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The Mac Pro Report: The Apple Tax is a Tax Refund

Almost every time someone discusses Apple’s pricing, it is assumed that you can buy similar products from other companies for less. From the release of the very first Mac, you supposedly had to pay more money to go Apple. Indeed, Apple was often attacked for daring to charge extra for Macs and other gear.

Now in the early days, the critics were probably right about overpriced Macs, but there came a time after Steve Jobs returned to the company where a Mac and a near-identically configured PC were quite close in price. Sometimes the Mac was a bit more expensive and sometimes the PC. When the original Mac Pro came out, it did appear that supposedly comparable Windows workstations cost quite a bit more with similar options.

At the low end of the scale, Apple wasn’t there. The $599 Mac mini is the cheapest personal computer offered by Apple, but you can spend $300 or maybe less and get something workable in a Windows PC. It may not contain the premium components that Apple uses, of course, or match the performance. Apple simply doesn’t play in the cheap PC arena, where there are no profits to be made.

Now when it comes to the high-end Mac Pro, as soon as the 2013 model with its striking tubular looks shipped, you can bet that the critics were busy trying to see if a workstation that started at $2,999 for a fairly basic configuration, and came close to $9,600 fully outfitted, was indeed a good value compared to the competition.

What is clear from the starting gate is that it’s extremely difficult to actually find anything with comparable specs in any workstation from a mainstream manufacturer, such as Dell or HP. I checked the business section at Dell’s site and tried to match the component complement, roughly speaking, of the most expensive Mac Pro with a Precision Workstation. I couldn’t come close regardless of what I did.

My next attempt was to build a customized HP Z820 workstation. The price hit $11,581 before I gave up without getting all the components in place. This appears to explain why others have tried the build-it-yourself route, using parts from different PC dealers to see if they could make one.

AppleInsider made a huge splash configuring a DIY box, ending up with a tally of $14,300 to come up with something that, on paper at least, essentially matched a Mac Pro, except for the cool case and the advanced thermal system of course. Understand, though, that Apple is using some customized parts that do not match the equivalents that bear similar model names and ratings.

But AppleInsider wasn’t the only publication to attempt a customized Mac Pro clone. Yet another effort came from Stephen Fung, of FutureLooks, who ended up with a price tag of $11.530.54, but it wasn’t an exact match by any means. Fung used a logic board that wouldn’t support the Mac Pro’s 64GB RAM complement, compromising at 32GB. Solid state storage required two 512GB drives and a RAID 0 setup to match the 1GB drive PCIe system used by Apple.

You can read the article itself to see the extent of the compromises, and whether that amounts to cheating, or simply represents the difficulty of matching the guts of a Mac Pro on the DIY market. So it is possible that, over time, PC makers and independent parts retailers will begin offering components that more closely match a Mac Pro.

Now it is true that a valid argument can be made for Apple’s Mac Pro design decision. Rather than contain internal ports for extra drives and expansion cards, Apple added six Thunderbolt 2 and four USB 3.0 ports as replacements. There’s also an HDMI 1.4 Ultra HD port and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. While there aren’t a whole lot of Thunderbolt 2 peripherals out, you can bet there will be if vendors conclude that the Mac Pro is sufficiently popular for them to make sense.

Indeed, the third-party workstations, built or otherwise, aren’t offering Thunderbolt 2. But, as I said, if the new Mac Pro is a keeper, it’s a sure thing that PC and peripheral manufacturers will seek solutions.

The long and short of it is that, when it comes to the Mac Pro, it may be an expensive beast. But it is not expensive when you consider what Apple has done compared to the rest of the industry. In saying that, though, the Mac Pro is designed to reach a very specialized audience. For most computing tasks, a fully tricked out 27-inch iMac will provide essentially equal performance in most respects. But if you run apps that keep all the processor cores working full-time, or are contemplating 4K video work, the Mac Pro will be an excellent and productive tool.

That the Mac Pro is backordered does appear to indicate there’s plenty of pent-up demand for a full-bore workstation for 3D rendering, mathematics, and other heavy-duty computing chores. For that reason, and because Apple wants a showpiece to advance the brand, the Mac Pro will continue to be built and updated for quite some time to come.