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Architosh publishes Mac professional workstation survey results

In this special feature report, Architosh publishes the results of its first workstation survey conducted in late 2014 and aimed at understanding the pro (professional) desktop needs of numerous customers Apple refers to as Mac pros. Not to be confused with the product Mac Pro, today Apple’s Mac pros work across its iMac range in numerous industries, including and importantly to this publication, the Architecture industry.

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Participant Feedback and Architosh Conclusions

Survey participants offered tremendous feedback beyond just the interview participants—far too much to share here in this report. However, we want to provide a sampling of some of the excellent feedback. Architosh will be publishing a separate, more in-depth, PDF version of this study and will be sending it out to all those who took the study and provided us an email address. We will also provide a way for those who read Architosh, who don’t fall into that group, to obtain the PDF report as well.

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Additionally, we will publish further related, analysis information on this study on Architosh in the weeks ahead. The following comments are a sampling of the feedback and are organized into some popular survey themes.

The iMac is Great for Architecture Pros

Architect Eric Batte, AIA, wrote:

“I’m a beta tester site for Graphisoft (ArchiCAD) and consulted with them directly prior to purchasing our first Macs. Previously we ran Windows on PCs until 2010. Since ArchiCAD is our primary software this was the driving force in our hardware selection. ArchiCAD makes more use of the CPU and the hard drive during processing and so and advanced, workstation grade graphics card is of little benefit. Therefore, we opted for quad-core processors and SSDs since switching to iMacs for the standard workstation.”

“Additionally, we appreciate that they are silent, have great wireless keyboards and mice. We enjoy the Magic Mouse touch surface as well as a general interface even though it doesn’t offer many advantages in ArchiCAD directly. The monitor size and general appearance is also fantastic.”

This author asked Eric Batte what it would take for his firm to adopt the new Mac Pro instead. His response follows:

“For the price-to-performace the iMac is a great choice. Currently, I think the Mac Pro plus a Thunderbolt monitor would practically double our cost and we would not realize a tremendous productivity gain in exchange for the additional money spent. So, although the Mac Pro is a great piece of hardware I think it would ultimately be a price drop OR a software driven requirement for us to prefer the Mac Pro.”

Interestingly, prior to the introduction of the iMac Retina (latest iMac) this author asked Eric what would could constitute an iMac Pro. He felt an even larger screen or a Retina display. He confessed concern about access to a GPU component for example or any such complexity as it would raise the price and not provide immediate benefit for their ArchiCAD BIM workflow.

Jeff Bushman, an architect with BDArchitects also spoke favorably about the iMac for his architecture firm. When asked why they choose iMacs his reply centered on ease of management, performance and price range:

We buy iMacs and run them into the ground – getting three years of useful life out of them. We like the consolidated design because fewer parts and connections to worry about – and we don’t run them so awful hard that we’re constantly upgrading CPU’s for example, which would argue for a separate monitor.

We know they aren’t the fastest, but they are certainly good enough for us.

Historically we have conditioned ourselves to spend in the $3,000 range for a new iMac, with maximum ram, the fastest processor, and maybe a faster drive. Hitting this metric gets easier with each passing year.

Entry-level MacPro is I think $3k without monitor and accessories so easily $4k before done. It’s a sweet machine, though!

While the iMac may be great for Architecture pros it isn’t for all of them. When it doesn’t fit them the primary reasons tend to be practical considerations that affect their workflow. Common examples are architects who have a developed rendering pipeline and investment in software that benefits from many CPU or GPU cores or dual GPU cards.

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Regardless, many are opting to use the iMac in Architecture and a lot of it is about price. The Mac Pro’s extra grand, once a monitor is thrown in, must justify itself and one way it can is with software workflows that include rendering times, which can be shorter with 6-core Xeons and programs that benefit from the more powerful GPUs and dual GPUs.

Cost Sensitive Considerations in Architecture: Mac versus PC

In the survey we ran across several interviews and comments that made mention of the perceived cost differentials of Macs versus PCs. Some favoring PCs may argue that in the Windows world that gap that exists between the iMacs and Mac Pros doesn’t even exist. On some level this is true. In the PC world an architect can configure a BOXX unit for Revit for example and benefit from the fast i7 processor but also be kitted out with dual GPU cards—something that is not a possible scenario for the Mac Pro or iMac.

Because this is really an issue for some, we have decided to study this gap issue more closely. Others don’t feel that the issue holds weight due to the fact that Macs are actually, in their minds, cheaper to own long term.

