Want a fully-loaded iMac Pro? Better sit down. At more than $17K, this is gonna hurt

Once you factor in the Apple tax of more than 80 percent on upgrades from the base machine, the cost seems excessive. But this is a very welcome machine for certain professional users who need all the power they can get.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Apple's upcoming iMac Pro

For a few years now, those of us who rely on native Mac software as part of our workflow have been wondering whether or not we needed to find new solutions. Macs hadn't received much in the way of upgrades, and there was a definite ceiling in terms of power. For those who were doing large media projects (like making movies), the lack of modern pro-level machines wasn't just a concern, it was a possible extinction-level event.

That's why many creative and media professionals were so relieved when Apple admitted its failing strategy with the trash can Mac Pro a few months ago. While there would be a wait, at least there would be a pro future for the platform. Then, at WWDC last week, Apple announced new, beefier iMacs (with up to 64GB RAM). Finally, for those with a real hunger for power, the company teased the iMac Pro.

The iMac Pro isn't cheap, but it isn't a little baby lamb, either. It's a Tyrannosaurus Rex in sheep's clothing. With its base unit sporting an 8-Core Intel Xeon CPU, 32GB of 2666MHz DDR4 ECC RAM, AMD Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU with 8GB of HBM2 RAM, and -- a first for Apple -- a 10 gigabit Ethernet port, the base unit is a beast.

At $4,999 when it comes out in December, it's definitely pricey. It's $1,640 more than a comparably equipped WWDC iMac, but that gets you super-fast Ethernet, a Xeon processor, mondo-fast RAM, and one hella video card.

While $4,999 might make your eyes bleed just a little, our own Adrian Kingsley-Hughes took a look at an analysis by PC Gamer and concluded that the component cost is about what you'd expect if you set out to build a PC with similar specs.

But here's the thing. That $4,999 price is only for the base iMac Pro unit. Apple hasn't said what a fully-equipped maxed-out machine would cost. Personally, I'm kind of curious (and a little scared). Aren't you?

So that's what the rest of this article is about. I set out to reasonably, accurately price out what we can expect Apple to charge for the highest power computer they've ever offered. I won't keep you in suspense. A maxed-out iMac Pro will probably set you back about $17,324. Let's discuss how I came up with those numbers.

From base to boom!

Let's start with the specs. The base unit has an 8-core CPU. The maxed out beastie takes that to 18-cores. That'll get your blood pumping.

Next, let's look at RAM. The base unit comes with 32GB. But for those of us who eat RAM for breakfast, and then keep gobbling more all day long, the maxed out unit takes things to a glorious (and about darned time) 128GB.

The base unit comes with a Radeon Pro Vega video card with 8GB of high-bandwidth memory. The maxed-out iMac Pro doubles that to 16GB.

Finally, the base iMac Pro starts with 1TB of flash storage. The mondo version goes up to 4TB. That's a lot of very fast storage.

As far as I can tell, all the other specs of the machine stay the same. So we have four variables which will increase the base $4,999 price: cores, RAM, video RAM, and flash storage. Let's take a look at each, in turn.

Pricing out those extra cores

Let's start by pricing out those extra cores. Apple doesn't specify exactly what CPU it's using, but PC Gamer has some specs for what they consider an equivalent machine. We'll work off of their specs because that gets some of our work done for us.

Their pick for the 8-core CPU is a Xeon E5-2620 V4 2.1GHz 8-Core Processor. It looks like the PC Gamer folks priced out best price parts using PCPartPicker. However, since that's subject to random reseller discounting, I'm going to pull recommended prices from Intel instead.

In any case, the Intel recommended price for that 8-core processor is about about $419. Its big brother is the E5-2697 v4, which Intel says has a recommended customer price of $2,702.

I'm not convinced these are the actual Xeons Apple will be using. These parts are well over a year old. December is another six months away. I expect Apple to go to a later generation and more powerful CPU series. That said, for the purpose of general price estimation, this will give us a good start.

The Intel price difference between the 8- and 18-core processors is $2,282. But, as we know, there's always an Apple tax. We can't just add $2,282 to the price to find out what Apple will charge. We'll need an overcharge multiplier to get closer.

To figure that out, let's turn to the 27-inch WWDC iMac. The base processor is a 3.8GHz Kaby Lake i5, and the upgraded version is a 4.2GHz Kaby Lake i7. Apple adds $180 as an upcharge to move to the faster processor.

Apple never specifies processors, but iFixit did a teardown of the 21-inch model, which yielded some processor information. The 3.0GHz i5 iFixit found in their iMac is an i5-7400. Looking at Intel's processor comparison chart, the 3.8GHz chip in the 27-inch iMac is likely the i5-7600K, which Intel recommends resellers sell for $242.

