The Mac "Pro"

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Yesterday saw the release of the new Mac Pro, finally replacing the trash can and moving back to a tower-based design. It has had a somewhat mixed response, with many people taking issue with the high prices, ranging from $6000 to over $52000. There have been those seeking to defend the prices and write off the complaints, but I don't believe these arguments take into account the larger picture.

Who is a Pro?

The first issue concerns who Apple classes as a professional user. The most basic definition would be to class a Pro user as anyone who makes a living from working on a computer. However, not everyone working on a computer really stretches the capabilities of that computer, and it is the group of users that do this that Apple usually classes as Pro. These include people such as film editors, music producers, visual effects artists, 3D modellers and animators, graphic designers, scientists, and software developers. It is this last group which Apple has repeatedly stated to be its biggest Pro market.

Now the problem with these groups is they all have different needs. Some need a lot of CPU power but not much GPU. Some are almost entirely GPU bound in their workflows. Some can get by with a few dozen GB of RAM, but some may find even the 1.5TBs a maxed out Mac Pro can handle to be limiting. And then there are some who need all of these things at once. However, the one thing almost all of these users can agree on needing is expandability and upgradability, to be able to modify the hardware after purchase to suit their needs and to extend the life of their purchase.

Unfortunately, the new Mac Pro doesn't really cater to all these groups. It is certainly capable of supporting the needs of any Pro user, but the budgets of these groups are often wildly different. A film or TV production studio wouldn't bat an eyelid at paying high 5 figure sums for hardware, especially as they can fully utilise all that hardware. But a small software or graphic design company is unlikely to have quite the same budget, and the Mac Pro's pricing starts to push them out, especially when you consider the next point…

The Value of Low End Mac Pros

The base spec of the Mac Pro is a 3.5GHz 8-core Intel Xeon W-3223, 32GB of DDR4 2666MHz ECC RAM, a 256GB SSD, an AMD Radeon 580X, and a 1400W power supply. Now this is not a bad spec, but then we come to the price: $5999. With no knowledge of the cost of components and no comparison to other machines, it's easy write it off and say things like "pro hardware is always expensive". But when you do look into things you start to appreciate how the Mac Pro is one of the most overpriced Macs Apple has ever released.

Firstly, if we compare to previous professional Macs, we find that a PowerMac G5 started at around $2700 after being adjusted for inflation. The cheese grater Mac Pro had a base spec that would be around $2900 in todays money. These values are far more approachable to a wide range of professional users, while still offering upgrade paths for those who need a lot more power from their hardware.

Secondly, let's compare to some of Apple's other hardware. For $3400, or just over half the price of the base Mac Pro, you can buy a 27" iMac with a Core i9 9900K, 32GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a Radeon 580X. So you get the same GPU, twice the storage, the same amount and speed of RAM (though no ECC), and a processor that matches the Xeon in the Mac Pro in most cases.

Looking at Geekbench scores for the iMac you are looking at around 1200 for single core and 7900-8300 for multi core. Unfortunately Geekbench doesn't have any results for the Xeon W-3223, but it does have plenty of scores for the faster 3.7GHz 8-core W-3225, which isn't offered in the Mac Pro. These show single core performance of just under 1100 and multi-core performance over around 8500. Remembering that these figures are for a faster chip than the base Mac Pro has, they're not exactly painting it as having blistering performance to justify its cost. In fact you're paying $2600 more and just getting increased expandability in return (and losing a 5K display).

Finally, let's look at what the components actually cost. The table below shows costings for the parts, or equivalent versions, that make up the Mac Pro.

PartRetail Price
Xeon W-3223$749
4x8GB DDR4 2666MHz ECC RAM~$240
Radeon 580X~$300
256GB NVMe SSD~$100
1500W Power Supply~$350

With a total of $1739 that leaves us with over $4200 left to account for, and that's using retail prices, not the prices that Apple will get those parts for. And there isn't much left to account for, just the case, the motherboard, and the cooling. None of those come close to explaining away all the additional cost, and largely goes to prove that Apple has a lot of leeway to have started the Mac Pro at a lower price if it really wanted to.

Terrible Timing

The other factor affecting the Mac Pro's value is the terrible timing of its release. Intel is currently in a low point when it comes to desktop CPUs, being comprehensively beaten at every price point by AMD's line up of 3rd generation Ryzen processors. Nowhere is this clearer than at the very high end of workstation CPUs.

The highest end CPU you can get in a Mac Pro is the 2.5GHz 28-core Xeon W-3275M. Upgrading to this costs $7000, which isn't too bad a price for Apple considering Intel's retail price is around $7500. Its performance is quite impressive, with the non-M variant (which appears to be identical in spec to the M-variant, except for being limited to a maximum of 1TB of RAM) scoring around 1000 single core and 19-20000 multi core on GeekBench.

The problem for Intel (and by extension, Apple) is AMD's Threadripper 3970X. This is a 3.7GHz 32-core CPU. It beats out the W-3275M in Geekbench, managing scores of around 1300 on single core and 25-26000 on multi core. The performance alone wouldn't be an issue if not for the fact that the 3970X costs just $2000 retail, less than a 3rd of the upgrade cost of the W-3275M.

Now Threadripper does have downsides. The motherboards out there only offer up to 256GB of Quad-channel memory, as opposed to the up to 1.5TB of 6-channel memory in the Mac Pro. There's also the big downside of Apple never having supported an AMD CPU with its software. On the other hand, it offers more PCIe channels than the Xeon chip, and they run at PCIe 4.0, rather than the 3.0 of the Mac Pro.

Apple likely couldn't have stuck a Threadripper into the Mac Pro, certainly not on the short notice they would have had, but it certainly doesn't help them promote the value proposition of the Mac Pro. Now the things you can't just get from an off-the-shelf PC build, such as the case and the software, need to pick up the slack (and we all know how well the software side of things is going for Apple of late).

All in all, the Mac Pro is a powerful machine. For certain workflows it is even worth the cost. But the problem is that Apple has priced out a huge swathe of the professional market by making its lower end Mac Pros prohibitively expensive for what is frankly underwhelming hardware.

Yes, these users can get by with iMacs and Macbook Pros, and even the iMac Pro (if they ever update it). But none of these offer the expandability that many professionals desire. They have limited ports that you can't expand on. Of the 3, only the 27" non-Pro iMac offers any sort of upgradability, and even then that is only the RAM. And they all include a built in monitor which many professional users may not need, thanks to the wide range of high quality monitors available elsewhere.

So is the Mac Pro a "Pro" machine? Undoubtedly. There's no reason why anyone who is not a professional user should even consider buying one. But is it a machine for "Pro" users? For the vast majority of us out there, the answer is unfortunately "no".

Updated 12th Dec 19: It was pointed out to me that some of the original wording around the linked tweets could come across as me suggesting the authors were liars. This was not my intent, so I've updated the wording to reflect that.