal expandability were sufficient to make it worth the extra bucks for many users like me.

Let’s keep this price in mind as we go forward. Based on average prices for the Mac Pro in 2009 (assuming it was bought new), this pricing is actually fairly realistic. The base model of the 2009 model started at $2499, and the 24in Cinema Display would have run about $899. Add in a modest RAM bump from a third party vendor or the purchase of AppleCare, and we have about $3600.

Internal expandability seems to not be everything, however:

My Pro has performed exceedingly well over the years, but the setup is showing signs of age. It’s also not well equipped for the future: The machine has no Thunderbolt ports, no USB 3 ports, no 802.11ac Wi-Fi.

I’m not sure what point there is in saying that a machine developed before the advent of these technologies doesn’t have these technologies. IMO, one really significant problem with the earlier iterations of the Mac Pro was the rather deplorable lack of high-end GPUs which often detracted from its ‘superior specs.’  And in my experience, it is this lack of external expandability which is far more debilitating to the previous iterations of the Mac Pro, since it locks the machine in to only the components one can put into the box.

If Apple had not announced this Pro machine, I would have put an iMac on the list instead. The iMac’s specs have improved dramatically over the past few years. Indeed, many of my “power user” colleagues who formerly owned Mac Pros have already opted for an iMac. Some of them have found that even a MacBook Pro is sufficient for their needs.

Very true, and for many professional creative tasks an iMac or MacBook Pro is more than enough. When my wife first got a MacBook Pro Retina it was running circles around my 2008 Mac Pro. Hardly surprising that a brand new computer with modern internals would outpace a computer that was nearly 4 years old.

Still, the new Mac Pro remains a seductive, if not essential, alternative. So what if it delivers more raw power than I need? Why not get one anyway? When I took a closer look, I discovered why not.

So, the author states that the computer which is not something he will get is also something that he does not need? Shouldn’t this article realistically move on to telling us why the iMac is better for his needs rather than stating why he cannot justify the costs of a new computer he wouldn’t fully utilize?

One major attraction of a Mac Pro, compared to all other Macs, has been its internal expandability. No more.

I find this argument peculiar, especially in light of the author’s disclosure of what he paid for his setup. As noted earlier, the $3600 would have most likely gotten him a baseline 2009 MacPro with perhaps a 3rd party RAM bump (or maybe he upgraded the GPU). And since we are not informed about any further expansion (which would of course immediately obviate the $3600 as a price point for comparison), it would seem that as much as internal expansion is offered as an attraction, it is nevertheless an attraction which was (from what I can tell) not really acted upon.

This has actually been my experience with lots of people who own MacPros, or even computers with lots of internal expandability. They like the idea of having it, but very often do not utilize it, or at least not beyond upgrading the RAM. Of course, there are many who do, but these are those for whom the term ‘faint of wallet’ does not really apply. The person getting the Mac Pro just because they want the raw power that they admittedly will never use is not terribly likely to make use of the internal expansion, as the author seems to indicate based upon the pricing of his setup. (Granted, he could have gotten some really amazing deals in RAM, GPUs and the like, but I’m not sure that would make the comparison realistic.)

Further, as should be obvious, internal expandability is perhaps a value, but it also entails further financial expenditures. Thus, the true cost of the setup is going to be not only what you initially put into the machine, but also the additional components added later. Not knowing what extra components have been added (if any) makes further price comparisons somewhat dubious.

The new Mac Pro offers no internal hard drive or optical drive expansion bays—indeed, no hard drives or optical drives at all. The only internal storage is PCIe-based flash storage. Also absent are any PCI (or other) expansion slots. From what I’ve read, you can’t even swap out the video card. At least RAM remains user upgradable. It also appears that you’ll be able to upgrade the flash storage, though to perform that task you’ll have to use cards custom-designed for compatibility with the Mac Pro.

Given the falling prices of storage and the far greater utilization of external RAID’s, the need for massive amounts of internal storage are largely aesthetic. And since flash drives offer significantly better performance, the system disk can be far smaller in size to handle the OS, applications and current projects, leaving larger, slower traditional storage to handle- wait for it- storage.

For both aesthetic and practical reasons, keeping major peripherals internal is preferable. I certainly put this design change in the minus column.

Personally, I have never fully understood the aesthetic argument. In every situation I have operated in with any Mac Pro I have had multiple peripherals- from external hard drives to tablets to cameras to capture devices and so on- hanging off of the computer; some permanently, some as the need arose. And while I can appreciate aesthetics, I think it is far less important than the impression given here. Sure, there are fields where you need nothing more than a mouse or the trackpad, but some fields (like video production) are going to have things hanging off, simply because you cannot get everything into a box.

As far as the practical aspect; I think one could actually argue that there are practical reasons for taking some of the stuff out of the box. For example, in many respects storage makes far more sense to exist outside of a particular box.

