Buyer’s Guide: Breaking Down the Mac Pro Customization Options

written by Jon Carr on December 20, 2013 in Buyer's Guide and Mac Hardware and Special Feature

2013_mac_pro

So after Apple’s press release the other day, we now have the new Mac Pro’s pricing customizations available. In this post we will take a detailed look at the various options and what they mean for you as a Mac gamer. 

So you want a Mac Pro? Then head right over to Apple’s order page for them. However eager you may be, keep in mind Apple has a serious supply and demand issue going on. The ship date for the machines is December 30th, but ordering now you won’t receive one until February or even March. Apple was easily somewhat misleading here with its prior statement of “Available in December.” Being able to order one in December doesn’t really qualify as being available when you won’t get one for 6-8 weeks or more. I’m sure leading Mac media and tech outlets will receive them sooner than the rest of us though.

The two basic setups still run for $2,999 and $3,999 respectively and are chock full of customization options. Unlike many of the other Macs, the “low-end” Mac Pro isn’t artificially limited to encourage upgrades to the higher end model. You can mix and match any level of processor, graphics, RAM and storage as you like. Taking the base $2,999 model, let’s see what the options give us. 

Processor

  • 3.7GHz (3.9GHz Turbo Boost) Quad-core (base)
  • 3.5GHz (3.9GHz Turbo Boost) six-core (add $500)
  • 3.0GHz (3.9GHz Turbo Boost) eight-core (add $2,000)
  • 2.7GHz (3.5GHz Turbo Boost) 12-core (add $3,500)

Graphics

  • Two AMD FirePro D300 GPUs, 2GB of GDDR5 each (base)
  • Two AMD FirePro D500 GPUs, 3GB of GDDR5 each (add $400)
  • Two AMD FirePro D700 GPUs, 6GB of GDDR5 each (add $1,000)

RAM

  • 12GB of 1866MHz ECC DDR3 (base)
  • 16GB of same (add $100)
  • 32GB (add $500)
  • 64GB (add $1,300)

Storage

  • 256GB PCIe SSD (base)
  • 512GB PCIe SSD (add $300)
  • 1TB PCIe SSD (add $800)

The difference in base models is that the $3,999 option simply starts out with a six-core processor, 6GB of VRAM and 16GB of RAM. You can adjust the lower-end model to exactly the same setup, or tweak it differently. For a fun exercise in jaw-dropping prices, maximize every option including the extras (not listed here.) The total cost? $14,311. And that is before tax, which runs around $600. However that includes two monitors (including the very pricey 4K monitor) as well as a mouse and keyboard. Minus such extras, a top-end Mac Pro will still run you $9,599. Still scary? Definitely. The good news is that such pricey power is well above and beyond the needs of even the most hardcore gamer. A solid Mac Pro gaming setup would run for half of that, or even less than half. My ideal configuration would cost me about $4,500, including a monitor and AppleCare. (A great idea if you are spending this much on a computer.) It still a lot of money to be sure, but a very long-term investment.

Let’s have a closer examination at each component, and how it could affect your gaming performance! 

processorProcessors

The Mac Pro has 4 different processor options for you to choose from in total. Starting at a quad-core, and topping out at a hefty 12 cores. How much could you use for gaming? Well highly multithreaded applications (games count as apps) perform best on processors with a higher core count, even with a slightly lower clock speed. Basically this means that more cores is better, even if the base speed of each core is lower. To note, the app or game must support multithreading, but many games can take advantage of 4 or more cores now.  The CPU (processor) is easily the  most expensive customization options on the Mac Pro. You can’t upgrade it later once you have made your choice. But unless you are doing workstation style work, a 4-6 core Mac Pro should serve all your gaming needs for a long time.

graphicsGraphics

Ahh, graphics cards. The true heart of any gamers machine is the GPU, or graphics-processing-unit which powers all those pixels and effects we like to see in our games. They also do other handy things around your computer, like render video, help in 3D/video apps or power multiple monitors. (This is the reason really old computers can’t play HD video without stuttering, their GPU isn’t up to snuff.) The cards in the Mac Pro’s will be the fastest ever in a Mac when they ship and have been specially created for Apple by AMD. These cards are actually really expensive (around $6,000 for the D700 6GB cards), and Apple is basically giving away heaps of video memory for the cost. ($1,000 for the custom config option.) 

Traditionally “tower” units like the Mac Pro have user-accessible GPU slots, meaning you can swap out or upgrade the card as you like. Not so with the new Mac Pro, however. Once you have selected your card option and bought your computer, you are locked in. So how much thought do you really need to put into picking a graphics card option? For some perspective even the most demanding next-gen graphical games on the PC such as Crysis 3 or Battlefield 4 max out at utilizing a 3-4GB graphics card. With a base 4GB card no matter what Mac Pro you get, you are pretty safe. The slight difference here, however, is that all of the Mac Pro cards are dual-GPU’s, meaning the total amount of VRAM is split between two different cards. Normally this is better for audio/video workloads, but not necessarily better for games. For a game to take advantage of both cards normally takes a special link interface or extra work from the game developers. It can be done, even from Mac devs, but whether or not this will happen remains to be seen.

