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Can a Normal User Justify a Mac Pro?

As Macintosh computers go, the new Mac Pro is special. It’s an entirely new take on the professional desktop computer, from a product line that has resembled a cheese grater since 2003, when it was the pre-Intel Power Mac G5.

The new model is a shiny dark gray (not black) cylinder that packs in all the latest Mac technology and is, philosophically, a major break from the past. Instead of internally accommodating a range of drives, cards and other add-ons, it accepts expansion solely from the outside via USB, HDMI and, especially, Thunderbolt 2.

It’s whisper quiet, with a single fan that cools via a central “thermal core,” and it is shockingly small. I took pictures of the Mac Pro alongside older Macs, like a Power Mac G4 Cube and a 128K Mac; it is smaller than both, which astounded many.

The new Mac Pro is not for ordinary mortals, Apple has stressed. The company built it from the ground up for the needs of pros who require serious power to do advanced video, audio, design, 3D modeling, or scientific work.

And yet it’s the Mac I’m craving, despite its high sticker price, starting at $2,999 – and that is just for the computer, without even a keyboard or mouse.

As my trusty 2009 iMac seems ever slower, I’m due for a major Mac upgrade, so I’ve been agonizing about whether I should invest in a Mac Pro since Apple announced it, and especially after the review unit arrived.

Many fellow Mac users would, I imagine, try to talk me out of such a move. As many might put it, “If you have to think about it, it’s not for you.”

And yet…

The Mac Pro seems, at times, to be the next Mac I’m destined to possess. What follows might seem to be tortured logic and wishful thinking, and maybe it is. Still, here are my thoughts on why a Mac Pro might — or might not — be appropriate for an average Mac Joe like yours truly.

I am a desktop guy. While I understand the appeal of a powerful mobile computer that folds flat for easy transport, they’re not my favorites. Whether we’re talking about the Mac IIci or various iMacs, I’ve always preferred desktop Macs. While I like mobile computing, perhaps while sipping on a latte at my local coffee shop as I tap on my iPad or my Chromebook, I reserve heavy lifting for my desktop Mac.

Yet I dislike all-in-ones. Using Macs that are integrated with their screens over the years has bitten me more than once. When I’ve needed to have the Mac repaired, I have to haul the whole thing in and be left without my main machine. I want my next desktop Mac to be separate from its display so I have options (attach a MacBook to the display, or scrounge an old screen from the attic) if either of them go south.

I never seriously considered purchasing previous Mac Pro models. My wife would have frowned on such a hulking metallic monster in our cramped home office, and I’m hypersensitive to computer noise.

So the Mac mini, then? Until the new Mac Pro came along, I was thinking that the Mac mini would be my next Mac. The Mac mini has a nice price and specs comparable to those of certain laptop Macs, yet without that pesky integrated display. The main problem with the Mac mini at the moment is that its tech is lagging badly since it has not been updated in nearly 18 months.

Hello, you little cylinder! News of the new Mac Pro threw all my careful calculations out the window. It’s much more expensive than a Mac mini, making it a tough sell for my wife, when she’s wearing her household CFO hat. Yet, with my loaner Mac Pro sitting sexily and silently atop our home-office computer desk, we were both smitten. This is the Apple computer of our dreams.

It’s even sort of portable. My work is split roughly 50-50 between my home office and my office at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and it’s nice to have the same kind of computing horsepower in both places. That’s why I loved my Mac Pro test drive because I could tuck the cylinder into its box with the carrying handle and relocate on a whim. Upon arriving at either spot, I plugged in the Mac, hooked it up to a monitor, and got right to work. Would I really do that with a Mac Pro I owned? Likely not often, but maybe on occasion, when I needed the Mac Pro’s horsepower at a different location.

Conveniently, the well-known WaterField Designs, maker of cases and sleeves for all manner of gadgets, told me it is working on a Mac Pro carrying case (but has not publicly announced it yet). One such bag, from The Flight Case Company, already exists. And the Mac Pro is much more portable than the classic one-piece Macs, which were touted as luggable in their day.

