Why I bought a tricked out iMac instead of a Mac Pro

Why I bought a tricked out iMac instead of a Mac Pro

Summary: The Mac Pro would have bought me a bit more performance, but would have pushed my budget off the bridge. The bottom line is I saved enough to go out and buy a MacBook Air if I happen to want one.


A few weeks ago, I told you about my intent to build a maxed-out iMac running four displays, and that I chose to buy a late 2013 iMac after waiting to see what Apple was going to do with the all-new Mac Pro. Many of you wanted to know why I would possibly choose a lowly iMac instead of a beefy Mac Pro. I'll answer that here.


Narrowing the choice to iMac vs. Mac Pro

First, I'll let you in on a secret. I didn't really want to buy an iMac. I would have rather bought a MacBook Pro or a Mac mini (I own a bunch of these, and really like them -- especially as Windows 8 machines). Unfortunately, in order to effectively do my daily work I need RAM, a lot of RAM, and the only machines that would go above 16GB were the iMac and Mac Pro.

That immediately narrowed the choice to the iMac and the Mac Pro. Actually, it narrowed the choice to the 27-inch iMac and the Mac Pro, because only the 27-inch iMac would go up to 32GB.

Next, I wanted the fastest local storage I could get my hands on. I'm often in a race to get projects done on deadline and anything that can shave hours or even, perhaps, days off my schedule can mean the difference between sleeping or not sleeping.

Therefore, I wanted PCI Express flash storage, not SSD. Flash and SSD are pretty much the same storage technology under the hood, but storage reads and writes have to go through the old SATA interface with SSD, where they're right on the main bus with Flash. Our own Adrian Kingsley-Hughes says, "This storage is not just fast, it blows away SSDs. PCI Express flash storage is up to 2.5 times faster than the fastest SATA-based solid-state drive, and a whopping 10 times faster than a 7200-rpm a SATA hard drive."

I wanted that speed, and it was available both in the Mac Pro and the iMac.

What I didn't need in the Mac Pro

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to like in the Mac Pro. It's got incredibly powerful GPUs, which help when rendering very high-def video, gaming, and 3D modeling. The thing is, I don't do high-def video, gaming, or 3D modeling. The video I do is of the talking head variety and while I upload 720p to YouTube, you really don't want to see me or my geeky guests in all that high a level of definition.

The Mac Pro also has dual Xeon E5 processors, which are sweet no matter how you slice it. You can order up to 12 cores. But there's a gotcha here.

As you increase cores, the speed of each individual core goes down. While the 3.7GHz quad-core Mac Pro is close to the iMac I bought at 3.5GHz (which claims a "Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz"), the six-core Mac Pro drops to 3.5GHz, the 8-core goes down to 3.0GHz, and the 12-core goes down to 2.7GHz. There's something to be said for the native speed of the E5 over the i7, but if you research around the Web, you'll see it's not that much better in a core-for-core matchup.

I didn't need the extra cores. I needed single-threaded CPU speed. This is a very important thing to consider. I know the architecture of the applications I run, and so I knew that individual core speed was more important than more cores. For other people, that may be completely different.

I also didn't need to FirePro graphics processors. They are truly amazing, but I wouldn't be tapping their power.

For what I needed, we had something of an even race

If you look at the configuration, the Mac Pro maxed out at 1TB of flash storage. So did the iMac. The Mac Pro ran four cores at 3.7GHz (with allowances for the E5), and so did the iMac. I wanted 32GB and I could get that on both machines. Sure, I wouldn't mind the ability to expand beyond 32GB, but I average about 22GB, and I don't really need more, especially for the price.

It was price that made the difference

In the end, it was price that made the difference. I also wanted to upgrade my monitors. I was desperate for increased screen real estate, so I wanted to go from 24-inch to 27-inch monitors. Keep that in mind as I run down the cost estimates I made.

The iMac, with the VESA interface, was $3,989. It included a 27-inch monitor, 32GB of RAM, 1TB flash storage, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB GDDR5. Certainly not cheap, but wait until you see the Mac Pro.

Let's start with what doesn't come in the box. The cheapest 27-inch monitor I could find was from Monoprice at $390. That would be the opening bid on just a single-monitor solution Mac Pro. Then the base, four-core Mac Pro was $2,999 with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of flash storage.

