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Pricing and Valuing the iMac Against the Mac Pro

Yesterday I wrote:

Add in the Core i7 processor option ($200) and 16GB memory, and check your premises— you can buy a Mac Pro with a 27" display for about the same money and have a better, more flexible system. So unless “cool and hip” is what matters to you, go straight to the Mac Pro.

I added it up (see further below), and with judicious buying, the iMac system is less money (assuming you need a new display— many buyers do not), but also not so much as a percentage, and you also get a lot less for your money, more on that below.

With four CPU cores (assuming you choose the right CPU), and up to 16GB memory, the iMac can suffice for a serious photographer — for a while at least.

But there is a lot more to a workstation than how fast it runs with a virgin hard drive. In the real world, you need more and faster storage over time, you need efficient backup, you need reliability, etc.

The iMac is a not a good value as a serious tool for the medium or long term. While it’s gorgeous and nicely done, for what it is, it’s a dead-end Mac for photographers and other professionals. Consider the following:

  • Impossible to add fast external drives*. At best, you have Firewire 800, which runs at 2/3 the speed of a single hard drive and 1/4 the speed of a fast solid state drive (and for volumes over 1TB, 1/3 the speed of a single fast hard drive). Speed varies by drive and by Mac, but it is never fast.
  • Impossible to add an internal Time Machine backup of adequate size. This forces you to use an external drive (cables, noise, clutter) or something like an Apple Time Capsule.
  • Impossible to add a mirrored internal backup for increased reliability. Again, you have to go external at extra expense, with the cables, noise and clutter it involves.
  • Impossible to create a 4TB striped volume, a 2TB mirror, etc, since you’re limited to one hard drive and one SSD internally. Yes, you can do so externally, but it’s nuts to use Firewire 800 on a 4TB volume—just reading the data would take an entire day.
  • Impossible to double/triple/quadruple drive speed, and hard drives slow down as they fill up. A year later, with the drive mostly full, you’ll be forced to expand with sluggish FW800. You can never make that as fast as even a single hard drive.
  • Slow backup of large amounts of data: Firewire 800 running (for writes) at 1/2 to 1/3 the speed of a single fast hard drive. Backing up 1.5TB of data is at least a 7 hour operation, if you’re lucky.
  • One (1) Firewire 800 port. A thicket of cables and wall warts makes a big mess. Reliability suffers, noise levels go up, performance goes down.
  • Display support: need more than two monitor: there are some USB solutions on the iMac (not so great), but no problem on the Mac Pro: the single video card has three ports.
  • Memory limited to 16GB. That’s usually plenty, but should you start doing big jobs, you’re stuck. A Mac Pro can do 32GB (64GB for the 8-core).
  • Mirror-like screen. It’s beautiful with a dark room and black shirt, but poor room lighting is a visual impediment. The hyper saturated mirror screen is not good for print matching.
  • Want to calibrate the screen for accurate color? Calibration is going to tweak the video card in 8 bits, not tweak the display itself in 10-bit or 12-bit internal to monitor itself. Apple doesn’t supply a hardware calibrator. The NEC 27" display (or 30") is the right choice for photographers.
  • Want to swap or add an internal drive? It’s an involved operation to do anything inside the iMac, and there’s little or no expansion to begin with (one HDD and one SSD or similar). In a Mac Pro, it can be done in a few minutes, by anyone, with near-zero risk (you get 4 bays + a lower optical bay for another hard drive or SSD = 5 drives, and six if you remove the optical drive).
  • Drive failure? On a Mac Pro, replace in under five minutes with a screwdriver, but on an iMac... well, you’re screwed until it’s fixed (don’t forget that external backup drive on the iMac!). Can you as a professional tolerate several days of downtime?
  • If the iMac display goes bad for any reason, you are down while the iMac is repaired. Can you as a professional tolerate several days of downtime? With a Mac Pro, swap in a working display.
  • Expansion— want eSATA, a card with extra USB or Firewire ports, a special video or sound card, etc? No problem with a Mac Pro, but far fewer options with an iMac.

* Hack: it is technically possible to remove the internal optical drive and make external its eSATA connection, products might soon arrive that allow that. But you would then need an external optical drive, and it’s still only a single eSATA port.

Those are my concerns, but they might not be yours, so if an iMac appeals, fantastic. And for some, the iMac might be all they ever need. No argument there.

But I cannot afford to be down two hours, let alone two days, losing data is not an option, and avoiding that by dangling multiple hard drives off a FW800 port is a noisy and unreliable mess. Finally, the ergonomics of a screen that won’t adjust for the right height is a painful past experience I won’t repeat. So the iMac is a non-starter for my intensive work.

Adding it up

For the people who need to be “right” (including derogatory reader Richard L)— I was mistaken yesterday— the iMac is less expensive on a parts basis. But that does not make it a good value for professionals.

Setting aside the limitations of the iMac detailed above, let’s look at pricing.

Matching the processor speed exactly is a red herring: the Intel Core i7 is not the same as a Xeon in the Mac Pro, so don’t write me and insist that both have to be 2.93GHz. Choose $2149 or $2449 as you like for this comparison for the Mac Pro.

These prices were obtained on July 28, 2010, and won’t be updated. See this OWC shopping cart for current prices on various parts, and the Apple Store for prices on Macs or the Apple refurbished store.

Parts costs below are at OWC prices, at large savings compared to Apple. The iMac is cheaper because it includes the display, but you do lose in functionality, and there’s no real expansion except with slow stuff. But if you already have a display, the picture changes radically— you can put that savings towards a hexacore 3.33GHz Mac Pro. Besides, a wide-gamut color display with reliable hardware calibration in 10 or 12 bits is a must-have for serious photography, and that’s my need.

Note that for the iMac, the upgrade to 2TB drive is an upcharge, and you don’t get the original drive. It’s difficult to swap out the hard drive, so get the 2TB drive, because hard drives slow down as they fill up. If you need more space than the 1TB drive offers, you’ll need to pay for an upgrade, unless you are very comfortable with a tricky install, so always get the 2TB drive.

Figure total the system cost, then figure in the limitations of the iMac, and its long-term viability. Think in percentage terms, future expansion, down the road value.

There is no way I’d sink $3000 - $4000 into an iMac system with all its limitations.

Shopping cart Mac Pro iMac
Base machine $2449 for 2.8GHz quad-core
$2149 for 2.66GHz quad-core (refurb)
2.93GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7 $2199
16GB OWC memory $610 $549
2TB hard drive $139.99
you KEEP the stock hard drive and can use both internally!
$150
Solid state dive $629 for best-in-class 240GB drive $750 for inferior 256GB drive
Display $999 built-in
eSATA card $59 not possible
2TB Backup drives (3) $750 eSATA fast $700, slow
Applecare $249 $169

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