Mac Pro is now the cheapest high-end workstation

Summary:Earlier this month I wrote "Build a Mac Pro equivalent workstation for 1/3 the cost" and the pricing didn't look good for the Mac.  Now that the new Mac Pro with updated specifications and a much lower price has come out, I figured it's time to do an updated comparison.

Earlier this month I wrote "Build a Mac Pro equivalent workstation for 1/3 the cost" and the pricing didn't look good for the Mac.  Now that the new Mac Pro with updated specifications and a much lower price has come out, I figured it's time to do an updated comparison.  But during my research I came to a stunning conclusion: it's the cheapest name brand dual-processor workstation on the market IF you know how to buy third party memory and storage.  It's not only cheaper than the slower $3817 Dell workstation I looked at earlier this month, but I can't even build a cheaper generic PC clone unless I switched to a lower-end CPU.  If you're in the market for a high-performance Apple workstation, keep reading to learn how to get the best deal.

The new Mac Pro uses Intel's latest 5400 series "Stoakley" platform with the "Seaburg" chipset.  For the CPU, it uses the 1600 MHz FSB version of the 5400 series CPUs which have clock speeds of 2.8, 3.0, and 3.2 GHz.  The graphics card has gone from AMD/ATI 1900XT to an NVIDIA 8800GT.  The memory was upgraded from Fully Buffered DDR2-667 to Fully Buffered DDR2-800.

As configured in the screen shot to the left, the stripped down system is $2999 with relatively few memory DIMMs and two minimum hard drives.  Since they're only going to reduce the price by $500 if you only buy one processor and the fact that it would cost you $900 to replace that chip, it's not worth buying one CPU from Apple.  The memory and hard drives were still too expensive so I left them on the default settings but you will most likely have to take them out and replace them.  The video card will also cost more to replace with a third party brand so it isn't worth skipping either.  It's also possible that a third party 8800GT might not work so I wouldn't even bother trying.

Now once you buy this system, you're going to need to buy some fully buffered DDR2-800 memory which is still very hard to find at this time.  I found some for $245 (vendor claims Mac Pro tested) which is way more money expensive than other generic memory but it's way better than the $1500 Apple is asking for.  A few other people in talkback posted this link for two 2GB DDR2-800 at $220.  The price will probably drop $40 in coming months as these get more common but I think the price isn't too bad at this point.  You will need to buy two of these for $440 if you want the system to run with the max four-channel memory but be sure to populate each DIMM in a separate channel to get the maximum benefit.  Note that CPU-Z for Windows will let you confirm how many channels you're running though I'm not sure about a Mac equivalent applet but I'll update if I find out.

The hard drives can be replaced with any 3.5" SATA hard drive and you can usually buy two 500 GB Seagate hard drives for $240 and put them in a RAID-1 configuration.  This does mean that you'll either need to leave your OS on the single 320 GB hard drive or you'll need to manually move the OS to the 500 GB RAID-1 volume which makes the OS boot faster.

Now you have a 2.8 GHz Mac Pro for less than $3800 with all the trimmings which makes it the cheapest high-end workstation on the market.  It's still possible to get a great PC 2.33 GHz dual-processor workstation for less than $2400 but the high-end belongs to Apple.  However, it's not really practical to build a lower-end Mac Pro since I've got it stripped down to the bone so Apple still has plenty of profit to make even if you don't buy their outrageous components.  The bottom line is that Mac users can get a much better deal on Mac Pros than at the beginning of this month.

Update 10:30AM If you're installing Boot Camp and Windows, do the installation after you set up the RAID-1 volume.  You will need these drivers from Intel's website for Windows XP, Vista, and Server.  If you don't want to spend $3700 and you can live with a perfectly good dual-processor 2.33 GHz workstation for $2370 which has the same 5400 series chipset.  Apple seems to have figured out the perfect strategy to keep a high margin yet keep you from building a cheaper clone with exact specifications.

Topics: Processors, Apple, Hardware


George Ou, a former ZDNet blogger, is an IT consultant specializing in Servers, Microsoft, Cisco, Switches, Routers, Firewalls, IDS, VPN, Wireless LAN, Security, and IT infrastructure and architecture.

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