I just pulled the trigger on a new Mac Pro (late-2013 model). I configured my system for a digital photography workflow, and thought I'd share my thoughts on rationale behind the options I choose.
The Short Version
Want the short version? Buy the 6-core model, load it up with the most RAM you can afford, worry about the other stuff later.
Where to Buy?
Current wait times buying directly through Apple are 4-6 weeks. I would recommend purchasing through B&H Photo Video as they regularly get new stock in ever several weeks. On top of that, they sell Apple's own AppleCare extended warranty for $75 less than retail.
B&H is where I have ordered my own Mac Pro system that I've detailed below, and where I buy all my camera gear. Anytime you purchase gear through any of my affiliate links, it also helps me out to pay for my RackSpace hosting, and it doesn't cost you a cent more.
Mac Pro vs iMac
Why purchase the new Mac Pro over a loaded iMac? For me, the decision is all about flexibility. A fully-loaded iMac close to the specs of the Mac Pro starts to push nearly $4k — or nearly equivalent to the Mac Pro's base model. Sure, you get a fantastic display thrown in, but sacrifice a large degree of flexibility as well.
Factor in the relative ease of upgrading, expanded connectivity and wider range of configurations, and and the Mac Pro seemed like a no brainer.
Even though the fastest iMacs are incredibly capable machines that match and can even exceed the Mac Pro in terms of performance for digital still photography, this is a paradigm that is going to shift more dramatically in the next few years as software shifts to take advantage of multiple cores and GPUs.
A Mac Pro for Digital Photography
Configuring a Mac Pro is not necessarily a straightforward task, at least when one is customizing the machine specifically for a digital photography workflow. Arguably, the new late-2013 Mac Pro is a beast most ready to be thrown into video editing and post-production, where the software of the field is capable of utilizing the talents of this new machine (chiefly, its multi-core processing).
I went with the 6-core option. For photography using programs like Adobe Lightroom, which can leverage multi-core processors effectively, the 6-core option balances processing power, additional processors, and cost most reasonably given the total cost of the system. The relatively minor premium over the base 4-core option simply makes sense.
While the stated clock speed is 3.5GHz for the 6-core option, it features the same maximum speed of 3.9GHz for single-core applications. As such, this 6-core option seems like the natural sweet spot — giving up nothing in terms of speed for single-core use while leveraging the benefit of additional cores when needed. In contrast to the 8-core options, the price jump becomes more substantial relative to the total cost of the system, making it a less attractive price.
If anything, an investment in the 6-core option is a bet that photography software will eventually catch up to hardware performance. While multi-threading isn't widely supported by general software, Adobe is slowly upgrading its Creative Cloud suite to take increasing advantage of multiple cores, so this is a bet I'm willing to take.
When purchasing a built-to-order configuration directly from Apple, the 12GB memory option makes the most sense. Why? Because the availability of cheaper, high quality RAM makes upgrading a much more cost effective choice.
With extremely reliable companies like OWC and Crucial offering memory configurations that benchmark as good or even better. At the time of publication of this article, one can purchase 64GB of 1866MHz DDR3 RAM from Crucial for $620 — essentially half the cost when ordering from Apple. On top of this, Crucial's memory actually performs better in benchmarks than Apple's, making the option for third-party memory options a no-brainer.
In terms of storage, the 1TB SSD option seemed to make the most sense. It features the highest performance out of the available options, particularly in terms of write speed. And even with my Synology DS1813+ packing 32TB of drives, I invariably end up using the internal drive to store all kinds of temporary files that having a little headroom is always welcome.
Why go for a large 1TB SSD when much less is needed as a boot drive? Perhaps most importantly for the digital photographer is that a 1TB drive provides ample room to partition into a boot disk and a scratch disk, for use by applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom, for increased performance.
In addition, while it's possible for third-party alternatives down the line, none are currently available (OWC has announced plans to sell drive upgrades, but not until Q3 2014). For now, the 1TB SSD built-to-order option is still solid option.
Similarly to built-in storage, the dedicated graphics processors for the Mac Pro are essentially non-upgradeable at this point, so it makes sense to option for a reasonable amount of performance. For me, the AMD FirePro D500 GPU strikes a good balance of increased performance without a huge price penalty, which should help add longevity to the system as a whole.
While the FirePro D300 should be adequate for most users, I decided to go with the D500 simply for additional headroom given how long I generally keep my desktop systems.
Last but not least, AppleCare. Apple's own warranty service is generally regarded as extremely good. Apple sells it for $249, but AppleCare is also available for retailers like B&H Photo Video in NYC for a discounted rate. I purchased this same three-year plan for $175 from B&H.
Should any service issues arise, this entry fee of $175 should easily be far less than the cost even the most simple of repairs, so I think that purchasing this insurance is well worth the cost.
Where to Buy
I actually had this very system ordered through Apple. However, weeks into the order with no updates, I saw that B&H Photo Video in NYC had basically the 6-core model in stock and with basically all the options I wanted.
So no wait time and add in the fact that B&H sells AppleCare for $75 off the retail price, and it was an easy decision. Apple order canceled, B&H order placed. Boom.
Summary — The Best Mac Pro for Photography
For me and my digital workflow, I believe this configuration is the way to go.
Mac Pro for Photography:
- 3.5GHz 6-core with 12MB of L3 cache
- 2GB (3x4GB) of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC (to be user-upgraded)
- 1TB PCIe-based flash storage
- Dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs with 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM each
- Apple Care
- Crucial 64GB Kit (4x16GB) DDR3-1866 RDIMM
This systems seems to balance the sweet spot of performance and cost, offering extremely high performance without unnecessarily high cost.
The new late-2013 model Mac Pro already has a buy-in price of $2,999. With this configuration for photography, the price is $4,699 before any memory upgrade. While this is a significant increase with added options, I'm convinced that the upgradeability and raw power of this machine will produce a system I can use for years and years.
Considering that my current Mac Pro is a 2007 model, I'm a believer in buying the best I can afford. It means less frequent upgrades and very often fewer headaches down the road.
I'll be doing a review of this machine once I can put it through its paces. Now, anyone want a seven-year old cheese grater?