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With the latest multi-core processors and larger amounts of memory, MacBook Pros, iMacs and even MacMinis are looking like viable replacements for at least the lower end of the MacPro line for some. But One thing the Macpro has always had was easy expansion. Want extra SATA drives on anything but a MacPro? Well, you can have your iMac altered by OtherWorldComputing, or get a kit for youMacMini from them, but that sort of thing isn’t for everyone. You can add disk via USB or FireWire, but those are both pretty slow by today’s standards

With the advent of Thunderbolt technology, several new add-ons will be coming out soon, that let you add large RAID arrays, ExpressCard/34 adapters, PCI cards (like upgraded graphics cards, something new for iMac/MacMini/laptop users) and even specialized video capture hardware (either as a PCI card or in a separate piece of hardware).

Sure, these peripheral will cost more than internal solutions in a MacPro – and not all will be as fast. But if you don’t quite need all the speed of  MacPro, and don’t want to dedicate the large tower space and pony up for the not-insiginficant power consumption of a tower, then a Mini/iMac/MacBook Pro might start to look like a good value.

For example – the video capture device I mentioned above, the Black Magic Design Intensity will be going for $299. That’s $100 more than the internal version. But to use the internal, you’d need a PCI slot, which means buying a tower. If you go for a low-end tower, you can get the 2.8 Ghz quad core Xeon for $2499. That comes with 3 GB of memory. You can go up to 16 GB by buying from a third party, like OtherWorld, for $165. So for $2655 you can have a fairly powerful machine, and for $200 more ($2855) you can have your video capture card.

If you go with a top of the line iMac, with a quad core i7 at 3.4 Ghz, a 27″ screen, and 4 GB of memory, for $2299. If you want to go to 16 GB, you can do that from OWC for $135. Then add in $300 for the external capture device, and you’re at $2725. For $130 less, you get a 27″ monitor thrown in! Of course, the Xeon in the MacPro will aways be faster, right? Well…no. Take a look at the Bare Feats site, where they compare the i7 iMac to a MacPro with 6 core 3.33 Ghz Xeons (with, by the way, costs an extra $1200). In some tests the MacPro wins, in others the iMac ties or wins. So it should come off looking pretty good against a quad core 2.8 Ghz Xeon.

Maybe you don’t need a monitor – you already have one. You can go with the top of the line MacMini ($999), which has a 2.0 Ghz quad core i7, a 500 GB disk drive instead of the 1 TB drives in the MacPro and iMacs, and 4 GB of memory. Crank the memory to 16 GB (the max Apple says you can use is 8, but OWC will sell you 16) for $880 (ouch!) and you’re at $1879. Add $300 for your capture card, and you are at $2179. A bit over $500 cheaper than the iMac, but here I think you’ll notice the speed difference, so if speed is important, you’ll want to go up to the iMac.

For many years people have wanted a “cheaper tower” option. With the new Thunderbolt gear coming out, I think that day may be here, sort of. If you need raw speed and more processors, then the MacPro is the way to go, but if you can get by with a slightly slower system, you might find the new Thunderbolt system can be a good value.

In a few years, I very well might not replace my MacPro with a tower – an iMac might be plenty. Sorry, MacPro…


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