Who needs a Mac Pro when they can get an iMac?

The iMac
The iMac

In previous editorials I've shared my opinion on the state of the Mac Pro and what the next Mac Pro could have inside. Now it's time to ask a more fundamental question: Do we need the Mac Pro at all? After all, isn't the iMac the...well...pro desktop Mac?

Blurring the line

Topping out with a a $2000 price tag before you get fancy, it's easy to look at the 27-inch iMac and conclude that it is a suitable replacement for a Mac Pro, at least for most Mac users.

Inside the high-end 27-inch iMac model is a speedy quad-core Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 3.2 GHz, with a blazing fast 3.4 GHz i7 as a configure to order option; RAM configurable to 32 GB, up to 3 terabytes of storage space in a combination SSD/hard disk "Fusion Drive;" a speedy Nvidia GeForce GTX 675MX graphics subsystem with 1TB of video memory. There aren't a lot of compromises inside the iMac.

Two Thunderbolt ports, Gigabit Ethernet, SDXC slot, four USB 3.0 ports, optical digital audio output. You can even hook up a 30-inch display to the big iMac through Thunderbolt and dramatically increase your desktop space further. Yep, all the pieces are there for the iMac to be a real pro machine if you want it to.

Indeed, the iMac has found a home on the desk of many Mac-using pros. Gobs of performance, sufficient expandability to be flexible enough for a wide variety of tasks, and a gorgeous, slim design that looks really good. You can even mount it on a wall or an articulated arm if you want to.

But despite all those attributes, it's clear that the iMac is designed to suit a fundamentally different audience than the Mac Pro. It's certainly a machine suited to a fairly wide swath of professionals, but at its heart, the iMac remains a consumer-focused machine.

Inside that slim case is a system architecture that's designed around parts for laptops. Nvidia intended the GTX 675M graphics chip specifically for laptops, for example. Apple's certainly blurred the line between consumer and professional workstations with the iMac, but it hasn't erased it.

Purpose-built like a tank, but with a Lamborghini engine

Compare that to the Mac Pro. In its current incarnation the Mac Pro tops out as a 12-core machine, with two six-core Xeon processors under the hood. Eight memory slots means the Mac Pro can accommodate twice as much RAM as the iMac in any configuration. The Mac Pro is also the only Mac that uses Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory, vital for the computationally intensive work in science where the Mac Pro still has a foothold.

The video card included with the Mac Pro can handle up to three displays at once - two through mini DisplayPort outputs and another through the dual-link DVI interface. Want to drive more than three displays? No problem - pop another PCIe expansion card and double that to six. The PCIe expansion slots can be used to ingest or output lots of other bandwidth-intensive data, also - uncompressed video, high quality audio, Fibre Channel storage area networking and more.

Then there are the four internal SATA bays - the most internal storage expandability of any Mac model. Up to 8TB of storage possible using Apple-supplied drives, but 4TB 3.5-inch drives are available from third parties, which means you can have up to 16TB of internal storage in the Mac Pro.

And we haven't even gotten to the enormous array of expansion ports built in to the Mac Pro. Five USB 2.0 ports. Four FireWire 800 ports. Front panel minijack, TOSLINK optical audio input and output. And two Gigabit Ethernet ports that can either be paired together for double the bandwidth, or split between two separate networks.

Even though the Mac Pro is showing its age with no Thunderbolt or USB 3.0, the design of the box is clearly aimed at a very different user than the iMac. It's purpose-built for expandability, connectivity and the ability to be driven hard and fast without skipping a beat.

And the winner is...

The iMac is obviously more indicative of Apple's current design aesthetic. It benefits from Apple's migration to the Intel Ivy Bridge architecture, which netted competitive improvements like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt - things the Mac Pro is still waiting for.

The iMac is no slouch, either - it's more than enough horsepower for a great many consumers and professionals alike. And its expandability, while limited, does offer some flexibility for users who don't need an additional monitor or high-speed external peripheral today, but might need it in the future.

