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Please don't buy a Mac Pro right now

Is there a good argument for buying Apple's discounted Pro machine?
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Kimberly White via Getty Images

This week, Apple finally admitted, after too damn long, that it had overdesigned the "trash can" Mac Pro into a corner. Its triangular thermal design was innovative but impossible to upgrade, and failed to anticipate shifts in computing following its launch. After several years of silence, the company finally apologized, admitting that a redesigned model will arrive at some point next year. Apple has now heavily discounted the 2013 model as an act of contrition, but is that enough for Pro users to bite? Dan Cooper is tempted to make the splash, but Aaron Souppouris is desperate to stop him.

Daniel Cooper, Senior Editor

I've been using a base-model 2012 Mac Pro for nearly five years, and it's been showing its age for a while. The machine shipped with a measly 6GB of RAM and a piddly graphics card that can't handle running dual displays, and I often get jitters and slowdowns. I've kept it alive by swapping in hybrid HDDs and more memory, but I'm a year or two past an upgrade. Apple has pushed the $4,000 2013 Mac Pro down to $3,000, and I'm not going to lie: I'm sorely tempted to buy it, since that's one enticing chunk of computer.

Aaron Souppouris, Features Editor

Just, don't? The Mac Pro, unlike Apple's new MacBook Pros, was very much built from the ground up for professional, "heavy" users. And thanks to its outdated hardware, it doesn't even do a great job of that. You might edit quite a few photos and maybe even some videos at home, but you are not a pro user. Even if you're averse to Windows, there are better options that Apple makes for someone who needs a desktop replacement.

Daniel Cooper

Possibly, and it's probably worth explaining why I have an affinity for desktops and pro machines rather than the MacBook you've just referenced. Working from home, I spend about 90 percent of my time standing at my desk, so using a laptop makes very little sense. I've also already got a laptop, in the form of my 13-inch MacBook Air (2013), which does exactly what I need, and very little more, when I'm on the road.

Aaron Souppouris

I'm not sure why your standing habits are relevant to whether you use a laptop or a trash can. With a monitor, keyboard and mouse attached, a closed MacBook Pro does a great impression of a desktop. A heavily discounted three-year-old machine is still a three-year-old machine, and a top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro is a better all-round computer than a Mac Pro today.

Daniel Cooper

Nah, a closed MacBook Pro is not going to be muscular enough to handle my daily workload, slight though you may think it is. My "normal" setup involves running Chrome, Slack, Pages, iTunes and Photoshop on dual displays. In isolation, those tools of the trade may be pretty lightweight, but Chrome, Slack and Photoshop are famously hungry for memory, causing slowdowns and jitters.

Aaron Souppouris

I use a 15-inch 2015 MacBook Pro with 16GB RAM and a 2.5GHz Intel Core i7 with discrete graphics. Apart from when OS X misbehaves, only video editing and gaming have ever pushed this machine hard. We have very similar workloads, aside from Pages (I use GDocs and Word because I'm not a freak). Although I use only one 1440p screen in addition to the built-in Retina Display, it's demonstrably capable of pushing multiple monitors without breaking a sweat. And this is an old model, outdated when I bought it -- the latest MacBook Pros are way stronger.

Daniel Cooper

Except that any MacBook Pro is going to struggle to live as the center of my home, as my Mac Pro currently does. I've got 40GB of music and around 540GB of video in my iTunes collection (all ripped from physical media; I'm not a monster). Then there's my photos collection (many of which include my little girl), which runs to around 282GB when you include home video. Despite the fact that I have a hybrid HDD, 14GB RAM and a quad-core Xeon processor, it still takes an age for these files to load. Buying a MacBook Pro won't make any of those jobs faster.

Aaron Souppouris

Neither will buying a new Mac Pro. Part of the reason Apple is replacing the Mac Pro is that it's not very expandable. Upping the storage to handle all your media is going to add more than $500 to the price. It seems that your main bottleneck right now is the hard drive. The gulf between a hybrid and an SSD is pretty enormous. While you might see its solid-state portion matching an SSD in repeated tasks like loading the OS or a frequently used app, everyday computing is more random than that. The 500GB SSD inside Apple's high-end MacBook Pro will dramatically improve your day-to-day life, from loading apps quicker to supporting the RAM with fast paging speeds.

Whatever computer you upgrade to, I'd invest in a 2TB RAID system, connect it to the highest-speed port your computer has and forget about finding a computer to match your data-hoarding habit. Sure, file access will still be slow, but it won't bog down the system while they're loading.

Bottom line is the modern components of a MacBook Pro will keep pace, or exceed, the base Mac Pro in almost every task, for less money. The main sticking point with the current crop is battery life, but if you're using it as a desktop, that point is moot.

