Building The Mac Pro

BuildingMacPro

The new Apple Mac Pro was finally announced in detail today… The entry level model start at $2,999, with the next base model starting at $3,999. So what does three thousand get you?

Let’s try to build something similar (on paper) to the entry level Mac Pro.

The Build

We’ll start with CPU – the 3.7GHz Intel E5 Xeon appears to be a new model, the E5-1620v2 – luckily it’s inexpensive at under $400.

Next is the motherboard. We obviously can’t have the motherboard that Apple use, they have crafted it themselves to fit within their chimney-style case. We, instead, have to pick something with similar abilities. We know we need to be able to support 12GB of RAM and two GPUs. We also want at least four USB3 ports and lots of Thunderbolt.

Unfortunately here we find a problem – there are currently no LGA2011 motherboards with Thunderbolt. So we’ll let go of Thunderbolt for the moment (why do we need it anyway?) and just focus on the rest.

ASUS Sabretooth X79The ASUS Sabretooth X79 is a promising option at just over $300. It offers us four USB3 ports and six USB2. It even has Firewire! We also have two eSATA ports (one powered). However we’re lacking that Thunderbolt and also have only a single Ethernet, but in most applications I don’t think that’s going to matter too much.

Memory is next – the Mac Pro ships with 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC RAM, so we’ll want to match that. Firstly I’m going to ignore the ECC thing – modern RAM is very reliable, and ECC actually decreases system performance – and besides that, our motherboard doesn’t support ECC RAM. So we’ll overshoot a little and pay about $200 for 16GB of Kingston HyperX DDR3 2400MHz RAM (we could pay more or less depending on brand preference, but that should be fine).

Graphics cards are our next target. The Mac Pro features Dual AMD FirePro D300 GPUs, each with 2GB of video RAM. Our motherboard supports dual PCIe 3.0 x16 graphics cards, so we can also put two GPUs in there. However it’s a little hard to match the FirePro D300 that the MacPro is sporting as it’s a model unique to Apple and so far there isn’t much in the way of technical detail to compare it with.

Let just look at our graphics options in both AMD and NVidia lines.

AMD FirePro W7000From AMD we have the FirePro W7000 which appears to offer similar specs to the D300 GPUs in the MacPro, although is sporting double the RAM. It can even drive up to four (!) 4k displays. At $650 it’s the most expensive part of our build, and using two brings the cost to $1,300.

From the Gaming side of AMD’s family we could also look at the Radeon R9 series. The super-powerful R9 280X with 3GB of RAM will cost a little over $300, or $600 for two.

If we want to go with NVidia (something impossible with the MacPro) then the prices are somewhat higher in workstation cards, with a 3GB Quadro K4000 coming in at close to $800.

But if we look at NVidia’s gaming cards we also see lots of value  – the GTX 770, also with 4GB of video RAM, for example. Not quite as impressive as the AMD W7000 for raw pixel pushing, but each card is still able to output a 4K monitor, or up to four lower-res displays. It’s less expensive as a gaming, rather than workstation, card at around $450.

Storage next – the MacPro uses a PCIe-based 256GB SSD offering 1.2GB/s read and 1GB/s write. We can get similar performance from a 240GB OCZ Revo Drive for a shade under $500. Alternatively we can use a more traditional SSD like the 256GB Samsung 840 Pro Series – it only offers about half the read/write speed of the PCIe version, but is less than half the price at about $200.

Cooler Master HAF XBThat leaves us with a case and power supply. Obviously we’re not going to be able to match the cylinder that’s the trademark of the new Mac Pro, but there are a very wide variety of options. The small(ish) “Lan Box” form factor is interesting and designed to be portable – the Cooler Master HAF XB is a good example of that style, and only around $100. It even comes standard with a couple of removable drive bays – very handy for video work. And we’ll allow about $175 for a low-decibel 1000W power supply (probably overkill, but better than being under powered).

The Price

So for a grand total of about $2,975 we get ourselves a system pretty close to the entry-level Mac Pro. Of course we have a lot of leeway with this sort of build to swap components, something that isn’t possible with Apple’s offering.