But can I justify the cost? Here’s the part of the decision that requires the most thought. Could I seriously entertain paying $3,000 or more for a Mac? It would not be the first time; I recall paying a princely amount for my IIci. But today’s lower-cost Macs are plenty powerful for most computing tasks, which makes a Mac Pro seem like an absurd extravagance.

Let’s get real here. I’m not a Hollywood movie maker who will piece together a feature film on this Mac, or a scientist requiring heavy computing horsepower to unlock secrets of the universe, or someone doing 3D modeling and animation, complex layout and design, or cutting-edge audio processing. Those are the people Apple has targeted with the Mac Pro.

On the other hand, I have professional aspirations in the photo- and video-editing fields. The limitations of Apple’s consumer-caliber iPhoto and iMovie apps have been driving me slowly insane, or, rather, toward Aperture and Final Cut Pro X, Apple’s pro apps.

These apps are exactly the sort that benefit from the Mac Pro, with its Intel Xeon E5 processors that boast between 4 and 12 cores to speed up such work. That’s not the case with the Finder, iTunes, Safari, and so on. But multi-core processors matter – big time – when you want to squeeze the most performance out of Final Cut Pro X and other apps, such as Handbrake, that chew on video.

I spent an eye-opening afternoon with a video pro I know, using my loaner Mac Pro and his iMac workstation side by side to engage in a variety of video-related operations using identical 4K footage on each machine. While his iMac did well (despite not being one of the latest), the Mac Pro exceeded our expectations. Our tests – exporting a 4K Final Cut project, doing Handbrake encodes of the 4K footage, exporting 4K footage from QuickTime, and so on – left the iMac in the dust.

The TidBITS team also did some formal benchmarking using GeekBench, the software that gives a Mac scores for single- and multi-core performance. The chart below shows how the Mac Pro compared to a current 11-inch MacBook Air, as well as to a couple of 2011-vintage Macs and a 2008 Mac Pro.

It’s worth noting that the Mac Pro breezed through tasks that had the 2013 MacBook Air wheezing. Literally, as in spinning its fan up spectacularly at times to do my bidding.

Managing Editor Josh Centers put the Mac Pro to another informal test not long ago:

I visited an Apple Store in San Francisco, and made pals with one of the sales guys. He gave me a demo of the Mac Pro. He opened the Applications folder and had me hold my hand over the vent. He then hit Command-A to select everything, then Command-O to open every app, including the pre-installed Adobe Creative Suite. Within 15 seconds, everything was open, without a hiccup, and all I felt was a waft of warm air. Pretty incredible.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on benchmarking, so I’ve referred to the experts – starting with the Macworld review of the Mac Pro. One part of that piece is enlightening since it has a direct bearing on my theoretical purchase.

Reviewer Dan Frakes looks at “sustained maximum performance” for various high-end iMacs, and what factors – such as cooling and “thermal design power” or TDP – contributed to how long a Mac could perform at full blast. The Mac Pro unsurprisingly wins in this regard, partly due to its thermal core for better cooling.

Frakes goes on:

Even if you’re shopping for performance, unless you regularly use software that either takes advantage of multiple cores or subjects your Mac’s processor to sustained heavy loads (or both), you’re probably better off with an iMac or a MacBook Pro. These computers offer competitive single-core performance, often at higher base clock speeds; they’re even competitive at particular nonsustained multi-core tasks.

This is a good point. How heavily would I use Final Cut Pro X? It’s a tool I aspire to wield nonstop someday, but would use less seriously at the moment. And most other uses for the Mac Pro wouldn’t exploit its capabilities, leading to a waste of resources.

Perhaps it would be part of the entertainment budget? You might wonder how the Mac Pro stacks up for gaming, which has admittedly never been the Mac’s strong suit. Bare Feats, which is the best resource for Mac gaming benchmarks, pitted the 2013 8-core Mac Pro with its dual FirePro D700s GPUs against the 2010 Mac Pro equipped with a variety of gaming-specific video cards. In most cases, the 2010 model kicked the 2013 model into the trash heap. But in Windows, where CrossFire mode is available to take full advantage of dual GPUs, performance doubled, leaving the old Mac Pro far behind. When AnandTech tested the new Mac Pro against high-end gaming PCs with newer, more demanding games, the Mac Pro was middle of the road, at best.

