After eight years of nearly uninterrupted service, I finally had to retire my Mac Pro 2008. This dual-Xeon workstation served me long and faithfully, but Apple and the economy conspired against my upgrading to the latest and greatest Mac Pro. However, this was not a surprise. I saw the writing on the wall a long time ago.
What Hath Apple Wrought?
When Apple introduced their silver tower Mac Pro ( aka “the Cheese Grater” ), it was hailed by professional as a brilliant move. Most every other Mac was a closed system with minimal upgrade paths ( RAM and drives ) and upgrading you Mac meant opening the case ( which contained a CRT monitor ) and a risk of lethal electric shock ( the magic of capacitors ). The Mac Pro was PC-like in design allowing for peripheral cards to be added, space for multiple drives, upgradeable video – all field installable by the user. When Apple switched from PowerPC to Intel, then things got really interesting for the Mac Pro.
Meanwhile, in the mid-tier, Apple revamped the iMac from a low-ball education machine into a sleek all-in-one PC with a stunning display. The iMac took off and the Mac Pro was sort of relegated to the sidelines. The only changes Apple made to the Mac Pro were internal upgrades (newer chipsets, more advanced CPUs, better video cards) but the external design remained the same. Only those folks who needed the power of Xeons invested in Mac Pros.
In March 2008, I purchased a dual CPU, quad-core Nehalem Xeon 2.8 GHz Mac Pro with 8 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive for $2,499. Sounds like a whole lot of money and it was. Unlike PC’s of that time, this machine was built to last. Eight years later, it was still running like a champ.
So Why Did I leave?
“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change” goes the saying by Heraclitus and the Greek was 100% correct. Since I purchased my Mac Pro, Intel has upgraded their CPU platform 6 times, NVidia & AMD upgraded their GPUs numerous times and Apple upgraded Mac OS X through a whole list of cats and several locations in California. With the upgrade to macOS Sierra ( 10.12 ), Apple decided that the 2008 Mac Pro ( or anything older ) would not run the latest version of their OS.
Wow. That sucks.
So why didn’t I stay with El Capitan ( OS X 10.11 )? Well, as an IT professional with over 30 years experience, I can tell you that NOT upgrading a connected computer to the latest version of the OS is an invitation for eventual security breaches and compatibility issues with hardware and software advances. Let’s face it, no software company supports their legacy OS versions indefinitely so staying on El Capitan meant my Mac Pro was living on borrowed time.
So what were my choices?
Now, I couldn’t just buy a minimal configuration and build it out slowly. OS and my workflow requirements had to be met. So, I really had three choices:
- Buy a new Mac Pro.
- Buy an iMac.
- Build myself a PC.
Buy a Mac Pro was the “Cadillac Solution”. In 2013, Apple finally revamped the Mac Pro line. Gone was the venerable cheese grater tower, replaced by a cylindrical mini-tower that is a marvel of industrial design with little thought about the needs of the Mac Pro buying community. Mac Pro buyers do not buy often, but they do quite drop quite a sum of money when they do. This appears to have become the basis for the design of the new Mac Pro. Make it look great and cost a wheelbarrow full of money.
What Apple failed to realize is that the reason Mac Pro buyers pay extra for the Mac Pro is because it was expandable. The new Mac Pro is not. Sure, you can upgrade the RAM and the M.2 PCIe SSD, but that’s it. Everything else has to be handled via Thunderbolt 2 ( best speed ) or USB 3.0 ( best price ). Want a better video card? Better order that up front because it is soldered into the motherboard. Then there’s the cost. With 8 cores, dual D500 GPUs, 32GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage we are talking about $6199.00 USD. And that doesn’t include external peripherals like a blu-ray burner, external drive enclosure and two drives ( 4 TB and 6TB for data and Time Machine ).
Buy an iMac was my intermediate solution. Recent vintage iMacs got slimmed down and their displays upgraded to a whopping 5K! Total eye candy. As an all-in-one design, the iMac has to be ordered fully loaded as only the RAM can be upgraded easily. Yes, you can upgrade the hard drive yourself, but it is nowhere near a tool-less install like on the new Mac Pro. Changing a hard drive in an iMac requires technical skill, nerves of steel, and suction cups ( I am not kidding ).
