Is the Mac Pro on Life Support?

October 22nd, 2009

It had to happen. When Apple decided to add quad-core processors to some versions of the new iMac, and increase the number of RAM slots, they cannibalized a lot of potential Mac Pro sales. Indeed, the vast majority of people who buy the remaining Macintosh tower computer can probably do quite nicely, thank you, with the iMac.

All right, I realize that breaking the expandable Mac habit is going to be hard. Ever since the original Mac II came out in the 1980s, Apple has always had products in the lineup with sufficient space to install lots of internal goodies. The latest Mac Pro is certainly an engineering tour de force that is closer in concept to a workstation than a personal computer. You can add tons of RAM, up to four hard drives and extra graphics boards or other expansion cards. If you’re engaged in heavy-duty content creation, including 3D rendering, there is probably no computer on the planet that’s better suited to your needs.

In the scheme of things, the Mac Pro is actually surprisingly inexpensive compared to the competition from such top-drawer PC vendors as Dell and HP. Indeed, I once mentioned to someone from Dell that an identically configured Mac Pro cost almost $1,000 less than their Dell Precision Workstation. Their response was to express surprise and say they’d get back to me. Well, they never did, and even today you’ll find that Apple is quite often ahead of the curve on price.

The real question is whether that model has become an anachronism except for a very small clientele. After all, current sales figures demonstrate that 74% of new Macs are portables. Sales of desktops are falling rapidly, and a similar situation holes true in the PC box market, where the biggest sales increase has actually been scored by note-books, which also means profits have been trimmed to the bone.

The iMac and Mac mini upgrades may do no more than slow the pace of decline, but I doubt that desktop sales erosion will end. The industry is moving in a different direction, and most people want something that’s relatively small, and easy to lug around from room to room. After all, all Mac note-books can drive big external displays when the need arises.

Of course, you have to wonder just how close an iMac will come to a Mac Pro in all-out performance. Certainly the quad-core Intel i5 and optional i7 are powerful chips, but there’s only one of either. As applications are updated to support Snow Leopard’s Grand Central Dispatch feature, they will still run faster on the Mac Pro, but the advantage will only be significant for a small minority of products. Most of you will never see the difference.

In terms of RAM, going to 16GB on an iMac remains expensive. Yes, you can save a lot by going to a third-party RAM vendor rather than picking Apple’s brand, but the sweet spot for the iMac is 8GB. Apple charges $200 to double the memory. You can do better, of course, but either way it’s a win-win situation.

But there is, of course, no space for a second drive. That would have been one of the features that would help deliver customers who crave double hard drives, and there are a fair number out there. Yes, you’ll get good performance with an external FireWire 800 device, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the ideal replacement.

The other issue, of course, is that the iMac comes with an integrated display that you may not really need. You are paying lots extra for the privilege of having an all-in-one. Sure, the display may be nearly as great as Apple claims, and it may even be better suited for color calibration than other LCD panels. But if you’ve already invested in the display you want, as I have done, I can see where you’d prefer not to pay for an item you don’t need.

Yes, the Mac mini is a pretty speedy devil, but it won’t match the fully-outfitted iMac. Moreover, there is probably no chance that Apple is going to add another expandable desktop to its lineup considering where the market is heading.

Despite my concerns, the iMac appears destined for a reasonable level of success. As I write this article, it topped the charts at Apple’s online store, although that probably represents the initial demand rather than the new model’s long-term prospects.

The fact that it seems able to also double as a small TV set is a real plus, so long as you have a cable and/or satellite set-top box at hand. Or an Elgato EyeTV. Maybe this is what Steve Jobs was really talking about all along when he spoke of the personal computer as the hub of your digital lifestyle. But I don’t anticipate a 52-inch iMac anytime soon to replace the family flat panel TV.

As to the Mac Pro, it’ll likely remain in Apple’s lineup for quite a while yet, and continue to receive regular refreshes. But the number of buyers will continue to decrease and maybe, just maybe, it’ll become a relic of history in the next five years.

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28 Responses to “Is the Mac Pro on Life Support?”

