Who's buying the Mac Pro?

So I got an email today from my Matt, my techie friend. He had been pricing Macs on the Apple Store Web site, as many of us are wont to do. For me, mobility has become paramount of late, so I generally am scoping out my ludicrously tricked out fantasy laptop. Matt has a netbook for when he travels, though, and so he was taking a look at the desktop machines, and he noticed some intriguing overlap between product lines.

Right now, the high-end iMac -- with a 2.8 GHz quad-core chip, 4 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive -- will set you back $2,199. Meanwhile, a low-end Mac Pro with a 2.66 GHz quad-core chip, 3 GB of RAM, and a 640 GB hard drive costs $300 more -- and that's without a monitor. You could add an Apple cinema display for an additional $900, but that would still be smaller and lower-res than the spiffy new 27-inch iMac's built-in monitor.

This sort of discrepancy is not unheard of, especially after one segment has just seen a refresh. And those spec comparisons aren't quite apples-to-apples: the iMac has a Core i7 chip whereas the Pro has Xeons; there's also the question of the Pro's NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 graphics card versus the iMac's ATI Radeon HD 4850, which I am extremely unqualified to answer, though for what it's worth they both have 512 MB of VRAM.

But the obvious and reasonable explanation is that Apple doesn't really expect anybody to buy the low-end configuration of the Mac Pro. The Mac Pro's target market is probably among people doing research or running render farms -- people who want to do high-end number-crunching and need tons of hard drive space. They're spending other people's money, which is good because once you really start tricking the Pros out, adding RAM and extra hard drives, you can very quickly get into five-digit territory on the price. The whole point of the machine is to be expanded, either at the factory or after market with obscure add-in boards. Nobody buys the base model Mac Pro any more than they buy a base model car, whereas even the low-end iMac is something that I'm guessing many people actually buy.

Still, it does represent a certain end of an era -- an era that I'm guessing came with decent margins for Apple. At the beginning of this decade, tower Macs were what you bought if (for good reason or not) you took yourself seriously as a computer user. Now if even hard-core enthusiasts like Matt and myself are turning to laptops and iMacs, I have to imagine that the Mac Pro niche is only getting nichier.

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