updated 07:51 pm EST, Tue December 24, 2013
Does better in some areas, but can't compete on cost or specs
For many consumers, a quad-core i7 "Haswell" computer with SSD storage -- whether it is a Mac or PC -- is by far the fastest computer they've ever used, and meets everyday needs handily. Some, however -- creative professionals, scientists and others -- need all the power they can get and then some. The rapid sellout of the new Mac Pro -- surprising even Apple -- may revolve around the fact that its new design is a tough combination to beat, even for DIY PC builders.
A website dedicated to the build-your-own-PC audience, Futurelooks, recently tried -- and failed miserably -- to match a top-end, $9,600 tricked-out new Mac Pro spec-for-spec using PC parts, missing the mark by around $2,000 and giving up entirely on the notion of producing a machine with the same connectivity, aesthetic design (a mini-tower case was used instead) or quiet operation. The team has slightly more success trying to build a PC equivalent of the base-model, $3,000 Mac Pro, ignoring the spec-for-spec requirement -- this time, they missed the mark by $1,100 (actually a worse cost overrun than the high-end model, by percentage), but did manage to upgrade the components somewhat, with better video cards and 25 percent more RAM -- and more internal expansion options, though still in a bland and noisy tower case.
The original experiment, done on December 19, was to create a PC DIY project that matched the top-end new Mac Pro spec-for-spec (or as close as possible). "After perusing the shopping cart, we came up with a configuration that tops out at $9,599 which includes 64GBs of ECC DDR3 memory, a 1TB PCIe SSD, two AMD D700 (W9000) GPUs, and a 12-core Intel Xeon 2.7GHz processor," wrote website editor Stephen Fung, with of course OS X as the default operating system. To his surprise, serious compromises had to be made immediately -- no current PC motherboard at this level of performance offered integrated Thunderbolt access (though it could be added through a PCIe card), nor could ECC RAM be used, taking away some of the key advantages of the new Mac Pro.
The site also discovered that because of the lack of ECC DDR3 compatibility, the unit they were building was limited to 32GB of RAM -- and that components such as the 12-core 2.7GHz Xeon processor (at $2,750) were extremely expensive for DIY builders. Further, buying dual AMD W9000 GPUs with 6GB of DDR5 VRAM (the most compatible alternative to the custom-made FirePro D700 with similar specs) added $6,800 to the cost by themselves ($3,400 each). The cards further featured enormous heatsinks and fans, and the system itself required $100 more in fans to cool it than with Apple's design. The team were mystified as to how the D700s could go without heatsinks, but noted that the Apple video cards might be difficult to be upgraded due to proprietary connectors -- a potential long-term downside compared to the PC build.
Another stumbling block was the lack of motherboard support for the PCIe SSDs like the ones Apple uses, which it says are more than double the speed of traditional SATA3 SSDs. The cost of two 512GB units to match the 1TB included in the top-end Mac Pro adds another $900, exacerbating the already over-budget cost of the core components.
To be fair, the site noted that if the DIY builder didn't actually require the same workstation performance level as the Mac Pro, he or she could "get by" with using a six-core Intel Core i7 processor and a more gaming-oriented card like the Nvidia GTX 780Ti at a much-reduced cost. It might be possible to spend closer to $4,000 and get a PC that can beat the pants off an iMac, particularly for gaming -- but it would not compare to the Mac Pro, even ignoring the efficiencies and other advantages of OS X.
As mentioned, using the best quality components available (and still having to compromise on graphics, RAM limits and storage speed), the DIY PC "equivalent" to the top-end Mac Pro cost (including Windows 8 Pro) $11,631 -- more than 20 percent more than the Mac -- not including the time and skill required to assemble the machine, and the testing and debugging that would also be required. "I'm not afraid to admit that compared to the asking price of $9,599 US, the new Mac Pro seems like one heckuva deal for these components," Fung wrote at the time.
"[With the Mac Pro], everything is tested to work properly together (versus some of our unknown incompatibilities with this potential PC build), and [the Mac Pro is] a highly proprietary design that is small enough to fit into a carry on bag, with twice the amount of registered memory (32GB vs 64GB ECC). You simply can't build a smaller form factor PC that matches the Mac Pro today."
The PC "equivalent" of a top-end Mac Pro
"Apple has done a great job with this machine," he added. "If your needs are specialized enough that the combinations of hardware provided by Apple fit, and you're already using OS X, then it's hard to say no to what [Apple is] offering. It is a very compelling offer for professionals using Macs who do require the precision and power of full blown workstation components."
For their own low-end PC-alike to the entry-level Mac Pro, the final cost (including Windows 8 Pro) was $4,094.64, but featured 16GB of RAM rather than Apple's 12GB, and with AMD FirePro W7000s (overclocked, however, which could prove unstable or worse) with more VRAM (4GB vs Apple's 2GB). Another $100 would add triple-antenna 802.11ac cards that the site claims offer better performance than the dual-antenna ones in the Mac Pro. The resulting PC unit, amusingly, lacks Thunderbolt entirely -- but allows for the option of future USB speed upgrades (USB 3.1 or 4, whatever they end up calling it), though nobody knows when exactly those will happen, and the new cards would represent yet another additional cost.
"I think the Apple Mac Pro, whether you like the look of it or not, whether you like Apple or OS X or not," wrote Fung, "is an extremely highly-modded and optimized PC that has very high end professional hardware, [and] that fits in a space that is no bigger than some of the larger drink sizes at 7-11 in the US." He went on to concede that the new Mac Pro "still offers an extremely compelling pricing offer, both at the low end and at the top end, that no longer carries the traditional 'Apple Tax' and in fact, is quite a good value when you compare part for part [or] spec for spec, with a PC DIY build counterpart ... with a careful selection of components that give them an advantage in pricing, the new Mac Pro stands out to be one of the least expensive ever. Well played Apple."
The PC "equivalent" of the entry-level Mac Pro