The unsurprising takeaway here is that Macs, even at the high end, are not gaming machines. Windows is much better tuned for gaming performance than Mac OS X, and Apple’s preference for tightly contained, closed-down hardware limits Mac gaming on the hardware front. Macs are fine for some titles, but if you’re a serious gamer, you’re best off investing in a gaming PC on the side, or a gaming console.

What about my next Mac? This leaves me with a final consideration: future-proofing. Will buying the Mac Pro today help me put off my next Mac purchase longer than an iMac or a MacBook Pro purchase would?

It is a tricky question to answer since it’s impossible to know what Apple has in store for future Macs, but it is one Wall Street Journal tech reviewer Geoffrey A. Fowler addresses:

After testing the Mac Pro alongside one of the best iMacs you can buy, both on loan from Apple, I learned a valuable lesson: You don’t need a Lamborghini when you can buy a Lexus for half the price. … Sure, a Mac Pro you buy today has a greater chance than any iMac of being able to keep up with you five years from now. … But rather than spend a lot trying to future-proof today, save your money, so you can afford the future when it gets here.

He might be right. I think I’ll get that Mac mini or iMac, after all.

But for those who can justify a Mac Pro purchase, it is an incredible computer. I am heartbroken to see my review unit go, but feel lucky to have had a brief fling with the Mac of my dreams.


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Comments about Can a Normal User Justify a Mac Pro?
(Comments are closed.)

I've been thinking the same thing. I can write it off as a business expense, but my business - me - still has to pay for it. It would be nice to have, but only in a "look at me" way.

I've got a Mac mini - I've had the current one for 2 1/2 years - and I'll probably just upgrade that when a new model comes out. Not that I need to; my Mac mini is fast enough for what I do. But I wouldn't mind shunting it off to serverdom, and getting a new one, just to stay current.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2014-04-21 09:36
Maybe the next Mini will have a form factor similar to the Pro. However, my Mini is backwards on the shelf so I can get at the connectors. Now if they were white so I could see them without a flashlight.
Roger Moffat  2014-04-21 09:52
I've been thinking of the same thing on and off. I'm by no means a Pro, but have had a Mac Pro Early 2008 2x Quad Core 2.8GHz) since early 2008

Tha machine replaced a Mac Pro Mirrored Drive Doors Dual 1.25GHz G4.

Over the years the 2008 Mac Pro has been upgraded with more RAM (now 24GB total) 4 hard drives and a 5770 Video card.

At the time it cost $2,800 for the base Mac Pro, so I don't see that $3,000 for the new one is too far out there - I guess what has happened is that the performance of the other Macs has perhaps more caught up for every day tasks - My 15" MacBook Pro 2012 model is pretty snappy at things like an iPhoto library with more than 50,000 images in it

But I do enjoy the 2 x 23" displays it's driving right now, and look forward to dealing with a bunch of video I've had digitised from VHS-C cassettes.


Pete Ronai  2014-04-21 15:46
Roger, I was in a similar position to yours, including many of the same previous Macs, but I took the plunge and went for the new Mac Pro. I do web design and photography, but not video, so I'm not the pro user Apple is aiming at with the Mac Pro. Nevertheless, my old G5 Power Mac was slow in its old age and was stuck in an old operating system because of its pre-Intel architecture. I went for the base Mac Pro, but allowed myself one luxury, the 1TB SSD option. This is one screaming machine! I definitely do not regret my decision.
Tad Taylor  2014-04-22 06:29
My approach has always been to get the Mac Pro and upgrade it over the years for maximum usage. With a Mac Pro 3,1 (early 2008), I've added the 5770 video card, 4 drives, USB/Firewire cards and a 1 TB SSD on a PCIe card to get much faster performance for boot, opening applications, etc. I'm concerned about the practical upgradability of the new Mac Pro. There are options for PCIe cards in an external case, but I don't know if I'll be happy with that approach and really works against the "form factor" appeal of the new Mac Pro.
Chris Pepper  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-04-21 10:36

I was sad when the Mac Pro came out. I could justify the purchase for work as a replacement for my 2008 Mac Pro, but I don't do video editing, so to be substantially better than a current iMac I would need to pair a $4k (with upgrades) Mac Pro with a $3k 'Retina' LCD display. And my 30" LCD would behave exactly the same whether as a Mac Pro's primary or an iMac's secondary monitor.

