Back in the 1980s it was possible — in fact easy — to spend many thousands of dollars on a PC. Most PCs and Macs started in the $2000 range and went up from there.
The Mac Pro is a high-end system — a desktop mainframe. To compare it to older high-end Macs I went through the archives of EveryMac.com to find the top-of-the-line systems every two years from 1986 to 2012.
Adjust for inflation
I took the retail prices of the high-end systems and adjusted them using the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index inflation calculator to translate them into 2013 dollars.
This graph plots the price – in terms of 2013 money – for high-end Mac systems from 1986 to 2012, showing both the purchase price as shipped and the inflation adjusted 2013 dollars. There's quite a spike in the late 80s.
The Mac IIfx was the most expensive Mac ever produced, though its retail cost was about the same as the much less powerful Lisa seven years earlier (whose price in today's dollars would be $23,389). It had specialized co-processors and dual-ported RAM to wring every bit of performance out of the 40MHz 68030 and 68882 floating point unit.
Prices leveled out beginning in the late 90s, but list price isn't the whole story. For example, the 2006 quad-core Mac Pros were terribly under-configured in DRAM - 1GB - and disk. Even though the retail price looks OK, most users – including me – spent hundreds to a thousand dollars or more to bring the configuration up to a workable level.
Using the system's expandability as an excuse to cut content to meet an arbitrary price point made earlier Mac Pros barebones systems. In contrast even the entry level 2013 Pro is very usable out of the box, especially given the SSD and Maverick's memory compression.
The Storage Bits take
We're also talking about Apple's retail prices. You can cut the cost of more DRAM, for example, in half by going to third-party vendors. You can also trade off a larger SSD for high-bandwidth Thunderbolt storage - storage you'll be able to use when you trade up a Mac Pro in 3 years.
You can also be judicious in configuring. It appears that the six core configuration – for a base price of $3999 – is the sweet spot. Of course, until we see some benchmarks, we can't be sure.
The bottom line: while a fully loaded new Mac Pro may appear expensive it is far from the most expensive high-end Mac – and high-end PCs – in cost. And it is much more expandable - with better investment protection - than costly earlier machines.
Given the CPU performance plateau and the drop in bandwidth growth and storage latency improvements, these new Mac Pro's will likely hold their value for years to come. If you spend $4000 on one today you may be able to use it for five years and sell it for $2500 when you're done. There's more to total cost of ownership then purchase price.
That said, the vast majority of users will be better served by an iPad or a MacBook Air. The Mac Pro is for professionals for whom time is money - and you know who you are.
Comments welcome, as always. What do you value in a personal computer?