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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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