originally published on fd.stenoweb.net
This week, we're hammering away at my favorite topic: Buying Macs probably isn't a good idea. This week's target is the Mac Pro 5,1 specifically. The Mac Pro 5,1 is better known as the 2010/2012 Mac Pro. It was a relatively minor revision to the 4,1, which was 2009's version of the machine. This would have been a solid machine to buy when new if you bought it close to the start of its life and you needed a lot more horsepower than an iMac could provide, or if you needed some upgrade you couldn't (at the time) install in an iMac. If you have one today because you bought it new, it might be worth popping in some upgrades to get a couple more years out of it, but I hardly recommend buying one today.
For starters, iMacs have become amazing. The displays Apple ships on both its 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMacs are some of the best in computing. Perhaps the Surface Studio is one of the closest competitors. Whether it's for multimedia production, consumption, gaming or office tasks, Apple's displays are universally heralded as great and frequently elicit positive comments from Windows users. iMacs themselves have become more powerful as well, with iMacs now offering some of the fastest single-thread processors in up to four cores. The mainstream CPUs Apple would be using have since been updated to six and now nine cores and those CPUs thoroughly outperform the top chips available in the Mac Pro 5,1. In addition, from 2010 to 2016 (when the chips in the currently shipping iMacs launched) everything else in mainstream systems has more than doubled in speed.
In addition to all that, ThunderBolt, added to iMacs in 2011, brings PCI Express connectivity outside the machine, and “box with a PCIe card slot” has been a common upgrade available for various types of Macs since. The newest models have several of these connectors available. Bulk data storage in home and small business networks has continued shifting toward networks as well, with technical users opting to build fast in-home network and hide piles of disks out of the way in servers with more disk bays than the Mac Pro ever had. Tools like FreeNAS can also often be used to make data available outside the home network as well.
As I alluded to, Apple has managed to stunt the potential of the iMac a little bit. I don't know if I've written about this yet but my personal theory is Apple hasn't upgraded the iMac to 8th generation CPU because an iMac with a hex-core i5 at $1,299 would make the Mac Pro with a hex-core E5 at $4,999 look like an exceptionally bad value. And, they're not wrong. That's why no other reputable workstation vendor is still selling Ivy Bridge machines. An i7-8700K or i7-8086K will give the Mac Pro 6,1 a run for its money but won't actually outperform it in all situations, but it will outperform the 5,1, even using the top available Xeon X5690 CPUs. Notably, even the i7 configuration of the 2018 15“ MacBook Pro will outperform a fully configured Mac Pro at CPU tasks.
As mentioned briefly, Apple did release a successor Mac Pro. The Mac Pro 6,1 was released in late 2013 in response to some regulations in Europe and as a bit of a new concept for Apple's pro machine. The Mac Pro 6,1 was designed expressly for the task of 4k video editing in Final Cut Pro. A task it continues to handle very well, but Final Cut Pro is designed to work well on low performance hardware at any rate, by doing tricks such as background rendering and leveraging GPUs extensively. The Mac Pro 6,1 was designed in 2012-2013 when GPUs were not as advanced as they started to become shortly after, and in favor of making it a smaller machine Apple switched to a single Xeon socket and got rid of some of the internal expansion options. It's a good computer, but many argue that it's not the machine they need – to which I'm calling shenanigans.
My thinking here is that regular professionals in general never buy the maximum configuration up front, and only highly motivated and highly technical people are popping open Apple's CPU modules and doing their own processor swaps. This works and is technically within the scope of the machine, however the kind of upgradeability Mac users enjoyed in the '90s and early 2000s is based entirely on the fact the bus all the way out to the G4 remained mostly the same.
Worse than the performance, especially what with The Plateau(TM) still generally in full effect, is that the Mac Pro 5,1 is so expensive. For your $1500+ setting one up, you can either build a reasonably good generic mainstream PC that should at least doubly outperform the old Mac Pro in every way, or you can put the money (less of it, even) toward a contemporary old PC. Dual Westmere Xeon based workstatons from Dell, Lenovo, and HP tend to cost between $75 and $300, depending on the configuration. Part of this is that Windows 10 doesn't need an upgraded graphics card from what's available with the machines, but a new card of any type can be slotted in with no products, compared to firmware issues that Mac Pros have with non-“approved” graphics cards.
And that's really the core of why buying any Mac is sort of a bummer right now. Anything modern, equipped well to run a current version of the OS, is disappointingly either expensive or inflexible. A bunch of the demand comes back to the demand for what Dan Frakes for MacWorld called the Mythical Midrange Macintosh Minitower.
In general, the MMMM basically describes a Dell OptiPlex or XPS, but with an Apple logo on it. It would be a machine comparable to something like the Power Macintosh 6000 or 7000 series from the mid to late 1990s. Basically, a mainstream processor with a range of options, a “normal” amount of RAM, some disks, and a handful of slots. Basically, the way it would pan out technically is an iMac but with a display or two.
But, Apple doesn't build that. The Mac Pro 7,1 which should launch in the coming year won't be that and it's unlikely that the allegedly “more pro focused” Mac mini will not be either, and iMacs will eventually pick up some more computing power, but they will likely not become easier to upgrade. (Notably: iMacs in the current generation have modular RAM, CPUs, and storage, but getting to all those bits is of course not something you'd just casually do in a few minutes between other projects this coming Thursday.)
The Mac Pro 5,1 was a fine computer in 2010. It was still passable in 2012. With some effort and a few compromises, it will still run the newest Mac OS, but buying a new one today is a bad idea. They're extremely badly overpriced, not particularly powerful by modern standards. If you could set one up for $200, I'd probably recommend it wholeheartedly.