The higher-priced i7 part is likely to be the Intel i7-7700K, which Intel recommends resellers sell for about $345.

The difference in Intel's recommended price between the two processors is $103. Apple charges $180 for that upgrade. So what's the markup percentage? Those of you who took some business classes will recall the formula for markup percentage as:

selling_price = unit_cost * markup_percentage + unit_cost

To solve for markup percentage, we'll use this formula

(selling_price - unit_cost)/unit_cost = markup_percentage

So let's throw in some numbers:

(180-103)/103 = 74.75%

Yep, Apple's taking an almost 75 percent markup on the cost of the processor. We'll call that markup the Apple tax on processors and apply that back to our $2,282 price difference between the 8-core Xeon and 18-core Xeon. After applying the Apple tax, that 18-core processor should have an add-on cost above the basic iMac Pro of $3,987.

And we wonder why Apple's the world's most profitable company. Let's move on.

Pricing out RAM

Let's go ahead and take the same approach with RAM. First, let's calculate the Apple tax based on the RAM price differential between the 32GB and 64GB versions of the WWDC 27-inch iMac. Apple charges $720 to go from 32GB of 2400MHz DDR4 RAM to 64GB.

In their 21-inch iMac teardown, iFixit says the 8GB RAM in the system was made up of two SO-DIMMs. So we'll calculate RAM costs based on two 16GB DIMMs vs two 32GB DIMMs. And for RAM cost, let's visit Crucial. Crucial's kit for 2x16 2400 DDR4 RAM is $251.

Here's where it gets interesting. Neither Crucial nor Kingston sell 32GB SO-DIMMs. Crucial only sells 64GB in a stack of four 16GB DIMMs. They both only sell the SO-DIMM form factor in up to 16GB. So, for Apple to support 64GB in the new iMac, they either added four DIMM slots, or they're using a different memory form factor from what they're using in the 21-inch iMac.

Since we don't have a new teardown, I'm just going to go for the price differential assuming the four SO-DIMM configuration. The memory in the iMac Pro is likely to be different anyway, and we're just trying to ascertain the Apple markup percentage here.

Crucial lists their 64GB kit for $748, while Kingston lists theirs for a considerably lower $603. To calculate the Apple markup, we'll split the difference and say that a 64GB kit is, on average, $675. Since Kingston's price was lower, let's also get a Kingston price on 32GB of RAM as well. That's $302, which, oddly, is more expensive than Crucial. Go figure. Anyway, we'll go with an average price for the 32GB kit of $276.

The price differential between 32GB and 64GB, based on our average price, is $399. As mentioned before, Apple charges $720 to make that jump. Using our math, Apple's markup percentage is 80.4 percent (because sometimes a 75 percent markup just isn't high enough).

Now, let's try to apply that to the iMac Pro. This is going to be a little more difficult because neither Crucial nor Kingston sell 2666MHz SO-DIMM products. We can't even take PC Gamer's equivalent estimate, because they spec'd out much slower RAM in their iMac Pro equivalent build. They chose DDR4-2133 instead. Oops.

More great project ideas

As it turns out, even Crucial has very little in the way of DDR4-2666. However, they do have some ECC DDR4-2666 R-DIMMs and LR-DIMMs. Their price for 32GB of ECC DDR4-2666 R-DIMMs is $404. Their price for a 128GB stack of LR-DIMMs is $1,899. They didn't offer the LR-DIMMs for the 32GB build nor R-DIMMs for the 128GB build, so we picked one of each. We're just trying to get close to a number, so this should be good enough.

In any case, the price differential between the base 32GB and the fully-loaded 128GB is $1,495. Using Apple's 80 percent markup, you can expect to pay $2,691 to push an iMac Pro to 128GB of RAM.

Pricing out the video memory upgrade

I tried to find an Apple reference price for the video card upgrade, but the only machine that Apple still sells with a video card upgrade is the old Mac Pro, and the video card in that machine is no longer for sale anywhere.

Unfortunately, we can't just price out the difference between the Radeon Pro Vega with 8GB of high-bandwidth memory and the 16GB version, and then apply an 80 percent Apple tax to it. That's because the Pro Vega isn't out yet. It's not scheduled to ship until December, like the iMac itself.

Pretty much the best that's out there right now is the NVIDIA GTX Titan X. Sadly, until the Pro Vega comes out, we're probably not going to see a 16GB graphics card. But I'm going to do some magic to estimate pricing. There is an out-of-stock 6GB Titan Black at Newegg that costs $339. A 12GB Titan X is $1,475. Clearly, we're not exactly comparing apples to apples, but it gives us a base level to work with.

