Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mac Pro or Hack Pro?

I've been an Apple computer owner since 1987, and a Mac user since 1989. After I finished grad school, I worked at Apple's phone support facility in Austin while sticking around town to raise hell --uh, that is, interview for "real" jobs. By my rough count, there are at least five Apple products in regular use in our household, and that doesn't count a bunch of retired machines stashed away in storage.

In other words, I'm a fan, and a big believer in the Apple/Mac ethos. That doesn't keep me from rolling my eyes at Apple's product announcements today, specifically regarding the Mac Pro line of tower computers. They're surely all fine products, but their price tags go a long way towards confirming the legion of nerdy Apple-haters' complaints about inflated hardware pricing from One Infinite Loop.

Since the Power Macintosh line was retired in favor of the Mac Pros a few years back, Apple has made no effort at all to purse the Mac enthusiast market, which is to say Mac users who want to get under the hood and tinker. During the Power Mac era, you could get an expandable Macintosh for around $1200. With one of these boxes, the more tech-oriented Mac fan could snap open the hood and slap in new drives, expansion cards, more memory, even different processors with relative ease.

Since the release of the Mac Pros, however, Apple has made it clear that only businesses or independently-wealthy enthusiasts need apply when it comes to user-expandable computers. The newest Mac Pros start at $2500, a staggering price in today's computer market--and they're the cheapest towers Apple has sold in several years. If you want a Macintosh within the normal price range for a desktop computer, let's say $600 to $1500, you'd better get used to the idea of the sealed-box iMac or Mac Mini.

There's no mystery as to why the Pros cost so much, and it's not because their innards are magically delicious. From the very beginning of the Mac era, Apple has always made its bones with astronomical markups on its highest-end products. The company has something approaching a captive market in the design and entertainment worlds, where high-performance, high-dollar Mac Pros predominate, and that cluster of safe, guaranteed sales has gone a long way towards building and maintaining Apple's ginormous pile of cash reserves.

It used to be kind of difficult to make an apples-to-apples pricing comparison (so to speak) on Mac products, but since Apple converted from PowerPC chips to the Intel standard, it's much easier to approximate how much it would cost to build your own machine with about the same performance.

Using the specifications listed at the online Apple Store for the new bottom-of-the-line Mac Pro, I surfed over to online retailer NewEgg and priced out similar (or identical, when available) hardware for a roughly equivalent system. You can click through for examples of the motherboard, i7 processor, video card, memory, case and power supply, hard drive and DVD burner. All of that stuff added up to $811.92 plus shipping. I didn't bother scraping together stuff like Bluetooth or TOSLINK audio, but let's generously estimate another $250 for the various cats and dogs, which brings us to $1061.92.

"But Will," you say, "That's all interesting, but you aren't figuring in the cost of the Mac operating system. You can't put a price on Apple's R&D to get you the thing that makes a Mac a Mac!"

But sure I can. A copy of the retail OS X 10.5 installer disc costs $129, and the set of iLife applications included with every Mac is another $79. Anybody who'd bother going to the trouble to buy a box full of computer parts and then put them together themselves should have no trouble Googling up the instructions for getting that OS X installer to work on generic PC hardware (and the vast majority who think that's way too much hassle have already bought iMacs--or Dells).

Tack on the software prices, and you've got an equivalent Mac Pro for around $1270, or roughly $1330 less than Apple's sticker price. If you're a business that depends on constant uptime and factory warranty support, that extra money is most likely worth it.

But if you're an individual who's happy being their own technical support line, and who wants top performance for bottom dollars... that's another story. And that's why the Mac enthusiast market has been effectively outsourced by Apple to the burgeoning Hackintosh scene--something yours truly sort-of predicted on the very day Apple announced it was signing on with their new Intel overlords.


  1. It's worth noting that, to use the oft-discarded truism, there's more to a Mac than the sum of its parts.

    For example, show me a case on the market that is as functional and aesthetically pleasing as the Mac Pro case. Granted, the latter is in the eye of the beholder, but I've yet to find one that does cable or air management in a manner that's even in the same ballpark as Apple's design, to say nothing of the latch/access panel simplicity.

    Further, there's the issue of the EFI/ASIC/Open Firmware approach versus the usual BIOS of general crapitude. I've yet to see a BIOS-y loader that works as well as Apple's implementation. FireWire disk mode comes to mind. Hardware independent boot code is flat out awesome, and nobody else is doing it anything like Apple.

    Finally, there's the issue that OS X, even if you include the purchase price in the tally for building an off the shelf computer, will not run on said computer without a huge amount of hackitude, at which point it is effectively broken for all future OS upgrades.

    Are those things worth an additional $1330? And then some, to me anyway. I used to be into building my own machines, and after ten odd years of doing it, I came to one insurmountable conclusion: Chewing up my hands in horrid stamped-out generic PC cases, having endless BIOS issues, and often having hardware that depreciates faster than an Alfa Romeo is not worth the "saved" money by a long shot. Even less so when you factor in the time it sucks up to build and test the thing, and deal with it when it goes wrong.

  2. That Core i7 that you link to is not the same as the one in the Mac Pro.
    Apple used Xeon's (server grade processors). And they are a bit more expensive, even is you buy them from not-Apple. I believe they go for about $700-1000 for one processor. So that would be $1400 for the processors alone.. making the Mac Pro more reasonably priced..

  3. The base, single processor Mac Pro uses a Xeon W3520. That's essentially identical to the one linked to. I have yet to find any differences, apart from the name and ECC. But really... do home users need ECC?

  4. My core i7 Hack Pro beats a W3520 Xeon Mac Pro by far. The i7 920. Geekbench on mine is 11,789 compared to 8,144 for a 2009 W3520 Mac Pro.

    The 920 is made as if it was designed for overclocking. My 920 is overclocked to 3.72GHz and as others have reported, it's stable and at low temps. There are some who have overclocked their 920's to well over 4GHz, which basically provides Geekbench score of 12,500+ upwards.

    Anyone who is technically comfortable building his own rig should go the Hack Pro route in my opinion instead of buying a Mac Pro.

    My machine came out 45% faster than a Mac Pro and 40% cheaper!

    Check out my Hack Pro on my blog.