It’s the fastest Mac you can buy and it's a desktop. These days, the Mac Pro is basically the un-Mac.

For years users have argued that Apple needs a standard Mac. A decent desktop that fills the $1000 - $2000 price range. Apple has refused to entertain the idea for what I can only assume are a number of reasons. At lower price points it’s difficult to justify the Apple tax, thus driving margins lower and ultimately impacting stock price. There’s also the issue of cannibalization. A standard Mac could potentially drive customers away from the iMac and into a Mac + cheap monitor configuration. From Apple’s perspective this probably harms the overall user experience (what if a customer buys an inferior display and uses it with a Mac?) and it only allows Apple to realize profit on a computer, not a computer + display.

This leaves us with the current product lineup. The Mac mini at the low end of the OS X scale, the iMac in the middle and the Mac Pro up top. If you want something high performance without an integrated display but more affordable than the Mac Pro then there’s always the Hackintosh route.

I spend all of this time talking about price because the Mac Pro isn’t cheap. Since its introduction in 2006 the Mac Pro lineup starts at $2499:

Historical Look at the Mac Pro
  Late 2006 Early 2008 Early 2009 Mid 2010
CPU 2 x Xeon 5150 (2.66GHz - 2C/2T) 2 x Xeon E5462 (2.8GHz - 4C/4T) 1 x Xeon W3520 (2.66GHz - 4C/8T) 1 x Xeon W3530 (2.8GHz - 4C/8T)
Memory 2 x 512MB DDR2-667 FB-DIMMs 2 x 1GB DDR2-800 3 x 1GB DDR3-1066 3 x 1GB DDR3-1066
Graphics GeForce 7300 GT Radeon HD 2600 XT GeForce GT 120 Radeon HD 5770 1GB
Hard Drive 250GB 320GB 640GB 1TB
Optical 6X DL SuperDrive 8X DL SuperDrive 18X DL SuperDrive 18x DL SuperDrive
Prices $2499 $2799 $2499 $2499

The specs have of course improved tremendously year over year. The Mac Pro was born after Apple decided to migrate to Intel based CPUs. It started with a dual-socket Conroe based Xeon, later saw an upgrade to Clovertown and then in 2009 moved to Nehalem. This summer Apple updated the hardware to Westmere, Intel’s current 32nm architecture.

While there were only two configurations for the Mac Pro (4 and 8 core), Westmere adds a third model: a 12-core Mac Pro priced at $4999. Of course there are build to order options in between all three of them.

Mid-2010 Mac Pro Lineup
  Quad-Core 8-Core 12-Core
CPU 1 x Xeon W3530 (2.8GHz - 4C/8T) 2 x Xeon E5620 (2.4GHz - 4C/8T) 2 x Xeon X5650 (2.66GHz - 6C/12T)
Memory 3 x 1GB DDR3-1066 6GB DDR3-1066 6GB DDR3-1333
Graphics Radeon HD 5770 1GB ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB
Hard Drive 1TB 1TB 7200RPM SATA 1TB 7200RPM SATA
Optical 18x DL SuperDrive 18x DL SuperDrive 18x DL SuperDrive
Prices $2499 $3499 $4999

Estimating the “Apple Tax”

Despite the high cost of entry, historically the Apple tax has been nonexistent on the Mac Pro. I shopped around Dell and HP’s websites to see if I could find similarly configured systems to the new Mac Pro. For the most part Apple was priced identically if not cheaper than Dell and HP for both the single and dual-socket Mac Pros:

Estimating the Apple Tax on the 2010 Mac Pro
  Apple Mac Pro Dell Precision T5500 Custom Built
CPU 2 x Xeon E5620 (2.4GHz quad-core 12MB L3) 2 x Xeon E5620 (2.4GHz quad-core 12MB L3) 2 x Xeon E5620 (2.4GHz quad-core 12MB L3)
Memory 6GB DDR3-1066 6GB DDR3-1333 Kingston 6GB DDR3-1333
Graphics ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB ATI FirePro V8700 1GB Sapphire Radeon HD 5770 1GB
Hard Drive 1TB 7200RPM SATA 1TB 7200RPM SATA WD Caviar Black 1TB 7200RPM SATA
Optical 18x DL SuperDrive 16X DVD +/- RW LG 24X DVD +/- RW
Notes $249 for 3-year warranty  3 year warranty standard Includes Corsair Obsidian 700D case at $249.99, Antec 750W PSU, ASUS Z8NA-D6C Motherboard at $259.99
Prices

$3499 + $249 for 3 year warranty

$3748

$3895 $1752.90 + OS

The Dell comes with a more expensive video card since there wasn’t an option for a Radeon HD 5770 class part. Other than that the two systems are similarly configured and there’s no real price premium for the Mac. You can obviously save a ton of money if you don’t need a dual-socket, eight-core beast but if you’re buying in this class of products Apple is price competitive. This isn’t anything new. I ran the same comparison in our first Mac Pro review and came out with similar results. There’s effectively no “Apple tax” on the Mac Pro.