  1. dfs says:

    I think I may have said something like this before, but I have a pet theory that you can divide all computer users into two categories, content users and content providers. So far both camps have coexisted using essentially the same machines, but my theory is that the needs of these two groups are going to diverge to the point that each will need its own kind of computer. Gene’s right, of course, the essentially passive content consumers (well, they might edit the occasional home video or post pictures of the new baby on the Web so the folks back in Peoria can look at them, but you get the general idea, in essence they’re passive content-consumers) constitute the huge majority, so that the kind of machine needed by content providers (and scientists, and perhaps gamers too) are in a very distinct minority. But I very much doubt that Apple, or the computer industry in general, is going to leave content providers high and dry. After all, they produce the content that creates the demand for consumer-level computers, and create new kinds of content that feeds consumer demand for newer and better models, and this is what drives the entire industry. So if the industry weren’t to cater to their special needs it would be shooting itself in the foot. And somehow I think Apple’s too smart to make that particular mistake. I admit that it looks as if Apple is losing interest in the MacPro, judging by the infrequency with which they upgrade it in comparison with their other models, but Apple’s not going to upgrade the MacPro until Intel can give them significantly better processers, so the tempo of new models is really up to Intel, not Apple.

  2. Dave Barnes says:

    “anachronism except for a very small clientele”

  3. Bill says:

    Intel’s six core Gulftown Xeon processors have been delayed, which explains why Mac Pro’s haven’t seen the love lately.

    Once these bad boys start shipping, a Mac Pro with two Gulftown Core i9 CPU’s will have 12 real cores (24 virtual cores thanks to hyper-threading) so I don’t think the four cores in an iMac will seem like a large number in the near future.

  4. MarcosD says:

    I think the piece is too fatalistic. The iMac and the MacPro are being pushed to very different markets. The reality is that the consumer market is a lot larger than the corporate one, and larger still if you consider the industries that would buy MacPros because of the type of work they do (Media, Design, Arts, Science).

    The iMac has to constantly adapt to consumers that are following trends while the corporate market looks at satisfying needs within a certain budget. The corporate market also wants to maximize its purchase so a longer lifetime is important. A corporate buyer will not want an integrated display for production machines… they will mostly buy stock machines and fill them up with their drives, and their RAID cards, and their video cards… none of this can be done with an iMac. Daimler Benz makes trucks… just because they represent a small portion of their yearly sales does not mean the world can live without them. The MacPro does not need to be reinvented because it is a fantastic machine for those that it’s designed for.

  5. Kaleberg says:

    I think the MacPro is going to run up against a number of design limits and be replaced by a more modular design with larger modules. Why add disk drives if what you want is a disk farm? Why add processor cards if what you want is a rendering farm? Why add graphics cards if what you want is more display area and higher resolution? Maybe single channel gigibit ethernet isn’t quite fast enough for this now, but move the communications speed up an order of magnitude or three and it doesn’t make sense to put everything on an internal bus. I think people talking about Express cards are barking up the right tree, though the actual technology chosen may differ.

    • Mike says:


      I agree. I am a professor in an engineering department. We use multiple Mac Pros as essentially compute servers, and we pretty much saturate all CPUs. On the other hand, on most of them we don’t need big HD, and most certainly we don’t need fancy GPUs (until it’s practical to leverage them for general purpose calculations).

  6. MonkeyT says:

    Now, Towers can aim solely for power, Minis for utility audiences, and iMacs for the convenience and entertainment crowd. This is a great lineup, unlike the muddled list they had while they kept the mini underpowered.

  7. AdamC says:

    I believe the MacPro will still have its days in the sun because it is designed for heavy industrial usage (by this I meant film editing, use in the music industry, etc) whereas the iMacs are more for home use and small businesses. I am not surprise that they will eventually find their way into the enterprise because of their speed, ease of use and virtually free from malware and security issues.

    One thing I can say is Apple have done a wonderful job on the iMac with its laptop guts it can perform better than many desktops.