So who wins in a shootout? If raw performance benchmarks are your measure, the Mac Pro is the clear winner. Despite its aging connectivity, the thing still regularly trounces all other comers when crunching numbers matters.

And it's hard to argue that when it comes to raw flexibility, the Mac Pro still edges out every other Mac model. You can connect more stuff to it, put more stuff inside it, and generally get more out of it than the iMac, despite the iMac's use of more modern connectivity.

Apple's selling more iMacs than Mac Pros, and that's one measure of success - hell, Apple can't sell the Mac Pro in the EU at the moment because of recently enacted regulations. But popularity is only one measure of success - if Apple's making money on the Mac Pro, despite it being a niche machine, one can argue that it still deserves a place of respect in the Mac lineup.

Peter Cohen
  • Great analysis Peter. Going out on a crazy future-think limb here, but eventually Apple may be able to move to a more modular approach to building Pro-class workstations. Instead of the traditional big box of components, maybe Apple could use optical Thunderbolt to connect more CPU modules and storage modules to an iMac. It would be easier than opening up an enclosure, and vastly more scalable. Start with an iMac, add a CPU module to increase number-crunching speed, add a storage module to handle large video files, add an external GPU for extremely complex rendering. I believe Thunderbolt allows for up to 7 peripherals per channel, so you could connect, say, 5 extra CPU modules and 2 extra storage modules to a basic iMac. Optical thunderbolt has a theoretical transfer speed of 20 Gbit/s, which could be fast enough to allow a modular approach to scale efficiently. Looking at this approach from Apple's perspective, it would allow Apple to sell relatively cheap Macs (the core iMac) to businesses, then sell them incremental upgrades as computing needs increase. Apple could make more money in the long term by selling proprietary add-on modules. The current Mac Pro design allows users to install their own generic memory and drives, which means zero revenue for Apple. From the users' perspective, this hybrid iMac / Mac Pro approach would allow them to start relatively cheaply and add processor and storage power as needed. No need to buy a big, expensive Mac Pro and separate Thunderbolt Display on day one. And it would give their system more longevity than a basic iMac. Just add processors as OS X (and its successors) demand more and more CPU power. Just a thought.
  • I returned my MacBook Pro in favor of getting a Mac Mini and could not have been happier. My iPad is my mobile unit, my iPhone is my anytime unit, and my Mac mini is my home desktop that ties everything together. The funny thing is the very thing that many people criticize apple for is the very thing that makes there products so great and that's their (some what closed) ecosystem. Because everything works together and really each mac (mini, air, pro etc) iteration is powerful and can handle the majority of what is thrown at it. I am a web designer/PhotoVideographer and the mini is more than enough for me .
  • Mac Pros still are much more appealing than the iMac for at least these classes of users: 1) Those who need expansion options, in particular interior expansion options. This group may shrink if thunderbolt peripherals ever appear in force 2) People who do not want to pay for a monitor every time they purchase a computer. I have a perfectly good Cinema Display here on my desk. I'd rather every dollar of my purchase go towards more horsepower to hook up to my existing monitor than have some of it go to a new monitor I do not need. Businesses that buy in bulk are the same way, though Apple has never really pursed that market with any vigor. 3) People who just want power, period, and damn other concerns. Hopefully, Apple will refresh and continue the Mac Pro line for these people.
  • I think more attention needs to be paid to the GPUs in these things, or in Macs in general. Namely, how awful they are. Putting a laptop-scale chip inside a laptop is okay (although in their Macbooks, they're usually bargin-basement level!), but iMacs have terrible selection for GPUs. You have to get the absolute top of the line to even get mediocre performance. That GTX 675MX isn't even close to a Geforce GTX 660, and that's the highest you can go on an iMac! Although what's worst of all, is that even the Mac Pro has terrible selections for video cards.
  • Exactly, and the worse is that you're stuck with that GPU until you replace your iMac. I call that a huge compromise on a desktop machine.