More VRAM can never hurt of course, but if you are on a strict budget for your Mac Pro, the base option won’t be slowing you down anytime soon. I’ve been using a 1GB Radeon 5750 card for 3 1/2 years in my iMac and its just starting to show its age in a few recent high end games. So I’m sure a total of 4GB would last a long time as far as gaming goes. If you can afford it, grab more.

storageStorage

Storage is another area in which the Mac Pro takes a leap ahead, while taking a step back. The next-gen flash-based memory the Mac Pro uses (like in iPhones or MacBookAirs, only newer) should make them incredibly fast and responsive no matter what you are doing. Apple claims up to 2.4x faster than existing flash drives. Woah! That’s pretty fast and will also help in gaming, most noticeably in areas such as load times. While all that is awesome, the less than stellar aspect of the new drives is basic capacity and lack of additional drive bays. They start at 256GB, which is somewhat paltry in this day and age, especially if you are looking to partition for Bootcamp. You could get by with a 512GB drive and probably an external hard drive or two. If you really want to go all out you can get a 1TB flash-drive, though that upgrade costs a pretty penny. What is unclear is if you are able to replace the drive with one of your own choosing in the future. It is user-accessible though, so in theory you will be able to do so. 

RAMRAM. 

RAM, or random-access-memory is that useful stuff that lets us open lots of apps and generally shuttles around your computer data. So how much does a gamer need? Not as much as you might think. Once again referencing the likes of Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3, they top out at using 8GB of RAM. But the majority of games use 1-2GB these days. Perhaps 2-4GB at the most. With a standard 12GB of RAM in the basic Mac Pro model, you are easily covered for the foreseeable future. Even then, RAM is easy to upgrade and not very expensive either, making this the easiest option to pump if you wanted. Apple has finally started charging reasonable prices for its RAM upgrades in the 16-32GB range, but if you are looking to go crazy and install 64GB, you would save a chunk of change (around $400) by buying from a 3rd party provider and installing it yourself.

The other convenience of having lots of RAM is the ability to have all the applications you want open on your computer, and not have to close them when you open an intensive game. For someone like myself who commonly has 15-20 applications open, this is very convenient.  This is something I am able to currently do on my iMac with 8GB of RAM, and I look forward to being able to do it even better on a Mac Pro sometime.

mouse

Extras

The only thing in the box of a Mac Pro is the computer itself and power cord. There are zero extras, so you either need to have them lying around or buy them with your machine. Apple of course provides a number of options in the customizations, offering the standard Magic Mouse and Apple Keyboard. The Magic Mouse is horrible for gaming, so I’d skip that and get something better. I’m quite fond of the wired keyboard with a numeric pad however, and that has always suited me well for gaming. But the biggest extra cost would be a monitor if you don’t have one.

Monitor

As far as I know you are free to hookup most any monitor you wish. But if you want to keep in line with the Apple aesthetic and features, as well as a snazzy 27″ monitor, you will want to pickup a Thunderbolt display which will cost you about $1,000. There is a giant 4K 32-inch monitor for a heady $3,595, but this is meant for ultra-HD photography and video use. I’m not even sure if games support the 3840×2160 resolution it boasts. Even if they did support such a resolution, it would render some games so tiny as to be unplayable.

applecare

Additionally you shouldn’t forget about AppleCare, which will also cover any Apple monitor you buy with your Mac Pro. It costs $250, but is well worth it over a 3 year period. I’ve never not had this pay off for me when using a Mac, as repairs and parts tend to be expensive.

 

 

How much do you really need?

As a PC gamer it is safe to assume you will be always be getting games that push the boundaries of your machine. As a Mac gamer however, such games are few and in-between. The most intensive game currently out for Mac is probably The Witcher 2, followed closely by Metro 2033 and then Bioshock Infinite. The upcoming Tomb Raider will also definitely be a contender once released. That being said we should see a Mac version of The Witcher 3 at some point and Mac game companies are always working to bring us the best games possible. We will see what 2014 brings us to test the Mac Pro on. 

Only you will know how much power you need to play or work on. If you’ve got the cash, a mid-range Mac Pro is probably a smart choice for longevity’s sake, as once you choose a processor and graphics card setup it cannot be changed. That being said, a fully maxed out Mac Pro is total overkill for gaming and is squarely aimed at people in the professional video, audio and photography sectors. This is true of the Mac Pro in general, but it doesn’t mean hardcore gamers can’t benefit from a low to mid-range Mac Pro setup. 

Conclusion

Darth-Vader design jokes aside, Apple’s new Mac Pro redesign is bold and brave. Simultaneously taking several strides forward, while unfortunately taking a few back in some of the user-accessibility and expansion. Even with these steps back, the Mac Pro’s look ready to set the bar for incredible speed, performance and power for work and play alike.  If you can live with such caveats, then you should keep an eye out for these exciting monster machines when they truly start shipping. One way or the other I intend to get my hands on one for benchmarking game performance, so we will see in the future.

Are you excited about the new Mac Pro? Will you be getting one? Let us know in the comments!

Top photo via MacRumors