How About A Tinier Mac Pro?

December 31st, 2009

We all should understand the reasons why the Mac Pro remains in Apple’s product lineup, and will be there for several more years at least. Content creators and scientists demand state-of-the-art computing power and the maximum level of expandability. It may well be that only a few take advantage of the latter, but the former comes into play whenever heavy duty 3D rendering or mathematical calculations are called for.

Yes, the iMac with the quad-core processors can handle many of those CPU-heavy chores, but when you check the specs of a mainstream quad-core against an Intel Xeon, you’ll see vast differences in ultimate processing power. Maybe you don’t require that much horsepower, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t either, but tens of thousands of Mac Pro owners each quarter will continue to buy that box unless a better way can be found.

But the Mac Pro one humongous package, weighing just shy of 40 pounds in the usual configurations, plus the shipping box. It’s also huge, ungainly and some feel rather ugly, so I expect most users stick them under their desks. Certainly you don’t want to have to lug them around very often.

However, the cheese grater style case design dates back to the Power Mac G5, where extraordinary measures were required to keep the things running without frying eyes. In addition to multiple and powerful fan assemblies, some G5 configurations even required liquid cooling, and don’t get me started about those occasional leaking incidents. I can assure you that when I had a G5 with two processors, I frequently examined the carpet space around the box to see if there were any wet spots. Rest assured, when it happens, consider your Mac Pro toast as far as repairability is concerned, but it never happened to me.

In any case, as you have observed with the recent iMacs, Apple is fast finding ways to get stuff more power into smaller spaces. Compared to a conventional display of the same size, you can’t say that the 27-inch iMac is necessarily any larger in any dimension. Yet it contains powerful components that can, under some conditions, actually match the power of the Mac Pro, although the latter wins out in the end when all processor cores are stressed.

Now today’s Mac Pro requires space for four internal drives, eight RAM slots in the standard, rather than note-book, form factor, plus sufficient space to install several peripheral cards. At the same time, I am willing to suggest that Apple can cut 30% to 50% of its bulk and still provide all the expandability its customers demand.

Certainly Apple will have to be more clever about cooling, but Intel’s forthcoming generations of Xeon processors will consume less power and will run far cooler than the present chips. This will greatly simplify the need for heavy-duty cooling assemblies.

Now I don’t pretend to know just what’s on Apple’s drawing board and whether they care to invest in an all-new enclosure for a model that sells in relatively small numbers. Certainly they’ve managed to leverage the existing case for several years, although there were a number of internal changes to accommodate Intel chips and reduced cooling needs, so you could add more hard drive bays.

No doubt the folks at Greenpeace, who have for years lambasted Apple over its alleged anti-environmental policies until all those recent design changes were implemented, would be happy with a leaner, meaner Mac Pro. This is not to say that today’s Mac Pro is not energy efficient. Without going into extensive detail, Apple claims, in its product description for the 2009 model, that “the new Mac Pro is designed with the environment in mind.”

Certainly a version with a sharply reduced form factor, which incorporates all the appropriate environmentally safe recyclable parts and power reduction schemes, would even earn greater praise from the appropriate organizations, not to mention customers will appreciate having something smaller to carry around.

Of course most of you would simply prefer to see a Mac Pro at a much lower cost, but I doubt that’s in the cards. You see, a lot of that is Intel’s fault, because the Xeon processor costs a whole lot more than their lesser chips, even if performance doesn’t necessarily scale up to the same proportion of the price. This explains why what seem to be incrementally faster CPUs inflate the purchase price of the Mac Pro so much.

Now I don’t know why this is so, what makes the Xeon so costly to produce, or whether Intel is somehow inflating the cost of the higher-end variants in order to more quickly recoup development expenses.

Then again, if you can get most of that performance for far less money, I would expect the market for the speediest Xeons will remain quite small. In any case, regardless of how Intel handles development and pricing for its server-grade chips, I am quite convinced they will eventually end up in a far smaller Mac Pro, or whatever Apple chooses to call its successor.

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9 Responses to “How About A Tinier Mac Pro?”

  1. Joel Hall says:

    Happy New Year, Gene.

