Building The Mac Pro

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)