The new Mac Pro – 2013 – Part XX

A poor value.

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The new Mac Pro.

Apple announced some of the pricing for the new Mac Pro (“nMP”) yesterday and it’s hard to see much of interest for still photographers whose application use is centered on Photoshop and Lightroom, for the high price asked.

The base spec 4-core 3.7gHz machine comes with 12gB of memory and two AMD FirePro D300 GPUs for $3,000. The 6-core comes with 16gB of RAM and one 6-core 3.5gHz CPU with two FireCore D500 GPUs for $4,000. Each comes with one 256gB SSD. You will need to add external drive enclosures to those as there are no internal slots for drives, meaning USB3 (cheap) or Thunderbolt (still very expensive).

Given the CPU-intensive nature of PS and LR, the provision of two excellent GPUs in the nMP is largely wasted.

Compared with the 2.66gHz 4-core current MacPro (“MP”) the nMP 4-core will be 39% faster and the 6 core will be 97% faster on CPU tasks. However, you can buy a mint 2009 MP 4-core ($700) and upgrade it to a 6-core 3.33gHz i7-980 ($275 net of old CPU resale) with USB3 ($50) and a 256gB SATA III SSD ($175) on an Apricot PCIe card ($50) and with a GTX660 GPU ($150 net) for $1,400. I set forth the details of the upgrades here. The CPU speed of this upgraded MP machine will be 35% greater than the 4-core nMP and 10% less than the 6-core nMP and you will have a lot of money left in your pocket. And that’s before adding external disk storage for the nMP.

That makes the nMP a very poor value for still photographers. Movie makers should be able to take advantage of the new, dual GPUs when used with the latest version of Final Cut Pro X, but those GPUs are of little use to still snappers.

The 2009 4-core will only fall in value, owing to age and because more will become available as nMP early adopters sell their old machines. Thus the next few quarters will represent an excellent opportunity for 4-core MP buyers who, as a side benefit, will be spared all the usual teething troubles of a new, untested design, and will not need to buy external enclosures and costly Thunderbolt cables if that option is elected.

Update January, 2014:

Performance data are now coming out for the New Mac Pro and, frankly, they are very disappointing for the money asked. The $3,000 4-core base machine records a 64-bit Geekbench score of just 14,200. Compare that to the stock 2009 old Mac Pros:

  • 4-core – 9,100 (Used mint cost $750)
  • 4-core with Core i7/980 upgraded CPU – 15,000 ($1050) – faster than the nMP at one third the cost
  • 8-core – 12,000 ($1100)
  • 12-core with W5660 upgraded CPU – 25,000 ($1400)

Nor is video performance much to get excited about. With the single exception of Final Cut ProX, version 10.1 (not 10.0) no apps currently out there appear to use all the cores of the high-core count nMP fully, and with the better specified nMPs running $4,000 (6-core), $5,500 (8-core) and an eye-popping $7,000 (12-core) that’s simply money poorly spent until applications start using the new technology fully. Don’t hold your breath for Adobe to get with the action any time soon when it comes to PS and LR.

Finally, I am sick and tired of the puerlie images comparing the sizes of the small nMP with the older MP’s case. That’s comparing apples and oranges. If the old MP is a truck, then the new MP is a passenger car needing a bolt-on trailer. The old MP has storage for up to 10*** (or more) drives inside (with PCIe cards and optical drive installations in addition to the stock slots) whereas the nMP accommodates but the one PCIe SSD. By the time you have the nMP in a like configuration, you will have boxes and cable clutter all over your work space. And there are still no proper thermal stress tests of the nMP running under full load, an area where the old MP is a known and robust performer.

In conclusion, a stock or modestly upgraded 2009 old MP remains a superb bargain which yields little in performance to the new machine. A state-of-the-art nVidia GTX680 GPU ‘Made for Mac’ card can be installed in a couple of minutes in the old Mac Pro for some $500, providing video performance comparable to the nMP, so the buyer of the upgraded 8-core/W5590 old Mac Pro is looking at a bill of $2,000 with the fast CPUs and the better GPU. No contest.

Old MP buyers will only be winners over the next few quarters as early upgraders flood the used market with the older machines, making for abundant supply and falling prices.

*** Old MP drive capacity:

  • Four 2.5″/3.5″ in the backplane slots/trays. Up to 16TB total.
  • Two 2.5″/3.5″ in the optical drive area. Up to 8TB total.
  • Four 2.5″ in two dual Apricorn PCIe cards (cards are <$100 each). Up to 4TB total.
  • One or two more in the PCIe area attached to the sockets on the PCIe cards. Up to 8TB total.
  • Total? Up to 12 drives. Up to 36TB total.