Update: Dell doesn't offer a Radeon HD 5770, instead you get a much more expensive FirePro V8700 graphics card. If deduct the street price for the graphics card from each machine, the Mac Pro ends up being $324 more expensive than the Dell. The Apple tax is there, but masked by the cheaper GPU.

Update 2: There's one more key difference in the specs. The Dell comes with a 3 year warranty vs. Apple's  1  year warranty. To get 3 years from Apple you need to purchase the $249 Apple Care add-on. Also, as many have pointed out, Dell can offer significant discounts over the phone. Apple can offer large discounts as well if you are an educational or business customer.

Where you can save a ton of money building your own however. A quick look through Newegg gave us a similar configuration to the Apple and Dell systems for $1612.91 plus the cost of the OS. 

The Most Upgradeable Mac
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  • Stuka87 - Thursday, October 07, 2010 - link

    Uhm, this is the first Apple System they have reviewed in quite some time. If you click under systems up top, you will see pages of PC's, along with a review for the current gen Mac Mini last spring, and a MacBook Pro review. And there is an iPhone 4 review and AppleTV review. But these are pieces of tech that people like. Just like the 500 PC reviews and other misc. hardware. Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, October 07, 2010 - link

    Apple gets equal treatment along with the rest of the stuff we review around here. In fact, the Mac Pro review got pushed back for months to accommodate more pressing things like the Sandy Bridge performance piece, the associated architecture article and testing for the next SSD piece.

    There have been a lot of Apple related articles lately but that's simply because Apple recently announced a lot. This clears out the last of the backlog. Next on the list are SSDs, HDDs and some other unmentionables... :-P

    I appreciate you visiting frequently :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • shambla - Thursday, October 07, 2010 - link

    I am considering picking up an entry level Mac Pro, but I am a little concerned about future upgrade options. I understand that the daughter board in the uniprocessor model is different from that in the DP models, but is the main logic board identical to that in the dual processor Mac Pro models?

    More importantly, will the daughter board in the 2.8GHz Nehalem uniprocessor model allow me to upgrade to ANY of the uniprocessor variant Westmere CPUs sometime down the line, or am I restricted to Nehalem Xeons? Could I for example put in a single W3680 3.33GHz 6-core Westmere CPU in a year or two? I know that Apple offer this CPU as a build-to-order option for the uniprocessor Mac Pro, but does this require them to use a different daughter board?
    Reply
  • Nadav2010MP - Friday, October 08, 2010 - link

    Hello Shambla,

    In answer to your question, the main logic board(backplane board) has only one firmware version for both single and dual set ups. The firmware for the 2010 is: MP51.007F.B00 and the SMC firmware is 1.39/f11 for both the logic board and processor boards(single and dual), so yes the main backplane board's firmware is for both the single and dual.

    As far as being able to upgrade to any westmere cpu, the answer is YES. For instance, when I did my upgrade by removing the 09 parts from my 09 mac pro and replacing them with 2010, the processor board already has the B1 stepping support built in, along with the D0 nehalem stepping so that you can upgrade the w3530 2.8 to a w3680... The same can be said for me.. I have a w3580 3.33 4-core DO Nehalem processor, and I can easily use the Westmere 6-core w3680 as a drop in replacement - the board's firmware accepts both Nehalem and Westmere cpus.

    There is only one part number for the single-processor board. It wouldn't make sense for Apple do deny customers the right to upgrade to the w3680 later on, since the firmware supports both D0 AND B1.. Here are the part numbers:

    Single-processor board: 661-5707
    Backplane board: 661-5706
    Dual-processor board: 661-5708

    ***THE DUAL WOULDN'T MAKE ANY SENSE AND I WILL TELL YOU WHY. Unlike the single-quad core which you would have, the same heatsink also works on the 6-core w3680(that same heatsink also is the same on the 2009 mac pro).. Why the dual option doesn't work is because not only do you have to get the dual board, but you also have to BUY the dual cpu heatsinks which alone would cost close to 400.00. Then the processors themselves are EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE..