  8. Brian M says:

    your argument was true of any MacPro model, most people don’t need that level of upgradability, and the MacPro is more of a workstation level than consumer…

    for people doing video work, 3D work, or a mix of these that results in a need for frequent upgrades it makes sense to get the Pro Tower.
    My MacPro 2006 is about 75% regular usage, although I do tend to have many programs running at the same time, so the extra ram slots are nice. I do video editing for fun/as a hobby. I have upgraded everything except the logicboard and processors (although I may upgrade the processors in the next year). optical drive, 3 ram upgrades, video card upgraded (when the X1900 started to fail out of warranty), and several hard drive upgrades. now with about 3.5 TB of space, doing the hard drive upgrades alone would have put the price of a higher end iMac into the same range as the MacPro tower.

  9. etype says:

    Apple is never going to relinquish the high end market. Although profits will never be what they are in mass-market…it serves to provide a psychological horizon. People who use imacs and macbooks need to know that if they win the lottery or need the power for whatever reason…the ultimate computer they lust for is also an Apple computer. Tech used first in the Mac Pro is stress tested before it is passed down to the consumer market computers. To speculate that Apple would give up the mantle of most powerful, beautiful and rocksolid line of workstations is ridiculous and seems to serve no constructive purpose whatsoever……what is your motivation for such a thought?

    As a professional freelance media artist. I find this article both irritating and threatening. I expect to read such stuff in a post by a deranged apple basher. I plan to always use Apple computers.Why would you suggest Apple would leave people like myself by the roadside? This is a new idea and is particularly insular and myopic….I read this type of stuff in idiotic apple bashing screeds by the usual suspects.

    The idea that Apple is going to abandon the highend is outright absurd and would be a disaster for Apple, people who use Apple Pro computers, and computing in general. Your article has a more negative effect than 50 R.Enderles and another 100 windows trolls for people who use Mac Pro computers….because it has absolutely no sound reasoning behind it, and it is a paradox that now a mac journalist is spreading ‘FUD’ or fear, uncertainty and doubt about the Mac platform.
    It is rare that I read an article that is actually depressing and I wish I had never read it. The usual Apple bashing by people who mistakenly consider themselves ‘tech journalists’ but are really ‘hit’ prositutes and troll farmers is actually amusing and fun even due to the trivial pursuit of identifying the logic twisting prevarications and dishonesty that identify a false argument. But to read a mac journalist speculate that Apple will abandon a core segment of their base, leaving these people to migrate to another platform, is more disturbing than anything Rob Enderle has written, even if I know it is as likely to have an equally unsound reasoning behind it.

    For myself, you’ve lost your credibility as a mac journalist, and for this reader, any trust in the worth of your opinions or journalism.

    • @etype, Paranoia strikes deep. What I really concluded, had you read the article from beginning to end: “As to the Mac Pro, it’ll likely remain in Apple’s lineup for quite a while yet, and continue to receive regular refreshes. But the number of buyers will continue to decrease and maybe, just maybe, it’ll become a relic of history in the next five years.”

      Meaning that if Apple sees sales dip to a point where it doesn’t make sense to continue producing Mac Pros, they’ll stop making them. It’s not a matter of romance or family values, but dollars and cents.

      However, for that to happen all or most of its performance and expandability would have to be available in other form factors.

      You need to sit down, take an aspirin, and stop grokking with the lunatic fringe. 🙂


      • Brian M says:

        @Gene Steinberg, Gene, what has changed? I’ve heard similar claims about the Tower models for years, although it did become more pronounced with the iMac models that could do the dynamic desktop to a second monitor connected.

        I’ve sold iMacs to some designers who previously used towers with 2 monitors… and I’ve sold MacPro’s to people upgrading from iMacs to do video work more effectively, as well as recently a handful of ex-windows users who are getting into Final Cut Studio – small startup video editing businesses, or full production of independent work.

        • The fact of the matter is that other systems are becoming more powerful, and sales of the high-end Mac desktops are falling. How many Mac Pros does Apple have to build to make a profit, and what is the point at which they cannot afford to keep them going?

          It may be that there will always be a Mac tower, at least until the nature of personal computing changes or Apple is no longer in the computing business. But a middle ground may also be possible, where most of the needs of the Mac Pro will be met with other products.