A quad-core 27" iMac with 32gb at $3k is be a better fit -- even moreso after they go Retina someday. Alas, no Mac Pro in my future.
I had the same quandary. My "old" 2008 Quad-Core Mac Pro was getting pokey. Adobe Lightroom, and some Photoshop filters would peg all four cores, as would a large software build.

But aside from being expensive, there were additional costs associated with the new Mac Pro (like adapters for internal hard drives and other accessories, like a CD/DVD drive). So, I found a new 2012 12-Core Mac Pro, for a bit less than the 2013, and it was plug and play from my old Mac Pro to the new one, and it goes "zoom" compared to my old one.

I also prefer desktops and non-all-in-one systems, so it was a similar quandary.
Anonymous  An apple icon for a TidBITS Angel 2014-04-21 15:52
After buying the Mini i7s with SSD for my staff, I realized waiting was silly and got one. It's so much faster than my old multicore MacPro and with 2 TB screens and a Pegasus array, it has everything I had and need!
Mike Cohen  2014-04-21 16:55
I don't want one. I live on my MacBook Pro. I carry it from home to work every day and I love being able to work anywhere. I don't like being tied to my desk.
gastropod  2014-04-21 17:16
If you're noise sensitive, audition a mini running full tilt before buying one. That fan is loud when it's spinning, and it's not a pleasant sound--high pitched and hissy. When I got mine about 2.5 years ago (i7 with the real graphics card), I installed folding at home, and it was intolerable. Not just the noise, but I suspect it's really not specced for running flat out very much.

For the new Mac Pro, I'd wait until the next iteration if possible, when they'll probably have DDR4 memory as well as having solved any teething problems in the new design.
Lynn R  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2014-04-21 20:27
Maybe by then Thunderbolt 3 (Alpine Ridge) at 40 Gbps transfer speed will be shipping.
Charles  2014-04-21 17:37
I have a 2011 Mac mini 2.7Ghz i7, a build to order processor upgrade (wow no longer available, current fastest speed 2.6Ghz). The CPU is fast. The disk is not, 5400RPM. The graphics is adequate to run my old 30" Cinema Display. This machine would really fly with an SSD.
Keith Brown  2014-04-21 18:56
Your article sounds exactly like the narrative that goes on inside my head when I'm trying to talk myself INTO a new purchase. :-) I don't know what the specs of your 2009 iMac are but I also have one, a 27" Core i7 model that originally came with 4 GB RAM and a 1 TB spindle drive. I too felt it was getting a little long in the tooth, but within the last year I gave it an additional 8 GB RAM and replaced the legacy HDD with a 512 GB SSD. While it wasn't exactly cheap (probably $450 in total) the difference in performance was incredible and it was like getting a whole new machine. I do HD video editing on it and it's flawless. The ONLY reason I think you could justify the new purchase (vs. a much cheaper upgrade) is if you are indeed going to edit 4K video. BTW, I thought your reasoning against all-in-ones a little weak. If I had to use my laptop for a few days while the desktop was in the shop, it still wouldn't really justify the expense of a new Mac Pro...
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2014-04-21 19:29
On the plus side, you can grow into a Mac Pro. And it's actually easier to upgrade than an iMac, though the parts are pricy. While you can save a third to one fourth of the cost of a Mac Pro by getting an iMac, that won't really offset replacing the iMac in whatever time frame. On the other hand, when the iMac gets some sassy new tech, it will be easier, financially speaking, to replace the current iMac than the current Mac Pro. And Mac Pro technology traditionally hasn't been upgraded nearly as fast as iMac tech.

