Help me spend $5000: Mac Pro vs. PC. Detailed, for experts only.

Discussion in 'Buying Tips and Advice' started by mike1mike2mike3, Feb 17, 2010.

  1. mike1mike2mike3 macrumors newbie

    Jul 28, 2008
    This is a long and complicated question in hopes that there are some experts on computational issues on this forum.

    I have a $5000 (approx) budget, and somewhat specific needs for a machine. I would like to decide between a Mac Pro and a high end PC. My primary metric will be computing power per dollar, and specifically model runs per dollar over a given time. Any advice appreciated.

    Details are below. They are long partly because I don't have the skills to know precisely what's the most important bottleneck in my processes, so I give it all in hopes that someone can help here:

    I want to use the machine 1) for running Monte Carlo simulations simulations on a Windows (XP or 7) based platform, and 2) for processing large datasets in R 3) secondarily, for video editing and to have a sweet mac to use at work would be a nice bonus, but very secondary to the first.

    I prefer Macs to PCs, but the primary purpose of this machine will be to run Windows programs.

    I don't have the skills to figure out exactly what my computational bottleneck is, but I suspect the primary bottleneck is in the I/O somewhere. Processor speed helps, but isn't the critical thing. The process speeds up immensely when using a RAMDisk, and is in fact unrunnable without it. There seems to be a 100 mb/sec limit somewhere in the system on my current machines (Dell T3500 3.0 with lots of fast RAM, RAID 0, etc), but I don't know what's causing the bottleneck. My model takes about 1 hour to run a single simulation, and I'll need to do hundreds or maybe thousands on this new machine and my other cluster, so speed matters.

    One specific question is: in spending about this amount on a Mac Pro vs. Dell PC, which will get me better I/O, motherboard, etc? I can compare the various bits like RAM, Processor and see those numbers, but specs on the motherboard, which I presume matters for I/O, are rarely offered. Or does this even matter?

    Anyhow, this is a shot in the dark, as I'm not even sure I'm asking the right question, but basically where do I get more computational power per dollar, Mac Pro in Bootcamp mode, or Dell workstation? Thanks!
  2. Bennieboy© macrumors 65816


    Jan 15, 2009
    not an expert but for the money you can get a lot more machine for your money going windows based OS, if ya will to get your hands dirty and hackintosh it for the mac OS you could build a comparable machine to a mac pro for about 2K spend the rest on SSD's and such
  3. thejadedmonkey macrumors 604


    May 28, 2005
    there is no difference Mac v. PC when it comes to raw CPU speed. People like to say that macs are faster because they tend to not get bloated down as easily as Windows, however for raw CPU computation, they use the same hardware.

    So with a PC, you can afford more processing power. I'd get the PC.

    As far as the bottleneck goes, I couldn't say. Make sure you get raid again.

    P.S. Also, one of the Mac Pro models has trouble with Raid, if you do get a mac pro, make sure you don't get the one with raid issues.
  4. Transporteur macrumors 68030

    Nov 30, 2008
    The fact that your program is Windows only makes it quite easy to decide.
    Go definitely Dell!

    The Dell Precision Towers are way cheaper than the current generation Mac Pro.
    A Dell T7500 with similar hardware than the base octad Mac Pro (two 2.26 Nehalem, base graphics card, no RAID, 6GB Ram) costs about $2200. The Pro is more than $3k in the US IIRC.
  5. JavierP macrumors regular

    Mar 17, 2008
    I wouldn't throw in more hardware to solve a software problem, if I didn't determine first where the bottleneck is. Since you lack the skills to determine it, have you asked the developers/communities of the simulator/data mining soft for help?

    That's the first step, IMHO
  6. Hellhammer Moderator


    Staff Member

    Dec 10, 2008
    If you're going to run heavy Windows apps, go for the PC. Running virtualization software always slows things down and drivers for Macs aren't that good for e.g. GPUs.

    I would personally get high-clocked quad or two lower clocked quads if your software supports +4 cores. If they also support CUDA, get a powerful nVidia GPU for that.
  7. Badger^2 macrumors 68000


    Oct 29, 2009
    Are you in a hurry to buy this?