Pricing this one out with roughly the same specs (please note that the iMac uses desktop Intel processors and not the workstation class Xeons) puts it at $3599 before a similar load out of external peripherals. Ouch. Plus, I would have to sell the dual Dell monitors I had purchased earlier this year. Double ouch.
Build myself a PC was my last choice and, as it turns out, the most economical. Sure, I would not have the benefits of the full Apple ecosystem ( I am not giving up my iPhone or iPad ) but I have worked with Windows 10 enough to know that Microsoft has finally produced an operating system that is not a steaming pile of buffalo excrement. Another key factor besides the price ( I will get to that, I promise ) was that the vast majority of software that I use has Windows versions as well. For those that did not, the site alternativeto.net was extremely helpful in finding replacements. Some of the applications that did not translate across or have equivalents included:
- Deliveries by Junecloud – a package tracking app for macOS and iOS that really does work and easily tracks Amazon packages ( along with many, many other carriers ).
- Aurora 2017 by Macphun – one of the best HDR apps I have ever used. I contacted Macphun and a translation to Windows 10 is in the works.
- Creative Kit by Macphun – a collection of apps that plug into Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Macphun is also porting these over to Windows 10.
Getting back to the actual build itself, I used a website called pcpartpicker.com to select the components needed to build the machine that would replace my Mac Pro. One of the nice features of this site is its compatibility checker ( which makes sure the parts you select will work together seamlessly ) and a wattage tally to help you make sure that the power supply you select will be powerful enough to handle the load you are planning. Pcpartpicker.com also scours the web for the best prices on the components you have selected and even takes pricing bundles, rebates, tax and shipping & handling into account for the final price calculation. They also include many videos and tutorials on actually building your PC. It’s quite an indispensable resource.
So what are the specs and how much did it cost?
- Intel i7 6th generation ( Skylake ) processor @ 4GHz – 4 physical cores + 4 virtual cores
- 32GB RAM
- 512GB M.2 SSD – boot drive and applications
- 4 x 1TB Western Digital Red 2.5” drives in a RAID-5 storage array – data storage
- 4TB Western Digital Red 3.5” drive in a USB 3.1 drive enclosure – archive storage
- AMD Radeon RX 480 graphics card with 8GB RAM
- Phanteks Enthoo Mini XL case
- Gigabyte GA-Z170MX-Gaming 5 Micro ATX LGA1151 Motherboard
- Corsair H100i v2 70.7 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler
Final cost: $1,764.51 including tax and shipping charges. Those are some serious price differences.
How Does it Perform?
I have not run any benchmarks on this system, so I cannot give you any synthetic numbers for you to compare. I can tell you that the system boots to the login prompt about 10 seconds after the BIOS messages. Video file conversions which used to take 40 minutes now only take 9 minutes ( Kamen Rider movies are a guilty pleasure of mine ). Lightroom can now plow through images like nobody’s business. So yeah, it’s a heck of a lot faster. Plus, I still have room for growth. I can double my RAM to 64GB and add another graphics card in a Crossfire configuration to add more GPU horsepower. And since I don’t have to wait for Apple to implement some new bit of kit in their Macs, I can add it myself and reap the benefits about a year before Apple users can.
Why Windows 10? Why not an Open Source OS?
Believe me, I thought about this long and hard. Elementary OS is a Linux distribution that really, really looks like macOS. Version 4 ( Loki ) has introduced an App Store and a ton of other features. It’s the software that prevents me from really embracing it. My photographer’s toolkit is mostly Adobe ( although I also use Capture One and the upcoming ON1 Raw looks very interesting ) which has Linux equivalents ( not versions, mind you ), but they are about a generation behind feature-wise. Then there the hardware support. Linux works great with hardware that is about a generation old, but if you want to take advantage of the latest and greatest hardware, it becomes a waiting game for optimized hardware drivers to be released by the manufacturers. Mind you, the OEMs are getting much, much better at having Linux drivers available at launch, but the lion’s share of the PC market is Windows based and they have to cater to their bread-and-butter customers first. Still, I will be keeping an eye on Linux as it becomes more and more mainstream.