I could pretty easily estimate the price jump to 1TB of flash storage because the iMac already had pricing on that. So add $1,000 to that. We're now at $3,999 + $390, or $4,389. And we still don't have the RAM I need.

Maxing out RAM on the iMac was an additional $600. I had originally figured that 1866MHz DDR3 ECC RAM, while faster, is also going to be more costly than the iMac's 1600MHz DDR3 RAM. After checking some third party RAM suppliers, I concluded that it was roughly the same price, with maybe a 20 percent premium. So, because Apple doesn't like leaving much money on the table, I estimated that jumping the Mac Pro to 32GB would cost and additional $720.

All told, that brought the Mac Pro from $4,389 to $5,109, a difference of $1,120.

Now, I'll admit that a thousand dollars isn't a huge difference when it comes to one's main work machine, but it was still money out of my pocket, and I could think of a lot of other uses to put $1,120.

The bottom line

If I were producing 4K videos or 3D renders, the choice would have been obvious. The Mac Pro would have been the way to go. But since I'm making very large PowerPoints and other vector and raster graphic work, along with position papers, briefing papers, and research, the Mac Pro would have bought me a bit more performance, but would have pushed my budget off the bridge.

So far, I'm pretty happy with the iMac. Compared to my old PC, it's blistering fast. Yes, I know they're different beasts, and I'll talk about exactly why I'm running a Mac instead of a PC in a future article (hint: it's not because I'm abandoning Windows), but the bottom line is I saved enough to go out and buy a MacBook Air if I happen to want one.

That's a relatively big savings.

Topic: Apple


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Looks like I need to start writing for ZD

    Those figures you throw around, the pay must be good.
    • Indeed, get a grip

      You could even afford a Mac, or few, like David ;)
    • Think of it like a service truck

      Because these things are for work, they're much more than I'd spend if they were just for personal use. If I didn't have the combination of responsibilities I have, I could happily live off a Chromebook. It's like my electrician. He has a very well-equipped service truck he has to use for work. What he uses for personal use is entirely different.

      And I have to say, I spend about $200-$300 a month on the gear for work, amortized across the years, which is VASTLY less than I used to have to spend when supporting employees, multiple rents, enormous travel and trade show fees, etc.

      Having broadband and fast computers has substantially reduced my monthly nut, even if I do have to do a relatively quick upgrade cycle on main machines.

      This is exactly why we're having the PC/Post-PC discussion. Because while I'm firmly in the PC came, it's because I need it for work. Were I retired, then I'd be all Post-PC, all the time.


      P.S. And yeah, working for ZDNet rocks, but that's for a whole lot of reasons, including getting to talk to you guys, and the people I'm lucky enough to work with.
      David Gewirtz
      • For work !

        That's very tax efficient ;)
        Alan Smithie
      • hmmm curious 22GB, hours or days saved...

        What apps do you run?
        This isn't for the big Z :-)
      • It's your money.. But ego overkill

        reminds me of the new rich kid with his brand new surf board, wet suit etc, and the kid with the cheap board shredding all over him. More concerned about the equipment than the skill. Way overkill bro and dudes with a tenth the equipment can shred as developers.

        You know what they say Big truck small *****
        • Hmmm... Nope

          You know what they say ...People who lack success in life and are unhappy with themselves, can never be truly happy for anyone else.

          In what way, shape or form is the 2013 27" iMac "way overkill bro" ?? How can someone running a Pentium4 or a 1st gen core2duo/pentium D "shred as a developer" ??

          Stop being jealous of successful people who have better things than you do, and focus on your own goals, friend. People who can afford these nice Macs don't have ego in mind, and spending $2-4k on a computer is not a big deal, because they have the disposable income to do so. So to say someone who has the money to easily afford expensive things must have a small penis, is sophomoric and ridiculous. Spoken like a genuinely envious person with no success or respectable income ....sad.
        • No Comparison between a work PC and a surf board.