    Since Macpros are due for an update soon (less than 2 months?) -- comparing current models to PCs that already have new chips can be even more misleading

    My advice is to wait until new MPs are released, then revaluate.
  8. Jacquesass macrumors regular

    May 6, 2003
    You need a very fast Windows machine, you want a Mac. Here's what I would do:

    Mac Pro dual 2.26 Quad-core (16 logical cores)
    12GB RAM (6x2GB)
    2TB HD
    ATI Radeon HD 4870
    Magic Mouse/Keyboard/Airport Extreme

    This leaves you with ~$800 to invest in two 128GB SSD's. You use the first SSD for Snow Leopard, the second for W7. Use the 2TB HD partitioned into a data partition, a Time Machine backup partition and a W7 clone partition. You can then choose to boot into SL or W7 - or use Parallel's (or VMWare Fusion) to run Windows from within SL.

    This pricing assumes that a) you can't get the educational discount, b) you aren't willing to save money by upgrading the RAM and HD yourself, and c) you can't wait for the impending Mac Pro refresh.

    The same config is $3829 with the EDU discount - which is getting closer to being able to afford 2 ~$800 256GB SSD's.

    Personally, I would wait until the next Mac Pro refresh. You should get 2 hexa-core i7 processors (24 logical cores), cheaper RAM/HD upgrade options, better video card options - and the new SandForce-based SSD's should be out on the market (obviating the fragmentation/TRIM issues).
  9. dmr727 macrumors G3


    Dec 29, 2007
    Power to dollar, a Dell should win all day long. Since you already said that your applications heavily favor Windows, this decision is a no-brainer, at least to me. Since you also said you prefer Mac to Windows, buy a Macbook or something to use as your personal system, and leave the number crunching to something where you're not paying the design premium.
  10. Hellhammer Moderator


    Staff Member

    Dec 10, 2008
    Gulftown will cost up to 1500$ each plus "Apple tax" so 5000$ is just deposit of 12 core Mac Pro. The TDPs are also unknown for each model but dual 130W CPUs are very unlikely due heat and power consumption problems. Just my speculation though but 12-core Mac Pro won't be wallet friendly.
  11. pooky macrumors 6502

    Jun 2, 2003
    A couple of things to think about.

    R, to my knowledge, is not multi-threaded. This means that the number of cores is probably not going to matter much, but single-core performance could be very important.

    Running the thing on a RAM disk speeds up the simulation: This does imply some sort of I/O limitation. 100 MB/sec - I assume you mean Megabytes (not Mbit) - this sounds like it could be a SATA limitation. Are your current machines using SATA I controllers?

    If this is the case, it implies that you're doing a lot of swapping, which implies that you're out of RAM. You could try to tweak performance in R by using things like rm() to clean up data structures that you don't need. You can also increase the amount of RAM in the computer which may delay the point at which swapping occurs. To speed up the swapping process, you need a faster drive. Any new computer with a SATA II controller will help, and some fast SSDs will also help you out.

    As far as what to buy, you'll ultimately be able to get more if you go Dell, or if you build your own (assuming your grant/institution allows this). This is why we don't have mac pros in the lab here.

    What are you simulating?
  12. js81 macrumors 65816


    Dec 31, 2008
    Screw Dell (and Apple in this case).

    Build it yourself using one of the many easy to hackintosh Gigabyte boards and a Core i7 processor. Throw in 16+GB of RAM and either a fast SSD or striped hard drives with a dandy video card and spend around $3500 or so. Use the extra money for a vacation or something. :)

    Just my opinion, of course, and EXACTLY what I'd do in your case. PM me and I'll even give you a parts list (it'll have to be later, though - I'm at work now).

    You get the super powerful PC and you can play with Snow Leopard on the hackintosh side. Best of both worlds. :D
  13. Transporteur macrumors 68030

    Nov 30, 2008
    A single Quad Core processor is everything but NOT super powerful!

    For $5000 and the need of ultimate processing power there is definitely no way around a dual socket system with XEON processors. Preferably two hex core models, if the machine is needed now, dual Quads are the maximum you can get.
  14. wordoflife macrumors 604


    Jul 6, 2009
    Build a PC with an i7 Processor, and enough ram.
    Get an iMac to go with that too.

  15. Jacquesass macrumors regular

    May 6, 2003
    The mythical "Mac Tax" rears its head again. I tried configuring a Dell workstation as closely to the Mac Pro config in my earlier post:

    Dell Precision T5500
    Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
    Dual quad-core 2.66GHz
    12GB of 1066MHz RAM
    ATI FirePro v5700 512MB (the processor in the MP's Radeon 4870 is actually what's in the FirePro v8700 - but that's a 1GB card and $520 more expensive)
    1.5TB HD (the largest Dell will sell)
    Sound card

    It costs $4048. You save less than $200 (but get a slower video card, less HD and no wireless networking) - or pay $200 extra over the EDU discount.

