Sure, a Mac Pro setup can cost $53K, but here's why that's not as crazy as it sounds

Here's the truth. For a workstation, that's nothing.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
4 min read
James Martin/CNET

There's been some freakage over the fact that you can max out Apple's new, long-awaited tower Mac Pro at roughly $53,000. But aside from the custom $400 wheels, it's laughable that that price has made headlines. Here's the truth: For a workstation, it's nothing. You can gear up HP's top-end Z8 G4, for example, with dual 28-core Xeons, dual Nvidia 32GB Quadro GV100s, 22TB SSD and more for $107,000 without breaking a sweat. 

In fact, Apple's configuration prices are right in line with typical industry ones. And remember -- those are only the options Apple offers in its Mac Pro system configurator. Toss in three HDX accelerators for Avid Pro Tools and that adds another $13,000 or so.

But Apple's one-size-fits-all approach poses drawbacks. On the low end, $6,000 is a lot to pay for an entry-level model, especially with a 256GB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 580X. That size drive can hold a handful of pro graphics applications, but that's probably about it. You should definitely think about upping to 1TB for $400. 

And in a system like this, the Radeon Pro 580X, with its two-generations-old architecture, is essentially the equivalent of integrated graphics. So you may want to wait until the Radeon Pro W5700X options become available -- if you just want current graphics, bumping one step up to the Radeon Pro Vega II to the tune of $2,400 is kind of silly. Apple hasn't released pricing for the 5700-series card, but existing prices for the un-Appleified version it's based on it should run to somewhere between $300 and $500. (Of course, let's celebrate the fact you can always upgrade it yourself!) Note that if you're not already familiar with the vagaries of pro-level AMD Radeon cards, this probably isn't the computer for you. 

Accommodating extremes

It's expensive partly because it uses a Xeon processor and ECC memory, which isn't essential for a lot of professionals. But Apple's only less expensive alternatives using Intel's Core CPUs are crammed into the MacBook Pro stuck with the new mobile version (thus, slower) of AMD's middle tier graphics or the iMac, with not-upgradeable last-generation graphics.

There's also Apple's longstanding rift with Nvidia, which culminated in the deprecation of widely used CUDA and OpenCL APIs, essentially forcing all GPU-intensive software towards Metal and away from alternative low-level acceleration platforms. Among other things, that shuts out the ability to use less expensive but fast gaming-grade cards, where Nvidia routinely outperforms AMD. It also shuts out many content creators whose key software still only supports them. And despite their closer relationship, Apple doesn't offer AMD CPU options either, which means no 32-core Threadripper 3970X or PCIe 4.0 bus.

Plus, there's the one-size-fits-all approach. The system's so big because it's designed to accommodate the needs of the $53,000 users. A lot of potential Mac Pro fans don't do video editing so don't need the space for the Afterburner card (or don't need to ingest or transcode ProRes, just encode, which Afterburner doesn't accelerate). Or, say, they just need the 28-core processor and a lot of memory but not space for dual GPUs or other PCI cards. Apple really needs at least one less expensive, more compact version of the Mac Pro.

On the flip side, you can't really configure it to the max, either. It only supports a single CPU (because W series), but high-resolution CGI rendering and video encoding will use up all the cores you can throw at it, as will crunching immense datasets for machine learning. And wouldn't you also like some free cycles for working while it's churning away, anyway? The CPU is socketed, however, so at least you can upgrade that if necessary.

Apple Mac Pro: Expensive, sleek and definitely not for grating cheese

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Finally, there's the warranty. That's really one-size-fits-all. An individual buying a $50,000 professional workstation gets the same basic warranty as the person buying a $499 iPad : one year limited. The base warranty for other workstations can be up to three years. One might consider $299 a reasonable price for three-year AppleCare Plus coverage for the Mac Pro, but it grates nonetheless.

The grass isn't necessarily greener

That's not to say everything's perfect on the other side of the fence. How the competitive price/performance ranking of the configurations compare to each other across software platforms awaits testing. You can sort of use iMac Pro performance as a proxy, and it's likely that the Mac Pro would deliver better performance with similar components than the iMac Pro because it doesn't face the same cooling constraints. But MacOS generally seems more efficient than Windows 10 because it's not burdened by Windows' more complex compatibility needs.

Furthermore, the Mac Pro has two important advantages over most PC workstations for high-end content creation. First, it uses the new M versions of the  24- and 28-core W-series Intel Xeon workstation processors which support twice the amount of memory of the similar core-count PCs. At least, PCs don't use them at the moment.

The other advantage is integrated Thunderbolt 3. Until 20 gigabit-per-second USB 3.2 or Thunderbolt 3-class 40Gbps USB4 become viable options -- the latter won't be ready until late 2020 at the earliest -- we're stuck with a top 10Gbps external transfer standard on desktops . This is an immense frustration for me.

All the fastest external media available today connects via TB3, like the OWC Envoy Pro EX, rated at up to 2,800 megabytes per second (that's 22.4Gbps). While there are PC motherboards that support TB3, it's hard to find systems that come with with it or even let you configure them with an add-in card (HP's workstations seem to be one of the few exceptions). Since the add-in cards tend to be motherboard-specific and every two TB3 connections take up a PCI Express slot, it's not a no-brainer upgrade.

And if you still think there's no way a reasonable person would spend that much on a single computer, feel free to take your $50,000 and pick up a midrange Tesla instead.