HBM2 RAM is going to be considerably more expensive. The iMac Pro is going from 8GB to 16GB, not 6GB to 12GB. Based on a costing chart in SegmentNext, it looks like the HBM2 RAM will be at least twice as expensive as the GXDDR5 RAM used in the Titan and 1080 Ti boards. But since RAM is generally only 10 or 20 percent of the cost of a GPU, we're not going to sweat that detail here.

What does this tell us? We know that the price difference between the Titan Black 6GB and the Titan X 12GB is $1,136. Applying an 80 percent Apple RAM tax to that, we're looking at an upgrade price of $2,044.

My guess is that's a little low, but since we don't have an equivalently priced item on the market, and Pro Vega pricing hasn't been released, we'll just declare this as a conservative estimate.

Pricing out the flash storage

Another place where the PC Gamer folks missed the mark is in storage. They simply tossed a SATA SSD into the mix, but SATA SSDs are a lot slower than flash SSDs. And it's flash SSD that the iMac Pro is going to use. I have flash SSD in my 2013 iMac. Even a four year old machine with flash SSD blows away the performance of SATA SSD drives. So, we're looking at flash.

As a reference, we can look at the iFixit teardown of the 2015 MacBook Pro. The iFixit teardowns of iMacs are all of the 21-inch variety. Those don't come with flash storage. They're still sporting the slower SATA SSDs. But the MacBook Pro has a Samsung M.2 flash in it, so that's our base point for comparison.

As it turns out, Newegg, through a reseller, has a 1TB kit for a Samsung flash SSD. That 1TB kit is $628. They also have a 2TB kit, which is $1,315. The two kits are from different resellers, but with such a difficult-to-find part, we'll just roll with it. Since the iMac Pro goes up to 4TB, we'll price that out here. We'll just add two of the $1,315 kits, for $2,630.

Next, as we've done throughout this article, we'll look at the price delta. Going from 1TB to 4TB is $2,002. Once again, using Apple's memory markup of a whopping 80 percent, you're looking at an increase to the cost of a machine of $3,603.

That makes sense. The cost difference of the WWDC iMac from 1TB to 2TB is $720, so we're on the right track. Increasing by 1TB is $720. Increasing 4x that, to 4TB, would be four times $720, or $2,880. Given that the iMac Pro will be using faster storage than the WWDC iMacs, our estimate of $3,603 seems sound.

Adding it all up

Okay, sit down, kids. Here's where we're about to suck all the air out of the room. Let's recap:

  • The base iMac Pro is $4,999
  • Going from 8 to 18 CPU cores will be $3,987
  • Going from 32GB to 128GB RAM will be $2,691
  • Going from 8GB to 16GB high-bandwidth video RAM will be $2,044
  • Going from 1TB flash storage to 4TB will be $3,603

All told, we estimate that a maxed-out iMac Pro will set you back about $17,324. Now, assuming you're still breathing, here's a caution. Apple doesn't release numbers until they release numbers. So if you're going to be budgeting for this thing, please realize that I'm guessing here. Don't base your entire corporate iMac Pro acquisition plan on some numbers I derived for an article.

With that, you're probably looking at a machine that's about $6,000 more than a nicely equipped 2017 Harley Roadster motorcycle. Which will make you happier? Only you know that answer.

I have a few final thoughts. First, the PC Gamer estimate of the cost of a Windows replacement build for the base iMac Pro came to $313 cheaper than the actual base iMac Pro. But they used the wrong RAM and the wrong storage, as well as not factoring in the video card that Apple will actually be using. It's abundantly clear that a component-by-component build would actually be more expensive than the machine Apple is selling.

Fully-equipped, the machine Apple is selling will unquestionably be very expensive -- at least for a traditional desktop. But if you consider this to be a professional production workstation, it's not an outlandish expense. It's certainly out of the range of many individual creators. But if you're Lucasfilm, and it's time to make another Star Wars movie, a seventeen thousand dollar workstation is not excessive. Professionals of that caliber will simply be glad there's a machine with enough headroom to get the job done.

As for the rest of us, the new iMacs (not the Pro models) are nicely equipped. They are probably more cost effective. That said, if you don't max out the iMac Pro, but are more selective in your upgrades, the ability to have an 8-core Xeon with 128GB of DDR4-2666 RAM for under $8,000 might be a stretch financially, but an interesting and powerful possibility.

Good luck. We'll all need it.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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