A few days ago, our hearts sank a little when we did a spec for spec virtual build of our windows version of the new Apple Mac Pro. When the dust settled, we were surprised by the significant different in price, in favour of the new Mac Pro. At $9600 US for Apple's flagship build with all the hardware options, it would cost us about $11,530 US to merely match it. But not without some compromises and uncertainty on a few of the parts selections. Of course there are ways to provide similar performance with alternate hardware. But for the same hardware, I'm afraid Apple did win this round.
But that was at the top end of the spec. And where PC DIY can be uber competitive is often at the entry level, where the strength of the platform is easy upgrades, lots of component choices, and great value for the dollar. So we decided to do this exercise again, but we'll be targeting the entry level $2999 US Apple Mac Pro this time.
Our Challenge - The Entry Level Apple Mac Pro at $2999 US
With its 3.7GHz quad core Xeon processor, 12GBs of ECC DDR3 memory, a 256GB PCI-e SSD, and dual AMD FirePro D300's (W7000'ish), there's a lot more we can do at this level than we could with the maxed out top spec Apple Mac Pro at $9600. For starters, we can decide to go with an LGA1150 socketed Xeon, or choose a single more powerful graphics card instead of two less expensive ones, to potentially save money, if we wanted to. There's just a lot more we could do with the wide range of available DIY hardware when we aren't already at the top of the spec.
But to remain true to what we set out to do in the other article, we're going to try to get as close as we can with PC spec components that are available today, to the general PC DIY public. That means that OEM hardware is out of the questions because you would lose the longer warranties associated with retail components, which gives many PC DIY builds an advantage over pre-built systems from manufacturers. Plus, you and me aren't buying 1000 pieces at a time so any pricing they would get, we would not get. However, traditionally, most PC DIY projects do end up often cheaper than having it built for us.
This time, we're also going to ditch trying to go small, and just focus on matching spec. Even if it might cost us a few dollars more (but hopefully less). Let's see what we can do here!
Enclosure/Power Supply - Corsair Carbide 200R Compact ATX
The Corsair Carbide 200R is one of the smallest ATX cases you can find that is capable of handling longer graphics cards. Originally, we wanted to use the Rosewill Rise, which was an ATX enclosure that completely removed all drive bays on the front of the case, opting for SSD placement behind the motherboard tray, making it quite small. But since that case is still not on the market, we opted for this one instead which retails for around $59.99 US.
For the power supply, we decided to pick out the Silverstone Strider Gold S 850W (80PLUS Gold) power supply. It's small size (150mm depth) and modular design fits the bill for around $159.99 US. So already, we're doing pretty good, saving a few dollars over our previous build.
Motherboard - ASUS P9X79 WS
There's no point in trying to match the Mac Pro's highly modded enclosure. We found out how futile that was when trying to go with an mATX board. We lost verified compatibility with the 12 core Xeon and we could no longer use ECC memory, not to mention, less of it. So we're going to try to match this machine spec for spec instead and the ASUS P9X79 WS is a great foundation with support for all Xeon processors and ECC memory with 8 DIMM slots to spare. We also get enough PCIe slots to mount two workstation GPUs and room left for the PCIe SSD that we ran out of room for in the previous top spec build. Unlike some of the dedicated workstation boards on the market, which are great by the way, you get many consumer oriented features in software and hardware that makes the user experience a little nicer.
The board will cost you around $379.99 US and is well verified for use with a wide range of professional level components.
Option: For additional cost savings, one could go for a workstation board based on an LGA1150 socket and an E5 series Xeon Quad Core CPU with the same clock speed. Keep in mind that this does limit you to quad core upgrades only and for the forseeable future. If you want more cores, you should stick with LGA2011. On the board alone, you're looking about $100 saved, but you lose that upgradeability to more cores.
Let's start plugging parts into our board and enclosure.