Should I Buy a New Mac Pro or an Old One?

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Let’s face it; the new Mac Pro is super-cool looking. Barely larger than a stack of 100 DVDs, it packs incredible power in a small form factor. It’s clearly the wave of the future, especially when you consider the dual Thunderbolt 2 busses with 6 ports. It’s smaller, faster and really not more expensive than the outgoing models. And instead of waiting to buy one in a few weeks (Apple said December…), I went with an older model when upgrading our video capture/edit station. Why?

Black Friday.

One big reason was that I got a screaming deal from OWC on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. They had a pre-Black Friday sale with a deal too good to pass up. I ended up with a refub 2009 model Mac Pro with a Quad Core 2.93 GHz processor, a 240 GB SSD, a 1 TB spinning disk and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 graphics card. That’s replacing a 2006 (original Mac Pro) 2.66 Quad Core. While it may not look like a big upgrade, the difference between the old Woodcrest and the newer Bloomfield chips is significant. In fact, the newer one benchmarks about 3 times faster than the old one; and it feels that way. With free shipping, the new Mac Pro was just a few dollars over $1,500; half the cost of a new Mac Pro. But it doesn’t end there.

Everything has to be new.

While I like buying new stuff, when I totaled up all that we need to buy to convert to the new Mac Pro, it started getting expensive. We currently have two Blackmagic capture cards in our system; one for video capture and one to drive ScopeBox (program and preview respectively). We are also running an external  e-SATA RAID 5 capture disk. That gives me more than enough speed to safely capture 1080i in ProRes. So how does any of that work with a new Mac Pro?

Expensively. We would either have to buy an external PCI-e chassis that connects via Thunderbolt (roughly $1,000) or buy two new Thunderbolt capture boxes (roughly $1,000-2,000). In both cases, our options are limited, though there are enough out there to get the job done. We would also need to pick up a Thunderbolt to e-SATA adapter ($175).

So by the time it’s all said and done, we’re looking at at least $1,200 and probably closer to $1,500-2000 on top of the cost of the new Mac Pro—which when configured the way I want it will be at least $3,500. So when it came down to a choice between $5,000+ and $1,500, it was a pretty easy decision. Especially when I can use the $3,000 I saved to buy new viewfinders for our cameras. 

Cheaper is not always better, but this time it is.

Those who know me know I don’t always advocate for the cheaper solution. In fact, I almost never do. But in this case it made more sense. I can score a big performance update—the faster processor, newer architecture and SSD make FCPX feel very snappy indeed—at a minimal cost. We will be able to get at least 2 if not 3-4 years out of this Mac Pro before we need to upgrade again, and by then the Thunderbolt ecosystem will have developed significantly. 

The point of this story is to simply say that it is important to weigh the options before plunging into an upgrade. Sometimes the latest and greatest makes sense, and when it does, go for it. Other times, buying something a few years old is a better value, especially if it will do what we need it to do. In this case, I’m even keeping the old Mac Pro around as a render node, so it will speed up rendering even more. 

This Mac will cost us about $500/yr. assuming a 3 year service life. That’s not bad at all. In 3 years, we’ll have a better idea of what we’re doing with video (it’s a bit up in the air anyway right now), and the industry should have settled some of the interface stuff out. 

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And on it’s first weekend out, without even finishing the configuration and optimization, the new Mac Pro cut a full hour off my render/upload time, and probably 20 minutes from my edit time. That works for me!

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