Daniel Cooper

Aah, aah, I've got you there, because for $2,999 I can get a six-core Xeon E5 processor, 16GB RAM and a dual FirePro D500 with 3GB RAM per side. The 15-inch MBP you're referring to costs almost the same ($2,799) with a quad-core Core i7, 16GB RAM and a Radeon Pro with 2GB RAM. I can also get a shitty keyboard, trackpad and display I don't need and a battery that'll get increasingly less useful over time. Oh, and I'll have to buy all new accessories, because nothing I own has USB-C.

Aaron Souppouris

Those fancy graphics cards you're swooning over are outdated, and the new MacBook Pro's GPU will keep OpenGL-enabled apps like Photoshop running at a clip. If you really wanted, you could up that to a Radeon Pro 460, which has 4GB of dedicated memory, and you'd still be spending less than a Mac Pro.

That's not to mention that the spec you just listed comes with a 256GB SSD, almost half the size of the MacBook Pro I want you to buy. The price difference between the two machines will cover the accessories you need and help fund that RAID system I mentioned. You don't really need to use this thing like a laptop: keep it plugged in behind your monitor if you want to. That said, I use a laptop with an external display and it works just fine -- think of it as getting a high-quality 15-inch display and trackpad to sit along your existing monitor when you need it.

Daniel Cooper

OK, how about this? Laptops are designed around balancing the different needs of power drain, thermal efficiency and performance. I guarantee you that the MBP's components will be throttled down to custard-like speeds to prevent overheating when I get on it. My daily routine is to have Chrome open with a hundred tabs, plus Pages, iTunes, Photoshop and Slack all running at once. Why would I knowingly submit myself to a bad computing experience?

Aaron Souppouris

Laptops have come a long way, with components that are far more capable of running at full pelt than they used to be. Ars Technica's review found that, even after 30 minutes running at full load, the i7 in the MacBook Pro didn't throttle. Not to mention that USB-C and Thunderbolt are so fast that the difference between internal and external accessory efficiency is moot. Oh, and talking of interfaces: The Mac Pro's I/O is limited to USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2. The MacBook Pro's USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 ports are light-years ahead, and if you're using this machine as a desktop, then the dongle issue is really unimportant.

I know it's anecdotal, but people with far heavier workloads than you -- namely YouTubers like MKBHD and Casey Neistat -- have given up on the Mac Pro, and both switched to the latest MacBook Pros in recent months. These things are just better machines.

Daniel Cooper

How about the fact that those laptops -- with their integral batteries and tightly integrated components -- have a far shorter shelf life than desktops? As an investment, buying a desktop is likely to give you a better payoff, because it'll last much longer than its all-in-one brethren.

Aaron Souppouris

The battery definitely has a limited shelf life, but if you're permanently plugged in, what's the problem?

Daniel Cooper

Repairs, though. Have you seen iFixit's guide for repairing the MBP? It got a repairability score of 1 out of 10. Which means that if this thing breaks, It's quite likely that I'll have to buy a new one.

Aaron Souppouris

AppleCare for three years is like $350 -- just pay up. We're clearly not going to agree on whether or not a laptop can do a desktop's job, but even if you're never buying a laptop, there are still myriad reasons to not buy a Mac Pro.

First, along with the discount, Apple announced it's working on a new new Mac Pro, one that it hints will be more expandable and powerful than the current generation. At the same time, Nvidia announced that its new high-end GPU will support Macs. That's not a coincidence. Apple also teased a "Pro"-level iMac for later this year. Buying a Mac Pro at a discount now is essentially just helping Apple with its spare inventory problems.

Daniel Cooper

I do keep thinking about that 4K iMac and wondering if I'd be tempted to downshift from my Mac Pro to a "pro" iMac. My only concern would be whether it, too, would struggle to push multiple displays, because its integrated graphics would be concentrated on its own screen. If Apple could make it even slightly expandable, with a shitload of RAM and discrete graphics, then it could very possibly swing my decision.

Aaron Souppouris

The fairer comparison with the Mac Pro would be the 27-inch 5K iMac, which has discrete graphics onboard. Even so, it has its issues. None of the models have SSDs as standard, and there is absolutely no reason why anyone in 2017 should be spending that sort of money to boot from an HDD. It's a huge bottleneck. I'm repeating myself, but I/O is fast enough these days that if you're using a quality drive and fast I/O like USB-C, you can shove your media collection on an external drive.

What Apple needs to do with the "Pro" iMacs is offer affordable SSDs, 16GB RAM as (upgradeable) standard, and, most important, a modern graphics solution like an RX 480. We'll just have to wait and see if it does that.

Daniel Cooper

I'd wait for that -- hell, I've waited this long to upgrade; a few more months to see what the pro iMac looks like won't kill me.

Aaron Souppouris

Yeah, you've kind of made the crux of my point for me. If you're not happy with a MacBook Pro as a desktop replacement, wait to see what the new iMac can do for you. If you're not happy with that, wait for the new Mac Pro. But whatever you do, don't buy a three-year-old computer just because it's slightly less overpriced than it was before.

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