    I'm not saying you can't buy a cheaper tower at Dell (you obviously can) or that this is the config the OP needs - but spec for spec, you don't pay more (if any) for a Mac Pro...that will also legally run Windows.
  16. akm3 macrumors 68020

    Nov 15, 2007
    You need a badass PC whose primary job in life is to run simulations.

    You like Macs.

    I think your best bet is to spend ~$3,000 on a very hefty PC to do the bulk of your simulations, and spend the rest on an iMac to be your actual main desktop computer. Put Windows XP on that as well, and use it to run even more simulations when you aren't using the computer.

    Two computers will be better than one, give you a mac (thus giving you a great video editing platform), and be the best of all worlds, really.

    Going parallel instead of going for one super-monster will achieve all your objectives better - the primary of which is cranking through hundreds or thousands of simulations.
  17. dmr727 macrumors G3


    Dec 29, 2007
    Well call me surprised! I guess that's proof of what everyone says about the word "Assume". :)
  18. macrumors newbie

    Feb 16, 2010
    Wait for the next Mac Pro

    For monte carlo simulations, you are definitely memory bandwidth rather than processor limited (stochastic dynamic systems are my thing).

    Is your monte carlo sim a native mac app? did you write it? Is it multi-threaded?

    If you wrote it, it is really easy to add multi-threaded to a monte carlo simulation with OpenMP. Monte carlo also benefits from the virtual cores, because chances are the shared ALU (arithmetic logic unit) is not being used at the same time, because the threads are waiting on memory.

    Anyway, the only workstation I would compare to the Mac Pro in terms of quality is the Lenovo, and it costs more than the Mac... remember, Dell makes it money on the high volume, virtually zero markup, bottom of the barrel crap, thats why their workstations tend to be priced pretty high, they don't sell much of them. If you really want a PC, stay far away from Dell, and only consider Lenovo, or HP.

    In any case, the Mac Pro is a very nice workstation, very well suited to long running simulations. The current nehalems are overpriced though (probably more Intel's fault than Apple's) So, my advice, if you got the money, and the time, wait for the Mac Pro refresh.

    BTW, R is really nice in OSX.
  19. Abyssgh0st macrumors 68000


    Jan 12, 2009
    I'd say build a PC.

    -i7 975 Extreme Processor
    -16/32GB of DDR3
    -3x 1TB 7200-10000rpm
    -160GB Intel SSD for booting
    -Dual ATI Radeon 5870
    -Windows 7 Ultimate
    -A 4TB external for backup

    Just going off of rough numbers, this would pretty much be one of the most elite setups possible, with the price limitations.
  20. Winni macrumors 68030


    Oct 15, 2008

    You're making the same mistakes that everybody makes who wants to justify Apple's prices. For a correct comparison, you also have to consider that the Dell already has a Windows license AND business support for that price, while you would still need to purchase a Windows license AND Apple Care for the Mac Pro. In the end, the price difference will be much higher than just the 200 bucks. Also, Apple does NOT officially support Windows. They just give you drivers to run it, but they won't support it. At all.

    So if you need a reliable, fully supported business machine to run Windows, an Apple machine is not going to cut it. End of story.
  21. waffle911 macrumors regular

    Dec 22, 2007
    ⇧⌥K = 
    He said he's currently using a Dell workstation, and that all the resource-intensive apps are for Windows, and that he would consider a more powerful Dell. So no, it's not a Mac native app, and he doesn't need OSX to get that stuff done.

    What he really wants is a Mac, but what he really needs is the most computing power he can get for under $5k, regardless of whether it's a Mac or a PC.

    While I would agree that Dells are pretty crappy on the consumer side, there is a very good reason for the popularity they enjoy on the corporate/enterprise side. The consumer models are made of cheap, low-margin parts, and the consumer customer support sucks. The business customer support is leaps and bounds better, and the business class machines are actually fairly reliable. Heck, both my high school and my university have tech contracts with Dell.

    Lenovo is another good brand for business applications, probably better than Dell, but generally more expensive.

