posted by Universal Mind on Fri 6th Aug 2010 16:16 UTC
IconThe "Macs are too expensive" argument is one of the most tiresome and long-lived flamewars in internet history. Obviously, Apple makes a premium product and charges premium prices, and you can always find a computer from another vendor that seems to match or exceed specs that costs less. But if you look at Apple's Mac Pro line, and compare it not so much to other vendors, but to the past lineup of Mac Pros, you discover some very unpleasant truths that help explain why Apple is enjoying record earnings for their Mac line, but doing so to the detriment of some its most loyal and valuable customers.

Apple refreshed its entire lineup of desktop computers recently. The Mac mini was the first to get an update in June, the iMac and the Mac Pro received their long-awaited overhaul last week. Being a Prosumer myself, I am most interested in the Mac Pro, so I eagerly awaited a refresh of Apple's high end workstation lineup.

I switched to Macs full time in January 2004, with several part time switches and experiments in the years before. As an OS fanatic, I was always disappointed by Mac OS 9, but Apple finally blew me away with the release of Mac OS X 10.3 (a.k.a. Panther), which brought us the famous Exposé. I was sold.

So, time went by and I needed more and more computing power and loads of RAM. That means I ended up with Apple's pro line of computers, which was represented by the Power Mac G5 back then, and eventually bought the Mac Pro when Apple switched to x86 processors. I was always happy with their offerings, e.g. you could put up to 16 GB of RAM into the last generation of Power Mac G5 machines, sporting 8 DIMM slots. This was very rare in 2005 and pretty much only matched or exceeded by high end dual AMD Opteron Workstations, which were very expensive, too. Plus, you could use non-ECC memory in the G5s, which was an enormous money saver compared to the registered ECC modules you needed for you Xeon/Opteron workstation. Yes, I'll admit, I maxed my Power Mac G5 with 16 GB of memory. (If you shake your head right now, you are not geeky enough!)

The first Mac Pro was also quite impressive. The internal system layout was pretty much unmatched, even among competing Workstations. You could hardly spot a single cable; it was just beautiful. The Mac Pro early 2008 was a very beefy upgrade, which brought 8-core power at a very reasonable price, up to 32 GB RAM and still managed to be more silent than the first incarnation. Apple could easily impress with these beasts, especially when you looked at the competition at that time. You got a hell of a lot of computer for your money. Apple touted the price, saying a similar machine from Dell costs you $1.000 more.

This was the golden age. Then came the Mac Pro Early 2009 which featured Intel's new Nehalem microarchitecture. The entry level configuration in particular looked like a huge step back, not forward, compared to its predecessor. It was the first single socket Mac Pro and the first Professional Mac that had only 4 DIMM slots since the Power Mac G5 Early 2005. I stumbled upon forum posts that pointed out how little the CPU used in the 2009 models would cost. And the 2010 models only brought minor upgrades and even a higher prices for the 8-core systems.

I thought it was time to assemble some hard facts and make some easily understandable diagrams, which I couldn't find elsewhere. My goal is to look how Apple's desktop tower offerings developed over time and whether my disappointment of the 2009 models and their weak "bang for the buck" can be somehow explained. I compared price and performance of the cheapest entry level system as well as a "beefier" system of each generation of the last 5 years. For performance comparison, I've used multi CPU scores from Cinebench R10 since it is not a synthetical benchmark and pretty good at showing how CPU(s) are doing in real world stress situations, scales very well on multicore systems and you can find Cinebench scores all over the internet. The CPU prices are official Intel list prices (unit price per 1k order).

Here we go, starting with the entry level models.

