Of Apple And Upgrades

An aftermarket SSD upgrade for the Retina MacBook Pro

An aftermarket upgrade for the 2012 Retina MacBook Pro

It so happens that I’m in the market for a new Mac computer. And as anyone who has purchased a computer before can attest to, it’s easy to spend way too much time thinking about the various options available for purchase. To upgrade at the time of purchase, or wait for an aftermarket upgrade? I am not immune to such idle thoughts, and have been thinking a lot about the upcoming (and quite expensive) new Mac Pros.

But in the absence of any details on the configurable pricing options (Apple has only released the two base prices of the 4-core and 6-core models), a curious mind might start to inductively reason as to the actual price of those upgrade options. And there are a lot of details and options to consider …

However, this blog is all about solid state flash storage. So I want to focus on the specific question that prompted my (overly geeky) investigation: how much will the upgrades cost from the default 256GB PCIe-based flash in the new Mac Pro (default for both 4-core and 6-core models) to 512GB and 1TB, respectively? And what started as a simple pricing estimate soon turned into a comprehensive survey of flash pricing of the entire Mac product line from Apple.

Go figure.

Quick side note on terminology: Apple (rightly) differentiates between PCIe-based flash storage (labeled as such) and SATA-based flash storage (which Apple refers to as Solid State Drives). It’s somewhat confusing because PCIe-based flash storage IS a Solid State Drive, but I give Apple credit for differentiating between fast flash and really fast flash. For the sake of simplicity, and the fact that the vast majority of Apple’s products now use PCIe-based flash, I will be referring to both as simply “flash” from now on.

I didn’t have any tea leaves handy to read, so I thought I’d start looking into this problem initially by finding out what Apple is charging for the “flash” upgrades in their existing line of products. Apple has earned a reputation over the years for selling over-priced hardware. And while we could debate the merits of the build quality, vertical integration of the OS, and other financial aspects of the pricing, the price of upgrades should scale appropriately with the cost of materials – in this case NAND Flash chips.

So, does Apple charge outrageous or even unfair prices for flash upgrades? In their mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, iPod) the answer is a resounding YES. However, it would be dishonest to single Apple out for this pricing practice. Every mobile device maker seems to treat flash pricing the same way: a quick way to increase total product margins. It’s unfortunate because the widespread adoption of solid state flash storage (my raison d’être for this blog) suffers due to artificially high prices.

But my question regarding the Mac Pro had to do with Apple’s pricing schemes in their laptop and desktops, not mobile devices. And so with a sinking feeling that I was going to uncover a similarly skewed pricing system for flash storage, I went to work collecting data on Apple’s retail pricing for upgrades on their current models. Of note, this list only contains systems that have flash upgrade options – I am not including systems with one default-and-only flash storage option because I cannot separate out the individual component costs (there’s no delta). For that, you’d need a research firm like iSuppli.

So, here’s what I found for the flash upgrade prices on current models:

price for upgrade

 

 

By itself, the prices don’t tell us much besides the fact that flash storage upgrades aren’t cheap. But I wanted to know quantitatively just how expensive these upgrades were. So, I normalized the prices based on the amount of extra flash was being purchased for a quantity called Price Per GB. This is a fairly standard metric for analyzing flash storage pricing, as it takes the different prices and capacities and compares them in a way that indicates whether it is a good deal or not. In many ways it’s similar to looking for the unit pricing on items at the grocery store.

This was calculated by taking the price of the upgrade and dividing it by the amount of additional flash storage is acquired by the upgrade:

Price per GB for Upgrade

 

 

From the above chart, you can see that there is a relatively wide range of pricing that Apple uses for flash upgrade pricing, from the almost bargain-like 78¢ per GB for the 256GB option in the Mac Mini and iMac to the almost enterprise-class pricing (not a good thing) of $1.56 for the SSD upgrades in the 13-inch MacBook Pro (non-retina display). That non-retina display MacBook Pro is really a legacy outlier, and its upgrade pricing is probably locked in by the older – and no longer reasonable – component pricing from an earlier time. A more representative range of flash upgrade pricing would be from 78¢ to $1.17, which is a range of 39¢.

So with the breakdown of the price per GB for flash of all the existing systems that Apple offers, it was then a process of projecting some possible values for the price per GB that will be used for the flash upgrades in the new Mac Pro:

mac pro pricing

 

Unlike the previous steps, this one is largely a spread of possible values. I’m not particularly fond of statistical analysis calculations in pure guesswork, so I didn’t bother with anything fancier than a good ol’ arithmetic mean. The first line shows the highest (and frankly, unlikely) prices based on the outlier non-retina display MacBook Pro. The next line is the positively affordable prices from the lowest possible value of the iMac 256GB upgrade. An arithmetic mean and arithmetic mean (minus the outlier MacBook Pro) round things out for a good sampling of possibilities.

But what do I actually think the pricing will be based on all the available knowledge? The iMac. Why? Because it’s a desktop with the (most likely) same PCIe-based flash storage that the new Mac Pro will use. And it’s a desktop, so there’s that similarity as well. The one important difference to note is that you give up the traditional spinning HDD for the 256GB and above flash upgrades in the iMac, whereas the Mac Pro only has flash options.

Highlighted in yellow is what the upgrade pricing would be based on the same 98¢ per GB that Apple charges for the iMac upgrades to 512GB and 1TB. However, with the resulting upgrade prices at $250.88 and $752.64 respectively, it’s unlikely that Apple would go for such non-rounded numbers in their upgrade pricing (it’s a pretty good bet).

Therefore, I extrapolated two possible pricing options: one for a beneficent Apple that rounds down to the nearest hundred dollars, and a more malevolent Apple that wants to extract every last drop of cash from the pockets of its customers. Just this once, Apple – be merciful on thine customers. Please?

Hyperbolic editorializing aside, it’s not very clear to me which way Apple will go on this. On the one hand, the Mac Pro is a premium workstation-class computer with upgrade option pricing that would make one weep in despair (how does $2,600 for a 12-core CPU sound?) On the other hand, one of the big complaints about the unveiling of the Mac Pro and accompanying pricing was that it was a professional computer with a measly 256GB SSD as the default. For $3,000 many expected more storage than 256GB.

I have no idea what the actual pricing will be for flash or other upgrades on the Mac Pro when it arrives (probably on December 16th next week), but they won’t be for the casual computer buyer. It’s a long-winded discussion for a simple question that will be answered for certain next week, but who can wait that long? Plus, it’s fun to try solving the puzzle.

At the very least, we now have a comprehensive understanding of Apple’s flash pricing …

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