Comparing prices: Mac Pro versus PCs

If you caught the Mac Pro’s introduction during last week’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, you know that Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide product marketing, punctuated his demo of the new high-end desktop by uttering the “D” word— Dell . Specifically, Schiller brought up Dell to compare its price to the standard 2.66GHz Mac Pro Quad’s $2,499 price tag. By Schiller’s math, a similarly configured Dell Precision 690 would run you $3,448—around $950 more than the Mac Pro.

That’s an eye-catching figure, especially in light of the widely held perception that Macs are more expensive than their PC counterparts. But is it an accurate figure? To double-check Apple’s math, I went on a virtual shopping spree. My mission: configure a Mac Pro and a comparably-featured Dell model and see how their prices measured up.

The ghost of price comparisons past

I’ve become something of a veteran of the price-comparison game, writing several articles stacking up various Mac systems against “comparable” offerings from Dell, including a three - part series on the original Mac mini, and two more articles on the MacBook Pro. Now the point to these previous articles—which can get lost amid the numbers— is not that Macs are necessarily cheaper than Dells; you’ll always be able to find a cheaper low-end Dell if you try, because Dell lets you strip away features to save money (something Apple has declined to do). Rather, the point was that Macs and comparably-equipped, brand-name Windows PCs tend to be roughly comparable on price these days. That old notion that you have to pay up to use a Mac often isn’t the case any more.

That said, my earlier comparisons were admittedly imperfect. For example, it was tough to compare a Mac mini with a Dell because the Mac mini is a full-featured computer in a tiny case, whereas Dell’s budget computers are stripped-down minitowers. And at the time I looked at the MacBook Pro, Apple had only a 15-inch high-end laptop, while Dell’s only Core-Duo laptops were budget consumer models. In fact, any comparison of products aimed at different markets is going to require some degree of upgrading on one side or the other if you want the products to be “comparable”—and some of those upgrades include items that some users may not care about but which ultimately inflate the price of one of the computers.

With the Mac Pro, such concerns go out the window: The Mac Pro is aimed squarely at pros —people who need workstations with power and expandability—so it’s fair to compare the Mac Pro with pro-level workstations from other vendors. After all, it’s hard to argue that a pro user won’t want all the features you get with the Mac Pro: the fastest processors available on the Mac platform, multiple drive bays, a good number of expansion slots, lots of ports, and so on. Conversely, Apple has omitted features, such as AirPort and Bluetooth, that are likely to be unnecessary for professional work on a high-speed, wired network, so there’s no need to add such options to other computers to make them comparable. Finally, unlike with laptop comparisons, we don’t have to quibble over which LCD is truly “better”; you use whichever display you want.

Matching up the Mac Pro

With that in mind, I was excited to do the first “hey, these might actually be comparable” Dell vs. Mac price comparison of the Intel-based Mac era. In one corner, we have Apple’s standard-though-customizable Mac Pro; In the other, Dell’s ultimate workstation PC, the Precision 690. I used Dell’s Small Business store to configure a dual-2.66GHz Precision 690 Workstation 1KW as closely as I could to Apple’s dual-2.66GHz Mac Pro. (I used the Small Business store because a similar Dell configured via the company’s Medium/Large Business store was more expensive.) I then used the online Apple Store to make a few changes to the Mac Pro to make it match the Dell.

The result? Below is our familiar specs table:

Mac Pro vs. Dell Precision 690

Apple Mac Pro Dell Precision 690 1KW
Processor Dual-2.66GHz Intel Xeon
(4MB L2 cache, 1.3GHz bus)
Dual-2.66GHz Intel Xeon ($869)*
(4MB L2 cache, 1.3GHz bus)
RAM 2GB 667MHz DDR2 FB-DIMM ($300)* 2GB 667MHz DDR2 FB-DIMM ($30)*
Maximum RAM 16GB 8GB
Hard drive 250GB 7200RPM SATA with 8MB cache 250GB 7200RPM SATA with 8MB cache ($90)*
Hard drive expandability Four SATA drive bays
Cable-free drive sleds
Six SATA buses
Four SATA drive bays
(four SATA buses assumed)
Optical drive 32x/16x SuperDrive
(DVD±RW/CD-RW)
48x/16x DVD+/-RW ($94)*
Optical drive expandability Two optical drive slots
(Ultra ATA/100)
Two optical drive slots
(Ultra ATA/100)
Video Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT
(256MB, 1 dual-link, 1 single)
Nvidia Quadro FX 3450
(256MB, 1 dual-link, 1 single)
PCI Express expansion One 16x graphics slot
(configurable as 8x)
Three configurable
slots (8x, 4x, or 1x)
All slots full-length
One 16x graphics slot
(non-configurable)
Two non-configurable
slots (4x, 1x)
All slots full-length
PCI expansion None Three 32-bit, 33MHz slots
(2 full-length, 1 half-length)
Ethernet Dual independent Gigabit Dual independent Gigabit ($49)*
FireWire Two 800 (front/rear)
Two 400 (front/rear)
Two 400 (front/rear)
USB Six USB 2.0
(2 front on one bus,
3 rear on separate bus,
1 internal for optional
Bluetooth)
Eight USB 2.0
(2 front, 5 rear, 1 internal
buses undetermined)
Audio-in Optical Toslink (rear)
analog minijack (rear)
Microphone-in (front)
Line-in (rear)
Audio-out Optical Toslink (rear)
analog minijack(rear)
headphone jack (front)
2 headphone jacks (front/rear)
Speakers Built-in speaker Built-in speaker
Keyboard Apple Pro keyboard Dell USB QuietKey
Mouse Mighty Mouse (optical) Dell USB 2-Button Optical/Scroll ($14)*
Misc. ports Internal AirPort slot 2 PS/2
1 parallel
2 serial
Display none Dell 19” UltraSharp 1907FP
Warranty 3-year AppleCare ($249)* 3-year On-site Economy Plan
Software Mac OS X v10.4 (Tiger)
All Mac OS X apps
iLife ’06
Comic Life
Omni Outliner
Windows XP (32- or 64-bit version)
Price $3,048 $4,395

* custom option (additional cost in parens)

Notes: Mac Pro uses four 512MB DIMMs for increased performance; Dell uses 2 1GB DIMMs. Dell is also available in “750W” configuration for $470 less; this system apparently doesn’t provide enough power to graphics cards to support more than two monitors. Mac Pro’s PCI slots can be configured in four combinations of speeds. Dell LCD display is “free” as part of a current promotion. Dell’s specs for the 690 note 4 DIMM slots for a maximum of 8GB RAM, but other documentation mentions available expansion to 16 DIMM slots for a total of 64GB RAM; Dell’s specs also conflict on hard drive and optical drive bays.

My reaction: Wow. I mean, seriously: Wow . The Mac Pro is more than $1,000 less expensive? That’s not pocket change. In fact, the difference in price here is nearly a reverse of late-90’s Dell vs. Mac pricing. (If you’re skeptical of this comparison, even The Inquirer —far from a Mac-sympathetic publication— came to a similar conclusion: “Apple thrashes Dell on Mac Pro pricing.” And that was using a Precision 490, a less expensive Dell machine that isn’t really comparable to the Mac Pro in terms of expandability. Another comparison, with a similar result, can be found at systemshootouts.org.)

What makes the Dell so much more expensive? Surprisingly, a big chunk of the cost is the second processor. If you need only a single 2.66GHz Xeon, the Dell’s price drops a whopping $869; it’s still more expensive than the Mac Pro, but at least they’re in the same ballpark. Which means one of two things: Either Apple is getting an amazing deal on the Xeon processors used in the Mac Pros, or Dell is soaking dual-processor customers.