Architect Steven Janeway of Poiesis Architecture put it this way:

The Mac’s tend to be percieved as having a higher price tag, but I find that a dubious perception resultant of the PC world’s sales strategy, because whenever we try to build a PC to meet the Mac’s specs to achieve similar performance characteristics, the PC tends to be as much or more expensive than the Mac!!  Also the Mac’s tend to have a longer half-life than the PC’s just because they are higher performing and hand-down over an much extended period of time.  We also tend to own Mac’s and lease PC’s for this very reason because its an economic benefit.  

Steven’s comments are not unique among those in the know. They certainly deserve to be explored in more concrete detail and perhaps that is something Architosh can set about doing in the near future. We’ll end this topic with another quote along these lines, this time by scientists Nicola Losito of Italy:

The quality and performance of Mac allows us to have such a 5 year cycle which speaks in favor since we have limited resources for renewal of hardware. Of course for clients the life-span is longer, in administration office we have iMacs running since 2009 and in the so-called “wet” lab we have some PowerMacs pre-2001 running with dedicated lab tools.

New Mac Pro – Views

We received a lot of views on the new Mac Pro, especially in the Comments box in the survey itself. While the comments are mixed, some of the sharper criticisms are similar to a Viewpoint by Akiko Ashley we published not too long ago.

MORE: Viewpoint: Mac Pro, What Does Apple Mean by Pro? A View from a Professional in 3D, Animation, VFX and Video Games

Of course, pro users are still wanting to get one. And from our numbers in the report, 6 out of 10 participants said the Mac Pro meets their ideal pro desktop needs…needs similar to 3D artists Jeffrey Tomaka, in New York City. He writes:

“I do plan on purchasing a new Mac Pro next year sometime after the next iteration. I don’t approve of the fixed GPU option but I will order the dual AMD Fire cards with 6GB each for longevity. Also, because of the compact size of the new Mac Pro, I can keep my old 3,1 workstation long enough to see what develops next.”

Jeffrey uses Ashlar Cobalt 8, Autodessys formZ 8, and Autodesk Maya 2014 in a workflow that runs on his aging Mac Pro 3,1 machine with a BOXX RenderPRO for finish rendering that sits on top of the old Mac Pro. He writes:

“I prefer a dual CPU option in order to make test rendering setup much more efficient and to have the ability to add another workstation to the mini render farm when not in use.”

“I use Nvidia Mental Ray (Maya) for all finished rendering.  I don’t know what the maximum number of cores Mental Ray is limited to, but it always uses the 16 available in the BOXX RenderPRO.  I associate more CPU cores with faster rendering times.”

Mr. Tomaka’s input in the survey is invaluable because it exposes the strengths and weaknesses of Apple’s gear.

The following quotes are from survey input comment fields, associated with many participants. They all touch on the Mac Pro on some level.

“6 core very high frequency is the ideal CPU for my mixed CAD and 3D viz apps.” 

While we made the comment that there is a lack of understanding among many of the participants in the Architecture market (due to their interest in 8-12 core CPUs) some of them are very aware of all the technical issues.

“Software for architectural professions, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, need to be upgraded to take advantage of the multiple cores and GPU’s in the Mac Pro to make that computer worth the money. Otherwise, the iMac is actually faster because of it’s faster single CPU.”

And from another reader with a deft understanding of the facts:

“The computers are better than the software and IO devices right now…those are where the major speed bottlenecks are happening.”

Indeed, if folks reading our reviews over the past few years may recall, many updates are just now adding the multithreading to various software components to make their programs run much faster. Or they have just bumped up to full 64-bit throughout the app.

“The ‘solid state’ Mac Pro is a nice change, but it’s also a huge step backwards. A desk covered with cables and external drives .. why?”

And…

“The price of the current MacPro is a little steep. But I do like the compacted size. If I was to only require a desktop then the Mac Pro would be what I would want to have.”

And…

“The Mac’s are typically more high performing straight out the box than all the customization we have done to regular PC’s. And the cost (the usual rap on Apple) is negligible once you compare a customized truly comparable PC to the Mac. The new Black Mac Pro’s look very promising for performance at any cost. The Mac laptops run circles around any PC version we have ever had regardless of brand.”

