updated 05:27 am EST, Tue January 28, 2014
Entry-level Mac Pro makes for a tempting proposition for power users
Now that the long-awaited redesigned Mac Pro has reached the market, Mac power users have something of a dilemma when it comes to choosing a powerful Mac for the home. In our full review of the Mac Pro, it became quite apparent that the Mac Pro is a very powerful machine, but that its full power only revealed when running professional-class applications. Although Mac power users may not use their Mac for their profession, many opt to use professional applications made by Apple and third-party pro apps as well. In most instances, a high-end iMac has plenty of power to run the same applications as the Mac Pro. Yet, there is no denying that the new Mac Pro has incredible appeal, not only as the most powerful Mac that you can buy, but also as yet another stunning example of Apple's engineering and design prowess. As a power user, or Mac enthusiast, should you save some money and stick with an iMac, or should you realistically consider opting for a shiny new Mac Pro?
An iMac configured to a similar level as the entry-level Mac Pro will run you $2749. This will get you an Intel Core i7 quad-core processor clocked at 3.5GHz, 16GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, 256GB flash storage and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 780M GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 VRAM. The entry-level Mac Pro costs just $150 more than a fully-specified iMac, which buys you a 3.7GHz Intel quad-core Xeon processor, 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 EEC RAM, 256GB of PCIe-based flash storage, and dual AMD FirePro D300 GPUs with 2GB of GDDR5 VRAM each.
The iMac, of course, also incorporates a high-quality 27-inch IPS LED monitor for the price, but for some power users, that is not necessarily a selling point. This group would sooner that Apple built a tower equivalent of the iMac with the same or similar componentry that included the option for high-quality desktop-class discrete graphics processing. Particularly when you can't use the iMac display to run your gaming console or Blu-ray player through, as you could for a brief period (with the help of an adapter). For this group of users in particular, the entry-level Mac Pro makes for a tempting proposition.
In our full review of the Mac Pro, our test unit was the 6-core model in standard configuration, which we were able to run our own tests on in comparison with a 27-inch iMac (Late 2013) Core i5 model. In Geekbench 3 64-bit single-core test, we found that the $1999 Core i5 iMac outperformed the $3999 Mac Pro with a single-core score of 3794 against 3620. Although the Mac Pro uses the latest Intel Xeon processors, which were released as recently as September last year, it runs the slightly older 'Ivy Bridge' microarchitecture whereas the current-gen iMacs run Intel's newer 'Haswell' microarchitecture.
The reason for the performance difference, according to Intel, is that it runs much more extensive validation and testing of its Xeon processors because of their use in 'mission critical' tasks in enterprise, business, and science. In this case, the validation process took close around twelve months meaning that Xeon processors will necessarily follow their Core equivalents. Further, Xeon processors, unlike their Core equivalents, support ECC RAM, which is also critical for professional users. The Mac Pro can accommodate up to 64GB of the fastest DDR3 ECC RAM available clocked at 1866MHz, while the iMac runs regular DDR3 RAM clocked at 1600MHz.
When it comes to comparing the high-end iMac with the entry-level Mac Pro, a search of the Geekbench 3 charts shows that the Core i7 iMac returns a single-core score of 3907 against a score 3610 from a Xeon-powered Mac Pro revealing a notable performance gap between the iMac and the Mac Pro - except, the score is in favor of the iMac. In non-professional class applications such as email, browsing the Internet and other general use contexts, the high-end iMac is actually going to be faster. Making the high-end iMac even more attractive, from the perspective of speed, is that its 64-bit multi-core performance also shades the entry-level Mac Pro, this time with a multi-core score of 14744 versus 14606.
When we spoke with Intel for our Mac Pro review, the company also pointed out that while Geekbench 3 is a solid generic test, pro users should really use built-in benchmark suites that assess Xeon performance in high-end applications. In the Cinebench R15 test, which is built by Maxon to assess how a computer will run its professional Cinema 4D application, our 6-core Mac Pro streeted the Core i5-based iMac. However, the Geekbench 3 benchmarks are likely to give Mac power users pause for thought when it comes to choosing between a high-end iMac and the entry-level Mac Pro. We would expect that in a benchmark like Cinebench R15, it would go very close to equaling the performance of the 4-core Mac Pro.
