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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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