Menu

Review: Apple's Mac Pro Beats PC Workstations on Price

For years, Macintosh computers have been praised for their cool looks and elegant simplicity while being knocked for often carrying a hefty price premium over Windows-based machines sold by Dell Inc. (DELL) and others. It's time to think different — again.

The recently released Mac Pro maintains the Apple (AAPL) shine in design, usability and software but also does something unexpected: It turns the old Mac versus Windows PC price equation on its head.

A low-end Mac Pro will cost you $2,124 compared with $3,071 for a nearly identically configured Dell Precision Workstation 490. The Mac is about $947 cheaper — and the gap widens when you start piling on options such as more memory, faster processors and bigger hard drives.

Like all other Macs introduced this year, the Mac Pro uses microprocessors from Intel Corp. (INTC) rather than Apple's previous suppliers, IBM Corp. (IBM) and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. (FSL) It's also capable of running Windows if you've got a copy of the Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) operating system and supporting software from Apple or others.

The new Macs — targeted at professional users such as graphics professionals, researchers and businesses — run Intel Xeon processors. These chips, designed for servers and workstations, were launched by Intel earlier this summer.

I borrowed a higher-end Mac Pro that included two processors running at 3 gigahertz, an Nvidia (NVDA) Quadro FX 4500 graphics card with 512 megabytes of video memory, four 500 gigabyte hard drives and 4 gigabytes of system memory. In this configuration, it sells for $7,449.

A similarly configured Dell Precision 690 (the 490 doesn't offer as many hard drives) with the same hardware costs $8,534 — or $1,085 more than the Mac. (Both systems were configured on the companies' Web sites Wednesday. Prices are subject to change.)

The Mac Pro workstation is not only competitively priced, it's fast, too.

I took a 30-minute snippet of raw video and converted it into Apple's QuickTime format — a time-consuming challenge for most computers. I used Apple's Final Cut Pro video-editing software, which is designed to work on both new and older Macs.

The conversion took just over 4 minutes on the Mac Pro. On a Power Mac G5 — the model it replaced — the process took more than 10 minutes.

And the latest Macs are cool, literally. In fact, they run so much cooler that Apple was able to remove about half the fans used on the older machines. It frees up room for more features and makes for a considerably quieter system.

The Mac Pro also is expandable. It comes with two optical drive bays, four PCI Express expansion slots and four hard drive bays. The computer also can handle up to 16 gigabytes of system memory.

But the biggest change is the use of Xeon processors, each with two computing engines per chip. Plus, Mac Pros come with two Xeons each, giving the equivalent of four computing engines in each system.

On the back of the computer, Apple provides two digital video ports. The base system can support a single 30-inch display or two 23-inch displays. (Systems with higher-end graphics cards can support two 30-inch displays.)

In the rear, it's got ports galore, supporting USB 2, FireWire 800, FireWire 400 as well as optical digital audio input and output. It also has two ports for Ethernet connections. (And the front was not forgotten: There, it sports two USB 2 ports, one Firewire 800 port, one Firewire 400 port and a mini headphone jack.)

Like most of the other offerings from Apple, the systems are elegant and offer features that make you wonder why other PC companies have not adopted them.

Replacing or upgrading the memory, for instance, is easier than any computer I've ever used. Just slide one of two riser cards from the system, plug your RAM into the card and put it back in the case.

Adding or upgrading hard drives is equally simple: Just pull one of four trays from the computer, change or add the drive to the tray and slide it back inside. There are no cables to plug in.

Once again, Apple has produced a computer that really shines. With its ability to run Windows software too, it's an attractive system for any Mac or Windows-based business or high end consumer who needs a powerful machine at a competitive price.

The difference in price — and that it was in Apple's favor — was so surprising that I contacted Dell to confirm that I had not made a mistake in configuring its workstation.

Dell spokesman Marco Pena suggested that the numbers might be closer after configuring the Mac to include a three-year warranty similar to the Dell offering.

"But I think we're still going to end up a little higher than the Mac," he said.

"The results were a bit surprising to me too," he said. "But it is what it is."