For me, however, what finally killed any inclination I had to buy a Mac Pro was the cost. I’m not saying that Apple is overcharging for what the Mac Pro delivers—the cylinder carries some serious power. And I was prepared to pay a premium price to get it. It’s just that the actual premium turned out to far exceed anything I had anticipated.

I’m guessing he was anticipating something around what he paid for his original setup, which was $3600. So now all that remains to be seen is how the new pricing will ‘far exceed’ what he had anticipated.

The cheapest (if that word can be applied at all in this context) Mac Pro is the $2999 quad-core configuration. This model would have to suffice, as upgrading to six or more cores would be prohibitively expensive for me, and unlikely to provide any noticeable boost to the software I use.

I must admit to being a bit confused by this line of reasoning. Earlier he mentioned that he didn’t really need the sheer raw power that such a machine would provide, but then laments that the base model would have to ‘suffice.’ Suffice for what? For being able to say that he bought a certain machine even though he doesn’t need it?

The baseline model (which is admittedly more than he would need, even though it would apparently have to suffice) is $2999, which is actually only $500 more than what he would have paid for the baseline model of his 2009 Mac Pro. To be honest, I’m not sure how this would ‘far exceed’ his expectations; perhaps he suffers from a poor imagination?

After all, the 2009 Mac Pro base model came with only 3GB of RAM; the 2013 model comes with 12GB. The 2009 model had 1 crappy 512MB GT120 graphics card; the 2013 model has 2 2GB AMD GPUs. The 2009 model had (4) 2.66 Ghz processors; the 2013 model has (4) 3.77 Ghz processors.

Honestly, one would be tempted to expect (or anticipate) that the 2013 Mac Pro would actually cost a whole lot more.

Regardless, the real shocker is that this Pro comes with only 256GB of storage. Even if you pony up the extra $1000 for a six-core model, you get the same measly 256GB. This seems far too stingy for a high-end “pro” machine. In contrast, a new iMac with the hybrid Fusion Drive ships with at least 1TB of storage. I expected at least as much from the Mac Pro. Even my 2009 Mac Pro came with more storage out-of-the-box.

Really, this is the real shocker? There is a bit of a false comparison here, for while new iMacs do ship with at least a TB of storage, the base model comes with 1TB of traditional spinning disk storage, whereas the Mac Pro comes with only flash storage. And even the Fusion drive is still only 128 GB of flash storage, the rest being traditional 7200rpm storage. And while the 2009 shipped with 640 GB of storage, this was also 7200rpm storage.

People who buy something like the Mac Pro because they need its performance tend to need a lot of storage space. And since the internal expansion on any box is limited, this is often handled much better outside of the box. I personally would be tempted to upgrade to the 500GB just to make sure I had room for the OS, all the applications and current working projects. But it simply wouldn’t make sense to have all my storage on flash (since it’s so expensive) since storage as storage doesn’t require the blazing read/write speeds that flash enables. (I’m also not sure I’d want to move massive amounts of data onto a new box if I didn’t have to…)

But for many (I would even say most) who would be inclined to such a machine, even a 1 TB hard drive is kind of child’s play. Those in video production, for example, routinely handle massive amounts of data for a single project; even a relatively small project can utilize 500GB or more of data, which obviates the need for massive amounts of internal storage space, since handling that much data is much better handled by some sort of external solution, which in itself has other advantages depending on one’s situation. There’s only so much storage you can stuff into one box (indeed, the 2009 Mac Pro had a cap of 8 TB, which would have been more costly in 2009 than in 2013).

As far as expectations, based on the direction Apple had been moving with its other products I for one was not shocked that the new Mac Pro went this route.

The only Apple-supplied way to get a 1TB Mac Pro is by upgrading the flash storage. Apple has not yet posted what such an upgrade will cost, but on the current iMac, upgrading from 256GB to 1TB of flash storage adds $800 to the price; I expect the price jump to be about the same for a Mac Pro. That’s expensive any way you slice it. In a few years, as the cost of flash storage (hopefully) falls and Apple increases the minimum amount included with a Mac Pro, I’m sure the company’s decision to go flash-only will look prescient. For now, though, it makes for a very costly upgrade that many users may see as essential.

In some ways this argument is based on inflated cost. If someone is going to be using flash storage as it is intended to be used, the extra 750GB of storage space would probably not come by way of extra flash but rather traditional spinning disks. In fact, this is what the author previously alludes to with the Fusion drive, the only difference being that Apple folds it into one disk. Rather than an extra $800, if one were to get sheer storage parity, an extra 750 GB (or more) of storage could be had for under $200, which is right in line with the iMac upgrade to a fusion drive.