  • The 650m is hardly a 'terrible' GPU. The GPU in the rMBP is overclocked to better even the 660m. These, for their period at release (almost a full year ago) represented the low end of top shelf mobile GPUs. Without jumping into the 670/680--which I don't think was available til later in the summer in this config...and sacrificing massive amounts of battery life to attain 3 or 4fps is your favorite FPS is hardly a smart move. They've balanced an equally powerful CPU (2.7/2.8Ghz/8MB cache on the high end) with an equally decent performing GPU...if your primary purpose is getting professional work done, Adobe's suite...Avid, and we use Smoke, these programs that DO use the GPU for offloading calculations and quickening render/export duties absolutely makes sense. Of course, if you're a 'gamer' there are a whole host of 1.5-2 hour battery life gaming laptops on the market...Cyberpower, I Buy Power, Alienware...your choice. As far as the iMac, it's an AIO. You simply cannot put a desktop GPU in an enclosed box. That makes little to no sense. The iMac can also be equipped with a 680...and from the benchmarking I've seen...it's easily one of the best GPUs ever offered by Apple in their iMac. Apple has stepped their game up in the arena of graphics. While your argument had some merit two, three years ago...it's not so much these days. Again...the ultimate goal In a portable system...ala MBP, an OEM must balance horsepower, graphics, memory and storage in a small package with battery life to boot. With the display on the rMBP I find it simply ignorant to argue Apple's choices of GPU of late. I routinely get 6-7 hours from my rMBP in the field...using it solely for video (70%), sound (20%) and stills production...the last 10%. I've also got a 2009 Nahalem MacPro @ home....as well as the new 27" 3.4/32GB RAM/768 SSD and nVidia 680 @ home. There's a substantial difference rendering and transcoding video on my new iMac vs my older Pro....and not a helluva lot of difference between the Pro and rMBP. Thunderbolt has been a revelation for us....and editing RAW RED 4k footage in the field was something we absolutely could not do just two short years ago A) you've got iMac users confused I think. If you're a gamer...there are better choices on the market. Of course you need to be close to a power supply and you won't be using OSx
    B) you're ignorant to portable, professional workstations. Sure...you can buy a Dell Precision for close to $5k configured with a Quadro card but in MOST circumstances, the GeForce will perform in parity and a significantly lower cost
    C) it's next to impossible to upgrade any GPU in a laptop
    D) we are less than two weeks from WWDC and possible updates to the MBP lineup, including Haswell architecture for the CPU and updated GPU, possibly the 700 series from nVidia...again, for the time...a substantial card for the market.
    E) I believe you're a gamer. Not a professional. In that, I mean someone that makes their mortgage payment with their computer. If this is the case, and I'm right....go buy a gamers PC J
  • So what's a person who wants to play high end games on a Mac (either right in OSX or booting Windows) to do? I currently have a 2010 low end MacBook Pro which has trouble playing any games that are graphically intense at all. I was originally hoping to get a new iMac with the highest graphics card available but I read they have mobile graphics cards. Then I thought I'd get a Mac Pro because it's a full on desktop (not just for games, but for the ability to have more power all around and to be able to upgrade). But now I'm reading the Mac Pro doesn't have good graphics cards either? What's the best option to play games on a Mac?
  • They are mobile cards...but the upgrade to the 675---the GTX680MX is a pretty amazing 'mobile' GPU. Check out some of the benchmarking and owner's experiences with FPS (Frames per second, not first person shooter;))....as well, you can check out plenty of video on YouTube of users playing AAA titles well into the 60+ FPS. Granted...it isn't upgradable. It's there for good. But for now...and obviously, any older titles---it will play without breaking a sweat. Don't mistake mobile GPUs for crap...they've come a LONG way...especially considering the majority of sales these days are portables...laptops for PCs, tablets, smartphones, et al. The desktop market has been in precipitous decline for a few years now. They're just not selling to the masses. There's still a population of folks that are building their own rigs...boutique sellers with high performance machines....etc. But today's 'mobile' cards smoke many of the desktop cards of just a year or two ago...nVidia is doing some special work with low energy, portable GPUs. As you mention, if you take the time to install Windows...you'll achieve even better results as the drivers are better. Again....check this conversation with real owners and true performance results. Good Luck J