The build also leaves out sundry items such as cooling hardware. That will add a little to the overall cost, but there’s plenty of wiggle room in the pricing here, it’s safe to say that the basic build I’ve outlined is, like the Mac Pro, about $3,000.

It would be possible to build the same thing a lot cheaper if you shop around a bit more and consider alternative hardware options. Built with a standard SSD and a pair of GTX 770’s the price comes down by about $700.

Above all though it’s not a Mac. Although it may be possible to turn such a box into a Hackintosh if that’s your sort of thing.

The Conclusions

Overall, the entry-level Mac Pro doesn’t seem over-priced for what it’s offering, but it’s definitely possible to build a computer to a similar specification for quite a lot less. That is almost certain to be truer of the higher-end models also.

In the end though the Mac Pro is a totally custom build by Apple. Currently we simply can’t deliver the Thunderbolt 2 ports with that CPU, for example. Similarly the only ECC-supporting motherboard I could find compatible with the CPU has no USB3, only supports 1600MHz RAM and only offers 3 PCIe slots. This build is simply as close as I could get with what’s currently available.

Of course if you’re looking to build your own workstation then you certainly don’t have to aim to emulate Apple’s choices. There is a huge range of high performance PC hardware available. What you don’t get with a home built system, of course, is support. While the parts themselves are likely to be covered by manufacturer warranties, there’s no one to call if the system breaks – it’s up to you to determine what’s gone wrong and how to fix it.

Also if you’re attached to OS X, especially for work purposes, then Apple is really the only option. While many people have had great experience with Hackintoshes, it’s always a gamble.


(Product links in this post are affiliate links if you feel like buying any of the stuff)

FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditInstapaperPocketShare






  • Dave Lochhead

    Thanks for that. Saves me looking up all the prices. :)

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      It’s a pretty inexact science. I haven’t chosen the cheapest of the various hardware options (nor the most expensive) and some stores may be cheaper than Amazon, it was just the most reliable place I could find the CPU, so I continued there.

      Of course we’re missing the Thunderbolt if that matters (although we have PCIe, eSATA and USB3.0 to compensate) and dual LAN and a few other bits and pieces. In the end this is just a way of trying to match the Mac Pro spec – if you actually wanted to build a workstation to your own spec you’d probably be able to out perform the Mac Pro for $1,000 less with an i7-based build instead.

      • MarcB1969

        Asus offers an add-on, proprietary Thunderbolt adapter for the x4 PCI-E slots of their 7 Series motherboards.

        http://www.anandtech.com/show/5935/asus-thunderbolt-ex-upgrade-card-for-7series-motherboards

        They are also offering Z87 board with (2) TB2 ports (not sure if it’s the same exact spec as Apple’s TB2).

        http://www.asus.com/News/22a1IgaOOVSdTMoM

        Nothing you could build with this platform can compete with their top end 12 CPU monster. But if you can wait until early next year, there will likely be a several Xeon workstation boards that will.

        • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

          That’s pretty cool – I had no idea about that add-on thing. Neither option is applicable to this build with the new Xeons, but it seems likely that new boards will be available in the near future.

          • MarcB1969

            I’ve been following hardware developments closely ever since I realized the future Mac Pro was going to be no-go for us.

  • Margus

    I bet superfast ssd in pro machine will be huge deal for os. also combining gpu power to cpu power in os level gives some advantages that some other oses do not offer.

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      In the end this is all a mental exercise – no matter how close we get the hardware specifications there are always optimisations that Apple can make by controlling all the hardware and OS software themselves. That’s long been one of the strongest arguments in Apple’s favour really.

  • Archie Powell

    Very good article.. it’s good to see someone writing articles who isn’t ridiculously biased to either Mac or PC :) good stuff

  • Ferram

    I worked using a workstation with ECC and a computer without ECC for simulations. Sometimes, the computer (without ECC) gives me a wrong solution. After some trials, I decided to work only with workstation with ECC memory for intensive calculus. Please, reconsider to take a real professional components.

