Should You Buy an iMac Pro, or Wait for the Modular Mac Pro Redesign?

When Apple refreshed the venerable Mac Pro desktop in 2013, reception was mixed to say the least. While the second-gen machine’s tiny footprint and polished case (aka the “trash can”) are certainly eye-catching, and there’s an undeniable amount of engineering in its design, the official line that only the memory can be upgraded after purchase put off a lot of power users.

Apple has apparently taken those criticisms to heart, publicly declaring that a new Mac Pro will be coming in 2018 with a traditionally modular construction, allowing parts to be swapped and upgraded like a standard desktop. But in the meantime, they’ve also introduced a brand new machine: the iMac Pro. This all-in-one is a souped-up version of the iMac with a server class Intel Xeon processor, a discrete graphics card, and a jaw-dropping 5K display. It’s a drool-worthy machine, to be sure, but should the media production pro shell out for one or wait for the more flexible Mac Pro? Since the new iMac is going on sale in December at a starting price of $5000 (no, that’s not a typo), anyone who wants one will need to start saving pennies right away.

Let’s break it down. For ease of reading, the current, compact Mac Pro model will be referred to as the “trash can Mac Pro” below (no insult intended) while the upcoming model will be the modular Mac Pro.

The iMac Pro Is a Powerhouse…

Since the iMac Pro is still half a year away, we’ll have to rely on what Apple tells us for its technical capabilities. Even taking the company at its word, the new machine will pull no punches when it comes to performance. Xeon processors in 8, 10, and 18-core varieties will be offered—Apple isn’t saying which models it will pack in there, but based on today’s availability, those would easily be some of the fastest chips ever put into an all-in-one machine. They’re also a significant upgrade over the current trash can-shaped Mac Pro, which maxes out with a 12-core, 30MB-cache Xeon E5 (already a year old). The iMac Pro will double the current Mac Pro’s maximum memory capacity (128GB), quadruple the maximum storage (4TB of SSD), and come with newer AMD industrial graphics options.

In short, assuming you’re willing to pay for the upgrades, the the iMac Pro will blow the current Mac Pro out of the water in terms of pure number-crunching power. And with a revised model on the horizon and an all-in-one to upsell in the meantime, Apple is unlikely to grant the current Mac Pro another upgrade cycle before it’s replaced.

…But the New Mac Pro Will Probably Be Even More Powerful

Apple should know better than anyone at this point that cramming server-class components into a tiny space comes with some of its own limitations. That being the case, the iMac Pro is going to run into some of the same problems that the current Mac Pro has: efficiently cooling incredibly powerful chips, managing internal space, and keeping all of those components in an optimal configuration. Add to that some extra hurdles thanks to the all-in-one format, like placing ports at user-accessible spots, keeping electrical and thermal interference away from the integrated screen and speakers, and so on.

So as powerful as the iMac Pro will be, there’s going to be a point of diminishing returns, and engineering updated systems to deal with updating hardware from Intel and other vendors will be a time consuming and expensive process. It won’t be unreasonable to expect a gap of more than a year, perhaps two or three, between even standard CPU upgrades for the integrated all-in-one system. And for a machine in which no internal part will be user-accessible (not even the RAM, as Apple confirmed to 9to5 Mac), that’s a fact worth considering before a purchase.

Assuming that the new, modular Mac Pro will be fairly similar to the original pre-trash can design, incorporating a more standard desktop tower that grants easy access to most if not all internal components, it will sidestep all of the more complex engineering problems of both its predecessor and the iMac Pro. It’ll basically be Apple building a branded, refined version of an enthusiast desktop PC or low-cost industrial server. Not only will that probably mean that the initial offering comes with more powerful options than the iMac Pro, but both subsequent official updates and end user upgrades will be easier.

…And Upgradeable

The older tower-style Mac Pro was easy to upgrade at home.

If you take Apple’s commitment to a new “modular” Mac Pro at face value, every major component should be user-replaceable: RAM, graphics card (or cards, as the case may be), CPU (or CPUs, ditto), storage. That’s a huge plus for anyone spending multiple thousands of dollars on a professional machine. And not just in the sense of longevity—Apple famously marks up relatively inexpensive components like RAM when selling directly on the Apple Store. The Mac Pro might be the first opportunity in years for spendthrift Apple fans to get the base model and save serious cash on memory, GPU, and storage components right out of the gate.

…And Maybe Even Cheaper

The iMac Pro will have a starting price of $5000. Even for Apple, even for a machine aimed squarely at the creator market, that’s a huge amount of cash for a modern computer… and the price will only go up with component upgrades. At the moment, the trash can Mac Pro starts at “just” $3000 for a 6-core Xeon model with 16GB of RAM and a rather paltry 256GB SSD. Removing the manufacturing burden and custom PCB fabrication in that teeny-tiny case could save Apple serious dough, even if it keeps the production here in the United States. Between a cheaper, more roomy build, fewer expensive custom components, and not having to build in a pro graphics-ready 5K LCD panel with each machine, it’s just possible that the modular Mac Pro will stay the same price as the trash can Mac Pro or (gasp!) maybe even be a little cheaper.

Of course, for anyone willing to put down three to five grand on a new PC, saving a paltry few hundred dollars might seem like something that’s unimportant. But consider that the difference between an iMac Pro and a modular Mac Pro could buy multiple 4K monitors, high-speed storage drives, extra GPUs, and all kinds of extra goodies to make your new machine pop. The only thing you won’t be able to get (according to Apple, anyway) are those slick-looking Space Grey keyboards, mice, and trackpads.

The point is that for both IT managers and independent operators, the modular Mac Pro will probably represent a significant savings opportunity in the niche of super-powered Apple hardware, both at the initial purchase and in terms of longevity. Even for products with Apple’s “magical” mystique, it’s worth considering.

So Which One Should You Buy?

On paper, everything seems to suggest that the new modular Mac Pro will be a smarter buy for almost everyone. (That sound you hear is desktop enthusiasts all over the world agreeing with me.) For raw power, for price, for upgrade potential and “futureproofing,” it’s clearly better to wait until later in 2018 when the new model is ready.

That said, the iMac Pro does have some less technical benefits. The all-in-one nature of the machine means it will travel well, a feature that Apple tried and failed to sell on the trash can Mac Pro. Even laden with heavy components and a metal body, the iMac Pro will be easier to lug home for a weekend or off to a trade show venue than a full-sized desktop and accompanying inputs. And of course, it will be more aesthetically pleasing than any modular Mac Pro Apple can design—that’s another reason so many compromises were made with the trash can version. Part of the undeniable appeal of Apple hardware is its looks, and the iMac Pro has it in spades.

On that note, I’d say it’s probably a good idea to wait for Apple to reveal the design of the modular Mac Pro in any case. Sure, you’ll be waiting (and saving) based on assumptions rooted in the older model, but for such a valuable piece of technology with so many possible benefits, patience will be a virtue. But if you’re smitten with the all-in-one design and sex appeal of the iMac Pro, go ahead and put your money down.

Image credit: Apple, PdsPhil/Flickr

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.