      • @Gene Steinberg, I wanted to add that the poster in question, who uses the name etype, tried to throw some more flames into the mix in a response that just echoed the original points without any new information. Since it’s clear there is no agenda there other than to throw insults rather than provide some meaningful discouse, I’ve put future communications from that source in our spam folder.

        We love debate. But this is our sandbox, and people who can’t behave in a civil fashion when posting comments are not welcome here.


  10. Andre Angelantoni says:

    Well, this is going to sound like it’s coming from left-field on a tech site, but somebody has to start saying it.

    The world is at the end of its economic growth period, which was fueled by fossil fuels and in the last 100 years especially by oil. The near-term peakists put the maximum oil production at July 2008 (Colin Campbell, Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas), 2015 (Shell, see their two future oil scenarios on their website, ‘Blueprint’ and Scramble’), 2020 (Neftex, the oil consultant Toyota uses, but only if Iraq’s production can ramp to 7 million barrels a day in the next 10 years) and so on.

    What does this have to do with computers? Quite a lot. The end of economic growth with as much debt as the world has means its bailouts and bankruptcies from now on until the bailouts no longer work. It means massive unemployment (next oil shock within three years according to the International Energy Agency) — and it means that if people want a computer for the early part of the downslope of civilization, they should get one whose components can be replaced more easily, and that’s not an all-in-one unit like the iMac or a laptop.

    I’m now looking at creating my final setup — the one that I’m going to keep working so that I can run my post-peak business and I suggest that others do, too. I’m partial to Macs so it’s likely going to be a Mac Pro, although a white box will probably be my backup computer.



    P.S. Yes, Carter was right about energy, just a little ahead of his time.

    • Al says:

      @Andre Angelantoni,

      What a silly post. Thomas Malthus died in 1834 but I guess his spirit lives on. The U.S. exited WWII with far more debt than it has today and the country seemed to have fared just fine thank you. Even if peak oil production is reached one day in 2015, it’s not as if oil reserves magically disappear the next day. So no, electricity and gas production will not suddenly come to a halt in 2015.

      But even before peak oil is reached, petroleum prices would already have started rising and I am most confident that the incentives for developing alternative energy will trigger a new post-fossil fuel industrial revolution similar in impact to the coal-fired industrial revolution, or the ongoing information revolution. To give you a hopeful glimpse, google and how they’ve installed a wind turbine to satisfy all their energy requirements. Yes, for most companies fossil fuels right now is too cheap to justify such a conversion, but at least you see what things are technologically feasible when fossil fuel price start to rise.

      There may be bankruptcies, but these will all be financial bankruptcies. Most productive capacity will remain intact and a lot of people will lose their fortunes but quite a lot too will make new fortunes by picking up the bankrupted firms at bargain basement prices. (Just ask any Russian oligarch.) More importantly, if governments pursue the right policies, the bankruptcies will not affect the stock of technical and scientific knowledge even one bit. And this, more than financial wealth or physical productive capacity (factories and farms), is what will see us through the decline of fossil fuels and usher in the age of sustainable energy.

      I am not saying the adjustment away from fossil fuels will not be disruptive. But the decline of civilization? Don’t be ridiculous.

      Now if you really want to talk about the decline of civilization, let’s talk climate change. And nothing can do as much to reverse climate change than the decline of fossil fuels. Far from lamenting the coming decline of fossil fuels, I actually look forward to it. And the sooner it comes the better for the whole planet.

      • Andre Angelantoni says:


        You are poorly informed, I believe. The interconnected systems that we depend on will start to fail as the financial system continues its implosion. We are at the beginning of the world’s largest credit contraction and our economies have come to depend on debt.

        Without being able to issue more debt, necessary infrastructure rehabilitation will not happen. The U.S. infrastructure is in horrible condition, recently given a grade of D by the American Society of Civil Engineers and worsening each year ( Watch Noah Radford at the London School of Economics for more on collapse dynamics to see why our high-energy civilization is likely to follow a collapse model rather than a gentle decline.