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      ECC memory has pros and cons. However at the time I wrote this (and probably still today, although I haven’t checked recently) there were no ECC-supporting motherboard capable of supporting the Xeon E5 CPUs in question. I considered, in my hypothetical study, that matching the CPU was more valuable than matching the RAM – so I had no option but to pursue Non-ECC RAM.

      In reality it’s not a great idea to build a computer that attempts to copy the specification of another, instead each system should be judged on it’s own merits. If ECC RAM is considered and vital choice, then that will have ramifications on other system components.

  • topkek

    I’d just like to mention how fucking retarded this shit is. The sabertooth blows even the top of the range Mac Pro motherboard out of the water, it isn’t even remotely comparable to anything Apple has, you’d be paying no more than $150 for an equivalent Apple motherboard. The graphics cards are completely overpriced and unnecessary, especially when they are beaten by nVidia’s Quado cards in every single aspect, nVidia just refuse to sell apple any cards. You put a $500 OCZ SSD in there because in typical Apple fan fashion, you assume that because it’s twice as expensive as all the other 250gb SSD’s, it must be way better. It isn’t. Pro-tip, if you’re paying more than $250 for a 250gb SSD, you’re being ripped off, or $120 for a 120gb SSD, same deal.

    Don’t even get me started on the ram. You’ve payed an extra $1000 for 2400mhz ram, when the Apple machine has 1866mhz, and it’s just flat out shit ram, proving that you’re completely retarded when it comes to building PC’s. Please stop, this literally hurt to read you humongous faggot

    • Albino Tonnina

      I don’t care if you are right or not. I’d just slap you in the face for a couple of hours because of this kid’s language.

      • topkek

        Sorry you cannot handle a bit of tongue mate, but I’d fuck your shit brah

        • Albino Tonnina

          Actually I told you I can handle this, by slapping your face for a reasonable amount of hours.

        • Ed_Kel

          Brah? Who talks like that?

      • Guest

        I don’t think your comment is accurate. Also the SSD used by Apple is PCIE based which is plenty faster and pricier than SATA SSD drives. Remember this machine is designed
        for Final Cut Pro users and 4K video editors not gamers. The closest machines on the Windows side are the 3DBOXX 4925 which would cost more with a similar configuration or the HP Z420 which Again is same or pricier when configured with similar AMD FirePro dual graphics cards and solid state drives. To get PCIE solid state drives would force you to buy something like the $429.00 Mercury Accelsior _E2 which is a 240GB PCIE option. Bottom line: the new Mac Pro is pricey but Apple isn’t overcharging for it considering the parts being used.

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      Thanks for your feedback, although I don’t think I’m a “humongous faggot” – it’s a theoretical exercise. I was trying to match “on paper” the published spec of the Mac Pro as closely as possible.

      When I was looking at this there were few motherboards that supported the CPU in question. Maybe that’s changed, I haven’t looked again. The AMD graphics cards are about the closest I could find that offered similar specs to those featured in the Mac Pro.

      The SSD in question was chosen because it claims the highest read/write speeds of those I looked at, approaching the approximately 1GB/s claimed by Apple for it’s PCIe-based SSD.

      I’m not sure how I could be paying $1000 too much for the RAM, the whole lot was under $200. I guess you probably meant $100 – but even then as I recall there was virtually no difference in price between 1866MHz and 2400MHz RAM. That RAM reviews fairly well on NewEgg and Amazon, but there’s no shortage of alternatives.

      Of course the Apple system also offers Thunderbolt 2 which I couldn’t match with that CPU, and ECC RAM which is also unavailable in most DIY PC builds (ECC support being limited to much more costly Workstation and Server-grade motherboards).

      FWIW, I’m no Apple fan. I’ve not owned a Mac since the Blue-and-White G3 in 2000 and I barely ever use them for my work, but I work in an industry in which Apple hardware has a strong position which is why I’m interested.