  • Spot on. If you're interested in some figures, check out the Passmark score for the GeForce GTX 675MX - it's a pretty respectable performer.
  • Thank you for your response. What do you think of the new Mac Pro in terms of it's gaming/graphical capabilities?
  • I have no need for a Mac Pro but those who like to tinker and configure, or render massive amounts of graphics and videos, it's probably still worth it. I just upgraded my iMac and got the new 27" model with the topped out 3.4 Ghz, Fusion Drive, and highest configuration for everything but RAM (Apple is highway robbery when it comes to RAM). Installed my own, and Peter, you are right, it is BLAZING fast. I've never even had so much as a hiccup from it in the 3 months I've had it so far. Every program I use smokes load times and processing times on my spec'd out 2011 15" MacBook Pro, which I used to think was fast.
  • It's basically an apologist angle to prepare the dolts who complain when the MacPro is not updated. Only a fool would think that a GTX 675Mx (take a guess as to what the M stands for) can compete with a dedicated OpenGL card like the Quadro series. Couple that with comparing the i7 to a Xeon or the memory limitations (the list goes on and on). It's like saying an Accord is basically the same as an SL500, they both will go over 120mph so they must be the same, right?
  • +1000, But what more can you expect from an apple apologist website with no objectivity.
  • I bought 40 MacPro's over the last two years for various tasks. One task in particular was running an open source tool (FunkLoad) to simulate tens of thousands of users hitting a video service I was developing. I built a video streaming app that delivered live television to cable TV customers on iPads (our app was the only one released by a major cable company that didnt crash after launch). There are times I need a headless machine to throw in a rack, there are times I need 64 gigs (or more) of memory, there are times I need multiple video cards. I dont need or want a glossy monitor that I can see my reflection in. I am a true pro user, I used the Mac Pro for more than just Photoshop. An iMac just doesnt cut it for what I do. Some people I work with tell me to get a PC, do my work with Linux, but I would need multiple machines to accomplish my day-to-day job since not all apps I run are available in Linux and I sure as hell dont want a windows box.
  • You never answered the question! Who needs a Mac Pro vs. an iMac? I bet one of the answers is people who are paid to do various computing tasks where the faster machine will net them more money. But my real guess is developers. You need a computer to develop the programs for iOS and Mac OS X, and Apple has to deliver something high powered because you can only develop for those platforms on Apple's hardware. Most apps would be easily handled by an iMac, but high end 3D games need a lot of 3D development work that I am sure is hindered by the GPU in the iMac.
  • The author clearly pointed out that ECC memory, topping out at two 6 core XEON CPU's, graphics output expandability, and other internal expansion options as what makes the MacPro superior to the iMac for many professionals. The iMac will do in a pinch, but give me the expandability of a Mac Pro any day over an iMac. If I wanted a Mac with the internals of a Laptop, I'd get another MBP rather than an iMac. Given a choice between an iMac or a Mac Pro and the money to spend on a Mac Pro, I'll take the Mac Pro.
  • This part was confusing: iMac is for people who don't need additional monitor..
    You can't have an additional monitor with it??!!
  • I need a Mac Pro. The expandability of the system has allowed me to use and upgrade mine for the past 5 years. I'm rocking an early 2008 Mac Pro with 14GB of RAM and the biggest speed upgrade for the machine was adding an SSD. The Mac Pro is easier to work on, and upgrade. My feeling is that Apple understands that there is a certain contingent of pro users who need the expandability and power of the Mac Pro. In my mind, the new Mac Pro (if it does, in fact happen) should be in a mini-tower configuration - allowing for the inclusion of at least 3 PCI slots, 4 drive bays and at least 4 USB3 ports / and 3 Thunderbolt ports. Optical drives can be trimmed from the design.
  • 1TB of video memory?