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Tech face-off: Apple's Mac Pro vs the 5K Retina iMac

Michael deAgonia | Dec. 22, 2014
There used to be a time when the gap between Apple products made choosing the right computer obvious and easy. The deliberate compartmentalization of prices and features clearly dictated which laptop or deskop machine was right, with minimal overlap between the categories.

There used to be a time when the gap between Apple products made choosing the right computer obvious and easy. The deliberate compartmentalization of prices and features clearly dictated which laptop or deskop machine was right, with minimal overlap between the categories.

But as Apple expanded its line-up, and as technology became faster and more efficient, overlap became unavoidable. Nowadays, the line between consumer and professional hardware is blurrier than ever. With the arrival of the Mac Pro last year, and the introduction of the iMac with 5K Retina display in October, what once was an obvious decision is now muddied with tradeoffs.

Neither the Mac Pro or the 5K Retina display iMac was designed with your average customer in mind; starting at $2999 and $2499, respectively, the price alone dictates that these computers are beyond the budget for most buyers. At this level, potential customers — businesses and universities included — are expecting a high-performance machine, which is exactly the territory of the Mac Pro.

The Mac Pro is specifically aimed at those who need workstation-class performance, and aren't afraid of workstation-class prices. It was designed and built around powerful, user-replaceable parts, with a system architecture that emphasizes performance without bottlenecks, including PCI Express gen 3 for 40GBps bandwidth and for expandability, four USB 3 ports and six Thunderbolt 2 ports using three separate bus controllers.

Besides supporting up to 36 connected Thunderbolt devices — 36! — the Mac Pro also supports up to three 4K displays or six Thunderbolt displays. The Mac Pro setup I reviewed packed an 8-core Xeon E5 processor clocked at 3.0GHz, 32GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC memory, a 512GB SSD and two AMD FirePro D700 graphics cards. It was the fastest Mac I have ever used and it breezed through a project render I conduct on my review units using software that isn't even optimized to take advantage of the Mac Pro's features. But, as I said, this performance doesn't come cheap. Although the Mac Pro starts at $2999, the review unit, as configured, cost $6,799 — and you still have to bring your own monitor. (But, did I mention you can bring six of them?)

The iMac with Retina 5K isn't exactly a slouch. The iMac I reviewed featured a quad-core 3.5GHz Intel Core i5 chip, 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 memory, a 1TB Fusion Drive and an AMD Radeon R9 M290X. It easily handled everything I could throw at it in the six weeks I spent with it, including editing HD video in Final Cut Pro. But let's not exaggerate: if you have software that utilizes every available bit of power of a 12-core Mac Pro, the performance of this iMac isn't going to sway you. Even if you upgrade the processor to an Intel Core i7 (which, if you're going to buy this iMac, I would recommend), the Mac Pro will still beat the iMac if the software you're running supports the Pro's architecture advantage.

 

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