        You also appear unaware of the how our monetary system works, which is our Achilles Heel. See Money as Debt 2 (available on Viddler) to understand how fragile our paper currency system really is. World currencies are backed by nothing other than “the full faith and credit” of the respective government — not gold, not food not anything tangible. That makes them extremely vulnerable to a collective loss of trust.

        And if you think we can move off of oil without starting many decades before the peak, you surely haven’t studied the problem. I recommend reading the Hirsch Report on peak oil issued by the DOE in 2005. That team shows that we are in for a very rough ride.

        Last, if you want the full picture in one go, see Preparing for a Post Peak Life, a video that includes rebuttals to your idea that everything will be just fine when oil increases in price again. It won’t. We will contract again, throwing many more millions of people out of work. There are also more links for you to read since this blog has prevented me from including more than the two I have.

        Climate change is indeed a problem (I did a lot of work on climate change before learning about peak oil, including helping California pass AB32, the carbon emissions cap legislation) but I recommend that you start reading because the energy problem is going to hit first and hard.


        • Al says:

          @Andre Angelantoni,

          I have no doubt that post peak oil will be disruptive. WWII was disruptive. But you said ‘downslope of civilization’ and that is just plain alarmist hyperbole.

          You seem to be a consumer of popular, alarmist, grab-you-by-the-neck pseudo-journalism. They are very good at picking and choosing credible sources and then adding their own twist and weaving a story that is designed to scare the bejesus out of you. But if you go back to the original sources, most of them will say that they would not go so far as the apocalyptic visions that have been conjured using their work as a basis.

          And sorry I don’t need a lecture in economics. I’ve had 6 years of post-graduate work in economics. Some of it at the London School of Economics even. That money is backed only by the “full faith and credit” of the government is no news to me. There have been a slew of self-published articles and videos by ‘self-taught’ economists claiming that the US monetary system is so fragile and that we need to go back to the gold standard. These are all nonsense. For a currency to collapse there are only two ways for it to happen, well three actually. One, through the death of the backing regime. Like how Nazi reichmarks became worthless at the end of WWII. Two, through hyperinflation which can only be caused by intentional mismanagement by the monetary authorities. And three by intentional demonetization of a currency like when West Germany demonetized the East German mark as part of reunification. But that’s not really a collapse, it’s a supervised retirement of a currency. The only currency collapse that can threaten world stability is the Euro and the U.S. dollar. (No, not even the the Chinese Yuan because that is not a reserve currency.) And if you think any of those regimes are in danger of collapsing due to post-peak dynamics, then you’re an even bigger believer in fairytales than I thought.

          My advice to you, if you really want to learn about the financial system, stay away from the pseudo-journalist and pseudo-academic blogs. Enroll in a couple of university courses, or check out iTunes for free lecture materials offered by reputable universities. I admit, they’re not always right, most economists did not foresee the current recession, but at least they make an effort to conduct analysis in a deliberate, well thought-out approach and try to avoid making sensationalist, conspiracy theory driven pronouncements.

          And you can quote a handful of articles about post-peak dynamics choosing the most dire picture painted. A view held by one economist, or even a handful of economists is not something on which I would hinge my assessment of the future. If you choose to believe Noah Radford, then at least do so with the realization that you choose to believe his prognosis not because his is objectively the most accurate analysis but because his story is consistent with what you foresee. There are other economists (and academics in other fields) who take a less apocalyptic view and obviously you have chosen not to believe their less exciting positions.

          Now, I don’t want you to think that I am in bed with the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Drill-Baby-Drill lunatic fringe. As I said peak oil dynamics will be disruptive, but it will not be as abrupt as you think it will be. (Actually I think we’ve already entered the beginning of the peak oil dynamics phase, but then it got overtaken by the Bush-Greenspan recession which was caused by criminal financial mismanagement not fossil-fuel dynamics.) And yes there will be a contraction or at least a slow down. Though I don’t think it’s very likely, the world may very well have to mobilize for rebuilding and recovery at a level never seen since the end of WWII.

          But the “downslope of civilization” as you said? I most vehemently object to that characterization.