          It's a work PC. When you have to rely on equipment to get a job done, you get a good as you can afford. I used to be a truck mechanic and many times had to do repairs in the field.Thats no place to break a wrench or anything else you need so I couldn't just settle for whatever would probably do a job. I had pay a bundle to get solid reliability. I don't know too many professions that require a surf board, but you can bet the pro surfers don't think twice about getting the best surf board they can get. As with any profession that requires each individual to own their own tools or equipment, you have to have the stuff that'll save time and that you don't have to wonder day to day if it'll hold up.
  • There's still a big difference

    David, I thought as you did and bought a top-of-the-line, fully-loaded iMac to replace my Mac Pro a few years ago. Got rid of the iMac about 9 months later. It just wasn't stable enough for me. Heavy video editing made the machine run hot and FCP wonky. Odd crashes once a week or so. There's a number of other features, such as ECC on the Pro, easy multiple monitor support, as well as better cooling, that make it the goto Mac for workstation use.

    The iMac is a Macbook Pro stuffed into a tight case with a bunch of other warm stuff. Sounds like you need a workstation, so I hope the iMac works out OK.

    Robin Harris
    R Harris
    • I got my 27" iMac in January after pre-ordering in December 2012.

      My iMac runs great. I know the older iMacs ran really hot. You could fry and egg on that case. My computer runs cooler than a cucumber. The fan never goes on. I have Final Cut Pro and yea, it does crash sometimes, but it's a ram hog and it crashes predictably when I try to run some filters. Answer: I just don't run those filters. I think Apple has worked out the kinks in the design for the most part.
      • That's not a solution.

        That's an apology.
    • Hot iMac?

      I'm w/maha888 I upgraded from a 3 year old iMac that ran hot... not a lot of fan noise but the case was always warm/hot. This brand new iMac with the top of line I7 processor is cool as a cucumber and is doing compressor conversions way faster!
      I was really tempted to get the base model new Mac Pro but the cost and performance factors make this top iMac the one.
  • It's all about price vs benefit

    Nothing wrong with your setup if the extra $1000 really doesn't get you too much in return.
  • A little correction...

    You say: "...the native speed of the E5 over the i7..." Actually there is no inherent performance difference between a Xeon and an equivalent i7 assuming the same number of cores and same clock speed. What the Xeon buys you is ECC RAM capability and dual socket capability which for your purposes doesn't really buy you anything.

    For me there is also an inherent problem with any all-in-one design like the iMac and that is that when you replace the computer, you replace the monitor too since its all one. I tend to buy above average quality monitors (I use a 3 monitor configuration) and those monitors will outlast a couple of generations of PC
    • You can use the monitor in Target Display Mode later on...

      ... if you've outgrown the capabilities of the rest of the hardware. Not ideal, but it's not like the monitor just goes in the trash, either. And because Macs still command a good price on the used market, the price you sold it for would obviously take the monitor into account, versus say, a Mac Mini.
    • Re: no inherent performance difference between a Xeon and an equivalent i7

      Thing is, there is no such thing as "equivalent Xeon and i7". There are features, besides the ECC RAM support, that are simply disabled in the i7. The Xeon also provides much more cache etc.

      There is simply no way to compare the performance of an Xeon with that of an i7. If you need the performance, that is. Otherwise, you can make do with an Celeron as well.
  • AIO

    If AIO is your thing you could have gotten HP's Z1 workstation(as in workstation class and not consumer class like the imac). Unfortunately it doesn't have PCIe storage options, just SSDs(for now). However since you boasted you don't do all 3d rendering/3d modeling I doubt you'll ever be in the position where you'll be losing sleep over the speed difference between SSD and FlashPCIe.

    I haven't really bothered searching(Z1 was in my mind), but I don't think you couldn't have invested in a traditional tower PC for your work(with the same components). If I remember correctly, you previously justified this purchase with your desire to have OSX access as well. In this case the imac is the only solution(due to Apple's licensing terms and not some technical hurdle) and your future "why mac instead of a pc" entry is redundant.
  • Oh, I just have to nit pix because I'm somewhat envious of your setup.

    The photo of the iMac associated with this blog article is NOT of the model you purchased. Yeah, I know .. Grin.
    • I know

      Bothered me, too. But it was about 10am, one cup of coffee into the day, and I realized I didn't care enough to care. :)
      David Gewirtz
  • You forgot to qualify it with "Of Apple systems..."

    "Unfortunately, in order to effectively do my daily work I need RAM, a lot of RAM, and the only machines that would go above 16GB were the iMac and Mac Pro."

    Plenty of PCs have the ability to expand their memory beyond 16 GB.