    The single-quad upgrade makes sense as the processors aren't too bad.. For me, who had a 2009 originally, for 300 dollars I was able to buy just the backplane board and processor board - while using my existing 09 parts(fans, case, heatsink etc..). In essence, my w3580 works great in the 661-5707 board and rightfully so because it doesn't make sense to just limit the firmware to support only 2.8,3.2 and 3.33 6-core... rather, the firmware supports all, and I MEAN ALL D0 and B1 stepping processors.. Here is my system profiler:

    Model Name: Mac Pro
    Model Identifier: MacPro5,1
    Processor Name: Quad-Core Intel Xeon
    Processor Speed: 3,33 GHz
    Number Of Processors: 1
    Total Number Of Cores: 4
    L2 Cache (per core): 256 KB
    L3 Cache: 8 MB
    Memory: 6 GB
    Processor Interconnect Speed: 6.4 GT/s
    Boot ROM Version: MP51.007F.B00
    SMC Version (system): 1.39f11
    SMC Version (processor tray): 1.39f11

    As you can see, the changes in firmware are visible here.. MP51.007F.B00 and SMC 1.39F11 for both backplane and processor board.. and originally my parts were 09 parts.. And yes, I am using the w3580 processor - the 2009 lineup's top of the line in the 2010 processor board, and as you can see it fully works as if it were a 2009... But, I also have the capability to use 1333 mhz memory with it since the w3580 supports 1333 along with its other brother the w3680.
    Reply
  • shambla - Sunday, October 10, 2010 - link

    Many thanks for the thorough reply - I assumed I would be fine to just drop a single 4 or 6 core Westmere into the standard uniprocessor daughterboard, since as you said, it makes no sense for Apple to use 2 parts when one is sufficient and I assumed that the Nehalem and Westmere CPUs would be similar enough that there would be no technical reason why this would not be possible. I completely agree that trying to upgrade the uniprocessor model to a dual processor system would be prohibitively expensive, given the additional parts I would require, hence my interest in using one of the 6-core Westmere CPUs instead. Thanks again for the help Reply
  • Highjnx - Thursday, December 16, 2010 - link

    Out of curiosity where are you able to find the backplane and processor boards for the 2010 at $300. I'm not finding either one for less than $450 = $900 US Dollars.

    Also I've got half a dozen X5670 chips in hand and would be curious to know if one of those would work on the single board in place of the W3680.

    Any input is appreciated.
    Reply
  • DominionSeraph - Sunday, October 10, 2010 - link

    Why would you get the base Mac Pro? You can get a 980X with 24GB and SLI'd 1GB GTX 460's for ~$100 less than the Mac Pro's quad core, 3GB, and 5770. Reply
  • shambla - Sunday, October 10, 2010 - link

    Well for a start I get educational discount which knocks something like 15% off the list price straight away. I can get the base model for just over £1600 or get it upgraded to 6GB plus swap the 5770 for the 5870 for just under £2000. I have priced up broadly similar systems using both i7 and Xeon CPUs, but in the UK, last time I checked the 980X CPU alone would cost me around £750, the pair of 460s would be around £350 and 24Gb of tri-channel RAM would be around £450. That's £1550 before I have added a suitable motherboard, PSU, case, storage etc. Plus I like OS X, it's as simple as that. Finally, if I want to free up some cash a couple of years down the line, a Mac Pro, like most other Apple systems, maintains value like no other system you can buy or build yourself. Reply
  • pr0nstar69 - Thursday, October 07, 2010 - link

    Somebody already mentioned this in passing, but there is another horrible mistake in the price comparison: the Dell comes with a 3 Year warranty and support, as well as NBD exchanges, whereas the basic price for the Mac Pro only includes one year of warranty and support, as well as the pleasure of carrying your Mac Pro to an Apple Store.

    If you want to compare apples with apples, you have to at the very least add AppleCare to the Mac Pro, $249 extra. So the total "Apple tax" is more like $574, when warranty and the graphics card are taken into account.

    I don't think that falls into "minimal". Especially because you'd have to be an idiot to buy a Dell workstation at the list price on the Dell website. One call to sales or to your own Dell representative should give you at the very least a few percent off, and for companies that buy Dell equipment regularly more like tens of percent.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, October 07, 2010 - link

    Very true, I've updated the cost comparison to equalize along warranty as well.

    Both Apple and Dell can offer significant discounts if you have a relationship with them. Going through Apple's Business representatives can easily save 3 - 10% off pretty much anything. I've kept discounts out of the equation simply because they are hard to track and do vary based on a number of factors.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply

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