More Vroom For The Buck

The Mac Pro, with the equivalent of a V-12 engine, is cheaper than a tricked out Dell


In an age of $300 desktop pcs and $500 notebooks, why pay $2,500 or more for a computer? For most of us, spending that kind of money for a new Apple (AAPL ) Mac Pro makes as much sense as buying a Ferrari Scaglietti for commuting in urban traffic. But for a class of people whose work--or play--demands maximum power, the Mac Pro is almost a bargain.

The computer looks like the Power Mac G5 it replaces, in the same big and handsome brushed aluminum case. Instead of IBM (IBM ) G5 processors, though, it runs on a pair of Intel (INTC ) Xeon chips designed for servers and high-end workstations. That means there are a total of four processor cores-two for each Xeon.

Who needs the computing equivalent of a V-12 engine? The main audience is Apple's traditional core market of creative professionals: graphic artists, photographers, musicians, and video- and filmmakers, along with scientists, designers, and engineers. But the Mac Pro also holds great appeal for serious amateurs, whether they're editing video, doing digital darkroom work on the photos from a 10-megapixel camera, or mixing the latest tracks recorded by their band.

Although Apple is sometimes accused of overpricing its wares, that rap won't stick with the Mac Pro. When I configured a Dell (DELL ) Precision 490 workstation to match the base Mac Pro as closely as possible, the price came in at $3,033, upward of $500 more than the Mac. Even a much less capable Dell Dimension 9200 came in at $1,840 when tricked out to approximate the Mac.

APPLE'S FREE SOFTWARE BUNDLE is another Mac advantage. True, a professional musician would probably pay the $999 Apple charges for Logic Pro music creation software or go with the pricier Avid Pro Tools system. But someone else-a photographer who spends $800 for Adobe Creative Suite 2, say-might enjoy dabbling with the free GarageBand music program or making a quick video in iMovie.

I put a Mac Pro through its paces after returning from a South American vacation with several hours of digital video tape and about 1,500 digital photos. I edited video and audio using Apple's $399 Final Cut Express hd and the Soundtrack audio program that is part of it, processed photos using Adobe Photoshop CS2, and created DVD movies and slide shows using the bundled applications iDVD and iPhoto.

This sort of work is never easy. Getting an audio mix right, for example, can mean listening to the same bit of sound track over and over as you try different adjustments. You want tools like these, which are responsive and unobtrusive. Then there's the display screen area. You can't have too much of this for creative applications, and the Mac Pro makes it simple to hook up two monitors-much easier than on any Windows system. Finally, video work demands a lot of waiting for the machine to finish a task. The Mac Pro kept those waits to a minimum while meeting the job's stupendous appetite for storage space. (The maximum of four 500-gigabyte drives should be plenty for almost anyone.)

The new Mac Pro completes Apple's transition to Intel processors. The company has also upgraded its iMac line to the Core 2 Duo chips and cut the price of the 17-in. model to $999 while adding a 24-in. version at $1,999. But one thing keeping these systems from peak performance is a lack of software optimized for Intel. Adobe (ADBE ), for example, has not given a timeline for such key creative tools as Photoshop and Macromedia Flash. The versions for older Macs work fine but don't deliver the speed gains the Intel models are capable of.

The Mac Pro offers far more firepower than the typical user browsing the Web and reading e-mail is ever going to require. But for the passionate minority who want and are willing to pay for performance, it is a very tough system to beat.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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