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Apple Mac Pro vs Falcon Northwest Talon: Which is the better super-charged desktop?

Falcon Northwest, founded in 1993, is among the most experienced high-end PC makers in the world. The company’s reputation among gamers is almost legendary, but not every system shipped from the company’s Medford, Oregon office ends up in a mancave. Some live more productive lives as powerful, easy-to-upgrade workstations.

This made us wonder; can a Falcon Northwest system stand up to the revamped Mac Pro? To find out, we decided to pit the Talon, which we recently reviewed and loved, against Mac’s tiny black cylinder. Here’s how they stacked up against one another.

The Combatants

Judging desktop PCs can be tricky because high levels of customization are common. An incredibly powerful, high-end version of one system could dominate a competitor, yet it could also offer less value if it’s priced too high. To keep this contest fair, we targeted a $3,000 price point, as this is the price of a base Mac Pro and the price of the Talon we recently reviewed.

Processor: Talon wins

Even the cheapest Mac Pro comes with an impressive Intel Xeon quad-core CPU boasting a base clock speed of 3.6 GHz and a maximum Turbo Boost clock of 3.8 GHz. This is one beefy chip, and since it’s a Xeon, it represents Intel’s best.

However, the Mac Pro’s Xeon processor can’t be overclocked, and the Mac Pro would make a poor platform for overclocking even if it were possible. Falcon Northwest, on the other hand, makes will tack on an extra $50 charge for shipping you a Talon with an overclocked CPU. This affordable service bumped our test system’s Core i7-4770K processor from a maximum clock speed of 3.5 GHz to 4.5 GHz, giving it a clear performance advantage.

This contest would be tight if the Talon’s CPU ran at stock speeds, but overclocking turns this close race into a blowout that favors Falcon in this round.

Video card: Talon wins

The Talon we reviewed boasted an Nvidia GTX 780 Ti, one of the most powerful single-GPU video cards ever produced. The Mac Pro, on the other hand, uses a pair of FirePro D300 video cards.

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These are different cards, built for different purposes, running on different operating systems, so a direct comparison is difficult to make. Still, there are a few specifications we can use to see how these competitors stack up.

Apple wins in the raw memory department, as the FirePros pack 2GB of GDDR5 RAM each, which adds up to a gigabyte more than the 3GB found in the GTX 780 Ti. But there’s a catch; the FirePros have a narrower memory interface, so while they offer more raw memory, their throughput of 160 GB/s can’t match the GTX 780 Ti’s 336 GB/s.

The Talon’s video card also offers just over five teraflops of single-precision compute performance, while the FirePros manage just under 2.2 – a big gap, to be sure. The GTX 780 Ti even serves up 210 gigaflops of double-precision computer power, 50 more than the D300’s 160 gigaflops. While the Mac is no slouch, the Talon clearly has an advantage here.

Storage: Talon wins

One of the Mac Pro’s best features is its PCI-Express solid state storage, which can exceed transfer speeds of 1GB/s. That’s astoundingly quick, but it comes with a big downside; limited space.

The standard $3,000 Mac comes with a 256GB SSD. That’s laughably small, and will force most users into the hassle of connecting one or more external drives to it. You can configure the Mac Pro to ship with a 1TB PCI-Express SSD, but that isn’t enough for anyone who regularly works with large image files or HD video, which is precisely the market that Apple target with the Mac Pro.

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Falcon’s Talon, on the other hand, can be configured in a variety of ways from a storage standpoint. Our review unit came with two 240GB SATA SSDs and a 3TB mechanical drive, for a total of about 3.5 GB of storage. You could also outfit a Talon with a multitude of storage combinations, like a single SSD and a pair of large mechanical drives, or you could go hog-wild and buy the biggest of everything, which gives you about 10 GB of total storage straight from the factory.

No, the Talon can’t match the Pro’s transfer speeds, but it is possible to offer too much of a good thing. The Mac’s lack of internal storage is easily its biggest handicap.

Memory: Talon wins

The base model Mac Pro comes with 12 GB of RAM, while our Talon shipped with 16 GB of RAM , giving it an obvious advantage. Both can be upgraded to a maximum of 64GB, but buying additional RAM for the Talon is less expensive.

Design and ease of upgrade: Talon wins

One look at the Mac Pro’s futuristic, cylindrical shape tells you that it’s something special. Apple somehow managed to cram the hardware normally contained by a two-foot-tall tower PC into a tube that’s barely 10 inches tall and 6 inches wide, and they did so with only a single system fan, which means that the Mac produces very little noise.

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That’s amazing, but again, the Mac’s excellence is dulled by a huge flaw. Packing so much hardware into a small space requires a lot of custom engineering, so upgrading and repairing the Mac Pro is not easy. Only the RAM can be easily upgraded. The SSD isn’t hard to access, but aftermarket replacements aren’t available, and the GPU suffers from the same issue. Replacing the CPU is possible, but only by completely tearing down the Pro, a task that’s likely well beyond the ability of most owners.

Though the Talon looks a bit drab, on the other hand, it’s incredibly easy to work with. Removing the side panel is a matter of twisting out two thumb screws. Doing so lays the internals bare, and everything is exactly where you’d expect. Hard drives slide out of their tool-less bays, RAM is unobstructed, and the video card can be swapped out in five minutes. Even the processor is directly accessible once its cooling is removed.

Warranty and support: Tie

Both the Falcon Northwest Talon and the Mac Pro come with a one-year standard warranty. Most of the details are similar. Parts, labor and shipping are covered for the duration, but the user can also opt to try home repair if they feel confident in their abilities.

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There are two differences, however. Apple has retail locations, so it’s possible for buyers to walk in and have their system fixed. This can be convenient if the problem is a small repair or user error. Falcon counters with a 30-day money back guarantee and lifetime technical support. You can call Falcon for help with diagnosing a problem well after the one-year warranty expires. Apple, on the other hand, discontinues phone support after just 90 days.

Both companies offer a three-year extended warranty. The warranty is $249 for the Mac Pro, but only $195 for the Talon. The terms are otherwise similar, so Falcon provides better value, but the convenience of Apple’s retail locations are an equalizer.

A clean sweep

We can’t remember the last time a contest like this has been so one-sided. The Talon defeats the Mac Pro in every category except warranty coverage, and even there, the two are neck and neck. In some categories, like processor performance and storage, the contest isn’t even close. Falcon bulldozes Apple without breaking a sweat.

This is not to say that the Mac Pro is a horrible rig. Apple’s engineers deserve a round of applause for shrinking a big, noisy workstation down into a compact, quiet cylinder. But people who buy high-end workstations need power, both now and in the future, and it’s clear the Mac Pro is deficient in some areas.

The Talon is faster right now, and it can be upgraded to improve its performance in the future. Apple’s entry, on the other hand, is a disposable computer. There’s not much to do aside from adding RAM, as all other upgrades are impossible, prohibitively expensive, or too difficult for an average user to handle. Buying a Mac Pro is like buying a very nice blender; it’s an appliance that does its job extremely well, but when it breaks or becomes obsolete, there’s little for you to do except buy a new one.

And remember; while both of these systems sell for $3,000, the Talon can be had for less. You could drop one of the hard drives, or settle for a less powerful video card, or buy less RAM. The Mac Pro, however, will always be at least three kilo-bucks.

Do you think the Talon hands the Pro its hat, or does the Mac offer something we’ve missed? 

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