This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2013-12-20 at 3:06 p.m.
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Mac Pro Available to Order, Shipping in February 2014

by Adam C. Engst

Apple’s much-anticipated new Mac Pro [1], first announced in June 2013 at WWDC and further described four months later, is now available to order (see “Apple Gets Around to a New Mac Pro [2],” 10 June 2013 and “Details Emerge about the New Mac Pro [3],” 22 October 2013). If you haven’t been paying attention, the new Mac Pro is a 9.9-inch tall, 6.6-inch wide (25.1 by 16.8 cm) cylinder, encased in polished aluminum, and packed with more CPU and GPU power than any previous Mac. (It turns out to be more gray than black, akin to the “space gray” color of the iPhone 5s.)

[image link] [4]

The “to order” words above are key; although Apple apparently said that some units will start shipping by the end of December 2013, the Apple Store predicts February 2014 as the ship date for orders placed now. The Mac Pro is being built at a new plant in the United States, and given that it’s a completely new industrial design, we’re not surprised that Apple might have trouble making them quickly.

Although Apple offers two standard configurations [5] — a $2,999 quad-core model and a $3,999 6-core model — there’s no apparent difference apart from the starting options, which fall into four categories: processor, memory, storage, and graphics.

In terms of processor choices, clock speed drops somewhat as the number of cores increases, which has been the case for many Mac models over the years. Assuming your key applications have been optimized to take maximum advantage of multiple cores, adding cores generally produces enough of a performance increase to more than offset the lower clock speeds. (Mac Pro models with more cores have more L3 cache memory, too, which can also boost performance.) In addition, the Mac Pro CPUs, like those in all current Macs, feature Turbo Boost, which dynamically increases the clock speed in exchange for using fewer cores, thus improving the performance of apps that don’t take full advantage of multiple cores. However, as Marco Arment explains in detail, you’ll want to think carefully about the number of cores you choose given your main apps, because in certain situations, the trade-off of more cores for a lower clock speed can work against you.

With memory, the least you can get is 12 GB, with the jump to 16 GB adding $100, 32 GB coming in at $500 more, and 64 GB putting an additional $1,300 onto the price. Storage is similar, with 256 GB of flash storage standard and twice that — 512 GB — costing $300 more. A full 1 TB of flash storage costs an additional $800, so it may make more financial sense to stick with a relatively small internal SSD for Mac OS X and your apps, and then store all data on fast external drives.

Lastly, if graphics processing is important for your work (and it likely will be for many Mac Pro users), you can choose from dual AMD FirePro D300 GPUs with 2 GB of GDDR5 VRAM each, or bump up to dual D500 GPUs with 3 GB of VRAM for $400 more, or dual D700 GPUs with 6 GB of VRAM for $1,000 more. Apple suggests a Sharp 32-inch PN-K321 4K Ultra HD LED Monitor [6] with that, for a hefty $3,595; if you don’t want a 4K display, the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display [7] is only $999. If you have the money, the Mac Pro can run up to three 4K displays or up to six Thunderbolt displays.

In terms of basic specs [8], the Mac Pro has four USB 3.0 ports, six Thunderbolt 2 ports, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, and an HDMI port with support for multichannel audio output. 802.11ac Wi-Fi is standard, as is Bluetooth 4.0. For audio support, it has a combined optical digital audio output/analog line out minijack, a headphone minijack with headset support, and a built-in speaker. Needless to say, the Mac Pro comes with OS X 10.9 Mavericks, and undoubtedly will not support any previous versions of Mac OS X.

While the prices of the standard configurations were revealed back in October, it wasn’t clear how expensive a maxed-out Mac Pro would be until now. Going for all of Apple’s options (but not a monitor, keyboard, or mouse) raises the price to a whopping $9,599. That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but in a quick pass through Dell’s and HP’s Web sites, trying to match configurations resulted in numbers that are similar or even higher.

Put simply, if you’re buying high-end hardware these days, you’re doing specialized work and you’re willing to pay more for performance. When I need to replace my current 2008 Mac Pro, it won’t be with one of Apple’s new cylindrical Mac Pro models because I just don’t do anything that an iMac (or likely even a Mac mini) can’t handle. In the past, I always bought Apple’s Power Macs and Mac Pros because everyday apps like word processors and databases benefited from the power boost, and because only Apple’s towers supported multiple displays until 2006 (when the iMac added second monitor support, with the Mac mini joining in 2009). I’ll just have to get over the fact that I’m no longer a pro, at least in Apple’s eyes.