Although we haven't seen comparisons between the graphics performance of the entry-level Mac Pro and high-end iMac, our full review of the 6-core Mac Pro with its AMD D500 GPUs shows that it only just out runs the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 775M with 2GB of GDDR5 in the Cinebench R15 benchmark. In our testing, the AMD D500 (running as a single GPU in Mac OS X) scored 80fps in the Open GL test, while the Core i5 iMac with the standard Nvidia GPU score 76fps. However, it is suspected that AMD and Apple may still have some tweaking to do with the FirePro drivers under Mac OS X. With CrossFireX enabled in Windows 8.1, where both GPUs are enabled for simultaneous graphics performance, we were able to push the Mac Pro to a score of 106fps in the Cinebench R15 Open GL test. (Again, there is a caveat in that score too, as AMD has yet to release specific drivers for the GPUs fitted to the Mac Pros running under Windows in Boot Camp.)
What this suggests is even though the high-end iMac is running a mobile GPU (albeit Nvidia's best) it will comfortably outpace the AMD FirePro in the entry-level Mac Pro in graphics performance as well, particularly when running under Mac OS X. Again, it should be pointed out that workstation GPUs like those found the Mac Pro are subject to extensive testing and are also optimized for compute, rather than just rendering polygons. The precision double-numeric performance of the Mac Pro D500 and D700 GPUs will crush even the Nvidia GPU in the high-end iMac, which is optimized for pushing polygons and is thus better for gaming. Yet, the Nvidia GPU will still perform well in pro applications, although it is not validated for use in mission critical tasks.
While, on paper, it seems that the high-end iMac will meet the performance needs of most Mac power users, there are other factors to consider. The Mac Pro offers much greater expandability, thanks to its six Thunderbolt 2 ports. Not only is this an additional four ports, it is the newer Thunderbolt 2 specification. Only Thunderbolt 2 fully supports 4K Ultra HD workflows, just as the AMD GPUs in the Mac Pro are designed to support 4K Ultra HD monitors. If multiple display support is important to you, the Mac Pro can handle up to three 4K Ultra HD monitors or up to six Thunderbolt monitors. An iMac is limited to supporting just two Thunderbolt monitors. While there is an upgrade path (at least theoretically possible for the Mac Pro), the iMac is all but non-upgradeable, save for RAM. A Mac Pro will support up to 64GB or RAM, while an iMac is limited to 32GB of RAM. When it comes to on-selling your hardware, the Mac Pro is also going to be a lot easier to ship given that it only weighs 11 pounds and is so compact.
The high-end iMac is a powerful machine, and it actually outperforms the entry-level Mac Pro in single-core, multi-core and graphics performance. As Apple, sadly, does not make an iMac tower equivalent, the iMac remains the best option for the majority of Apple Mac users who are performing general computing tasks. If your app use extends no further than productivity suites and Apple's free iLife software with some gaming thrown in for good measure, an iMac will deliver on all counts. Even if you step up to Apple's pro software including Final Cut Pro X, Aperture and Logic Pro X, (or other pro apps) an iMac will be able to comfortably handle most typical workflows. For many Mac power users though, the decision is not as straight forward as it might have been. The high-end iMac offers similar or better performance to the entry-level Mac Pro, while it comes with a high-quality 27-inch IPS LED display built right in for $150 less.
The Mac Pro is a purpose made machine has been designed with creative professionals in mind. It uses workstation-class componentry and the fastest possible I/O across all aspects of the system architecture. That does not mean that if you are not a 'pro' you shouldn't or can't use a Mac Pro - it is as easy and simple to set up and use as any Apple computer and comes pre-installed with exactly the same free software as an iMac, which includes iLife and iWork applications. So, like the iMac, you will be ready to go out of the box when you connect the Mac Pro to any monitor and keyboard/mouse combination. It is just somewhat unexpected, that if using it this way, the iMac will give you better performance than an entry-level Mac Pro, though not necessarily better flexibility.
Of course, if you have the cash to burn, the high-end configurations of the Mac Pro with up to 12-core Intel Xeon chips are the fastest multi-core Macs you can buy, but these models are considerably more expensive than a high-end iMac. As I personally prefer being able to choose my monitors and run multiple devices through them, I would opt for the entry-level Mac Pro over the high-end iMac. My workflow extends into the semi-professional territory, making the entry-level Mac Pro a good option as Apple has optimized its pro apps for the Mac Pro. The Mac Pro also happens to be the most interesting Mac Apple has produced in some time and is brilliantly engineered around a single unified thermal core. The only problem you will have if you want a new Mac Pro is trying to get your hands on one. The current wait time extends into March.
By Sanjiv Sathiah