          • Andre Angelantoni says:


            “the ‘downslope of civilization’ as you said? I most vehemently object to that characterization.”

            Of course you can vehemently object to that characterization all you want. It doesn’t change the fact that the economic theory that you learned was created during a period of increasing energy availability, first from wood, then to coal, then to oil and natural gas and finally to uranium. During that period the aggregate value of the world’s currencies increased exponentially so that we now find ourselves in the position of having a dwindling energy base and far too much money. As far as I’ve found, the economists haven’t studied this problem (unless you can point me to one who has). They’ve just recently learned how to properly account for energy in their models instead of treating it like just another commodity! (Ayers and Warr)

            But the energy people are looking closely at the money-energy link because the link is critical and the economists are uniformly asleep on this topic. Hubbert’s started the discussion three decades ago with Two Intellectual Systems: Matter-energy and the Monetary Culture.

            Also, I don’t hold much regard for many economists because the majority of them missed what happened in 2008 and insulted people who warned ahead of time what would happen (just like you are doing). Even Greenspan recently has admitted that he had “a blind spot.” I’m saying — along with many others — that there are more blind spots yet to see. The ratio of money to energy is one such blind spot.

            The debt overhang with a dwindling energy base is another blind spot. How will all the debt be paid back as the energy base declines? If you think renewables can make up for declining fossil fuels then you truly haven’t done much research in this area. Renewables aren’t a replacement for fossil fuels, they are a derivative of fossil fuels because fossil fuels are still required to make them. Plus, since there are starting at such a low percentage of the primary energy mix (under 1% for wind, geothermal, and solar but not including biomass, IEA 2007) we have no hope of increasing that share before the oil declines precipitously (past peak oil fields are declining at 6.7% after investment, World Energy Outlook 2008).

            Also, as growth slows and reverses (happening now, though we might get a few more years of growth but not much more), we will experience more credit crises (just like September 2008) but at some point the bailouts will stop working.

            Last, if you don’t think people are talking about collapse, I suggest you get out more. You could start by reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, Bottleneck by Catton or the 2009 “State of the Future” by Unesco, the World Bank, the US army and the Rockefeller Foundation. They each come from different angles but reach the same conclusion. The 6.8 billion people on our planet are not handling the converging crises very well at all.

            If you think we are going to get out of this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I suggest you haven’t done nearly enough research frankly to know what you’re talking about. You’re living in the past, like perhaps decades ago, when there was still time to do something. Unfortunately, time has run out. Certainly, build as many renewable energy machines as we can before the economy drops out, but let’s stop pretending this civilization will look anything like it does now in 10 to 15 years.

            See the UK Energy Research Centre report released earlier this month:


  11. Joe S says:


    I think that there will be a continuing need for professional level computing, but I do not think that the conventional tower will survive. There will be little need for it. There are four key features to a Mac Pro. Two processors, expanded RAM, PCI slots and 4 desktop disks.

    Consider each of these features individually. The increasing number of cores on a single chip will reduce the need for two CPUs. The increasing density of RAM will reduce the need for local RAM slots. The 2.5 form factor HD/SSD is displacing the 3.5 form factor and will reduce the space needed for memory. What I envision is a Mac Mini on steroids about the size of a cigar box connected to an external hub using the new fiber optic connection developed with Intel. If you need more CPU, network several. I would expect Apple or other vendors, like OWC, to have huge disk farms that would plug into the optical hub as well as a stand alone PCI expansion chassis for legacy cards. Mix and match the individual blocks for your specific application.

    The current tower will fade away and be replaced with a more modular set of hardware. It will still cost a ton because the top of the line CPUs will always be expensive.

    • @Joe S, This is very much as I suspect eventually, but some of the flame throwers would rather stir trouble than consider the reality and the possible alternatives. Maybe it will be Mac Pro forever — and I happen to own one as most of you know — but that doesn’t mean there won’t or can’t be something that’ll do just as well but can be accommodated in the iMac form factor or a souped up Mac mini.


  12. Joeblasi says:

    what the mini needs is a real video card, desktop cpu, and a easier to open case. Also room for 2 HD + a ODD disk.

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