So, for that big difference in price, what’s different about these two systems? On the Mac side, you get more internal SATA buses, four of which are accessible via slide-in, cable-free drive sleds that make upgrading hard drives a snap. You get an extra PCI Express slot, and all four slots are configurable. You also get FireWire 800 ports (the Dell offers only FireWire 400), and optical audio-in and -out. And let’s not forget the stellar software package, worth hundreds of dollars if you were to equip the Dell with comparable titles. (Although, to be fair, given that this is a pro system, software such as iLife is less valuable that it would be to owners of, say, a MacBook or an iMac.)

On the Dell side, the most obvious difference is that you get a 19-inch LCD display—a $250 value when purchased separately (at least at the time I priced the above system). In addition, the 690 offers slightly faster CD reading, 3 standard PCI slots, two more USB ports (although I couldn’t determine how many separate USB buses ), an additional analog-audio input on the front of the machine, and a slew of legacy ports (PS/2, parallel, serial). The Dell’s “Economy” on-site service plan may also offer some advantages, although that isn’t clear. And with the Dell, you can opt for SAS drives in lieu of, or in addition to, SATA drives for better performance, although you’ll pay a good number of pretty pennies to do so.

In other words, the machines aren’t identical—each has a few advantages—but I think they’re fairly comparable in terms of the needs of a pro user. (If you’re looking to find all the technical differences between the two, good luck. If you go to Dell’s basic tech specs page for the 690—the one you encounter while building it—you get one set of specs; however, if you go to the more complete page, available before you start building, and linked at the top of the above table, you get a very different set of specs. For example, the maximum RAM for the 690 is stated as either 8GB or 64GB; that’s like Toyota saying its new Camry gets either 12mpg or 70mpg! I’ve attempted to make sense of these conflicting specs; with such a significant difference in price, at least I’ve got a good margin of error if one or two mistakes would result in a smaller or larger difference in capability or price.)

I’m sure some of the critiques of this comparison will involve mention of Dell’s various “secret” discounts. They do exist, and they vary anywhere from a hundred bucks to more than $500. You can usually find a discount coupon if you search the Web hard enough, or catch a price break if you talk to the right Dell salesperson. (When I called Dell, anonymously, to verify several of the 690’s specs, I was offered a discount of “a couple hundred bucks” if we bought it over the phone.) I’ve previously voiced my displeasure with these Dell sales policies—which basically amount to a tax on the non-Web-savvy—but even if you embrace them, no Dell coupon I’ve seen is going to eliminate the $1,000-plus difference in price between these systems.

I’m sure some Dell fans will also quibble with my choice of video cards. It’s true that less expensive cards available from Dell will be adequate for many users, and some of those will even offer comparable performance to the Mac Pro’s Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT. However, the Quadro FX 3450 was the least expensive video card from Dell that offers both dual-link and single-link ports, allowing you to drive a 30-inch Apple or Dell display along with another smaller display—something the Mac Pro’s stock card can also do, and a task that’s more popular than you might think among professional users.

On the other hand, Mac users will point to intangibles—the most important, and convincing, of which being viruses and security. Say what you will about the supposed smugness of Mac users on this issue, but the fact remains that not a single Mac OS X virus, malware, or spyware has been found proliferating in the wild. Compare that to the tens of thousands (and counting) of such security breaches for Windows XP, and the software and manpower it takes to deal with such exploits, and I think it’s fair to tally a significant additional cost savings for the Mac Pro. And let’s not forget that the Mac Pro is the only high-performance computer in the world that can run Mac OS X and Windows .

Final thoughts

Some will say that Apple’s pro machines are more compelling than ever. And I won’t disagree. But more than anything, the significance of the Mac Pro, from a price perspective, is not that it’s debatably price-competitive with somewhat similar offerings from Dell (and other Windows-PC vendors); rather, it’s that the Mac Pro is the first Mac in a long, long time that is unquestionably less expensive than its Windows counterparts in the same market segment. Now I’d like to see Apple put the same effort into a mid-level, expandable machine in the $1,500 price range.

[ Dan Frakes is a senior editor for Macworld and the senior reviews editor at Playlist. ]

( Editor's Note: On August 23, Dan Frakes posted a follow-up to this story with responses to reader feedback and questions. Be sure to check it out. )

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