    I can't say a whole lot for HP other than that their printers are generally pretty good, and on the consumer side, their computers are inferior, loaded with even more bloatware, and customer support is worse than Dell's. Customer satisfaction surveys ranked them down with Acer, E-machines and Gateway. At that point, you know you're in the bottom of the barrel. Dell surprisingly did not suffer the same fate–it was in the next tier up. But then again, this was based on consumer products.

    ...Uh, what's all that consumer-grade stuff doing in there? This isn't supposed to be a gamer's wet-dream. There's a reason why high-end workstations use server processors, multi-socket motherboards, and buffered ECC RAM, all of which is more expensive than their consumer-grade cousins which you have listed here. Win 7 Ultimate is a waste, you'd only need Professional; they don't make 10k RPM 1TB drives; and consumer-grade graphics cards really don't cut the mustard for stuff like rendering, even if they're technically the same hardware as the more expensive workstation-class cards. Pro graphics cards have highly optimized drivers and much better technical support that make up the bulk of their price, in addition to more stringent manufacturing standards. But he's not going to be using this for graphics-intensive applications now is he?

    I have a question for the OP:
    Could you please be more specific with what the hardware specs of your current workstation are? That would be more helpful in trying to narrow down where the bottleneck is, I think, and give us a base to go off of for figuring out a more potent system setup. The Precision T3500 series covers a pretty broad spectrum of hardware configurations.
  22. Abstract macrumors Penryn


    Dec 27, 2002
    Location Location Location
    Firstly, my MC sims used to take 200 hours (8 days), and this was on 10 cpu cores. That's 2000 cpu hours per simulation, and that was just the minimum I needed to get the statistics required. I could/should have run them for a few more days.

    I say build another cluster. You can do it for $4000-5000 and get way more processing power out of it.

    From my limited knowledge on MC, it depends on the type of simulation you're doing. If you're running a simulation for 1 hour, and all you're expecting is a single number to be reported back to you, then I'm not sure how much those specs matter. The specs on your RAM is important though. Also, the reliability of this RAM is important. One glitch, and your simulation may be completely messed up. Also, even if it messes up, your sim may appear to run as planned, and you wouldn't find out that your sim didn't produce the required results until it is too late. :eek:

    If your simulation constantly saves the results in a text file while it runs, then of course I/O, harddisk speed, and all connections will matter.

    My 200 hour simulations would result in 3 or 4 numbers saved within a 2 kB text file. :p I think only the speed and reliability of the RAM was important, but that was my specific situation.

    SHORT ANSWER: Dell. Do you want to rely on Boot Camp for your serious work? All Apple did was package some drivers. It's not exactly the same as a Dell, and it was never supposed to be. People on these forums regularly tell others that it's the same as having Win XP/Vista/etc, but it's not.

    IMO, you'd be better off spending an afternoon spec'ing out a homemade system of your own. Maybe have 3 PC towers, each with their own Quad-core CPU and fan, hooked up to a single desktop computer running Linux or something. It could be an old Mac or PC. Whatever. You just need a Control unit and 3 slave CPUs to send the work to.

    My department at uni once spent around $4500 Australian dollars and bought around 10 PC towers (I can't remember the exact number), each with a Core 2 Duo CPU in it (or maybe it was the original Core Duo.......I forget). The computer cases were mostly empty, since you don't really need graphics, or even a fancy harddrive when all you're telling them to do is crunch numbers. That kept costs down.

    Cooling was the only issue. :(
  23. MacVibe macrumors regular

    Dec 21, 2009
    For raw power you could put a very fast 6 or 8 node linux cluster together for $5k. But it sounds like you want a single machine to do all the heavy lifting. In that case, I'd suggest a 27" i5 or i7 as the computer you use and analyze data on, and the remaining $3k on a dell (or other) workstation running a minimum install of xp pro that is never hooked up to the internet (aside from a local area network for file sharing or remote desktop). I think you'll be frustrated trying to do anything on any machine (programming and debugging, movie editing, etc) that is pegged doing computations. Thus, you get a computer you want and a "tool" for all the large computations.
  24. mcruzader macrumors regular

    Sep 10, 2008
  25. justinfreid macrumors 6502


    Nov 24, 2009
    NEW Jersey / USA
    How are you running the simulations?
    Monte Carlos are usually CPU bound, if you've found that storage is the source of your bottleneck (which I'm inferring based on your requirement of a RAMDisk) I'd try to distribute the task across multiple machines.

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