      • Yosef ben Israel

        How can you seriously reply to someone who calls you a “humongous faggot.” It is beyond my imagination.

      • maverick72

        News flash ….. this IS a Workstation. Nobody in their right minds buy’s a MP to play games or to browse google. So i expect all the workstation bells and whisles…. ECC/Xeon/Workstation class GC/HUGE power supply.

        Also please do read the wiki on ECC memory cause you obviously never worked in the high end server/workstation market where all (and i mean all) the boxes use ECC memory. It will protect you against some data corruption. Yes it does impact performance but that is the cost for the additionnal protection. When your local data counts … when you use a some type of logical raid (zfs) you don’t second guess you put ECC in.

        • das

          hardly a workstation ,it dosnt allow hotswab drives ,no optical bay/drives ,no upgrades ,at best its just a overpriced connection central hub unit ,and a xeon is overpriced, its just a handpicked i7 end of the day ,ECC ram is nonsense ,makes fuck all difference to ” work performance ” and these firepro GPUs in the mac pro are the low end spectrum of the AMD firepro rebrand range ,a gaming card thats half the price will be more powerful for rendering

          • Ryan Kramer

            Optical? Man, we get roughly one disc a year mailed to our office at this point and every time one shows up, I gotta say, it feels REALLY archaic! And for 99% of everyone ECC doesn’t make a bit of difference, but for a mission critical application, yes, there’s an audience for it.

            But this?

            “A gaming card thats half the price will be more powerful for rendering”

            No, no, no. The drivers inside the cards themselves are rewritten with professional software tasks in mind. A gaming card is not what you want with this machine. This machine is for making things, not playing things. (Both are worthy causes, but don’t confuse the two tasks.)

          • das

            well then AMd /firepro is useless going by your argument ,nvidia solution is miles better than AMD’s ,if u bang on about drivers ,then nvidia rapes whatever the mac pro trashcan offers

          • Ryan Villanueva

            ECC RAM is used for preventing silent data corruption in servers. It is also vital for precise scientific calculations. Manufacturers put this RAM on all Workstation class computers, perhaps as a layer of protection against issues such as random memory errors and program crashes.

          • das

            and the ECC ram does not make a comoputer cost 3k usd

    • Hrothgar331

      Please delete your adolescent- “I’d just like to mention how fucking retarded this shit is.”

    • Erudit0

      /g/ has spoken.

    • Mrleblanc101 [4400+ post]

      are you retarded ?
      1)nVidia make the graphics card of every macbook lol
      2)the SSD cost 500$ because it’s PCIe and have 1Gb/s read and write instead of the very low 300mb/s read and write a 250$ SSD would have
      3)you change all his article because you’re the typical apple troll who think everything they do is overpriced

      • das

        my SSD has 512mb write and speed ,u talking shit

        • Ryan Kramer

          Which is still 50% slower. Not an insignificant amount.

          • das

            no one will notice the speed ,anyway i xcan buy 2 samsung ssd’s and rAid them ,so id beat the mac pro for less money ahah

          • Ryan Villanueva

            The target market of the Mac Pro – like video editors and 3D creators who need to move large amounts data regularly will notice.

          • das

            yh ,they will notice when they run out of space for only having 240gb of storage ! LMAO ,again ,thats why SSD in raid is superior ,more storage and fast

          • Guest

            We hook up external hard drives, lol

        • Mrleblanc101 [4400+ post]

          wow which is still nowhere close to 1Gb/s moron…
          and still cost you the same amount (500$)

          • das

            no one will notice the speed ,anyway i xcan buy 2 samsung ssd’s and rAid them ,so id beat the mac pro for less money ahaha

          • Mrleblanc101 [4400+ post]

            this is a professional computer… they will notice retard

          • das

            u dont understand raid ,therefore u are not a pro user and u dont qualify to comment

    • Proteus777

      Man, where do I begin with your stupidity? The mac pro can’t be compared to a normal motherboard, because it is designed to run within much smaller and tighter thermal and physical limits. The graphics cards actually run circles around similarly priced Quadros. The PCIe direct attach storage on the mac pro blows away ANY SSD on the market today, simply because it doesn’t go through the SATA interface (which increases latency and caps throughput). The Apple ram is ECC, which is not for l33t 0v4rcl0ck3rz, but rather for stability.