And…

“Apple needs to approach pro users differently than consumers if they expect to retain loyalty. One size does not fit all. As a designer, I appreciate the new look and compact form factor of the new MacPro, but not at the expense of power and expandability. Can a computer truly be considered “Professional” without a dual cpu option? A pro user will gladly sacrifice a little space (larger footprint) for more power options. With the release of the latest Mac Pro, I am now forced to consider migrating to Windows exclusively. I would prefer not to switch, but Apple is making it a clearer choice.”

Dreams and Something for Apple to Think About

Typical of such surveys with an open comment box, we got a lot of interesting stuff sent in. Some of it quite good and worth mentioning.

“A Bootcamp type of solution (no software emulation) that allows fast switching.”

This author has often thought about such a thing. It would be the cat’s meow! Another participant said this:

“Apple should design its own high-end processors!”

If so, the company would need a basis for a design with a license. Today Apple has that with ARM, and the A-series chips in the iOS devices are Apple’s unique chip designs. However, ARM chips, though remarkably powerful for their energy output, are not as powerful as Intel iron at desktop wattages.

“We desperately need parametric modeling like SolidWorks on the Mac desktop!!!!”

We had something to say about this recently on Architosh.

“It would be great to have a PRO line of iMacs!”

This has been a thought here on Architosh before. The question is, what would constitute such a machine as deserving the “Pro” moniker. Perhaps it should be iMac Plus? Or is it just the new iMac Retina?

Architosh Conclusions

From the data and the extensive comments and interviews conducted during the fall and early winter of 2014, we want to offer readers a series of key conclusions. We also want to make sure readers understand that a more in-depth PDF version of this report will be available in the weeks ahead. That fuller version will include nearly all the interview data, plus more comments and a deeper analysis. We will announce the availability date soon.

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Importantly, Architosh wants to explore the topic of what constitutes the “pro” desktop for these markets. A future feature will explore ideas around future Mac computer series that adapt the current lines in such a way as to close the few but critical gaps we and participants see in the lineup. These gaps are marked by a “less-than-ideal” fit in terms of software workflows fitting hardware as compared to what can be configured on the Windows side of the market.

Key Conclusions

  1.  Apple’s new Mac Pro finally delivers the necessary workstation class graphics at a range well suited to the diversity of its pro desktop users, particularly befitting to both 3D/VFX and Film professionals who need dual, high-end or dual, ultra high-end GPU cards. As can be seen in the “GPU per Industry” chart (image 16) real Mac pro customers have workflows just as diverse as Windows uses and require a respectable range of options. Apple needs to address range span weaknesses by targeting the iMac line that is used by many professionals, particularly in the Architecture, Engineering and Science & Medicine markets. (go to page 4 for chart 16 in separate tab here)
  2. Apple needs to engineer a dual-CPU option for the Mac Pro. The evidence is clear in our data, Mac professionals, particularly in the 3D/VFX and Film industries, desire and need systems with 24 to 32 or more cores. You cannot build systems to compete with Windows workstation makers if you don’t put in dual CPU capabilities. As the “CPU per Industry” chart (image 17) shows, nearly 50 percent wish or need 24 cores or more in their next Mac pro desktop. (go to page 4 for chart 17 in separate tab here)
  3. The iMac computer line is increasingly seen as the most cost effective for the bulk of staff in the Architecture industry. This is a big change from several years ago when the iMac was largely considered way too consumer (under powered).
  4. Multi-monitors seem to be increasingly important. Apple should do more research in this area and begin producing more Cinema Displays at more reasonable cost points. A display that matches the look and size of the iMac would allow the vast number of architects who want to work with 2 displays to have an ideal setup.
  5. Apple should develop the ability for the GPU on the Mac Pro to be upgraded. Such engineering effort could then allow third-party GPU makers to make options, such as a CUDA capable GPU from Nvidia or an OEM licensee.

For more information about our Mac pro desktop workstation survey and the data, and for obtaining the fuller PDF report in the near future, please feel free to email in at: [email protected]. Please comment below with your thoughts and concerns and please also share this report with those who you think will find it interesting. Thanks!

Postscript: Mac Workstation Survey for Mac Pros Remains Open [added 2 Feb 2015]

Although this 2014 study has concluded our actual survey remains open and we encourage readers to consider taking it so we can continue to compile useful data to share with the market. It remains our utmost concern that Apple understands the diversity and complexity of its pro users and finds the best paths towards efficiently serving the pro markets with flexible hardware options from effectively two key desktop lines.

Jump here to take the survey and contribute to the cause. Thanks!

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