Desktop Management

The new Mac Pro: What we wanted, what we're actually getting

Back in March, I opined about the next generation of the Mac Pro, explaining both what I hoped for and what I actually expected. First, I was hoping for a new Mac that fell somewhere in between the current Mac mini and Mac Pro--a moderately expandable, more-affordable minitower that was still powerful. Second, I thought that Apple might not only make such a machine, but make it the new Mac Pro:

What if that Mac minitower isn't just a new Mac Pro, but the new Mac Pro? It sounds crazy, but thanks to both technological advances and shifts in the pro market, Apple could conceivably offer a "pro" minitower and drop the full-size Mac Pro completely. I wouldn't bet my paycheck on such a move, but for the first time, the technology is there--and Apple has a penchant for making bold, "We know better than you, trust us" moves.

Not unexpectedly, that article generated quite a bit of feedback, including a number of people pointing out (correctly) that what I wanted and what some higher-end users wanted were not necessarily one and the same.

Last week, Apple gave us a sneak peek at the Mac Pro so many have been waiting for, and that preview was a stunner--both because of what the new computer will look like and because of the features it will (and won't) have.

We've told you everything we know so far about the latest professional Mac, but how does it stack up against my hopes and predictions, as well as the desires of the many Macworld readers who commented on that article? And what does it mean for the professional market?

Smaller, indeed

Back when I used one Mac tower after another, I loved that I could upgrade pretty much everything, but in reality, I rarely swapped out more than hard drives, RAM, and the occasional video card or optical drive. Only once did I ever use an additional PCI slot. And yet because of their extensive expandability, the pre--2013 Mac Pro models use lots of floor space and lots of electricity, and they generate a lot of heat. So my biggest wish was for the next Mac Pro to get smaller and cooler.

As it turns out, while a subset of the highest-end users wanted to keep the Mac Pro huge (more accurately, hugely expandable), many power users, and even some pro users, agreed with me: Small is big.

Needless to say, we got what we wanted on this count, and then some. Call it a fancy trash can, call it a subwoofer, call it a mini jet engine--call it what you will, but you can't call it big. In fact, the 2013 Mac Pro is tiny: It's about one-eighth the size of the current Mac Pro in terms of volume. And at just 9.9 inches tall (the same height as an iPad--think about that) and 6.6 inches in diameter, it's got a considerably smaller footprint than the Mac mini, making it easy to fit on your desk, rather than taking up much of the space under it.

More power to it

Of course, I--and everyone else--still wanted the next Mac Pro to be powerful enough to reclaim its spot as the undisputed top of the Mac line. Specifically, I said I wanted the latest high-end desktop CPU and a minimum of 8GB or 16GB of RAM. (I actually wrote "up to 16GB," but that was an error--we corrected it for the print version of the article.) I also wanted an upgradeable graphics card, so that down the road I could swap it out for the latest and greatest.

In this department, the new Mac Pro gets top marks, with one (potentially major) caveat. It will indeed include the latest high-end desktop CPU--in fact, it appears that much of the delay in getting the new Mac Pro out the door is due to Apple waiting for Intel to ship its latest chips. That processor line, the upcoming Xeon E5, looks to be plenty fast: The new Mac Pro will be available with up to 12 cores, providing CPU performance that's up to twice as fast as the current model, according to Apple.

The new Mac Pro also gets significantly faster memory--up to a whopping 128GB of it--and offers up to 60 GBps of memory bandwidth, twice as much as the current Mac Pro. (I think it's a safe bet that the base model will start out with at least 8GB or 16GB, given the computer's other specs.) Storage also gets a performance boost thanks to PCIe flash storage that Apple claims is 2.5 times faster than the fastest SATA-based solid-state drives and 10 times faster than the current Mac Pro's hard drive. Expansion ports get dramatically faster thanks to Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3, and even Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have been upgraded.

Finally, when it comes to graphics, you get two workstation-class GPUs, each with up to 6GB of dedicated VRAM. Apple boasts that the new Mac Pro will provide over 2.5 the graphics performance of the current models, and it will be able to drive three4K displays (and, presumably, even more sub--4K displays) simultaneously.

Compact and expand

Some of the other items on Mac Pro wish lists focused on storage and expandability: I expected the new model to have Thunderbolt and USB 3, and I'd personally hoped for "two drive bays that could accept either traditional hard drives or SSDs; and an upgradeable graphics card." With respect to traditional PCI slots, I thought one or two would be nice, but I suggested that they might not be as vital these days for some pro users. That last comment generated some passionate responses, but many readers agreed with the gist of it.

I didn't get everything I hoped for here, and neither did many Macworld readers. For starters, there's no traditional drive bay at all--just solid-state storage on a removable card--disappointing the many readers who wanted multiple bays. It appears you'll be able to upgrade that flash storage (whatever the stock capacity ends up being), but if you want to use traditional hard drives, you'll need to put them in external enclosures and connect them using either Thunderbolt or USB.

I actually expected this: As I wrote in March, "It's not hard to imagine Apple making a smaller Mac Pro and suggesting that those who need more storage instead take advantage of Thunderbolt." But I did think the new Mac Pro might include a both an SSD and a large-capacity internal hard drive, configured together as a Fusion Drive. Instead, Apple went all solid state inside, and I suspect many pro users will end up appreciating the better performance they'll get.

(And using external drives for additional storage isn't exactly horrible in terms of performance--7200rpm hard drives aren't fast enough to be limited by Thunderbolt, and USB 3 is more than capable enough for all the but most-demanding storage uses. But this approach does mean more cables and components on your desk, and it means that you'll need to buy external enclosures for extra drives.)

