This article originally appeared at MusicPlayers.com in 2016 (original post here). It has been updated here to reflect changes in the marketplace today.
The creative professional, at a business level, is no longer even remotely relevant to Apple.
Like most audio professionals, there’s a good chance you’ve built your studio around the Apple Mac Pro: not the 2013 cylindrical design, but the aluminum tower that came into full stride between 2009-2012. It had multiple drive bays, held lots of RAM, could house two DVD SuperDrives, had Intel Xeon processors, Firewire 800, and PCIe slots. Over the years, you could make easy upgrades to the system, the most common being replacing slow hard drives with modern solid-state devices and increasing the amount of RAM (see this MusicPlayers.com tutorial on Mac Pro Upgrades).
But the “new” Mac Pro (2013) left most audio pros underwhelmed: no internal storage other than the boot volume. Before you even begin to use one, you’ve got to spend additional money just for hard drive storage enclosures, external chassis for PCIe cards, an external SuperDrive, etc. Rather than the understated elegance of a compact cylinder on your desktop (or under it), you end up with a collection of dust-gathering boxes. And if you go the iMac route (a better value proposition by far), you’ll have the same mess of cables and boxes and docks and such on your desktop.
Further, the 2013 Mac Pro is not only overpriced and underpowered by a wide margin when compared to alternatives, but it didn’t seen any meaningful updates since its introduction in 2013. Apple killed it off in 2016, apologizing to pros for the mistake, and said they would be back with a better solution soon. Finally in June 2019, Apple introduced their next “new” Mac Pro. But with a starting price of $5,999 and an actual price of closer to $7,000 when configured in a useful starting configuration, this is not the machine for most customers.
We’ve been talking with music pros for the past few years about this serious dilemma: what to do now that the Mac Pro is no longer a compelling upgrade for the studio? Buy an iMac? If you must stick with a Mac, it provides a far better value proposition (see this article on the 2019 State of the Mac for help picking the right system today).
Times have changed, and Apple has changed. It’s time you wake up and face the new reality: Apple is not the tech company we all fell in love with a decade or more ago. Apple Inc. is a consumer products company; not a computer company. A consumer products company.
I have to talk business economics for just a moment in order to get through to you Mac zealots, so please bear with me. Long-time Mac fans probably (still) think of the company as Apple Computer Inc., however the name changed way back in January of 2007 to reflect “the company’s newfound emphasis on consumer electronics,” according to late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. You can’t even blame current CEO, Tim Cook, for the shift—it actually started under Jobs’ watch, though the change in focus has probably moved the needle so far in the wrong direction that Jobs is rolling over in his grave.
Apple’s newsworthy areas of investment and innovation these days are: Smartphones, tablets, television content and streaming media services, and automobile technology. Apple rarely talks about computers anymore, other than periodic MacBook and iMac updates. Apple’s quarterly financial results describe Apple Inc. as “having revolutionized personal technology with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984.” Not “revolutionized personal computer technology” as they used to write. Apple’s marketing people have re-worded history and removed the word computer from their financial documents!
Historically, Apple revolutionized personal computer technology. But in Apple-speak, the word computer is bad. They are distancing themselves as far as possible from that word. This move is subtle, yet it speaks volumes about the company you think is your almighty studio computer maker. In reviewing multiple recent financial reports while preparing this feature, there was no mention at all of computers. And as of this past year, in 2018, sales of all Macintosh products accounted for only 10% of Apple’s revenue. If you narrow your focus to “serious musicians and recording professionals,” we probably account for no more than 5% of those Mac sales. Barely a blip on the bottom line.
The sooner you get it in your head that Apple Inc. is a consumer products company—and not a computer company, the sooner you can come to terms with reality: the creative professional, at a business level, is barely important to Apple. We account for the smallest fraction of their computer customers. The world according to Apple is mobile, or, you are a budding videographer with a 4k GoPro camera who needs to edit movies for YouTube on an iMac. That’s just the way it is today. So if you depend on a computer at the heart of your creative business (studio digital audio workstation, music creation, etc.), it makes real sense to consider buying your next computer from a company that focuses on building desktop computers and workstations optimized for audio production… like Different PC! Unless, of course, you think a cell phone and streaming media company cares more about your creative output.
The Value Proposition No Longer Exists
Maybe you don’t care about all this business mumbo jumbo. You love the Macintosh, you love the Mac OS X operating system, and you just can’t imagine a Windows world. Well, we have to revisit the value proposition, because things have changed well past the point of reasonable.
Apple products have historically commanded a price premium over PC offerings, but you were assured of a reasonably powerful computer with a bug-free and virus-free operating system for just a few hundred dollars premium over the PC options. Up until a few years ago, the value proposition was sound, and it was worth spending more to get a suitable Apple solution, because OS X is a beautiful and highly functional operating system. In the past, I would gladly spend $750-$1,000 extra for an Apple solution if it had the performance I desired. But Apple is not providing this kind of value proposition anymore.