Something else for Mr. Ojeda-Zapata to consider, though: He could spend a little more and get two iMacs, one for himself and one for his wife. Why? Because they cannot both use one Mac Pro at the same time, and that can be a cause of friction in a family. Of course, if they only have room for one computer, that issue may diminish in importance.

Ultimately, however, it will probably come down to price for most people. If they use it for work, and their work is prosperous, then the Mac Pro is probably a justifiable business expense. Particularly for graphics professionals who may prefer a quality standalone monitor that they can profile regularly to maintain proper color balance, an iMac, which cannot be professionally profiled, is a less suitable alternative. Not to mention the lack of a non-glare screen. Lower glare than the last model isn't the same thing at all.

If writing off a Mac Pro as a business expense is not a viable option, that means it will come out or your discretionary income. And that's a far more dubious proposition.

Do I want a Mac Pro? Of course. Who wouldn't, all things being equal? But all things are not equal. I do not need a Mac Pro, nor can I afford one. So what I want is all but irrelevant.

I too have been looking at a Mac mini. With a Fusion Drive they speed along quite nicely. But as Mr. Ojeda-Zapata points out, they are lagging behind in other technical aspects and who knows when they will get a refresh? Whereas, you can BTO a 17" iMac with up-to-date tech that gives the Mac Pro a run for its money in most respects. Of course, the mini is even more portable than a Mac Pro, if that means anything to you.

Inevitably we agonize over when to spring for a new computer and how much to pay for it. The problem hasn't changed much over the last two decades. It's still a crapshoot - at least with Apple, where no one outside the Apple Reality Distortion Field knows what Apple is working on or when it will be available. It's certainly easier to buy a PC - unless an endless assortment of options weighs you down.
Paul Corsa  2014-04-21 20:48
I think I'm in the wait for the next gen Mac Mini camp. Then there'll be 2 Mini's and 1 iMac in the house, along with iPods, iPad and iPhones.
Dave Barnhart  2014-04-22 06:54
My biggest question reading the article is this: was it the base ($3K) Mac Pro or how much extra memory etc did it have? $3K is actually a reasonable price but with a few options it's easy to double the price.
Jay Schille  2014-04-23 15:46
While the form factor of the new Mac Pro is sexy, picture the mess with all the peripherals that used to be inside the Pac Pros now scattered all over your workspace. All those USBs and Thunderbolts with their wire tails!
Hi. Good article. Thanks.

I ran up against a similar situation, recently.

That is, my (late 2006) iMac had run out of steam, I discovered I preferred non-all-in-one Macs, I am a desktop person, etc.

The only differing item is I had no preference for the Mac Pro. I don't need that much horsepower. I chose the Mac-Mini, and really enjoy it.
mike sanders  2014-04-24 01:07
Oh come on you know you'll never forgive yourself buy it and be done you will admire it every day it is so beautiful
mike sanders  2014-04-24 01:11
Oh come on just buy it you know you want to and you will never forgive yourself if you don't, all decisions do not have to rationale and it is just so beautiful.
You will look at it every day and say Yesss!!
I was waiting for over a year to get the MacPro Late 2013. However, I couldn't justify $4K. I CTO'd a D500 with 16GB and 1TB SSD.
But a colleague convinced me not to buy it: its the first model! Remember how Apple stuck it to those with the first Mac Pro 1,1? I'm one of those. So I bought a i7core mini, put a 960GB SSD and for my needs, it is fine (drives two 24" DVI monitors...photoshop work is moderat to light, web blog work, vmware for windows 7 and 8 testing...).
I will wait till Apple has 2 SSDs (why not?) and bugs out (sleep issues...).
(the $3K I saved went to IRS... ) :P
Bill Abbott  2014-05-05 14:36
I have a 2009 Mac Pro, a 23" Apple Cinema Display and a 23" Eizo display. For my routine Lightroom, Word, Excel, etc. doings, a Mini with the fastest processor and the hard drives in my current Mac Pro should do all I need to do. Cost: approximately $1300 vs. $3000. No brainer.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-05-21 07:55
Looks like WaterField Designs has released their Mac Pro carrying case now.