Why go Pro when iMac goes faster?

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The Mac Pro has always been something of a niche product, appealing mainly to those who need vast amounts of internal storage (thanks to its four drive bays), expansion (three PCI Express slots) or memory (32GB on eight core models).

But it also appeals to another class of buyer, one who probably buys the Mac Pro somewhat grudgingly, because they really don’t need that much storage, expansion, or memory: people who want to own the fastest Mac possible. I’ll admit I’ve been a member of that group at times in the past, and presently use a Mac Pro (albeit a three-year-old model).

Sometimes these people are gamers, wanting the most processing and graphics power available to throw at a game. Sometimes they’re number crunchers, working on things that require lots of horsepower. But whatever the reason, the Mac Pro was usually the machine of choice, even though it was overkill in many other respects.

With the introduction of the new iMacs, and in particular the Core i7-powered 27-inch model, it seems the Mac Pro’s niche may have gotten smaller: the performance of the new iMacs is so strong that I think people who were buying a Mac Pro simply for speed may now look to the iMac instead. As seen in our review, a Core i7-powered iMac recorded a higher Speedmark score than both of the Mac Pros we tested—a quad-core 2.66GHz model, and an eight-core 2.26GHz version.

While there’s no way an iMac will replace a Mac Pro for someone who really needs what the big Mac offers, those in the second category of buyer can now definitely look at the iMac as a viable replacement—sure, you’re “stuck” with the bundled (and shiny, of course) 27-inch LCD monitor, but you’re getting an incredible performance bargain when compared to the Mac Pro.

Start by looking at the test results in our review. The Core i7 iMac wins eight of the categories; both Mac Pros combined only win seven—and of those, three are processor-intensive tests where the eight-core Mac Pro holds a four-core advantage over the iMac. So on performance alone, the i7 iMac is a compelling purchase.

But now, consider cost. I went to the online Apple Store, and built two machines: a Core i7 iMac, and a quad-core Mac Pro. Both were fitted with 8GB of RAM and 2TB of disk space. To make the comparison as equal as possible, I upgraded the video card in the Mac Pro, and bumped the processor speed in hopes of catching the Core i7 iMac. I also included a monitor, which is where things get a bit tricky: nobody sells a 2560-by-1440 monitor that I can find.

Apple’s own 24-inch monitor is 1920-by-1200, and the 30-inch version is 2560-by-1600 (and really expensive). Because it seemed unfair to go with a screen that provides fewer pixels than the iMac, I settled on an HP 30-inch LCD, which has 2560-by-1600 resolution. That’s about 11 percent more pixels, but it was as close as I could get to the iMac’s resolution.

So how do things look, once everything’s configured? Not very good for the Mac Pro:

Core i7 iMac vs. quad-core Mac Pro

Core i7 iMac Quad-core Mac Pro
Basic cost $1999 $2499
CPU upgrade $200 $500
RAM upgrade $200 $250
Hard drive upgrade $250 $400
Video card upgrade -- $200
LCD monitor -- $1200
Total $2649 $5049

CPU upgrade: 2.8GHz Core i7 in iMac; 2.93GHz Xeon in Mac Pro. RAM upgrade: 4x2GB chips in both machines. Hard drive upgrade: One 2TB drive in iMac; two 1TB drives in Mac Pro. Video card upgrade: ATI Radeon 4870 in Mac Pro. LCD Monitor: HP 2560-by-1600 30-inch LCD for Mac Pro.

That’s a price difference of $2400, or nearly enough money to buy a second identically-configured Core i7 iMac. Even if you take the monitor out of the comparison, buying a bare Mac Pro will set you back $1200 more than the cost of the Core i7 iMac.

To me, this makes two things quite obvious. First, the only people who will be purchasing Mac Pros in the near future are those who truly need their storage, expandability, and RAM capacity—for anyone else, even those who typically dread buying a machine with a built-in monitor, the top-of-the-line iMac looks like an easy winner.

Second, it’s apparent that the Mac Pro needs a performance boost, and a pretty sizable one. All of its niche features are important for the buyers in that niche, but those same buyers will not be happy dropping $5000 to get a machine that can’t keep up with an iMac that’s just over half the Mac Pro’s cost. Intel has revealed that there are new server-class processors coming in 2010 (CPU roadmap, 356KB PDF), so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see new Mac Pros with those processors as soon as they’re available.

Because those who need Mac Pros will always need Mac Pros, I don’t think we’ll see a significant drop in their pricing. But we should see a large increase in performance, if the machine is to justify its top spot in the Macintosh product matrix.

As for me, well, for the first time in my Mac-using history, I’m contemplating an iMac as my next Mac—the Core i7 looks to be exactly what I want (other than the glossy screen, of course, but I can work around that problem). I don’t need expansion slots (they sit empty in my Mac Pro), I don’t need 32GB of RAM, and I don’t need four drive bays. I do need speed, though, and the Core i7 iMac seems to have lots of that to go around.

[Rob Griffiths is a Macworld senior editor.]


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