Apple’s Mac Pro will be made in the USA with a starting price of $6,000. You get a pretty sweet machine for that price, but how close could you get to the power of the Mac Pro if you tried to build a Windows version yourself?
You Could Build a PC With Similar Hardware for Less
No surprise: By our calculations, you can get the job done for much less, though it’ll still cost you. We weren’t able to make a carbon copy of the Mac Pro, but we did get some advantages that the base model Mac Pro doesn’t have. We also had to give up some features in the process.
For this article, we’re focusing on the base model since it’s the only one with a known price at this writing. We have no idea what the upper models will cost, so there’s nothing to compare it to, price-wise. If you want to see a nice example of a killer Windows machine that goes head-to-head with the best Mac Pro, check out this video by Linus Tech Tips.
Before we get into our base model, one last note. We did not build this machine ourselves. So this is not a build guide. It’s more of a thought experiment. Enough preamble—let’s dive in.
The CPU and Motherboard
Apple doesn’t specify which Xeon W CPU it’s using in the base model of the Mac Pro, but we do know it has eight cores, 16 threads, and a turbo boost of 4GHz. Looking at Intel’s ark listings, that is similar to the Xeon W-3223—although the cache is a little larger on the Mac Pro CPU. The W-3223 has an MSRP of $749 but is not available on major sites like Newegg or Amazon.
So we swapped it out with something close to its specs, the Xeon W-2145. That’s a Skylake part from late 2017. It has eight cores, 16 threads, but a higher boost at 4.5GHz. Nevertheless, it has the advantage of being available, though just barely, and as an OEM part. That means it comes without a cooler and the warranty is shorter. That’s not great for an actual purchase, but for a thought experiment, it’ll do.
Here is where we hit difficulty number two: Apple’s Mac Pro motherboard is a pretty sweet custom build with enough capacity for eight PCIe lanes, two Thunderbolt 3 ports in the back, and two 10G LAN ports.
To try and get close to all this we’re going with the Asus WS C422 Sage/10G. This is a single-CPU motherboard with seven full-size PCIe slots, two dual 10G LAN ports, and an M.2 slot.
Based on the best prices we can find we’ve spent $1,290 at B&H Photo on the CPU. We can find lower prices on Amazon, but they are through third-party sellers without Amazon fulfillment. That means if there are any issues you’re relying on the seller’s customer service policy, not Amazon’s. It’s better to go with a known quantity when buying online, in our opinion.
As for the motherboard, you can pick that up for $749.76 from Newegg.
Finally, we need a CPU cooler since we didn’t get one with our Xeon. So we’ll pick-up the Noctua NH-D15 for $89.95
Total so far: $2,129.71
Already, we can see the costs are adding up. We could’ve gone cheaper by swapping out for a different Intel Xeon, but the point is to try and match the Mac Pro as best we can. For that reason we can’t go with an Intel Core i part, because those are consumer- and enthusiast-grade CPUs that don’t support the boatload of PCIe lanes that you get with Xeon chips—a key requirement for a workstation.
This part is easy. The base model is rocking an AMD Radeon Pro 580X with 36 compute units, 2304 stream processors, 8GB of GDDR5 memory. We’ll throw caution to the wind here and pick up the non-pro Sapphire Radeon Nitro+ RX 590 for $216. This card has 8GB of GDDR5, 2304 stream processors, and 36 compute units. The Mac Pro has six inputs (two HDMI, and four DisplayPort), while the Nitro+ has two HDMI, two DisplayPort, and one DVI. You’re short by one port (two if you hate DVI), but it’s close enough.
You know, what? Let’s double up on the GPUs. Apple’s Mac Pro has this magic Afterburner Pro Res card, so let’s use that as an excuse to double up and use some of those PCIe slots.
Total so far: $2,561.71
Ugh. Thunderbolt 3. Here’s the deal. Apple is in love with Thunderbolt and widely supports it. Outside the realm of the Mac, however, Thunderbolt 3 on desktops is not as big. The C422 Sage only has one Thunderbolt 3 header on the motherboard. So we’re limited to a single Asus ThunderboltEX 3 add-in card, and of course, it only has one Thunderbolt port. You can use multiple devices off that single port, mind you, but still, the dream of even just two Thunderbolt 3 ports is not happening.
We could try a different card, but Thunderbolt is, to borrow a phrase, a bag of hurt, so we won’t risk it. That card costs $79.04 and comes with a Thunderbolt port, a USB 3.1 port, and one DisplayPort.
Total so far: $2,631.71
RAM, Power supply, Storage, Cooling and Case
Now we’re getting closer to home. Crucial has 8GB 2666MHz ECC RAM that works with the C422. The 8GB modules are priced at $62, bringing our total RAM cost to $248.
For storage, the Mac Pro has a 250GB SSD. We’ve got a little wiggle room with pricing, and we want a really good SSD for this machine. Let’s go with the NVMe 512GB Samsung 970 Pro, which was on sale for $150 at this writing at Newegg.
Apple puts a 1.4 Kilowatt PSU in the Mac Pro so we’ll go with the fully modular EVGA Supernova 1600 T2 80+ Titanium power supply for $400. That’s a much bigger PSU than the Mac Pro has, but we have some breathing room on costs so let’s put it in.
Finally, we need a case. The C422 is a CEB form factor, which has the same mount points as an ATX motherboard. So as long as the case suits E-ATX and ATX, we should be fine. We won’t be able to get anything that looks like the Mac Pro “cheese grater” of course, but if there’s one thing the PC landscape doesn’t suffer for its choice in cases.
Our selection was the Corsair Crystal Series 680X RGB High Airflow case for $260. It’s a nice-looking, large case with four fans. The RGB fans may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can just turn off the LEDs if you like. The Mac Pro doesn’t have a special CPU cooler relying on the three fans and airflow cooling. So for this thought experiment, we’ll assume the high airflow case, and its fans will be enough (they probably won’t be).
So after everything we’re spending close to $3,700, far less than the $6,000 cost of the base model of the Mac Pro. So is this a clear example of the Apple Tax? Well, yes but let’s add some caveats. First, you’re always going to get it cheaper when you build it yourself. We also don’t have to factor in the costs of custom design that Apple had to with its motherboard, the proprietary connectors, and those MPX modules.
We are also missing some features such as the extra Thunderbolt 3 ports, and a “pro” designation on our GPUs. But we do have some advantages such as doubling up on GPUs, adding more storage for almost nothing, and a pretty sweet case.
Back to the Apple Tax, does it matter? To everyday consumers, it absolutely does, but this isn’t a consumer PC. To the workstation market, it doesn’t matter as much. If you’re a Mac shop, then Macs are what you want. That could be because the software you’re using just runs better on Macs, or your workflow is set up to accommodate the Apple ecosystem. And if you’ve been waiting for the Mac Pro “trash can” to go away before updating your machines, then the new Mac Pros are a welcome sight.
Still, there’s no question that the Mac Pro is awfully expensive, and only Apple could get away with this kind of pricing.