  2. Darwin says:

    The Xeon is basically a processor with a large really fast cache. Cache memory is expensive but that does not explain why Intel prices them so high. I have specced and ordered hundreds of servers overs the year and I don’t typically see any major improvements using Xeons. Certainly not anything justifying the price difference. Apple can and should make an i5 or i7 tower..everyone wants that but we probably won’t see it while Jobs is in charge. The iMacs do keep getting better and I’m probably more excited about my i7 iMac than any Mac I have ever owned..which is saying something because my first mac was the 128k in 1984..but I would have jumped all over a tower.

  3. Constable Odo says:

    It doesn’t seem as though Apple is going to put out any small tower as well as iMacs are selling. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Mac Pro line because there doesn’t seem to be that high a demand for that type of computer anymore. One quad-processor chip should suit 90% of Mac users. iMacs are so trim and efficient. The only thing I don’t care for with iMacs is that users don’t have easy access to the hard drive. I doubt if most computer users change graphics cards so I doubt that extra slots are necessary. Yes, the ideal Apple computer for me would be a small tower with a couple of extra slots and just two drive bays, but this scheme has been discussed for years and it hasn’t happened yet. I can afford a low end quad-core Mac Pro, but it is still overkill for my usage. I’ll just pick up a quad-core iMac later in the year and be done with it. Apple has their own ways of doing things and I’ll just have to go along with it.

  4. DaveD says:

    It comes down to needs and wants. It seems that Apple is only concerned in covering the needs of pros and all the rest of us. I would think that Apple had done a cost/benefit analysis of expanding the Mac models. For those who want a zillion configurations would go to the Windows side where the hardware competition is quite fierce.

  5. dfs says:

    I’m amazed that Apple brought out the quad 27-in. iMacs, both because I had no idea that it was technically possible to make such powerful machines and bring them in at such low prices, but also because right at the moment Apple is in the strange position of offering a consumer-grade product that offers better performance than their pro-grade one (see MacWorld’s speed comparisons) at a fraction of the price. This means either one of two things: either Apple is on the verge of discontinuing the Mac Pro (or letting it slide as a niche product for the relative handful of users who really need its degree of flexibility) or they know they’re soon going to be putting a Mac Pro that will totally blow the current top-line iMacs out of the water and are willing to kill the sales of their current Mac Pro for a few weeks. I have no sure idea which it will be, and Apple is always surprising us. But it seems to me that for some time the Mac Pro was already heading for niche-dom. As its name indicates, its main appeal is to professionals, and some well-heeled gamers and hobbyists, who add up to a pretty small slice of Apple’s total consumer base. Given its heavy emphasis on the Mac as an entertainment center, Apple may well decide it doesn’t make economic sense to cater to the needs of these relatively few customers. And the new high-end iMacs are quite sufficient for many of us professionals who use the Mac as a work tool.

    • @dfs, Consider, also, that Apple built the 27-inch iMac with quad-core options because they can. The Mac Pro is priced out of the range of many people who need a computer with all or most of the performance it offers. That audience has, in part, embraced the quad-core iMac, if you can believe the sales trends and the continuing high demand.

      Those who need maximum performance and expandability will still buy a Mac Pro, regardless of whether it remains a large computer or a smaller one. But they will number in the tens of thousands of each quarter for the most part.


  6. dfs says:

    “ Consider, also, that Apple built the 27-inch iMac with quad-core options because they can.“ Exactly. Apple’s real stroke of genius came when their engineers realized that if they built an iMac with a sufficiently large monitor, the case would be large enough, and permit sufficient cooling, to accommodate desktop-grade processors. So a sufficiently large iMac is not limited to laptop components. This is what might mean the death-knell of the Mac Pro: it might be even possible to build iMacs with such things as multiple hard or optical drives and similar goodies that up to now have driven Mac Pro sales.

  7. Just Me says:

    Apple took the express card interface out of the MacBook Pros. The only current Apple computer that can accommodate a high speed interface (faster than 800 Mbps firewire) is the Mac Pro. Yet for many situations the Mac Pro is overkill both in size and disk drive expansion. An iMac with one PCIe (or similar) expansion slot or a at a minimum an express card slot would be appropriate many scientific and industrial situations.

  8. Drew says:

    Interesting idea. But overall I disagree. The Mini is Apple’s headless consumer desktop.

    The Mac Pro is for people who want maximum horsepower and expandability. For those who want that, cute isn’t a priority.

    I don’t think there’s enough of a premium desktop market left to partition it further.

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