Deconstructing the base Mac Pro: Why is it so expensive?

When you look at how much the components inside the base Mac Pro actually cost, you'll be shocked at Apple's profit margin. But when you understand why Apple is charging you so much cash, you'll just be angry.

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If you want one of the new Mac Pro machines when they come out this year, you're going to have to pony up a minimum of $5,999. That's for the base model, which is oddly anemic for its extreme price. In this article, we're going to dive into what you get for your money, and why it's not necessarily a good buy.

Beyond the case and cooling, you get a power supply, processor, RAM, video card, network, and SSD. Usually, these are the components that make up the bulk of a tower PC's cost. So let's look at each of these to assess how much value they add to the overall system.

The processor

Let's start with the processor. I spent a lot of time digging through the specs for the processor. Apple states that the processor on the base machine is a 3.5GHz Intel Xeon W processor with eight cores, 16 threads, Turbo Boost up to 4.0GHz, and a 24.5MB cache.

So, which processor is this? According to Wikichip, it's not a Skylake Xeon W. There are no 3.5GHz Xeon W chips in the Skylake line. Intel conveniently announced Cascade Lake the day after the WWDC announcement of the new Mac Pro.

Cascade Lake does have a 3.6GHz chip, with a Turbo Boost up to 4.0GHz (although max Turbo Boost is listed as 4.2GHz). That's the W-3223 model, which is priced at $749. This is a pretty low-end processor, but it does support Intel's AVX-512 instruction set.

This extended chipset provides some advantages for scientific and machine learning applications. That said, the exact benefits (and performance cost) that come from use of the AVX-512 extended chipset are somewhat controversial. It seems to benefit mostly high-end use, but the comparatively weak and slow W-3223 model may actually incur a performance penalty if those extensions are enabled.

Note: You may find that some other deconstructions of the Mac Pro's pricing online have guessed that the base Mac Pro will include the more expensive W-3225. But I carefully cross-checked all the detailed specs provided by Apple with Intel's processor specs, and those other sites are wrong in their estimations. Apple is including the $450-cheaper W-3223 in the base model Mac Pro.

Because this processor has just been announced, we don't have good benchmark numbers. Our best opportunity is to compare similar Skylake Xeon W processors. Of the Skylake processors, the 3.6GHz W-2123 is probably the closest in performance, but that has only four cores with up to eight threads. The closest performing shipping model with eight cores and 16 threads is the 3.7GHz W-2145.

geekbench-scores.jpg

Data derived from GeekBench scores.

In terms of the more consumer-level Core i9 chipset, the most comparable model is the i9-9900K, which also runs at 3.6MHz and has eight cores and 16 maximum threads. This is where things get interesting. According to their GeekBench scores, the i9 beats the Xeon W-2123 and Xeon W-2145 in both single and multi-threaded performance. The i9 is also $500, instead of the Mac Pro's base W-3223, which lists for $750.

Undoubtedly, the Mac Pro motherboard wasn't designed to optimize for the lower-end Xeon chip in the entry-level machine. If it was, the Core i9 would have been a higher-performing model for most tasks at that performance level. It's unfortunate, therefore, that Apple didn't say whether the base model CPU can be upgraded later. If you're going to be stuck with one CPU for the life of this very expensive box, you'd probably be better off with a Core i9-9900K rather than the relatively weak Xeon W-3223.

Base memory

According to Apple, the base Mac Pro ships with four 8GB sticks of DDR4 ECC memory. The Intel W-3223 processor in the base Mac Pro can only address 2666MHz memory, even though the machine itself is built for 2933MHz RAM.

This might seem odd, because there are four DIMMs on a six-channel architecture. Generally speaking, if you have dual-channel RAM, you get the best performance by matching pairs of sticks. In quad-channel memory, you get the best performance by matching sets of four sticks. Therefore, in six-channel memory, you would get the best performance with six matching sticks.

But the base Mac Pro ships with four sticks. While the system won't derive the performance benefit of six channels of data moving at once, there's no real performance penalty either. The memory will simply drop back down to four-channel mode and run as if the machine was designed as a four-channel box.

That said, Apple does not specify whether the base model is shipping with 2933MHz RAM or the slower (and cheaper) 2666MHz RAM. My bet is that it's the 2666MHz stuff.

Apple states that the Mac Pro supports up to 1.5TB of ECC RAM, but it doesn't specifically call out whether the base 32GB RAM array is ECC RAM. Some Xeon motherboards can work with either ECC or non-ECC sticks, but we don't know that about the new Mac Pro.

ECC becomes quite valuable for stability, especially at very high speeds and with terabytes of RAM in use. But at the low end? If Apple is shipping ECC RAM with the entry level unit, it probably won't buy you much in terms of either stability or performance.