  • Steven

    I’m pretty sure that the 2,999 baseline mac only comes with one D300 not two. If that’s the case then you’re basically undercutting the price by around $750, getting slightly more, higher quality ram, the ability to upgrade later on, a better SSD and the knowledge that your pollution hurt some distant people in china rather than poisoning the water supply of local texans.

    • Steven

      And if you start swapping around to the comparable gaming class cards, cease caring about the aesthetics of the case, buy a cheaper power supply and grab an SSD on sale rather than at manufacturer overpricing you’ve basically got a windows equivalent in the $1500 price range. Meanwhile, outspecing the mac at $3000 isn’t hard to do either. You can definitely tell that apple products have a massive “marketing tax” on them. It’s kind of interesting to see how much intangible things like reputation can cost a company/consumer.

      • http://tedwise.com Ted Wise

        You might not want a workstation graphics card, but professionals do. You might not need the faster speed of a PCI SSD, but professionals do. You might not care about ECC RAM, but professionals do. And when you spec out those components, the price difference between what you build and what Apple is selling is small.

      • Ryan Kramer

        Why do people say they can build the same machine for much less and then “the same” turns into cheaper parts that aren’t the same?

      • Ryan Villanueva

        You are incorrect, the pricing of the Mac Pro is quite inline with other Workstation class computers as pointed out in this article and other commentators in this forms. These cheaper PCs you are referring to are consumer/gaming PCs which is a different animal from the Mac Pro.

    • http://tedwise.com Ted Wise

      Nope, every Mac Pro comes with dual GPUs, even the entry model.

  • Thaboz

    Unless you are in the pro-creative field, editing, audio, photography, 3D, the new MacPro might not be the “weapon” of choice. But if you are using any of Apples Pro Apps, Final Cut Pro X, Aperture or Logic Pro X this machine will give you plenty of power with options to match your needs. If you are a gamer or traditional user a custom build machine might give you better power/performance/price. I’m working in Television/Post-Production and the new MacPro would potentially/initially give some headaches, no internal options to add cards to this machine. There are already options to expand the machine with external Thunderbolt expansions such as PCI card capable boxes you can connect via Thunderbolt(2), Fibre Channel over TB2 and this makes the Mac Pro a very viable option, also when you are working with Storage Area Networks (SAN) the backend (server room) is pretty expensive and could easily be used by these newer machines. So yes the MacPro is not cheap (although Apple is very good at new technologies and warranty) they will deliver the output we need to create 4K productions on FCP X and XSAN, something we have been doing over the last 7 years on the FCP platform and will continue doing this for the near future. Editors are absolutely embracing the newer versions of FCP X and some already claim they cannot go back to other NLE systems because FCP X seems to be their “weapon” of choice. 4K is around the corner and broadcast never has been cheap, tape decks and fibre switches are costing up to (and over) 100.000 dollars, the new MacPro would not replace the older ones straight out of the box but they will work quite nicely once you kit them out with the right peripherals, 10.000 dollars for such a upgrade per edit suite is actually quite reasonable. 4K colour grading monitors still sell for over 25.000 dollars to put it in perspective.

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      Interestingly the Mac Pro apparently doesn’t benchmark as well with Premiere (currently) as it does with FCP X – no idea how it does with Avid.

      Ultimately depending on the specific work that you’re doing it’s probably actually over-powered. A current model iMac has plenty of power for most editing tasks.