Entry level ModelsPower Mac G5 Late 2005Mac Pro *Mac Pro Early 2008 *Mac Pro Early 2009Mac Pro Early 2010
RAM (slots / max)8 / 16 GB8 / 16 GB8 / 32 GB4 / 8** GB4 / 16 GB
CPU (cores / clock speed)2 / 2.0 GHz4 / 2.0 GHz4 / 2.8 GHz4 / 2.66 GHz4 / 2.8 GHz
Cinebench R103314 ***7457109691467315445 ***
CPU price (USD)unknown632797284294
System price (USD)19992199229924992499
* BTO only
** Was raised to 16 GB later with official support for 4 GB Modules
*** Estimated score

Entry level models: Performance and Price

As you can see, the CPU performance increased steadily over time, but so did the price. The performance gains of the 2010 model is so minor, we can call this an alibi refresh on the CPU side. If you've studied the table above with care, you noticed the discrepancy between the total price of the computer and the CPU price in the 2009 and 2010 models. Let's make this a real shocker by throwing the numbers into a diagram, where I've put the CPU price in relation to the system price. Numbers don't lie.

Entry level models: CPU price/system price relation

You can see how little Apple has to pay for the CPU in these machines. In the Mac Pro 2008 they represented a whopping 34% of the total system price, shrinking to under 12% in the 2009 and 2010 models. But instead of lowering the prices or using a faster and more expensive processor, Apple charges you $200 more compared to the 2008 model.

Let's shift our attention to the "beefier" models. Choosing which systems to compare is not so easy, in this case. For the original Mac Pro and the 2008 model Apple only had a single standard configuration that was highly configurable, even downgradable. With the introduction of the 2009 model, Apple offered a base model (Quad-core) and a high end model (8-core). So I decided to compare these standard models of the first two Mac Pro generations to the high end ones of the 2009 and 2010 generations, which should actually give the latter ones quite a noticeable advantage, since they are not only newer but a lot more expensive, too. The Power Mac G5 Quad is included for reference.

Standard / High End ModelsPower Mac G5 Late 2005Mac ProMac Pro Early 2008Mac Pro Early 2009Mac Pro Early 2010
RAM (slots / max)8 / 16 GB8 / 16 GB8 / 32 GB8 / 32 GB8 / 32 GB
CPU (cores / clock speed)4 / 2.5 GHz4 / 2.66 GHz8 / 2.8 GHz8 / 2.26 GHz8 / 2.4 GHz
Cinebench R1070029873188331991121144 *
CPU price (USD)unknown13801594746774
System price (USD)32992499279932993499
* Estimated score

Although the 2009 and 2010 Mac Pros feature a CPU architecture that is a lot newer and the systems are a lot pricier, they don't offer a significant advantage over the 2008 model. Let's make diagrams of these, too.

Standard / High End models: Performance and Price

As you can see, there has been pretty much no real progress in two and a half years. The performance increases just a little as the price goes up. Really, in such a long period of time you should get more performance for free because just from Moore's Law. The recent Apple universe seems to be different, though. Let's see who is to blame, Apple or Intel, for exaggerated CPU prices.

Standard / High End models: CPU price/system price relation

Oh no, not again! The CPUs in the 2008 model were responsible for almost 57% of the system price, now it's down to 22.1%!

Granted, I totally ignored costs for drives, memory and graphics card. But everybody knows that Apple has always been very conservative regarding the standard configurations. So, you get the idea. Here we are 4 years after the first Mac Pro saw the light of the day, left wondering where all the money Apple charges for a current Mac Pro model goes. AAPL stock holders must be happy. Users? Not so much. The entry level price constantly rose and over time, you got less and less for your money. If you look at all this, it doesn't come at a surprise that 4 years after Apple touted a similar machine from Dell would be $1000 more, you can now buy two similar Workstations from the competition for the same price as the entry level Quad Mac Pro.

Prosumers like me always longed for a mid-range tower. While I gave up on that wish for quite a while now, I am here to tell you that apple does offer such a machine. It's there. You can buy it today. It's called the Mac Pro Quad-core. Apple just decided to price it like a pro product and screw on everyone who wants OS X and an expandable Mac.

That said, everyone willing to buy a Mac Pro will get a machine that is beautifully designed, both inside and outside. And of course you can be very productive and create amazing work with these machines, how could anybody doubt it? It's just that I can imagine better ways to spend $1000 than giving it to Apple for paying their recently-introduced premium premium premium prices for their premium products.

About the author:
The author is a professional software developer, a fan of OSNews and is currently working on a game for App phones in his free time.

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