When I bought my 32GB of RAM for my Mac Mini, I spent $288 on 32GB of 2666MHz DDR RAM. Today, that's actually listed on Amazon for $151. We don't know what Apple charges for RAM on the Mac Pro, but when I spec'd out 32GB of RAM on the Mac Mini and an iMac, in both cases Apple added $600 to the price.

Storage

It's hard to know how to say anything positive about 256GB of SSD storage on a $6,000 machine. It's almost punitive. I put 1TB of flash SSD into my Mac Mini. Since that was soldered onto the Mac Mini's system board, I had to configure it from Apple at a cost of $600.

On the base Mac Mini, upgrading from 128GB to 256GB storage costs $200. On the other hand, it's possible to buy a 256GB NVMe SSD on Amazon for under $40. So, at least on the base model of the Mac Pro, Apple sure isn't spending its pennies on the storage.

Network

When I tried configuring a Hackintosh with specs comparable to my Mac Mini, I had some difficulty locating a 10GB network card that was both cost effective and might work. I eventually settled on an Intel 2-port board that was about $200 in December and is now $179.

Apple's upgrade tax from 1GB to 10GB was actually reasonable, at a hundred bucks.

Video card

The Mac Pro can be purchased with an astonishing amount of video power, at prices Apple hasn't even begun to describe. What we do know is that the base $5,999 model of the Mac Pro ships with a Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB of video RAM.

I wasn't able to find the Radeon Pro 580X model for sale, but most of the Radeon RX 580s I found had similar specs to what Apple's Mac Pro page described, and they run under $250, with many in the $179 range.

There appears to be absolutely nothing special (except the "Pro" name) with the video card Apple is shipping in its base Mac Pro.

Pricing this beast

So, let's price up what we already know.

* The Cascade Lake Xeon W-3223 processor lists for $750
* 32GB of non-ECC RAM is $151, while Crucial lists ECC 2933GHz RAM for $209
* The teensy bit of storage in the Mac Pro can be had for $40
* You can pick up a comparable video card for under $250

So far, we're looking at $1,249. Of course, that's not all a machine like this has to have. We haven't priced out a motherboard, a power supply, a case, or cooling.

The power supply is easy. The Mac Pro's supply produces 1280W at 108-125V or 220-240V or 180W at 100-107V. The Corsair HX1200i matches these specs for a little under $230. That brings us up to $1,479.

Finding a motherboard to match the Mac Pro's specs wasn't entirely straightforward. So, for the purposes of our price comparison, I simply searched for "Xeon motherboard" on Amazon and picked the most expensive.

There were a whole bunch at $599, and I found one very odd one at $799. It's admittedly not even close to what would support the chips we're using, but it is the most expensive Xeon motherboard on the site. So let's just pick that, and add it to our price.

We're now at $2,278.

What's left? All that's left are the fans and the case. Even the wheels aren't included in Apple's $5,999 price.

So, let's be clear. We've sourced identical (or more expensive) components for everything in the base Mac Pro and other than fan and case, we're at $2,278, which is a whopping $3,721 less than Apple is asking for the base Mac Pro.

Unless the case is made from gold or ceramic and that fan blows unicorn magic, there's no way those components are worth nearly four thousand dollars.

Why is it so expensive?

This is going to sound harsh, but the base Mac Pro is so expensive because it's priced to be punitive. Apple knows that with such a limited configuration, no one is going to buy the base Mac Pro and just use it.

Almost everyone who buys the base Mac Pro will buy it with the intention of upgrading it using parts bought from companies other than Apple. As such, Apple isn't going to share in the profits of those upgrades.

So, no. Apple didn't build a mid-level Mac Pro priced so that individual developers and media creation professionals could have access to a pro machine. Apple built a high-end, enterprise-level machine for top-tier media producers willing to spend the cash.

To make sure that Apple was able to generate substantial profits even -- especially -- from those buyers who intended to upgrade using aftermarket products, Apple blasted the base price of the unit into the stratosphere.

Apple expects to make tens of thousands of dollars in profit from each fully configured Mac Pro it sells. If buyers are going to circumvent that by adding their own components, Apple intends to recover some of those profits from the base model. It's a bean counter's way of looking at innovation, and, frankly, it sucks. But that's today's Apple.

I could say it includes the cost of R&D. But, heck, it's a tower PC. I could also say it's due to the tariffs from China, but honestly, we're not seeing other PC cases selling for nearly four thousand dollars. You could make a lot of arguments about why Apple has to charge so much, and for the high-end configurations, you'd probably be right. But for the base model, with nothing truly transformative in it other than an innovative case design, the real fact is it's wildly overpriced for what you get.

Put simply, its policy is this: "OK, so you want expandability? We got your expandability right here." It is effectively saying that you can pay now or you can pay later, but if you want to expand outside of Apple's profit infrastructure, you're gonna pay.

It's not quite Phil Schiller's immortal, "Can't innovate anymore, my ass." That said, the posterior pain is prevalent in this Pro product.


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