True, you could use an external drive to expand storage. But, as I indicated already, I much prefer to have the entire contents of my startup drive inside the Mac, rather than depending on a Thunderbolt peripheral for this task.

I would have to wonder exactly what is on the startup drive that would exceed 1 TB.

The new Mac Pro’s base configuration comes with only 12GB of RAM, too. Given that more RAM almost always translates into improved overall speed, I’d likely bump that to at least 16GB, and more likely to 32GB. Again, the higher numbers seem more in keeping with the overall power of the machine.

And here is where I felt completely lost with the article. So a machine that the author does not need and which would provide more raw power than he would need is one that he would nevertheless bump up the RAM on? It also bears pointing out that this model comes with 4 times more RAM than the 2009 model.

Next, to maintain parity with the specs of my old Mac Pro, I’d have to add external optical drives and perhaps additional external hard drives. Finally, I’d have to include an Apple Thunderbolt Display. (I’m not even dreaming about a possible 4K display here.)

Yes, the $50 optical drive is a system killer… And as far as external hard drives- if all we are going for is sheer storage parity, an extra 500GB of storage (to be in line with the 640 GB of of the 2009 Mac Pro) could be had for another $60 or so. Even a couple TBs would only run about $100.

Using iMac-based estimates when necessary, I calculated that the final cost of my “minimal” Mac Pro setup would land well north of $5000, not including sales tax. That’s much more than I paid for my old Mac Pro setup…

Well, sure, if you add an additional 20 GB of RAM and decide you want 1 TB of flash storage, the price is going to go up from the base model, and is going to be more than the 2009 model, which, although we do not know his exact setup, was probably not spec’d out much beyond the base model based on the number he mentioned.

However, feature ‘parity’ is a bit of a misnomer here, since the 2013 base model has faster processors, 4x more starting RAM, far superior graphics cards, and modern connectivity. Excepting the storage space (even though the storage on the 2013 model is also superior in terms of performance), the base model of the 2013 Mac Pro would be superior in every respect to what the base model of the 2009 model was. And if we brought the storage into ‘parity’ for the least amount of money (since money is a concern here), we could actually get more storage than what came with the 2009 base model for less than $150 more. Adding in an optical drive, it might look something like this:

Base model: $2999
Extra 2 TB USB 3.0 storage: $110
Optical Drive: $59

A total of $3168. If we add a new thunderbolt display for $940, we come up with $4108, which is only about $500 more than the author paid for his 2009 model while getting a far superior system.

Despite its high cost and limited expandability, I expect the new Mac Pro to appeal to a small but profitable professional market—just as automobiles that run upward of $100,000 do.

I think this statement could be reasonably predicated of every iteration of the Mac Pro. If $500 is enough to dissuade someone from getting a particular machine, it’s probably a good sign they aren’t in this group and were probably never in this group.

Because of its lower cost, the departing Mac Pro attracted a broader range of users, many of whom were not graphic artists, video producers, or other professionals. If you were a prosumer who wanted the most powerful and expandable Mac you could get, you went with the Mac Pro.

I don’t think it was the ‘lower cost’ which attracted this group of people, but rather that for some time the iMac was simply not a viable alternative. And now that iMacs have become beasts of their own, it is far more appealing of a machine for particular kinds of users.

But the new Mac Pro is a different animal. For those of us who have treated the Mac Pro as an affordable luxury, akin to today’s MacBook Pro, the new Mac Pro will likely seem impractical and extravagant, almost to the point of being frivolous.

I can actually mostly agree with this, but if this is true, why would the author insist on needlessly bumping up the specs on his new Mac Pro if it was indeed ‘impractical’ and ‘extravagant’ and ‘frivolous?’

The new Mac Pro is a machine whose design shows no evidence of having been constrained by concerns over who could afford it.

I would argue that the previous versions of the Mac Pro exhibit this same lack of concern.

If this means that the Mac Pro’s escalating costs put the machine out of reach of many potential buyers, well, the iMac and MacBook Pro are always there to fill the void.

That a far superior system which can be had for only $500 more than a somewhat similarly spec’d system from 2009 could be characterized as exhibiting ‘escalating costs’ seems a bit of a stretch to me. I for one am actually quite surprised it doesn’t cost a lot more.

So yes, if one doesn’t need the raw power of such a machine, one obviously shouldn’t get one. In fact, given the author’s description of the type of computer he would use, the iMac seems like the system he has actually always wanted; I would speculate that had something similar to the current generation iMacs been available in 2009, he would have never even considered a Mac Pro. Notwithstanding that, I would contend that, based on the market for which this machine is designed, a $500 bump in base price over the course of 4 years for a far superior machine is not going to be the major factor in the purchase; indeed, I would argue that price was never really the deciding factor for most people who purchased the Mac Pro or would consider buying one.

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Jason Watson

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