  • Andrew Hawley

    You are better off comparing it with a “server” class board. I would try the SuperMicro X9SRA, supports the 1620 E5 Xeon and supports up to 256GB of ECC ram. It has dual 16x PCIe slots as well for the dual video cards. It has dual GB nics, 6 SATA ports, USB 2 and 3 ports. If you get this board you would ultimately have more expandability than the mac pro gives you. The Apple PCIe based storage is ultimately the same as a Revo Drive from OCZ, and I have used these MANY times, they are simply smaller raided drives. So to get 1TB it would simply contain a bunch of SSD’s in a Stripe raid to get the fast speeds. In that case, you can honestly just get a few Samsung 840 Pro Drives, and have super fast storage. With (2) 256GB drives, you will see almost 1GB/s. Then 16GB of ECC 1866 ram and a Supermicro workstation case (with hot swappable bays for drives, and a 900W certified power supply). The last step is what would put you over the edge, the D300 FirePro is the same as a W7000 FirePro card, so in turn you are looking at about $1400 for 2 cards. Final pricing… $300 for cpu, 260 for mem, 290 for motherboard, 440 for SSD’s, 1400 for video cards, 320 for the case and power supply…. $3010… Mac Pro with similar spec… $3399…. pretty close for a high end workstation, and I’ll give looks to the mac. What you don’t get with the mac is the ability to use hot swap drives, and expand ram to 256GB like you do with the other config I setup. You also can’t just swap out video cards with whatever you want, you could technically make this supermicro workstation insane, max out the ram, throw in 2 K5000’s and fill it up with SSD storage. Remember, no one ever said Mac’s were cheap…. but almost everyone can agree they look pretty cool.

  • OpticDisc

    So, you’re going to build a Mac Pro, but first thing out of the gate, you aren’t using the same components.. “Who needs Thunderbolt” , “I’m going to ignore the RAM spec”, and you’re using gaming video cards.. how is this the SAME as a mac pro?

  • das

    i can build the same spec machine but with a 480gb drive for same cost :)

  • daslicht

    Umm that Mainboard only holds one CPU ? The MacPro has two!

  • Dale

    Thanks for sharing your mental exercise with us :) I’ll have to agree with the others on the workstation-class components – if you’re making money from the machine, there’s pretty low tolerance for fault.

    Having said that, I’ve also gone through the same exercise, and, failing to meet a reasonable price-point, I stuck to a Haswell-based machine instead.

    As for Thunderbolt 2, there’s a new Gigabyte board that might bridge the gap : http://www.gigabyte.us/products/product-page.aspx?pid=4781#ov

    • http://dylanreeve.com/ Dylan Reeve

      Yeah, ultimately we’re not Apple – we don’t have the buying power they do and we can’t make our own hardware.

      If your goal is to match performance (for a given application) I’m certain you can do it for significantly less in a DIY Windows workstation, but there are a lot of caveats with that, obviously.

      Personally I’m still unlikely to buy a new Mac Pro for work in the future, but I may very well pay a similar premium for a HP or Dell workstation. Ultimately there is value in the support and product design aspects that come as part of a commercial workstation class computer.

  • Pepper

    If its possible to run Windows 8.1 on a New Mac Pro why do we buy all kinds of other hardware to create a semi Mac.
    In the beginning when Apple when’t over to Intel Processors it was possible to create a Intel Based computer with OSX 10 on it.
    So why not run Windows 8.1 on the New MAC pro?? I’l think its great hardware and even cheap with the 2 processors as his hart, its lake Doctor Who with his two harts;-)), it will be a great Windows 8 Computer than.

    • Patrick Kilgore

      only problem with the new mac is upgrade ability. You’re basically stuck with what you buy.

  • bebopple

    Thanks for this. Pros who don’t work on corporately funded and creatively limited projects require exactly what you propose. Proprietary hardware (particularly Apple’s I’m sorry to say) has become impossible to use without constant funding now that every small change requires a new machine. What were they thinking? If anyone has experience of building this kind of machine at a current professional level, I’d like to hear from them.

  • Harry Tsang

    But the hardware you use is compatible for a Hachintosh

  • Van Thạnh

    this pc run Hackintosh so expensive and have a lot of trouble when we run hackinstosh on it, with the prices just reduced a little i decided buy mac pro