Early 2009 Mac Pro: Update!

Bare Feats has some interesting benchmarks of the new Mac Pros. (Could they have labelled their charts any more confusingly? I doubt it.) It’s also nice to see they’re using Geekbench instead of the lamentable Xbench, although Geekbench doesn’t try to do the many things that Xbench does so badly.

As I expected, the new “base” 4-core Mac Pro is slower than the old base 8-core Mac Pro, so that for the $200 you save over the old machine’s price you lose significant CPU performance, albeit not as much as you might think (it looks like ~10%)! The new CPUs have double the memory bandwidth of the old, and with their considerably superior graphics cards in the end are probably better balanced machines. Oh, but the memory requirements are annoying (you need to buy your RAM in sets of three for optimal performance with one 4-core CPU, and six for two 4-core CPUs).

I’m using a (borrowed) 2008 8-core Mac Pro and it very seldom makes use of its extra cores. So I guess the new machine looks like it’s probably slightly better value, all-told, than the model it replaces. Nothing like the value proposition of the new Mac Minis though.

Apple’s New Models

It’s a strange time to be raising prices, but Apple has just done it. The new Mac Pros are priced at $2499 vs. $2699 for the older model, but the older model had 8 cores, while the model that “replaces” it has 4 cores. Apple’s website is conspicuously silent on the relative performance of the two obviously comparable model, preferring instead to show that the new top-end model is over twice as fast as the old top-end model. That’s nice, but the new base model is only a shade cheaper than the old mid-range model, and probably (we can’t tell) slower, while the old base model (which was $2199) is gone.

There is some good news. Apple has finally put the nVidia 9400M chipset into the Mac Mini, so the Mini is truly a headless MacBook. This means that the Mini’s performance for games should be, at least, acceptable, and makes the Mini surprisingly attractive.

The one thing that might explain the new Mac Pro pricing is if Apple is opening a space for the long-wished-for xMac. In terms of headless Macs, there’s the $599/799 Mac Mini then there’s nothing until you get to the $2499 Mac Pro. I might add that while the Mac Pro has the new “i7″ architecture chip (i.e. hyperthreading support, which treats each core as two virtual CPUs) none of the new Mac Minis and iMacs do.

In iMac land, things are somewhat, although less, strange. The base iMac used to feature an integrated CPU (I think it was the good old GMA 950), now the bottom two iMacs (20″ and 24” with 2.66GHz CPU) have the 9400M chipset (which is integrated but much better). It’s an interesting change where the $1499 price point has gone forwards in screen size and backwards in GPU quality. Or something.

So, in summary, the Mac Mini now seems like a very attractive machine. The base iMac offers some minor performance tweaks relative to the Mini, but (especially if you already have a monitor) the Mini is very close.

The Times Have Changed

It seems to me that Apple is running the risk of seriously alienating a lot of its customers with its continuing high price points. In a time when most of the computer manufacturers have moved from pushing $1000 configurations to $500 configurations, Apple persists in selling an entry level desktop for $1200. Because Macs have longer useful lives than PCs, many Apple customers who bought (then) reasonably priced Apple systems will soon be upgrading in a world where $1200 buys you a lot of PC but not very much Mac.

It’s worth noting that the pricing on Core i7 (“Nehalem”) CPUs seems to be an attempt by Intel to gouge early adopters which is merely being passed on by Apple (and Dell). I imagine that as CPU prices drop, Apple’s Mac Pro prices will fall (or its base model will gain a CPU) accordingly.

Yay, I got a new computer

It’s been a long time between drinks. My last new desktop computer was a 2.4GHz Dell, which is now pushing four years old. When I bought it, the fastest PC I could have gotten without paying ridiculous prices was a 3.08GHz P4. This machine matched my philosophy of buying the fastest cheap machine or the cheapest fast machine available. The other side of my philosophy is to only buy a new machine if it’s going to be at least twice the raw speed of the last one; anything less isn’t noticeable a day or two later.

The biggest leap I’ve ever made from one computer to the next was probably from my first Mac 512kE (upgraded twice from a 128kB original Mac) with its 8MHz 68000 to a Mac IIci with a 25MHz 68030, 5MB of RAM, and a 40MB hard disk. That was a simply amazing leap. (I’d gotten a Commodore Amiga 500 in between the two, but the Amiga was slower for most anything except games than a Mac, so that was not a speed boost).

My new computer is a standard config Mac Pro. So I’ve gone from a dual 1GHz G4 Mac on the Apple side and a singe 2.4 GHz P4 on the PC side, to a quad core 2.66GHz box. When you do the math, it’s actually a jump comparable to the jump from the Mac 512kE to the Mac IIci — at least on the cpu side. I can theoretically put 8x the RAM into the G5, but I can’t practically afford to!

The real beauty of this, from Apple’s point of view, is that instead of someone like me buying a Mac every four years and a PC every three years (for important productivity tools, like World of Warcraft), both Apple and its customers can have their cake and eat it. We can spend less money on computers and upgrade every 2-3 years, buy a better machine, and not split our incremental upgrades (new graphics cards, more RAM, more hard disks, nicer displays) between our two current boxes. Yes, Apple stuff often costs more (although, try buying a quad Xeon for $2500 from Dell), but it doesn’t cost as much as Apple stuff + Wintel stuff.

It’s bad news for PC hardware makers, since they’ll be losing sales to Apple, but also bad news for Microsoft, because their target audience doesn’t buy a copy of Windows with each box. Yes, the retail version of Windows costs more, but you only need to buy it every five or six years (based on the time elapsed between XP and Vista), during which time many of us would have bought two or three OEM Windows licenses. (In our household, we’ve bought four OEM Windows licenses in the last five years.)

The Macintosh Difference

Dell makes pretty good PCs, as PCs go. Here’s the Mac Pro out of box experience. You open the box. There’s a keyboard and a small black box with CDs, mouse, and such, and some cables (two video adapters, a USB extension cord, power cord). You lift up a styrofoam tray, and there’s the Mac’s handles, and it’s wrapped in thin foam sheeting. You break the seal, the Mac lifts straight out of the box. You stick it on your desk, attach power cord, keyboard, and monitor; hook up the mouse to the keyboard; plug it in, boot. You’re asked to enter a few pieces of info (e.g. your AppleID), which populates stuff like your address automatically and correctly, and then you’re good to go. Elapsed time, five minutes.

Everything, from the fact that the Mac just slips out of its box to the system pinging Apple for your customer info to minimize form-filling is an example of why Apple and Macs don’t suck.

Anyway, first impressions last, but I’ll write about my second impressions later. So far, so very very good.