The new Mac Pro starts at $5,999 without a keyboard, mouse, or display, and that’s with inadequate internal storage (just 256GB of non-user-upgradeable storage). Your real starting price with a storage upgrade, AppleCare, and sales tax is closer to $7,000, and you’ll still need a display and external storage, because the new tower is not actually designed to accommodate loading up with SSDs and hard drives like the classic Mac Pro (2009-2012).
The new Mac Pro is purpose built for high-end video production studios who will expand it into the stratosphere, with more RAM and CPU cores than would ever make sense for audio production. I’ll speculate now that the average purchase price will be in the $15,000-$35,000 range with different CPU and storage options, because the base configuration is extremely underpowered for what the box is capable of, and horribly overpriced compared to PCs with a similar configuration. You can purchase a Different PC workstation that benchmarks 26% faster than the base Mac Pro for $3,000 less, loaded up with more than enough storage to start making records right out of the box.
The Power of the Dark Side
It’s just too hard to justify purchasing a new Mac Pro for our studio, but maybe it still makes sense for you. So, what do you get when you explore the PC side of things? Now, here’s where things get interesting. You have… options!
You can buy PCs that blow away the performance specs of Apple’s Mac Pro for roughly half the cost. In all cases that we explored, these machines are available in tower configurations similar in size (or smaller) to your beloved, 2009-2012 Mac Pro, with far greater expansion possibilities. A decade ago, the myriad options on the PC side of things were problematic, with horror stories about conflicting device drivers and installation nightmares. But you probably haven’t looked at the Windows since then, and those fears are no longer justified. In fact, today, we’re drawn to the advantages of infinite expandability and upgradability. Upgrade your CPU, upgrade your video card, add a whole new motherboard, whatever and whenever, while keeping your drives and data intact. That sounds quite nice.
“But it runs Windows!” “I love the Mac OS!” I hear your collective groans, and I’m sure you’re thinking about blue screens of death, viruses, and maybe the bits and pieces you heard about the whole Windows 8 debacle. I have news for you: Windows 10 is actually quite powerful, very secure (Macs are no longer islands of safety these days), and is a vast improvement over Windows 7/8 and XP. Knock on wood, but I don’t recall the last time I experienced a blue screen while working on my Windows 10 PC. I do recall getting a kernel panic crash on my iMac, though.
Back to the Value Proposition
So let me ask you? Is a new Mac Pro really worth $7,000 to you when you can run the same software (Pro Tools, Studio One Pro, Live, etc.) and other familiar applications on a machine that is vastly superior in nearly every technical way, that will only cost you between $2,500 and $3,500? There is simply no way to justify paying the current premium for a high-end Apple computer, because the only thing high-end about Apple’s solutions for the audio professional is the price. And an all-in-one solution like an iMac doesn’t make sense if you value a safe, uncluttered, professional, desktop experience.
As it stands today, the Apple price isn’t just a slight premium. It’s an absurd premium.
I have been an Apple loyalist for years, and have fought the good fight compelling PC users to make the switch to the Macintosh platform for decades. Steve Wozniak co-founded one of the startups I worked for in Silicon Valley in his post-Apple days (along with other Apple execs) and was on the board of my next employer. I am a product of Apple culture, quite literally. I still use my MacBook Pro laptop for music creation (it runs MainStage). But I don’t run my recording studio off a laptop, and neither do you. So when it’s time to upgrade your studio’s aging computer—the machine at the heart of your studio/business, can you still justify spending for the Apple solution? Does running OS X mean so much to you that you would spend twice the price for a fraction of the performance when most of your software choices are virtually identical between Windows and the Mac OS?
We took a long, hard look at this quandary at MusicPlayers.com, and debated our own path for months as we analyzed the situation from every angle. We spoke with people in Apple Inc.’s PR department and with colleagues at some of the largest audio hardware and software companies to make sure that our perspective was sound. And in the end, we had to make peace with the reality: Apple is a great company that excels at many things, but they are no longer a great computer manufacturer when it comes to performance. Today, your best choice for a high-end computer in the music production/recording studio is probably one that runs Windows. In fact, choosing Apple to run your studio today is probably one of the most illogical and costly mistakes you could make.
Unless your primary audio applications are Apple’s Logic Pro and GarageBand, your studio’s next Macintosh may very well be a PC running Windows. And, that’s ok. The journey back is easier than you think. Thankfully, your options in the PC world have improved remarkably since you first jumped on the Apple bandwagon years ago, and Different PC can build you the right system to make your transition back easier than ever before.