It appears the new Mac Pro will support up to 128GB of RAM, which is twice as much as the current top-of-the-line Mac Pro, making many high-end users very happy. The downside here is that the new model has only four memory slots, compared to eight for today's top-of-the-line model, so maxing out memory will require 32GB DIMMs, which will be very expensive.

One area where a good number of pro users will be disappointed--over the long term, at least--is video: It doesn't appear, based on what Apple's revealed so far, that the new Mac Pro's GPUs will be upgradeable or replaceable.

The consolation here is that it the stock GPUs will apparently be very fast, and, of course, you'll get two of them. Still, there appears to be an assumption that pro users will be ready to upgrade the entire machine by the time those GPUs are obsolete. But comments from our readers indicate otherwise: For example, there are many Mac Pro users who've been able to keep even 2008-era Mac Pros current by just swapping out the video card--the CPU itself remains fast enough for them. We've also heard from video pros who use software optimized for Nvidia GPUs: The new Mac Pro's use of AMD components means these folks will have to look elsewhere for their next computer--or at least wait to see if that software gets updated for the new Mac Pro.

Speaking of cards, we also didn't get the spare PCI Express slot I wished (weakly) for. While that's a very minor letdown for me, the new Mac Pro's lack of any PCI Express slots is the most-common complaint we've heard from pro users. I think that for some people, this is mostly a gut reaction--in the end, they'll be more than happy with the built-in video cards, and they'll be able to accomplish everything else using Thunderbolt peripherals. But there are definitely folks who need a full-size tower's expandability. As forum member Phredd wrote, Apple has "turned the Mac Pro inside out...with all expandability on the outside rather than room on the inside." And that won't work for everyone.

Will the price be right?

Of course, the biggest question that remains--both for judging my predictions and for satisfying the curiosity of many an anxious Mac user--has to do with the new Mac Pro's price. Though I predicted the new, smaller model might be the only Mac Pro, I not-so-secretly hoped Apple would keep a high-end tower and offer a model (or at least a configuration) that was a better fit, at a sub-$2000 price, for people like me--power users who don't need all the current Mac Pro's bells and whistles. I wanted a powerful-but-affordable minitower for what you might call "sub-pros."

As it turns out, the new, smaller model is still very much a Mac Pro. It's a high-end machine with high-end componentry and specs (lack of PCI slots notwithstanding). It uses the latest CPUs, the latest GPUs, the latest solid-state storage, the latest expansion ports, and a completely new industrial design made of machined aluminum. This thing is, as Macworld contributor John Siracusa hoped it would be, a halo car--an example of what Apple is capable of doing in terms of both design and performance.

Which makes me pretty confident that my dream of a smaller Mac Pro at a smaller price isn't going to come true. My initial thinking, while I was watching last Monday's WWDC keynote, was that Apple might offer a low-end configuration priced somewhere around $2000 to $2500. But after considering everything that's inside, as well as the target audience and the computer's place in Apple's product line, I think the new Mac Pro will continue to be a premium-priced product. I'm guessing that, as with the current Mac Pro, the low-end model will start at around $2500, and the price will quickly ramp into the five-digit range when you max it out.

Is it the right Mac Pro?

While price is the biggest question, the biggest debate is about whether this Mac Pro is the "right" Mac Pro. I'm excited about it, lack of internal expansion and all, because it looks to be very fast, easily expandable and upgradeable for the types of things I need to do, compact, and--I'm assuming--relatively energy efficient. But I understand why it's going to be disappointing to some people.

Did it need to be? Back in March, I wrote:

This theoretical minitower wouldn't satisfy all pro users--particularly the ones who need the absolute best performance and the most expandability (and, it should be said, who were once Apple's bread and butter). Maybe Apple simply abandons these people, letting them go to specialized workstations from other vendors.

Now that we've seen the new Mac Pro, that second sentence appears to have come to pass--at least for the most-demanding users.

But those saying that this isn't a "real" professional Mac have got it wrong. It's just a different professional Mac. As former Apple ad exec Ken Segall put it, "pro users have not been forgotten at Apple--they're just being redefined."

Does that mean Apple is redefining what the company thinks is a professional user? Or is Apple trying to get professional users to take a good, hard look at what they really need in a workstation? I say both. And as with any new Mac model, some people will love it, while it won't be the right fit for others.

And there's something else to consider here: Apple wants to sell as many Mac Pros as possible, and by not including every feature needed by the highest-end users, the company has expanded the market for the computer.

What do I mean by that? It wouldn't have been difficult for Apple to stick with a huge, super-expandable enclosure; add the latest processors, GPUs, and expansion ports; and trot that computer onstage, touting its best-in-class performance. Such a computer, despite being aesthetically similar to the Mac Pro we've had for years, would have sold like hotcakes to the high-end market...which means it probably wouldn't have sold exceptionally well, because these days, fewer and fewer people want a massive tower with four drive bays, a bunch of PCI and RAM slots, lots of CPUs and GPUs, and the fans and heatsinks to keep it all cool.

Apple instead wanted its "halo car"--and its most expensive computer--to appeal to a wider audience. That includes some high-end pros, of course, many of whom might be better served by a more-traditional design but will make do with this one. But the new model is also for pros who've been using iMacs and MacBook Pros--sacrificing some amount of performance--because the current Mac Pro is overkill. And it's for power users like myself who will (grudgingly) pay more for better performance and expandability than an iMac.

Which is why the new Mac Pro, despite its limitations, is on my wish list. And, I suspect, on many more wish lists than it would have been had it simply been a new version of the traditional megatower.


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